Too Much Story?
ME: Right. So maybe the player-character is striving because of their troubled relationship with their father–
M’ COLLEAGUES: John, it’s Pong. Let it go.
ME: Ugh. *throws quill down in disgust. flounces off stage left*
Hopefully the above scene isn’t too accurate but, having spent most of my working life in film, TV drama and theatre, it’s not surprising that story is my usual starting point – for describing anything really. That and the fact I’m human. For better or worse, stories are how we describe things to each other and we all have an innate understanding of beginnings, middles and ends. Everything else is just a matter of taste (and, occasionally, snobbery.)
This recent Gamasutra interview with David Jaffe on the Language of Interactivity is one of many recent articles forming a bit of a backlash against narrative in games. Jaffe highlights Sid Meier’s brilliant “a game as a series of interesting choices” quote to highlight what a game really is. I totally 100% agree. It’s just that it also perfectly defines narratives as well. No matter what obstacles or set-pieces are thrown into a protagonist’s path by bad guys/fates/studio execs, it’s the main character’s choices that create, shape and define a story. So what’s the difference?
For the record, I’m not really a fan of cut-scenes. Even when they’re done well, all they really are is a pause in gameplay. I don’t think a cut-scene of showing protagonist Chell looking all confused in the opening of Portal could ever beat our own disorientation of just being dropped straight into the beginning of Valve’s puzzle masterpiece. Similarly, (SPOILER) the lack of definitive ending for Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption meant I was able to conclude the game’s story however I wanted. (For anyone interested, after all my vengeful murdering, I then went and completed all of the challenges that would unlock the Marshall’s outfit and, in my head, became a proper lawman in an effort to achieve the ambiguous ‘redemption’ of the title). Two powerful bits of storytelling, made all the more immersive by not spoon-feeding.
But, in thinking of games with stories, we instantly think of triple-A games that we play over a number of days as if reading a novel. So what about the ‘magazine article’ equivalents that we play every day in smaller chunks? In my opinion, Cut The Rope succeeds over Angry Birds as the latter needs a little movie to explain their war against the pigs. In Cut the Rope, we just need to get the cookie to the Om Nom because…well, who isn’t always hungry for cookies? Games like Diamond Dash on Facebook are exceptionally crafted examples of no story at all, just good game play. Or the upcoming IGF-nominated Gunpoint which conjures an awesome storyworld defined by its visual/audio aesthetic and how you stealthily interact through the (potentially infinite) levels.
With Portal, the story is ‘we want to escape’. With Cut The Rope, it’s simply ‘feed the hungry thing’. So when we say that games have too much story, I wonder if what is really meant is that games have too much BACKstory (or possibly if we just mean ‘too much talking’ – says he, waffling on). And that can be the trouble with some bigger games, the need to show you everything, to tell you and explain everything. As with movies, just because your graphics can genuinely create anything, doesn’t mean we need to see it. Similarly, unless I can play it, let me imagine it. The first thing anyone learns about narrative is that less is mostly more. Stories are not about complexity – the best ones rely on clarity.
And one thing that also seems clear is that in importing cinematic qualities to games, we also seem to have inherited a fair amount of cinematic snobbery. For years the nadir of storytelling in games seems to be in ‘creating a game that can make you cry’, when we’ve already made games that make us laugh or scared. At this time of year, the nature of the beast means that cinemas are filled with stories up for BAFTAs and Oscars. This in turn creates a predictable backlash against the Oscar-‘worthy’ films by proponents of more popcorn-driven movies which feels like an echo for the argument against narrative in games.
Isn’t there room for both?
I think so. Last week in games, indie-darling Dear Esther sold 16,000 in its first few hours of sale while the demo of Mass Effect 3 also shoved pre-sales through the roof. And there’s a good chance there were a few people out there who coughed up for both. I know what I like in games and movies so there are certain genres of both I’ll never grow tired of. But knowing I already like one sort of thing so much just makes me want to investigate what else a medium can do! My favourite game story personally is Silent Hill 2, but it’s not to say it doesn’t clunk in places. And that’s pretty much my point. No one has got narrative in games perfect. But then neither has anyone written the absolutely ‘perfect’ book, film or TV show that pleases absolutely everyone yet either.
So it’s frustrating to see David Jaffe saying things like “…if my only goal is to make people feel emotions and that’s what I really want — I want to make them feel sadness, or I want to make them think about man’s place in the universe. Think about that. If you’re really a f***ing artist. If you’re really a f***ing artist, and you’ve got something to say, then you f***ing pick the right medium to say it in.”
If the argument is that you shouldn’t try to do something because nobody else has done it yet, then maybe we should all just give up now. I like Bioshock, Fahrenheit, LA Noire, Heavy Rain and Alan Wake. None of them have got storytelling exactly ‘right’ yet but I love how they’ve all moved the idea in different directions but, ultimately, moved game narratives forwards. Storytelling techniques had to be re-invented when film and television each first emerged. Now it’s the same thing in making stories interactive and immersive. It’s easy to see how a game like Heavy Rain can be latched on to by journalists as an immediately dramatic and drastic turning point in games – but we all know that change is and will be a gradual process.
So when articles fervently tell me what games are, what games should be and where story can shove itself in relation to games, my response is that games, like any medium, should be something that evolves to match constantly evolving consumer tastes and opinions. Anything else is just stating opinion as fact or a sweeping generalisation. And you know what they say about people who make sweeping generalisations. They’re ALL idiots 😀