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Ask Gamasutra: The video games and narrative debate

In this new monthly column, the Gamasutra staff gives varied responses to the ongoing debate: Are video games the right medium -- or the wrong medium -- to convey an authorial voice?

February 24, 2012

12 Min Read

Ask Gamasutra is a new monthly column that takes hot issues in the video game industry, and poses them as a question to the editorial staff. In contributing to this article, none of the editors read each other's responses. This is not about collaboration, but about the unique perspective that each individual Gamasutra editor offers. For this inaugural edition, we turned to recent comments from Twisted Metal designer David Jaffe, as stated in a recent Gamasutra interview: "If you're really a fucking artist, and you've got something to say, then you fucking pick the right medium to say it in," Jaffe said. "But if you're sitting there going, 'I want to say this, I want to say this,' and games have never indicated, and your game has never indicated, that the medium is capable of saying that that well, then why are you making a fucking game? "So that's all I'm saying. I'm not saying that if we come up with a way to express new emotions through gameplay, we don't want to do it. I'm just saying that so far I haven't seen it. And why waste our time making something? That's kind of ego-driven to me. It's not driven from a respect of the medium." So this month's question, complete with Jaffe-styled F-bombs: Are video games the right fucking medium, or wrong fucking medium, to tell an "author-led" story? Kris Graft Editor-in-Chief Twitter: @krisgraft Neanderthal man emerges one morning from his cave. Something furry scurries across the top of his hairy feet. "HNNGGUUUUU," he cries, pointing to the creature, as it bounces into the forest. He just named what we today call a "squirrel," or as he calls it going forward, a "HNNGGUUUUU." That cave man couldn't have comprehended the complexity of language, and how humans would eventually be able to manipulate it to not only inform others of furry mammals, but to evoke emotions, spread ideas, convey philosophies and tell stories. David Jaffe talks about the "language of interactivity," but I wonder if games are so far past the "HNNGGUUUUU" stage at this point. Language by definition is a common communication system shared by a group of people. Does game design and gameplay even have that yet? In order to communicate effectively, the fundamentals of the language need to be established. Designers are in many ways freestyling, but the foundation is falling into place. Look at Between, Uncharted or Shadow of the Colossus. All were successful in telling their stories, each one has a very clear, unique authorial voice. Narrative is possible. Maybe to some right now, video games seem like they are the wrong medium to tell stories, as opposed to books or film. But I guarantee it won't stay that way. There are people out there who will take us from "HNNGGUUUUU" to Hamlet. So I'm not going to ride the fence, I say games are the right fucking medium to tell stories. Many attempts will fail, but that's part of the process. Christian Nutt Features Director Twitter: @ferricide Neither. They're just a medium to do whatever you want with, as far as I'm concerned. The fact that there are proclamations about what a medium should or should not be used for really just points to the fact that we are mired in its awkward adolescence -- even more so than the fact that adult men are making games about psychotic clowns driving ice cream trucks with guns stuck on them. It's not that I don't understand the point Jaffe is trying to make. The contingent decisions he talked about in my interview with him, such as managing your character and inventory in an RPG -- when projected into a play space, their richness is incredibly compelling and itches the brain deeply and pleasurably in a way that does not feel like storytelling. But much of the antipathy towards narrative in games is just as much based on the quality of that narrative, its awkward pacing and weak integration. Those bother me more than the idea of telling compelling stories in the medium -- as an admitted, unabashed fan of narrative. Frank Cifaldi News Director Twitter: @frankcifaldi If your definition of "video game" is as broad as mine, then not only are video games the right medium to tell an author-led story, they're the BEST medium. This is a form of narrative that demands the participation of its audience and can adapt itself and its story based on their choices. To say that something as magical as that isn't the right place for a creator to spin a tale is about as short-sighted as saying that video games are inherently a waste of time. Don't confuse form with product: just because there are but a handful of games I'd consider works of literature doesn't mean that there won't be any more, we've only just begun to explore the possibilities. Brandon Sheffield Sr. Editor; EIC, Game Developer Twitter: @necrosofty This depends entirely on the depth and intentions of the game. It also depends on what you mean by an author-led story! A game is probably the wrong vehicle for a didactic narrative, unless it's an indie game with a singular purpose that you're meant to play through once and have a singular experience with. But if you define author-led as an auteurist vision that leads you from one emotion to another, games absolutely are the right medium. To use a cliched example, Ico takes the player on a journey of fearful discovery and wistful nostalgia that is absolutely author-led. It would be foolish to say that the creator's vision is transparent there. I know what the argument is here. While a story like Batman: Arkham City might take control away from the player and tell a specific story, the real story players remember is when they swooped in on some guy and then disappeared into the night. In open world games, you forge the story yourself, within degrees. But that doesn't mean we should never have an author-led story. The things you can do in a game and the way you can do them are necessarily authored already, and if you combine those in the right way, you have an experience you can't get elsewhere. Consider the horror genre. Could you make an open world horror game? How do you manufacture scares and creepy scenarios without an author leading the experience? The horror of having to do something you don't want to do is palpable in a game, more than when watching a character slowly open a door in a movie. Silent Hill 2 could not be a movie and give you the same experience. Nor could it have been as engaging an experience if it were open, and player-led. I don't want every game director yelling their story at me. But for the right story, in the right context, I think games are a fantastic place to interact with an author's vision. Chris Morris Editor-at-Large Twitter: @MorrisatLarge While I think I see David's point here, I can't say that I agree with it. Story is a critical component to virtually any modern entertainment experience. Games that are based purely on endorphic moments are good, but not great. Games that focus purely on story are usually mediocre (and sometimes good), but never great. But the ones that can combine the two? That's where you find magic. The idea of games without story make me fear that this industry will rush down the path Hollywood has chosen: A strung together series of big events that are the entertainment experience of potato chips. They're fun while you're in the moment, but you're never satisfied afterward. Any entertainment medium worth its salt evolves. Gaming had its period when story was ignored. Now it's time to advance the industry to the next step. And while there will be some failures along the way, if developers don't try to make it happen, games will stagnate quickly. Mike Rose UK Editor Twitter: @RaveofRavendale Story can be done perfectly well in video games, and that has been proven time and time again - it's just that stories in games aren't the same as stories in books, or films, or theatre. The way in which creators incorporate story into any form of entertainment has to make sense with the medium, and in the instance of video games, the gameplay is the element which needs to be worked around, given that how the game feels to play is the most important part of a its entire structure - if your game plays like crap, it doesn't matter how good your story is! So what if the best way to do storyline in games is to have it broken up by big chunks of shooting, exploring, fighting, etc - who cares? That's just how story works in video games, and in my opinion, it's perfectly fine as it is. I've played games such as Mafia and Heavy Rain in which the story has completely engrossed me. I have no qualms against developers trying to find new ways to tell stories in games - in fact, I highly encourage it - but there really is nothing wrong with the current system. Eric Caoili News Editor Twitter: @tinycartridge There are varying degrees of effectiveness games can have in telling an author-led story, depending on genre and intent. I believe it's a matter of matching what you hope to convey with the appropriate presentation. It can be difficult to express certain emotions with, say, a turn-based strategy title, but you can deliver a complex tale about the politics of war just as well as any other medium in that setting. Video games are diverse enough to convey so many different types of stories and ideas -- I think the reason why it seems so few of them exemplify games as a storytelling medium is because truly great stories are rare, and they're seldom matched with the right experience, or a well-executed one. Or if they are, they might not necessarily be commercially viable, and thus aren't what's brought to our attention. In these early days of the medium, perhaps identifying the most effective to communicate what you want to say is a challenge compared to other more established formats, but the potential for artists to get their messages and emotions across is still there. Tom Curtis News Editor Twitter: @thomascurtis Honestly, I think Jaffe has a point. Games are great at telling certain kinds of stories, but others are best left to more traditional media. If, for example, a developer only wants to tell a static, pre-determined story, they should stick to something like literature or film; after all, that's what those media are best at. Games, on the other hand, excel at telling stories that involve audience participation. Without getting into spoiler territory, the final scene with The Boss in Metal Gear Solid 3 comes to mind -- it only has such emotional weight because it puts the burden of Snake's actions directly in the hands of the player. Other games, like Bioshock, tell non-linear stories that players have to discover for themselves. In that particular title, players can only learn about the fallen city of Rapture by finding the visual and audio clues hidden in the environment. In a way, the whole experience becomes almost archaeological, as players need to piece together the game's fragmented back-story on their own. If you're going to tell stories with games, it just makes sense to tailor those stories to the medium. Games are interactive by nature, so shouldn't their stories take advantage of that? Leigh Alexander Editor-at-Large Twitter: @leighalexander I think that "right" or "wrong" is much too reductive for this discussion; I think the people who say "games aren't a storytelling medium" are simply people who don't want to tell stories with games. Which is perfectly fine, but it also means they have a pretty limited definition of "story"; your players are going to have a personal narrative about what they do in your game and how it affects them whether you want them to or not. All games have a story, it's just a question of how authored they can be, how prominent a role that narrative should play in the experience. Some games suffer from being tightly-authored, and others suffer from a lack of singular vision. I think we're still figuring out what kinds of games benefit from strong authorial direction, what kinds of mechanics best benefit storytelling and what kinds are meaningfully experiential in and of themselves. At the same time, I very much believe in the idea that those working in games should apply their creativity to those things games can do that other media can't. I agree with the idea that if you can do it with a film, don't try to shoehorn those ideas into a game, and tack interactivity onto a vision that doesn't need it. Which is why I find it pretty ironic that the designers most frequently deriding the idea of storytelling games or of authorial intent are basically knocking off fatigued alien-blasting car racing machinegun tropes that action flicks have done for years and done better. We aren't done figuring out what games can do and what they're for, and I hope creators -- with all the "ego" that might entail -- continue trying to express their personal visions through games, in ways unique to games. Do you have a question that you'd like the Gamasutra editors to tackle? Email EIC Kris Graft at kgraft at gamasutra dot com

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