7 min read


A blog post looking at how games are their own narrative medium, separate to films and novels. The post is based upon a reaction to a critical piece on how games and stories do not work together.

[This post has been taken from my personal blog, HEY! LET'S MAKE A GAME, and is an opinion piece. Other works by Benjamin Hill can be found here and on his studios home page, White Paper Games ]

I have talked a lot in previous writings about narrative and its insistent dance with games and gaming culture, how there seems to be a constant war between designers and writers about whether they do or do not work at all.

I currently am building a title with my studio White Paper Games that is fundamentally based upon the synthesis of both narrative and game play, and how that can increase the players experience through purpose, emotion and story-telling, so as you can see I do believe that narrative works in the gaming medium and it is quite close to home.

I bring this topic up today as I recently read an article on Creative Review that discusses the recent release of L.A. Noire and how they feel that games cannot be melded together with an intricate and well-crafted story. Now my main problem with this well written article is that there is an insistent comparison between film and video games and if I am not mistaken they are two completely different mediums within the entertainment sector. Let me clarify with a piece from the article where the writer discusses why L.A Noire doesn’t work, and in many respect I agree with this statement.

LA Noire doesn't work. It doesn't work as a film, period. It almost works as a game - but it's trying so hard to look like a film it forgets how to be a decent game. LA Noire is another chimera in a long line of chimeras, a hybrid she-monster with the head of a lion, the body of a goat and the tail of a snake.” [Cameron, Andy, Crit. The Future of Gaming? I am Still Waiting, Creative Review, 2011]

Why do I agree with this you may ask as a games designer? Well lets not be hasty, I actually quite enjoyed L.A. Noire and I think that it is a great attempt from Team Bondi to create a title that captures the film noir feeling. Yet as a piece of film-like entertainment I do believe it fails and yes, this is primarily to do with its gaming elements. An example of this would be the difficulty in reading certain emotions when interrogating suspects, it can be difficult to see which direction to head in with your dialogue which breaks that immersion, making you realise that you are playing a game. If this was a film you would have been immersed in an interrogation scene, sucked into the outcome, are they guilty or not? But this isn’t the problem with this article, the writer quite easily distinguishes the fact that L.A. Noire doesn’t meld film and games together, but this wasn’t his original point.

At the start of the article the writer exclaims that:

“It seemed to me then, and it still seems to me now, that every time we try and combine games and stories to make something new - an adventure game or interactive cinema or whatever we decide to call it - it doesn't work. We end up with a hybrid monster, neither fish nor fowl. We end up with a chimera.” [Cameron, Andy, Crit. The Future of Gaming? I am Still Waiting, Creative Review, 2011]

Now unless I am mistaken this quote says, quite bluntly, that games and stories do not work together. This is a completely different argument to saying that games do not provide a film-like cinematic experience, which in the long run they don’t, you get game play, then you get a cinematic and it goes round. That’s not to say some of the games that choose this method to display a narrative are not good, Metal Gear Solid 3 has plenty of long cut-scenes that are great and flow the story on. But it is two very different beasts melded together to move story forward.

Yet again this is not what the quote says, it states that games do not work with stories, and that is simply wrong. The problem seems to be that some people cannot distinguish the fact that videogames are a fundamentally different narrative medium to film. Yes they are both similar in the way they use visual and aural stimuli to relay a message but in terms of how a person views the story games are more similar to books than film. Let me elaborate a little bit.

When a person views a story within a film they are watching the events unfold to characters external to that person. They are viewing events that are happening to someone else, in other words you are not in their shoes. When you read a book the reader has to create the narrative world through their own imagination based upon the descriptions laid before them, this ‘interaction’ with the story makes the events more personal to the reader and often results in the reader casting their self upon the main character. Now although games lay out the visual and aural themes before the player they are far more similar to books in the way the player takes in the story. This is due to players ‘interacting’ with the game again projecting themselves upon the characters that they are playing with. Its not Cole Phelps who drives between one objective to another, it is you and this is why games will never have the same experience as film whereas they may have a similar experience to a book.

Lets look at a game that I believe has an excellent story that works with the games main components. Portal is a high point for contemporary videogames that I am sure you all know, and I am sure that most people who have played the game understand the narrative in the title is not presented to the player through cinematic means. It is presented to the player through the world that they inhabit and the environment they are in, it builds upon the players control and experience to create an absorbing narrative that is as complex at is heart as it is simple on its surface. It provides a single character that interacts with you, providing all the necessities to that game world, drawing you in, immersing you in the events that are going to unfold. It has a beginning middle and an end that fills the player with hope before crushing them with a simple blow. It is a wonderful, short story, which we are lucky enough to have continued in a sequel that continues the trend.

Portal is not a game trying to be a film, it is a game being what it is and with that comes story in a way that is new to the world of narrative. You are not watching a story unfold, you are not imaging the way a story would unfold, you are controlling you own experience with the story, in a way creating it. Portal is a linear experience yet it manages to fill each room with choices that fit in with the reality that has been created for you. There are more as well, titles like BraidLimboHalf-Life 2FlowerDear Esther(okay this one is a mod but still…), Shadow of the Collosus, Ico and the soon to be released Journey all know what medium they are from and their strengths in narrative lay there.

Gamers get so very defensive about how games can tell stories, and this is mainly because they have experienced stories that they hold dear to them. It can be difficult for people to hear that the stories they hold dear are not very good stories.

Its time that the videogame industry stops looking at films for narrative inspiration and realise that we have the tools to surpass it as a narrative medium. We just need to know how to utilise those tools.


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