Re: ‘Video Games Are Better Without Stories’

In response to ‘Video Games Are Better Without Stories’ by Ian Bogost, 25/04/17

This isn’t going to be my most eloquent work, more of a brain dump, but I’ve been awake far longer than intended and I’m feeling irked and compelled to vent my thoughts so here we go. It may get revised in the near future when I have a bit more time.

I’m going to pick out quotes and then respond because I haven’t got time to beat it into essay/article format. If the questions were meant to be rhetorical—well, tough.


Are the resulting interactive stories really interactive, when all the player does is assemble something from parts?

Yes, of course. Most games are, at heart, assembling something from parts, whether it’s train routes or mysteries or jokes; I think it’s fair to say that Ticket to Ride, Mysterium, and Cards Against Humanity are all interactive.

It’s about the agency, in the end. Books and films offer no agency to their consumers at all; games always do (though to what extent obviously varies wildly). Granted, that agency might have no narrative effect (such as in Dear Esther), or turn out to be an illusion entirely (a la Bioshock), but it is still the player playing the game, progressing the narrative, and thus experiencing the story. They are affecting their own experience of the game, even if they’re not changing the content of the game.

And sure, picking up objects in Gone Home doesn’t change the outcome of the game, but there’s no reason why it couldn’t in theory. If we disregard the ending for a moment, a chunk of Life is Strange is comprised of the game asking ‘Do you want to leave this cupboard door open? It might change things later,’ during your snooping sessions.

Are they really stories, when they are really environments?

So, there’s this game called Journey…

Anyway, you may not get the full nuance of the Hero’s Journey from a box of spilt cereal in a game, but there’s still a story behind it, and inference. I rather like environmental storytelling and some of the touches I’ve seen in recent games; I shall refrain from my usual paean to the Witcher 3’s environments on this occasion.

And most of all, are they better stories than the more popular and proven ones in the cinema, on television, and in books? On this measure, alas, the best interactive stories are still worse than even middling books and films. That’s a problem to be ignored rather than solved.

What makes a ‘better’ story, the ‘best’ interactive stories? What measure are we using? What ‘more popular and proven’ stories from film and page? What do we consider ‘middling books and films’? Examples or it didn’t happen.

I take particular issue with the statement, ‘the best interactive stories are still worse than even middling books and films’. I don’t believe it’s a correct or fair comparison.

Films, TV shows, and books are, as a rule, born from stories. Those stories are refined and polished again and again until they are fit for public consumption. The books we pick up in Waterstones have usually run an intense gauntlet of agents and editors and numerous full edits, generally guaranteeing some level of quality; this is a core component of the publishing industry.

Stories in games, even when they’re at the heart of the game, don’t tend to face that level of polishing—there’s no comparable infrastructure. And they’re not usually the starting point for development, not even when they’re presented as the core of the finished experience; the result of which being that they’re written in a fraction of the ideal time, to fit in around the mechanics of the game, whatever they may be. Games writing seems to be coming on in leaps and bounds, but the makers that give writers the time they need are still not common.  

Exploration games are a step in the direction of focusing on narrative without the distracting mechanics; they’re necessary experiments because there is no golden standard story shape for games as yet, no three-act story structure. It’s untrod ground, and I think we’re going to need more time yet to figure out the best approaches.

And with regards to the best interactive stories still being ‘worse than even middling books and films’, well, I think that’s a presumptive generalisation and surely dependant on personal preference. As a straight comparison, I personally prefer the Witcher 3 game to the best-selling books that inspired it, and found it more affecting than some of the better books I’ve read.

Writing about Gone Home upon its release, I called it the video-game equivalent of young-adult fiction. Hardly anything to be ashamed of, but maybe much nothing to praise, either.

For starters, how about we lay off YA Fiction, which can certainly be praiseworthy and inventive.

I’m afraid I can only view this comment as rather pretentious; just because a story isn’t written for quite your demographic doesn’t mean it isn’t good, isn’t going to resonate with others, isn’t going to stick with them for the rest of their lives.

I’ve touched on the problem of knowing a game is an exploration game before playing previously, but I played Gone Home with no advance knowledge of the game. As such, I played the entire thing assuming it was a horror game; I crept through the basement waiting for the silhouette of a parent’s hanging corpse, I jumped at every flicker of the lights, spinning to face the expected attacker. The game played me like a violin, near-perfectly conjuring the feelings of being a teenage girl home alone in alarming circumstances. I’m unlikely to forget the immediate experience and the uncovering of the story that slowly changed my perception of the game.

The writing is good, an uncommon accomplishment in a video game.

Gosh.

Well, Bogost’s article will surely encourage people to write for games and thus make good game writing a common occurrence. *Thumbs up*

…the game is pregnant with an unanswered question: Why does this story need to be told as a video game?… One answer could be cinema envy.

Innocent until proven guilty, why shouldn’t this story be told as a video game?

Bogost says ‘Few will leave it unsatisfied’ and then essentially grumbles about having to play the game. I confess I’m confused.

Maybe it could be a film, sure, but we’re back to agency. Uncharted 4 could very definitely be a film, being all but a playable Indiana Jones movie, but it’d be rather less fun; it wouldn’t be my character making quips as he fails at parkour, it wouldn’t be me discovering a new tomb.

I think this is where Let’s Plays start to fit in. That Let’s Plays are so popular strikes me as some proof that the stories of games are often strong enough to stand up without direct interaction, which could be taken as an argument that some games should indeed be films, but games in Let’s Plays are experienced vicariously through the actual player’s choices and reactions. If I watch someone playing a game with a branching narrative, I’m aware that it’s their experience, not mine, and that there are other routes, other experiences, to be had from the game.

I’d like to argue that there’s nothing wrong with a game being like a film in the first place, but that’s something for another day.

The character vignettes take different forms… In one case, the player takes on the role of different animals, recasting a familiar space in a new way. In another, the player moves… inside a comic book, where it is rendered with cell-shading instead of conventional, simulated lighting… But they are not feats of storytelling, at all. Rather, they are novel expressions of the capacities of a real-time 3-D engine.

A number of films are known more for their visual style than their stories. They’re still successful and interesting, and the style ties into the story in ways we register both consciously and not.

I haven’t yet played The Remains of Edith Finch, being in Germany sans PS4, but these vignettes sound intriguing. I’m looking forward to exploring them. And maybe they’ll be rubbish and I’ll recant, but if the creators have decided to frame these snippets of stories in these styles then I imagine it might affect the reading of the stories within.  

What are games good for, then? … To use games to tell stories is a fine goal, I suppose, but it’s also an unambitious one. Games are not a new, interactive medium for stories.

I disagree with this to such an extent that its hard to know where to start. I think that it is ambitious to try and tell stories in games, given the challenges inherent in the media, the historical dismissal of narrative by the production process, how agency has to be considered, and how complex branching/interactive narratives can be.

80 Days contains a remarkable ~750k words—an average novel is nearer 100k. It is complex and engaging and every playthrough is different. It is a new, interactive, updated, better telling of a story that featured in a novel written over a century ago.

Games may not always provide good examples of interactive stories, but they are capable of it.  

Yes, sure, you can tell a story in a game. But what a lot of work that is, when it’s so much easier to watch television, or to read… If there is a future of games, let alone a future in which they discover their potential as a defining medium of an era, it will be one in which games abandon the dream of becoming narrative media…

I don’t like that the article, which attempts to shoot down what many might argue is a burgeoning aspect of games and effectively rubbishes some really interesting experiments of recent years, is published in a place that’s outside of the gaming sphere, in The Atlantic, where games get precious little coverage and I suspect readers don’t have a high opinion of them to start with.

A chunk of my objection to the original article also lies in its tone, which feels like the author saying ‘this is how things are, and how things should be’. But games are still a relatively new medium, and still often experimental; these generalisations don’t cover the breadth and diversity of the nebulous mass of ‘games’.

And yes, I’m sure we can do better with the interactivity of stories in games and play more to the strengths of the medium, but telling people to abandon the dream of games as a narrative media is nonsense. It’s not our place to tell people what their dreams should be, nor to discourage them from potentially medium-changing experiments. Some things haven’t yet been done, or haven’t been done well, but that’s ok; we’re trying new things and not everything will work but we should at least give it a chance.

I see the future of narrative in games as exciting and full of potential. To misquote Hamilton,

There’s a million things games haven’t done, but just you wait. Just you wait.