Following the recent discussions surrounding a certain article from The Atlantic, a number of our staff had thoughts to share on the subject.
NOTE: These are the opinions of our authors and do not represent Gameumentary as an organization.
Joanna Nelius (Editor-in-Chief):
With a title like “Video Games Are Better Without Stories,” any champion for well-written narratives is going to shake their head as they buckle-up for an article that will inevitably reduce the importance of creative writing on some level. Story is not the same as plot, yet Bogost seems to confuse the two at points, boldly claiming that film and novels tell stories better, yet forgetting the histories and the beginnings of both those storytelling mediums.
When the technology of film was first created, the earliest movies were for pure spectacle. They were an opportunity to show off the latest entertainment technology at the time. The 1905 short film Rescued by Rover, directed by Lewin Fitzhamon, does not contain a narrative, but rather only a plot: a dog leads his master to a kidnapped baby. We receive no character development nor story. This was indicative of short and longer films of the time, largely because we had yet to develop the technology to bring sound to films (aka “Talkies”). Even the brief captions of silent films of the era, such as The General, were plot-focused, but the mere presence of captions allowed filmmakers to develop story by adding characterization to their protagonist, eventually leading to the script structure (Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero’s Journey”) we know today.
Video games saw a similar transition, one where technology (programming languages, to be specific) limited the emergence of story and narrative. The gameplay of early favorites like PacMac, Raid on Bungeling Bay, and Asteroids serves as the plot. So, if you were to take the short film Rescued by Rover and adapt it to a video game, what would it consist of? It could be a 2D side-scroller with some dialogue from the mother lamenting over her kidnapped child, and maybe statement telling the player what their objective is. Gameplay is plot; that’s all it could be during the earliest inception of games. We have the technology now to explore combining gameplay with story, and while the industry is still “figuring out” the writing process for each game genre, we already have a plethora of games with incredible narratives, whether they are linear, non-linear, or branching. The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is a marvelous example, as well as SOMA and Inside, even though that game tells a story sans-dialogue, or any kind of writing.
One of the assignments I have my class of video game writing students do toward the middle of the semester has them practice developing their main characters. I make it clear to them that I don’t want them to summarize the plot, but rather talk about how the events in their game will change their protagonist – who they are at the beginning, what challenges them, and who they are by the end. Focusing on that kind of narrative journey is story. Yes, there will always be plot, but plot is a prerequisite to create objectives, obstacles, and rewards for the characters and, being that my students are also all creative writers, they know the difference between the two. But I still emphasize moving away from the natural inclination to summarize the plot, because plot alone isn’t enough to make a great story. The main quest of Fallout 4 is an example of something that is too plot-focused.
How the protagonist responds to the plot is based on their personality or how the player chooses to shape their personality. Fable II, for example, allowed players to build positive reputation points or negative reputation points with the NPCs in the game. Granted, this isn’t as elaborate as the holo-novels of Star Trek (because, again, we don’t have the technology to account for infinite player responses), but it doesn’t mean player agency isn’t accounted for because the interactivity for narrative in games doesn’t provide every single possibility on the planet. This is a good thing – if players want to include something in the game that would destroy the ludonarrative dissonance in an otherwise “controlled” narrative and gameplay, then give them tools to mod the game. The greatest thing about video games is that the player often takes on the role of the main character, becoming the player-character, and this means that games are a perfect vehicle to deliver an immersive, emotional experience that changes the player by the end. I cried at the end of both The Vanishing of Ethan Carter and Life is Strange, and both games enriched my life for having played them.
Bogost asks why What Remains of Edith Finch needs to be told as a video game. The answer is simple – art. When you take a medium such as video games and you do something new with it, it’s art. When you break the traditional confines of any artistic medium, it’s still art. This has been done in plays, in film, and novels. Plays are not confined to a proscenium-style stage; they are performed on trains during a mystery dinner. Film is not confined to what is recorded directly into the camera; computer generated special effects have been around for decades. Novels aren’t told from one point of view; some switch between characters like Haruki Murakami’s “Kafka on the Shore.” Saying that games should stop trying to tell stories is saying that games are not art. Games are art. They have surpassed mere entertainment and now tell complex stories. The fact that some may or may not have done this successfully is irrelevant. Art produced today isn’t always successful at what it sets out to do for various reasons, and games are no different, but it doesn’t mean we stop using them as a storytelling medium.
“Those media can and do tell stories. But the stories come later, built atop the medium’s foundations,” says Bogost. Setting traditional art aside, the Bogost forgets that written stories have been around millennium longer than any medium today that expresses them. To say that stories come later discounts the oral traditions of ancient native peoples around the world. It discounts the epic Greek poetry of Homer. It discounts the plays of Shakespeare. Plays and films, in particular, start as a script. The visual form they take later is born from the text on the page. So, quite literally, plays and films start as written word, and this is especially true of novel-to-screen adaptations.
“To use games to tell stories is a fine goal, but it’s also an unambitious one.” As a creative writer myself, I have to ask: have you ever written a story? Have you ever experienced the complexity of developing a character, of world building? Have you worked on a game, making sure the gameplay melds seamlessly with the narrative so not to eject players from the experience? Regardless if anyone has or not, to tell a story is to be human. To tell a story is to connect on an emotional level with your readers, your viewers, your players. A story is art because it reaches the soul. To take a video game platform and use it to tell a story is quite an ambitious one. To say that games are simply as “aesthetic form of everyday objects” is incredibly limiting and naïve.