Videogames: Fun, but no story.

When Halo:Reach was a released back in September  2010 it made almost 200 million dollars in a day.  Over an extended weekend (Wednesday-Sunday), the biggest blockbuster can only muster $125 million.  These figures, combined with growing attempts by the video game industry to become more accessible to the general public (Wii, Xbox 360’s Kinect), make it a medium on the rise.  The only problem is we have yet to see a truly great story told by this technology.

I’m not going to take the Roger Ebert stand (“video games aren’t art”); it would be insulting to look at the stunning visuals and not call it art.  As someone who casually plays video games and has many friends who love their games, I have a respect for the medium:  I have nothing but good memories of playing Spider-Man 2 for the Playstation 2.  The physics of web-swinging between skyscrapers and climbing the tallest building only to launch yourself into the void made it incredibly relaxing.  Of Half-Life 2, the sound design is what I remember best, as I blasted Combine soldiers and heard unique gunshots silence their coms.

However, after playing Bioshock and Alan Wake, two of the most critically acclaimed video games in the last few years, and they were disappointments. Both present intriguing, well designed worlds, but they stop short at this design stage.  With both games I performed the same tasks over and over, in a hurry to get to a new piece of story.  At that point the medium has gotten in the way of the message.  If it’s annoying to play a game to get your story, you should watch a film or read a book because the game designers have not done their job.  It seems then that the criteria for any game is to at least be fun; at their best, they should be compelling storytellers.

But why hasn’t there been a good story told through video games?  There is no Godfather or even a decent drama (don’t talk to me about Final Fantasy VII, it’s derivative melodrama).  One problem might be the issue of control.  Whether first person or third person, the player tends to be always in control of a character or group of characters, and perhaps this control prevents our character(s) from receiving the best development.  Or, since we are in control, maybe we are meant to automatically Avatar ourselves into this digital figure and the game designers leave it at that (“I am this character, so the designers don’t have to do development work).  Or maybe the medium is still just trying to find its sea legs.  Considering it’s the first form of entertainment that puts the audience in the driver’s seat (sure, the game designers guide one down a set path or paths, but it’s up to the video game player how long it will take to reach the conclusion), figuring out how to reach your audience with this technology is a whole new undertaking.

This is where some games succeed in surpassing the experience of seeing a film.  In the first section of Alan Wake, for instance, I find myself in a shack being instructed to perform a certain task before being gobbled up by the darkness.  I am panicking to figure out the controls, hearing ungodly sounds pouring out of my speakers, my screen is going dark around the edges, and my controller is vibrating as the shack convulses.

This scenario involves a complete assault on the senses: visual, physical, aural, mental. This effect is what video games are all about. The crux of the situation is the player feels: I am responsible for freeing this character.  In books and films, the author/director is in control of saving or killing a character.  But in Alan Wake, my guy/I am screwed if I don’t do such and such.  The assault of the senses and the sense of agency in getting free of such scary situations is why the horror video game might be the best suited for the medium.

Roger Ebert takes the absolutist standpoint that video games will never craft a story worthy of calling “art,” but I have enough faith in the medium to say that someone eventually will – we’re just not there yet.

-Remington Smith

Having thought about this a bit further, two other thoughts come to mind:

1) Videogames as they are now occupy a space between traditional storytelling and activities/sports, the latter being connected to the participatory aspect of gameplay (which is why competitive game play seems a natural fit).  It gets difficult to peg our expectations: Would we call golf, basketball, or soccer art?

2) I mentioned the disconnect between player and the character being played and after a conversation with my wife and realized there could be an alteration that could completely change the shape of gaming: If you could believably speak to the characters within the game.  Imagine using your headset to speak responses to a videogame character’s inquiries (instead of selecting a response).  All of a sudden you’re deeply invested since you’re connecting to the game the same way we do with other human beings.

This of course would require a major leap in computer intelligence (if not flat-out creating A.I.), but if we ever achieve it, videogames using the technology could bridge the storytelling gap.

4 responses to “Videogames: Fun, but no story.

  1. I would immediately argue that a lot of RPGs have excellent and compelling stories–they just require intensive amounts of time (40+ hours sometimes). Bioware is great with this, Neverwinter Nights, Dragon Age, and Mass Effect (especially Mass Effect) all had compelling stories full of twists and turns. Fallout 3 was awesome even if the world became overwhelming at times and the main story diluted in the myriad of side quests. The original Dead Space (can’t speak for the second) I found really compelling and absolutely terrifying at times.

    I think a big thing here is unlike movies and books, games require more involvement from the user to open up the story. Mass Effect is great but if you blow through every conversation and don’t explore the world and the codex you’re not getting it all. I want to bring up Heavy Rain (but I never played it) since I had heard that it was supposed to be a real bridge between cinema and gaming.

    Like any medium there have been countless losers and some really spectacular ones.

    Also, few people play Halo for the story (albeit Reach was by far the best story of the series IMHO). Few people watch football for the intricate stories and drama. They want their team to crush the others. I feel it’s the same sort of mentality for a lot of multiplayer focused games. Fun.

    • The Filmsmith

      Have these RPG’s hit you in the same way as your favorite books or movies (genuine question to clarify, not a hostile response)?

      So far any game I’ve played that involved exploring the world to get a good sense of it and thereby a better connection hasn’t panned out (happened with Alan Wake and Bioshock). It was like driving a car with really bad transmission, it couldn’t decide if it was going to be narrative based or fun based, so I’d get frustrated with long periods without story elements and then not enjoy any of the tasks because they didn’t keep changing as I moved through the game.

      At least with Grand Theft Auto it was just fun, fun enough that you were interested in where a character’s story may lead. Maybe fun has to be first. If it’s fun, then it can work up to the quality story.

  2. I would like to add the to the comment you made “Would we call golf, basketball, or soccer art?”
    It really all depends. I have seen some moves on the pitch that are simply stunning and require the creativity and dexterity as one would see in an artist. But thats just an aside. There, to me, is a divide between an artistic game and a fun game, much like the difference between what some would call a movie versus a film. The art comes in behind the intent, the content and the reception of those involved.
    Take for instance ‘modern art’. I have been to the Centre Pompideau in Paris and seen the exhibits. The artists that create these works intend for a message, have the piece contain the message but I would much rather call the visuals in many video games more artsy.

    With the story telling, again, the quality in part is determined by the receiver. What is compelling to one person may not be compelling to another.

  3. I will say there were two points in the original Mass Effect when I was sitting there completely slack-jawed (kinda like the opening of Children of Men). Both involved intense reveals and made the coming missions have a distinct sense of urgency. The second one had these moments as well, but the main plot focused on assembling a team and some of their backstories (notably the very zen assassin Thane) were very compelling. Also, the opening sequence to the second one was an intense ride that instantly hooked me in.

    The nature of gaming, as you’ve pointed too allows it to walk in both worlds of story/art and mere competition. I feel it’s by far easier to construct a decent game in the latter world. I also feel part of the problem is how do you construct an elaborate, good story, and still allow the player freedom? If you’re going for story and fun, you can’t really have the game play on rails. The better games have branching story arcs and hard decisions to be made, but this means writing several stories together, something that doesn’t really have an easy analogy in movies (as I see it). There might be a plot you can interpret in different ways but in the end, there’s only that one with maybe a second deleted ending. And every time you watch it there’ll still be THAT ending.

    Now that I think about it, the original Deus Ex was legendary for it’s story. It was enthralling, detailed, and had about 5 different endings based on your, sometimes difficult, decisions. Did you sneak through the game never firing a shot? Or did you blow everyone to Hell with a rocket launcher the entire time? Were you a computer hacker or a thief? The detail was intense.

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