There is a great division in games, well several actually. There is a division between the press and gamers, between gamers and developers, and between the press and developers. There is a division between how we, as gamers writers and developers, think about games and how we *think* we think about games.
We make and play games and imagine we are evaluating them as objectively as possible. But instead are almost always looking at them with a radically warped perception compared to “more developed mediums.” We celebrate minor differences and upgrades. A touching scene where there previosly was none. We don’t see the forest for the pixels.
Games exist in a bubble culture. An environment in which fans of games often find themselves apologizing for the mediums obvious shortcomings and peculiar stubbornness about growing up and actually having something important to say. We are so keen to praise the things that we know make games good, that it seems like we are often forgetting to actually think about the experience of playing games at all.
Can you really blame us? Games have been training us for the past 15 years to not think. To disconnect the gameplay experience from the story one. “Never the two shall mix.” We very rarely think about how a total stranger to games would view the activity in which we are engaging. We tell ourselves that it doesn’t matter if they don’t see how great games are, because they will keep on being great even if nobody likes them. But that’s just not true, the way that a “non-gamer” experiences a game is the reality of that experience. If you truly care about games and games criticism, then you must stop treating games as some sort of deformed and mentally handicapped younger sibling to the other storytelling mediums that needs you to stick up for it and coddle it and love it despite how ugly and dumb it really is.
The sad thing is that game designers often don’t think of games very differently. And even worse, they share the same coddling and protective attitude towards the players of their games. We, as gamers, are routinely treated as complete idiots. “Oh no,” says the strawman game designer, “you won’t be able to handle this game unless you have some serious hints, or a giant arrow constantly pointing you to your next objective.” Designers are so scared that you will hate their game that they come up with virtual doppelgängers to follow you into your home and nervously watch you play. “Don’t forget to use your Vigors!”, Bioshock Infinite’s doppelgänger reminds you, like an overprotective parent trying to coerce a child to eat more veggies. “It’s good for you!” But is it really? Bioshock Infinite is a game for adults, not for children. If children could make it through the crushingly difficult The Legend of Zelda 25 years ago, and our modern gaming collective recently tackled the similarly difficult and very adult Dark Souls, cursing and loving every minute of it, then surely you can trust the players of your game to figure it out eventually, right?
Oh, wait. I forgot. We’re trying to tell stories here. “Eventually” just isn’t good enough. It’s impossible to pace out a story effectively if we only know that the player will “eventually” make it to this point in the game. This is precisely why both the original Zelda and Dark Souls are so light on their story, having what essentially amounts to a maguffin or two. But now we are telling these grand and epic and dare-I-say “cinematic” stories. We don’t want players to get stuck before they get to “the good part.”
So what do we do? How can we tell effective stories and also be respectful of players and games as a medium which can stand proudly beside the others.
It’s simple. If you want to tell stories in games, just tell stories. Don’t worry about trying to fit into some preconceived notion of what constitutes a “game.” It doesn’t have to have any more shooting than necessary to tell the story effectively. Don’t feel like you have to have “core gameplay” just because “that’s what games do.” Don’t be so afraid of players disliking your game that you compromise your vision to try to please everybody. You don’t have to be conflicted if you just believe in what YOU find interesting about your project and have faith that your players will find that interesting too. If you want to have a scene of dialogue that is relatively non-interactive (or completely non-interactive), feel free to do that. Just don’t try to tell a story with “believable characters”, and when partway through writing it you get scared that some players are not actually interested in paying attention to all that cool stuff you wrote, you panic and take out most of the dialogue and all of the believability. Those players are not worth catering to, they don’t actually care about experiencing what you find meaningful. They are not your real fans, and trying to please them will destroy you and your game.
We need to start thinking about games as cohesive experiences. As designers, what is the experience that we want to give our players? Do we even need to tell a story? Do we even need to have traditional gameplay? How is the gameplay helping or harming the story? How is a pile of rotten fruit on the floor informing the gameplay. Is it?
Both gameplay and story must form a cohesive whole if a game is to remain intact as a creative and meaningful work. To artfully make games and master this medium (and to have our “Citizen Kane” moment which everyone won’t shut up about) we have to start thinking about how all the different parts of the game affect the whole. This means if you want to give the player freedom, you probably can’t tell stories that are not about psychopaths. So the reality is that Saint’s Row is probably a more cohesive work of art than GTA IV. If you want desperately to tell the story of redemption, or love, or anything even slightly specific, you are going to have to limit the player drastically. But we don’t want to do this haphazardly, we want to make intelligent choices about where we allow the player to interact with the story.
I’m not advocating for removing player freedom from games entirely. Interactivity is the only useful component to differentiate games from other mediums. But giving the player freedom has a direct and very negative impact on the ability to tell an effective story.
“What? Gameplay and story don’t mix? Ludonarrative Dissonance? You pretentious asshat!”
Gameplay and story can conflict with one another, but I’m not advocating removing story from games either. I love stories just as much as the next person. Story is important tool we use to understand the world and communicate experiences. I might however suggest exploring a different approach to storytelling than the commonly used three act structure which does not fit well in games that have much longer running times.
People tend to believe these are just difficult and intractable problems in games. Someday we will just magically realize a way to fix them. It’s just gonna be a slow and grueling path uphill towards cultural relevance. Games will find a way to make a good and well paced story that still has plenty of fun RPG loot grinding in it. We just need to stuff enough technology in there and it will happen. Better AI will solve the problem. More polygons. The Playstation 4.
The hard truth is that we will never solve these problems if we keep making the same kinds of games we are making today. It is impossible to integrate a story which values human life with a story where the protagonist shoots 960 dudes in the face. (And that’s just with the shotgun!) Think about what this means. If we can’t value human life effectively, then we cannot even tell good dramatic stories. Drama is practically the holy grail of artistic storytelling, amirite amirite? And even if we try to do comedy, we will be limited to black humor. Jokes about how gross the violence is. How crazy the protagonist is for going on such murderous rampages.
I am not here to ruin the fun. I am not here to kill the stories. But please, if you are going to make or review or criticize a game, stop treating games as a substandard storytelling medium with it’s own arcane rules that are just impossible for us to fully understand yet. Start treating it as though it’s already grown up. It is not condescending to think of how your grandma or your non-gamer friends would react to the way the game presents itself. Stop apologizing for games and start demanding they be coherent.
Look, I understand the fear and conservatism that comes with making investments that fly high of the 100 million dollar mark, and I also realize there isn’t a lot of hard data showing that players are happy with games that try to maintain artistic integrity at the expense of challenge or storytelling. But I don’t think the combined critical and commercial success of Dark Souls or Telltale’s The Walking Dead are completely accidental. And I hope they become part of a trend towards diversification in the types of games available, rather than an anomaly on the bumpy road towards complete cultural abandonment.
The large commercial “Triple-A” games space is a difficult place to be creative in. But it is just ridiculous to think that games need to stay exactly the way they have been since 2001 to keep being popular. They need to change, or else they will fade into obscurity.
This essay is part of a series, you can read the next part here.