(Crossposted at alexanderfreed.com)
Video games are frequently criticized for utilizing the same genres, tropes, and settings time and again. Space marines, Tolkien-derived medieval fantasy full of elves and dwarves, military techno-thrillers, post-apocalyptic zombie scenarios… oh, and don’t forget the actual licensed franchises! The repetitiveness of it all can make network television–with its hundred variations on police and medical precodurals–seem diverse and vibrant.
But there are reasons why most fantasy games look an awful lot like Lord of the Rings instead of drawing inspiration from, say, Michael Moorcock’s phantasmagorical Eternal Champion landscapes or the contemplative science fantasy of C.S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy. There are reasons why few science-fiction games deal with a post-singularity world or meaningful cultural shifts.
In this article, we’re going to focus on diversity and originality within action-adventure genres, with a special focus on fantasy and science fiction–particularly broad genres in which games tend to emphasize very narrow subcategories. While I’m all for seeing more genres represented generally–more teen dramas, more regency romances, and, yes, even more police procedurals–achieving that goal involves its own (sometimes overlapping) set of challenges. Nonetheless, many of the issues and pitfalls discussed here can apply to any genre translated to games.
Easy Sources of Blame
Let’s first address three of the most unkind and commonplace explanations for the lack of originality in genre video games. There’s a kernel of truth to all of them, but I believe the situation is far more complex.
“Executives Want to Play it Safe.” What goes for gameplay features goes for narrative, as well. If multiplayer first-person shooters or MOBAs are profitable this year, the powers that be at major publishers and developers will ask for more of the same and shy away from investing large amounts of money and effort on untested ideas. The same is true of stories and genres–decision-makers want to avoid needless risk and work with ideas that have been proven to sell.
Is this a problem? Absolutely. But if wildly creative and original narratives were what sold, we’d see more of those instead. And look at crowdfunded indie games–while a somewhat more diverse lot, many of the most successful examples still hew close to genre cliches.
“The Writers are Hacks.” Sure, there’s plenty of room for improvement in the quality of video game writing. But many games which fit squarely into the narrowest of genre definitions (space marines, Tolkien-derived fantasy, zombies) are also lauded as some of the best-written games on the market (see Mass Effect, Pillars of Eternity, and The Last of Us to name a few–and you could just as easily name a different trio!) So it’s not some lack of magical writing talent that seems to be the problem.
“The Developers Don’t Read.” Or, put differently: “The developers have extremely limited exposure to the genre they’re working in.” This is an argument I’ve made myself on occasion–that game developers tend to be familiar only with the broadest pop culture examples of a given genre, rather than exploring it in depth. Hollywood’s mainstream interpretation of science fiction and fantasy, say, tends to run about 50 years behind what’s going on in the literary world–so if you’re going to write a near-future science-fiction game, you should probably familiarize yourself with more than Blade Runner and Her. And understanding the genre you’re working in doesn’t just mean familiarizing yourself with recent works, either–it also means having an understanding of where the genre comes from.
But again, plenty of developers are familiar with their genres of choice. This is an issue, but it’s not the issue.
In fact, maybe there’s not an issue at all. Maybe the lack of originality isn’t a bug, but a feature?
Game Genres and Fantasy Fulfillment
From the earliest days of the video game industry–and before it, the pen-and-paper role-playing game business–one of the great selling points of the medium has been, essentially, “live the experience of your favorite novel / film / genre!” It’s a seductive promise–something with a unique appeal even for people who find themselves otherwise satisfied by noninteractive media.
It’s also the reason why so many narrative-driven games from the dawn of the industry onward have been homages to specific works, tiny subgenres, or mish-mashes of existing ideas. Much of the gaming audience is coming to any given product because it wants a specific narrative fantasy–be a Bond-esque super spy, be an archetypal Viking, face a brutal and short life after the apocalypse–fulfilled.
A game narrative that draws enormously from a well-known source is perfect for such an audience. The story and setting may be well crafted, but they’re designed to evoke an existing story or set of stories as much as stand on their own. Stray too much from the template and you lose a portion of your audience that expects you to make that “live as the star of your favorite film!” promise true.
Done poorly, this sort of fantasy fulfillment becomes a power fantasy, emulating the most lurid aspects of the inspirational work without much in the way of artistic depth. (How many space marine games looked at Aliens and decided that the guys with guns were that film’s thematic core, rather than the woman who challenges their military ethos and takes on a parental role?) But done well, fantasy fulfillment can serve to deconstruct the source material–revealing insights into a similar set of ideas using a perspective unique to interactive narrative. Games that provide Players with narrative agency can go especially far, exploring decisions not made in the story models utilized by the original sources.
Does this mean that every game should take its cues from an existing work or specific subgenre? Of course not, but it does mean that doing so isn’t a move inherently without merit. Something to consider within the context of other reasons to push for originality–or not.
The Challenge of the Unknown
Game writers face a peculiar paradox: The more a game emphasizes narrative and narrative agency, the more difficult it becomes to effectively deliver a story utilizing an original setting.
Let’s unpack that a bit. In traditional media, the audience can be thrust into an unfamiliar setting with a foreign story structure so long as there are characters the audience can believe in and empathize with. If I find a character compelling, I don’t necessarily need to understand her world and the reasons for the choices she makes; I’ll be willing to go along for the ride, learning the setting and gradually piecing together a fuller understanding of the context. Of course, such a story will require more work on the part of the audience–and the creators must make sure that this work pays off, even while accepting that not every audience member will find the additional effort worthwhile–but the method is tried and true.
But in a game with any meaningful narrative agency, compelling characters aren’t enough. When a Player is the driving force behind the Player Character’s decisions, the Player must understand the situation as well as the Player Character does–or else any decisions become arbitrary, totally uninformed and devoid of emotional and intellectual weight.
As a result, even many games with relatively traditional settings (e.g., a space marine game in which the military culture is virtually indistinguishable from that of the 21st-century US armed forces) start with an enormous amount of exposition–often delivered in lengthy opening cutscenes that fail to connect with the Player or in interminable conversations in which NPCs inexplicably explain the entire history of the world to a Player Character who ought to know better. While preferable to thrusting a Player into the action and forcing him to make decisions he simply has no understanding of, this is far from an ideal solution.
Note that while most of our examples are in the realm of fantasy and science fiction, this challenge would apply equally well to, say, a detective game set in modern Istanbul or a 13th-century epic in the Ethiopian Emprie. Any scenario in which the Player doesn’t understand her context–and therefore the background and potential outcomes of her decisions–is potentially problematic.
Nonetheless, there are ways to mitigate the problem of Player immersion and comprehension in an original setting.
Ignore Narrative Agency
The first, of course, is to ignore Player narrative agency altogether (or at least minimize it). Bioshock deployed one of the more adventurous SF settings in games of the last several years. But with the exception of some minor, simplistic decisions, its narrative was largely linear and unaffected by Player input. Indeed, while the narrative was important to the game, I expect many Players focused on the game’s shooter mechanics and enjoyed the dramatic visuals over paying attention to the story. Or for even more extreme examples, look at classic side-scrolling action games like Shadow of the Beast–full of surreal, inexplicable, moody visuals that don’t need to be explained to the Player because they’re hardly the focus of the gameplay.
Make the Player Character a Stranger
A second mitigating technique is common but effective: Make the Player Character a stranger to the context, so that any lack of comprehension is shared between the Player and Player Character. Perhaps the Player Character is a visitor to a foreign location, or maybe it’s his first day on the job; or, of course, there’s always amnesia. Granted, this method limits the stories being told–if you want a game in which the Player takes the role of king of a strange fantasy kingdom, or a veteran cop already embedded in the complex intrigues and histories of city hall, this isn’t really an option.
Build “Non-Constructed” Settings
Our final mitigating technique is exclusive to fantasy and science fiction, and is best combined with one of the techniques above. Heavily “constructed” worlds are de rigueur in the fantasy and science-fiction genres–worlds with rich and in-depth backgrounds with complicated and believable politics (see the lengthy history of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth or the intricate family dynamics of Game of Thrones). But the more intricate the worldbuilding, the more complicated the context the Player must learn.
Instead, if narrative agency is important in your game, consider constructing a setting as simply as possible. Fantasy is highly amenable to this approach–consider a setting built like a dream, a myth, or a fairy tale rather than a “world,” existing only to deliver a particular idea rather than standing up to logical scrutiny. No one criticizes Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland for lacking a believable, internally consistent setting. No one cares that Peter Beagle’s The Last Unicorn is full of (intentional) anachronisms or that its world is built of piecemeal archetypes, because its focus is on its characters and their interplay with–and reinterpretation of–those archetypes. Certainly neither world appears to have a history of any sort–characters have pasts, but the setting doesn’t.
Simply speaking, there’s not a lot of context for the Player to understand because everything important is immediately apparent: the setting has weight, but not depth.
The End of the World
The video game industry needs to tell a broader array of stories in a broader variety of genres–there’s no reason fantasy and science fiction should be so dominant in the medium. But it also needs to use fantasy and science fiction to more compelling ends.
This article isn’t a call to be rid of space marines and Lord of the Rings clones, but rather, to explore the reasons for their dominance and the possibilities for diversification. Original ideas can find their audience if implemented well–and old standbys can deliver fresh concepts when handled deftly.