Sunday, 31 January 2010

Game's stories suck, don't they?

Well bugger me, I got a mention in Rock Paper Shotgun's sunday papers. That's cool. Actually, that's brilliant. I was convinced this blog was going to have a readership of two: me and my mum.

A way down the comments, a charming lad by the name of Dracko posted this:
"lol whining about spoilers like an infant pretending video games have plots worth a damn"
Which is nice.

Much as I don't really recall whining like an infant, and most of my ire was directed at television based spoilers, well, that's the net ain't it? Rough with the smooth and all that jazz.

But it got me to thinking, he's right isn't he? They do suck. Our best stuff, our most potent moments, just don't even come close to film, let alone novels. You can wave the death of Aerith in Roger Ebert's face and you wont get anywhere beside the civil courts. Metal Gear Solid is a joke, Baldur's Gate nothing new, Mass Effect a pile of cliches. I've not actually gotten round to playing Planescape so maybe that's our great white hope, but one is not a very big number.

You might already be sensing a "yes, but" coming here, so I'll just be out with it. Yes, but what the hell are you comparing them to? Of course Mass Effect can't stand up to Heart of Darkness or a Hitchcock, but that's because film and books already hold the field and are writing all the rules.

Apples and Oranges and NOT A BLOODY FRUIT

I should put my cards on the table. I love video games that focus on story. This blog was going to be called "Video Games and Stories" before I was arrested by the banality police. Much of the criticism ranged at game narrative is one hundred percent correct. We're swimming in a sea of juvenile bullshit that would make the most hardened of creative writing tutors give up on humanity. But like I said, the comparison favours established forms in that it asks: is your text compelling like X or Y, is it nuanced like A is, does it do C like B? We're working with a ruleset that doesn't apply to us. Of course nothing we've done is anything like a good novel, because a novel works like a novel and a game works like a game. No, I've never had the same experience with a game as I have with a book, but if I could, why would I play games at all?

Mass Effect is a good paradigm. They're making a film of it, which is a massively stupid idea considering its such by-the-books hollywood sci-fi action fare. What made me love Mass Effect was that it let me be a hollywood action hero. That was new, that was fresh. It was so good to be the Captain of the Enterprise rather than Unkillable Errand Man. I genuinely felt like a rogue hero, doing it my way and flying off into the sunset. The hero punching out the tiresome bureaucrat is a film cliche, but actually doing it mid cutscene is a thrilling thing. And by "being an action hero" I don't mean controlling one outside of cutscenes a la Final Fantasy. Mass Effect gives you a limited scope of action, but its enough to generate a feeling of narrative control.

We're facing quite a few problems when we talk about games. This may be because they're such a young medium, or that we lack a robust critical structure, but I don't think so. It may just be because video games are actually incredibly complex. The world doesn't have a shortage of good storytellers, so why should stories in games be so bad? Perhaps because writing well for games specifically is a difficult task. When the player becomes a figure in the narrative, how can you account for what they're willing to take in, what they're willing to sit through? How do you balance forging a tight tale and taking away player control, how do you tie the story to mechanics and experience? GTA IV is a prime offender when it comes to failing to make the story feel part of what the player is doing. The narrative winds all over the place without focus and from early on I was left wondering "why am I even doing these things?"

To Make a Digital Omelet from scratch, first you must Create the Digital Universe

If you'll forgive the digression, I was sat in a creative writing lecture two years ago; my university makes you do a third subject in your first year and I figured I may was well do something I'd enjoy. The lecturer was chatting about how wide your studies could be and mentioned video games. He said that he didn't consider them art because "fallen leaves off a tree may be beautiful, but they're random, not art. I think it's the element of the random that makes video games a problem". We shouldn't dismiss the guy on one sentence in a lecture not about games, but I remember thinking at the time that it was missing something. Game designers don't just make the falling leaves, that's just the end result. They make the rules that make them fall and settle that way in the first place, or make them fall at all. When you have to work hard just to get your universe to follow Newton's law, you're fighting a different battle than most. Even a film maker can rely on things falling down.

What I'm getting at here isn't the difficulty of modeling physics but that part of creating a video game is creating a gamespace. This might be what makes them different from traditional games like Chess. Can you imagine if every time you moved a text box popped up telling a little story about the pawn bravely defying all the odds and taking down a Knight. Board games tend to frame a gamespace and let the rules do the rest. Video games usually go a bit further. This is one of those difficulties I was referring to earlier, caused by our problematic points of comparison. Evidently every word in a book(barring the non narrative bits) are the story, its constituent cells. Every frame of film is an organic part of the whole.

So why the fuck do we talk about story and "gameplay", if you'll forgive the term, as if they're two different things?

Why is it when we talk about game narrative we never mention the subtle stuff? Shot framing, music, colour palette, atmosphere. Oh, we bang on about atmosphere, but we never consider it a narrative thing, even though its doing precisely what gaming narrative is meant to, framing the gamespace. To create an atmosphere is to tell a story about a place, about its past and potential.
And more importantly, why do we never talk about what the player actually does? We end up breaking game and story apart because we're coming from films or books. We divide the story part, the words, into one camp. We bring along from film the visual, so in go cutscenes too, but the story remains mostly passive. This is just absurd. First person shooters are texts centered around shooting stuff. When I blast an antlion in the face with a shotgun its as much a plot point as the G-Man's warbling, its just a plot in which the player is a part. Obviously there need to be more structured moments if you want a more focused narrative, and I think it's this that really sets people at odds. Almost all games tell stories, but in different ways. Solium Infernum, Galciv, they tell tales just as much as Final Fantasy.

I'm going to cut this short as I imagine most of you didn't sign up for an essay. Game's stories work differently because they're not supposed to tell a good story, they're meant to make the player part of a good story. To be compelled by something and to be compelled to do something is the distinction. In many ways, and in spite of what I've said, they often don't have to work quite as hard at it. I'd never suck down Halo or Dragon Age as movies, but as games the stories did what they needed to. I found one of my favourite points in game storytelling, in the framing and compelling of player action, came near the end of Call of Duty 4. A loading screen informs you that A Very Bad Thing is going to happen and lots of folks are going to die. Then a timer starts. Excellent. Now I know why I'm shooting dudes, now there's a genuine sense of urgency. From a game not renowned for its storytelling chops it was surprisingly effective(which makes it a shame if reports of the crassness of its sequel ring true.) Games stories don't need to show us a fight, they need to make us understand why we'd want to fight.


1 comment:

  1. Well said.

    Sorry I dont have more to add than that. I was gonna write paragraph upon paragraph of stuff, but then realised that I would basically be repeating what you said in far more rambling terms. Self-told stories always more personal (galciv, football manager in the UK). But I love the rise and fall of pre-scripted action. (CoD ftw.)