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Why I Hate Stories in Video Games

Our industry is relying on linear narrative breaks that undermine player Agency, which should be the cornerstone of our art form.

Josh Foreman, Blogger

July 29, 2010

26 Min Read

Let me clarify that I'm referring to "story" in the most common sense that most game players perceive as story. (that is: cutscenes as opposed to world design, mechanics and other intrinsic communication cues.) I'll go into what I think future storytelling in games should look like after the critique.

The video game industry. So here we are. 40 years old. (give or take) For some perspective, let's look at where the movie industry was at 40… making films like Gone with the Wind. What do we have that compares? (This is not actually a snarky rhetorical question, it's good conversation fodder.)

To be fair, our industry has bigger technological and logistical hurdles to leap than the film industry did. Yes, cameras, film, sound and color all developed and put that industry through its growing pains. But within ten years they had created the formula for the medium that is still used to this day. They took the linear story telling of novels and plays and put them together with the power of music and editing to create a new experience that transcended the artforms they utilized.

But when it comes to video games, we are nowhere near the point at which the technology is stable enough to start building a game media paradigm that will last for a hundred years. This causes major problems for us. First of all, it gives us a moving target. Our design is constantly constrained and changed by these technological limits.

We operate on an ever-shifting landscape that defines our jobs as game creators. 

Every game I have worked on started off as something that a host of technological limitations made impossible.  Every vision has been seriously curtailed and restrained by this force.     

Now imagine if this happened in film. Imagine if an arbitrary technological deficit kept a director from pointing the camera in certain directions. Or made it so the film could only pick up 3 actors at a time. Or if background extras could never move. These limitations could be worked around, sure. But they would put definite limits on the kinds of stories that could be told, and certainly on the tone or mood that the films convey.

Of course there were big limitations early on in the media of film. Not having vocal dialog is huge. Lack of color is pretty big. But I can make good corollaries to video games that illustrate my point that our similar leaps have already happened and we still have many, many more to go. The gradually increased resolution of video games is sort of like the finer film quality that developed over the first half of the 20th century.

The change from colored blocks representing warriors and race cars into pieces of art that clearly represented said objects was slow and granular so it's hard to call that a "leap". The same goes for the evolution from synthetic bleeps and bloops to fully orchestrated soundtracks and real dialog. But one thing that that was a clear and definite transition was the leap to the 3rd dimension.

To me, that seems like a bigger leap than film's sound and color put together. It opened up such a huge world of possibilities for designers that simply weren't possible before. And yet we still have so far to go before our medium is stable.

The reason I want to establish this before telling you why story in video games suck, is because I believe that our industry's attempt at story telling is simply a stop-gap for something far greater that is to come. After we get through our growing pains. Right now we hire writers to fill out our games with story. And most of the time, these stories are just like those you would find in movies and novels and plays and epic poems and opera. Not that they are as good. In general, they are terribly derivative, juvenile, and would be boring if translated to a script or book. (Of course there are terribly derivative, juvenile books and plays and movies too.)

But what I want to point out is that video game stories are like these other media in one important way. They are linear narratives. They are situations constructed by an author to tell a story in a particular way. And most important to my point: THEY DEFINE THE PROTAGONIST. To me, the most obvious strength that the medium of video games has is that they cast the player as the protagonist. In fact, a strong case can be made that this is the defining element that makes the medium what it is. The player has Agency within the world of the game.

And this is what most video game stories actively combat! They say: "You are X, a brawny barbarian who solves his problems with an axe." Or "You are Y, a femme fatale who must use her cunning and magic to defeat Z." These I don't object to because they are part of the theme or genre. The problem is when they attempt to shoehorn a 3 act structure into the game by denying the player their Agency while they show you poorly animated and acted scenes of …"you" saying and doing things that you, the human, probably would not say or do in the same situation.

This undermines the Agency that is at the heart of the medium. This implicitly says that our medium is not legitimate. That we need to be more like those other well-established art forms like film and literature. To me, this is like a child in the workshop with daddy. Daddy is building a chair, and the kid is using his little plastic hammer to repetitively bang on his little plastic work bench pretending to be daddy. The child sees the actions that daddy is doing, and tries to imitate it, though with much less success. And what I'm saying is that we need to stop trying to be daddy. We weren't meant to be carpenters. We were meant to be painters or astronauts, or some other non-hammering profession.

This is why game cutscenses annoy and… almost offend me. I don't like my little plastic hammer! I don't want to pretend, and do something half-assed. If I have Agency, let me be my own Agent, not some amalgam of me and something a juvenile fiction author came up with. And here is where I must make an important distinction. Most video games -with the exception of puzzle games- put you in the shoes of a defined protagonist. A chubby plumber in Wonderland, a pro baseball player, a busty warrior chick in middle earth, etc.

This type of role-playing does not offend me. Because this is presented to me, the consumer, when I'm making a choice about how I want to spend my precious entertainment time. When I choose a world to act in I'm looking for themes and aesthetics and mechanics that seem fun to me. Listening to Solid Snake apologize to his whiney girlfriend about missing her birthday when he's on the most important mission in the world is not part of that. I'm 35. I'm not looking for angsty teen melodrama juxtaposed over grizzled war vets or anorexic fantasy bois. I don't care about saving princesses. I just want to play in a world that appeals to me.

Make my own story. Be the kind of character I choose to be. I'm a curmudgeon, I know. And I know that the current hybrid game/movie paradigm will probably never go away. Too many people like it. And that's fine for them. I just personally think it's a disgusting chimera. And I can't wait for the day when we can hack the goat head and snake tail off and proudly declare that we are a lion.

Maybe that is why I'm such a fan of Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. These games present you with a world, theme and minimal set of characters. Then let's you go. They give you simple mechanics that you have to creatively combine to progress, and even though the action is mostly linear you are not having your character constantly updated and defined with cutscenes. Ico made me FEEL empathy for Yorda.

Not because the game yanked the camera out of my hand and force fed me a bunch of dialog about how endangered and pitiful she is and how she needs my help. No, they built the mechanics around the concept of empathy. This is an exploration of a theme through ACTION and CHOICE, rather than dialog. This is what I think the future of games as an art form will be. In Shadow of the Colossus (Excellent review here: http://tap-repeatedly.com/Reviews/Shadow_of_the_Colossus/Colossus.shtml ) your Agency is actually used by the designers as a foil to progression. There are no cutscenes where the Wanderer stops and questions his motives or pontificates about the nature of the beautiful, majestic giants he is impelled to kill, or composes a Fichtean critique of revelation.

Instead, the designers use the tools that are intrinsic to video games to cause the player to think these things. Music, sound, atmosphere, repetition -even the down time of traveling from one location to another- giving the player time to reflect. Distance and sparseness as tools of communication are examples of a transcending element that video games can utilize. Just as film transcends music and images through a gestalt process of combination, becoming its own art form, so video games can bring together music, image, and Agency to create a truly new and unique form of artistic expression.

But there's something missing still. I think that games like Shadow of the Colossus are so rare because our industry lacks definition. We are still under our father's shadow, and seek his approval before we can be proud of ourselves. After all, daddy is big and successful and popular. (Not many game designers being chased down by the paparazzi.)

But when we grasp that Agency with both hands, eschew our training wheels of artificially linear narrative, and go with our strength, I think we will find the wings that will let us soar to undiscovered heights. But as I pointed out, the hurdle to this nirvana of gaming is not simply philosophical. It's devastatingly technological.

After the jump to 3-D I consider the next leap we made to be the invention of the sand box game. Here, rather than being given a path from A to B with various obstacles, we are given a toolset of mechanics and given the freedom to use them in creative ways, exercising our Agency in the pacing and flow of the game. There is still generally a linear narrative (defining the protagonist) that can be accessed at points the player chooses, but… baby steps. Baby steps.

Now, it's not that designers had never conceived of a big open world with a suite of mechanics for a player to experiment with. It's simply that the technology was not ready until recently. Had a game company made a sandbox game in 1995 it would have been a big flat plane with some pyramids. I'm looking at our technology now, and seeing all sorts of problems that only have technological solutions.

The Uncanny Valley, the expense of physics, the foolish A.I., and the need to hand-generate most of our assets. What sorts of new innovations will emerge as these limitations are overcome? I don't know for certain. Obviously we designers will never run out of ideas for games. And we all long for the Star Trek Holodeck. The question is about what we will do with it once we have it. Would we still create linear narratives where the player is forced to watch her character develop according to some author's ideas? Or will we empower the player by granting them the full power of their Agency, allowing them to define their own character?

I hope the answer is obvious. If it is, if our pipe-dream is to fully empower the players, then it seems to me that our current game/movie hybrid is simply the result of our lack of technological sophistication. Perhaps in the future our game writers will be working on creating compelling interaction concepts for A.I. and making the world resonate thematically, supporting my choices as a player, rather than yanking my leash from point A to B and undermining my Agency with motives, attitudes and personality that aren't mine.

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