Games Minus Stories = ?

By Jim Rossignol on August 30th, 2010 at 2:04 pm.


There was one section of the interesting-but-incoherent Gamecrashers article, Games Will Never Be Mainstream, that had me thinking long into the night. Actually there were a couple of things that made me want to say something, including the fact that games seem to be mainstream now anyway, and particularly the claim that it would be “impossible” to turn Pride And Prejudice And Zombies into a game under a normal development cycle. Never say never. But anyway the bit that got me thinking was the one that said: “Games Are Rarely ABOUT Anything.”

What I take issue with here is the idea that stories are what games are about, or that they genuinely matter to the cultural significance of games. Stories can matter, and they can work brilliantly in a games’ favour, but I think the reason why most games have paper-thin plots is because that’s often all they need. (Yes, theme and story matter absolutely to comics, but they have limited additional formats/technologies/dimensions.)

The explanation for why games are rarely about anything in the way that books and movies are about something is because games are primarily about whatever it is that they model, rather than being about a theme embedded in their fiction. Games are models of something, in every case. They are “about” the systems and processes that they portray. Chess is about the antagonistic movement and positioning of the pieces on the 64 squares of the board, Portal is about teleportation and momentum through portals, Modern Warfare 2, as Mr Barrickman points out, is about shooting people. You could still argue that games aren’t diverse enough in what they model, of course, but that’s for another day.

“If games want to be taken seriously as art or a worthwhile storytelling medium, there will have to be more games that aren’t simple diversions.”

I think this claim is based on a mistaken analysis of why games have become popular at all. (Not to mention the idea of them being “simple diversions” – games without any story at all are often incredibly complex – but I will come back to that.) To see past this line of argument you only have to throw up some counter-factual ideas about what videogames – not simply the card or board games of earlier times – could have been, or what parts of them are. It’s a thought experiment that I’ve often wanted to sketch up here for you guys to mull over, but never quite got around to it…

What if you removed the prefabricated story elements entirely from our contemporary caste of mainstream electronic games? What if there was no written or spoken exposition or explanation at all, only what the player did? No linear story-telling and no dialogue? What would we have left?

Well, you could still have most of the action and driving games. Especially Modern Warfare 2. Hell, you would have most of the Half-Life games. You would have Tetris, you would have Flight Simulators. Almost all multi-player games would spare us their incidental scene-setting twaddle. You would still have what is interesting about Eve Online: the activities of the players. Portal wouldn’t be as funny, but it’d still be a fascinating puzzle game. You would have hundreds of different experiences, systems, visual themes, complex puzzles, strategic conundrums, ambient processes. Hell, you might end up having more originality and greater diversity if games weren’t pinned down somewhere in the space between Aliens and Lord Of The Rings and trying to bend their game mechanics to their lack of articulacy in fiction. We’d lose RPGs, but we’d keep The Sims.

If there’s a solution to this problem of games not being mainstream because of their crappy, subtext free stories, then perhaps we need to relent from the idea that stories are genuinely what makes games interesting. You don’t have to look to far for concrete evidence of this. I see my ancient parents playing Boom Blox on their Wii and that scene looks pretty fucking mainstream. There isn’t a story, and they aren’t telling tales of Boom Blox exploits to their friends down at the Ornithology Society.

Anyway, to that issue of games being “diversions”. They can be just that. But so can films. The argument implied here is that games don’t go beyond that into something deeper and more intellectually valuable. But perhaps that’s missing the point about how novels or movies came to be what they are in the first place. These media were primarily about distraction or – more accurately in my mind – about escape. They were sold, heavily, as escapist past-times, and the majority of books and films are flimsy, lightweight adventures or romances. But nevertheless, in any form, they are still one step up from daydreaming. They are exercises and extensions for the imagination no matter how superficial that extension might be. These two particular media of paper and film – which have become so mainstream and so accepted culturally – focused on stories because human brains are great at storytelling. We are great at language. But we’re not purely about language. There are other elements of culture that are being left out that don’t tell stories, which are even non-linguistic, and which are also included within the remits of gaming: music, architecture, sculpture, physical or sporting achievement, feats of logical intellect, spatial exploration, or the pure experience of novelty. All these things connect with stuff that is utterly mainstream.

Stories, I think, are only supplementary to this bigger picture, the picture of films, books, the wider technologies of architectures, gadgets, vehicles, sports, video screens and the games we play on them as a larger continuum of stuff that takes advantage of our capacity for imagination. All these things, all of technology, acts as extension to cognition and consciousness. It’s not just about the bit that interprets subtexts to give us depth of meaning within a story. Focusing on that narrow band of human achievement is asking for trouble. And saying that it is the gateway into what makes for mainstream games, well, I think that is mistaken too.

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119 Comments »

  1. Mark O'Brien says:

    Story is very important to some people of course, but not for me.

    Speaking personally, that idea of interacting with a novel system and learning to master it is much more important than any predefined story.

    If you want to experience a story, watch a film or read a book. Games give you an interactive system to experience, play with and learn.

    I have no objection to story if it blends well with the game, but for me it should be secondary to the rules of the system the game is modelling.

    Portal is an excellent example. The story was brilliant yet unobtrusive.

    • Gene says:

      I bet some time ago people were like “meh, if you want a story read a book, movies are all about visual experience”.

    • Latro says:

      If movies were about story and not visual experience they will adapt, say, Lord of the Rings by having somebody read the book with the camera showing it on their lap and a hand turning the pages :-P

    • Jake says:

      ‘If you want a story, read a book. Movies are all about the visual experience’. Pretty much sums up Avatar. I loved Avatar but I think it is about as good an experience with the sound off.

    • TCM says:

      I cannot stand the ‘go read a book’ arguement.

      It’s a cheap arguement used to either attempt to defend a game’s poor story (Fanboys will say ‘well if you want story read a book’), or claim that story is not needed in games, both of which are laughable.

      Any media is capable of being as deep or shallow as almost any other. I can think of a ton of books that aren’t worth spending any time on whatsoever, and a ton of movies with a plotline depth that honestly shocked me. As for Video Games, good god, let me call back to a previous post I made, in another comment thread: Games are capable of more than any other form of media. I mean that on absolutely every front.

    • Mark O'Brien says:

      (comment system screwed up attempting to reply further down thread… reposting)

      @TCM

      Sorry if it came across like I was telling you to go read a book or that your interest in stories in games is misplaced.

      I should have said that I feel that _my_ needs for story are best served my movies and books. Just as I don’t buy my breakfast cereals based on the quality of writing on the back of the box, I don’t buy my games based on the quality of writing in the game. At least not primarily!

      I don’t think it’s fair to say that it’s laughable to suggest that story is not needed in games, however. As Jim pointed out, there are many games without stories.

      I think my favourite types of games are those in which the player creates the stories by interacting with a system rich enough to generate stories. I’m currently in a Civ 4 phase, and I find that that is a really interesting game partly because of it’s ability to generate an epic narrative about the development of a civilization over thousands of years.

      Similarly, I really admire Dwarf Fortress, but I don’t have the time or patience to get used to the user interface.

      I thought the story of Crysis was stupid, but it in no way diluted the enjoyment I got from it. I really like all of Crytech’s PC games, but I think the stories for each one are pretty stupid and irrelevant.

      I’m not writing to say that if you value stories, you’re wrong. I’m just writing to agree with Jim’s point of view that sometimes, for some people anyway, story is not a vital part of the medium.

    • DrGonzo says:

      Avatar would be a more pleasant experience with your eyes closed and the sound off tbh. Am I the only one who thinks those blue dudes look really fake, and a lot like 90′s CGI?

      And also, zero g scene at the start made me nearly vomit. I can’t explain why, didn’t have an issue with any of the other 3d bits.

    • Archonsod says:

      Fact is, most people want spectacle rather than story. Put The Running Man on in a cinema at the same time as say Citizen Kane, and I reckon it’s pretty clear which would sell most tickets. People generally tend towards maximum entertainment for minimum effort, which is why the biggest grossing movies tend to be the ones heavy on SFX and light on intellectual engagement.
      Hence read a book tends to be valid since the medium only has intellectual engagement. In fact I’d be very surprised if anything with a story came close to the impact of Space Invaders or Pac Man.

    • tunnel says:

      Some players are in it for mastering the mechanics, some like me just want to live an adventure. Once I get a hold of a game’s mechanics, I need a story to motivate me to keep playing. I loved portalling in Portal, but the reason I played it all the way through was to hear more of Glados and see whether I would escape and what would happen on the way. Without that context there’s a good chance I would not have bothered to finish it. That’s also the reason I have no interest in multiplayer games; the context gets thrown out the window and it becomes all about the mechanics.

      The reason I don’t find game stories to be replaceable by novels or movies is because the powerful elixir of interactivity augments the effects story so that even mediocre, clichéd writing paired with good atmosphere will firmly command your imagination to inhabit its world and give you a very powerful narrative experience (see Deus Ex).

      OMG games are about story if I wanted to grind through a set of rules I’d play chess or sports!

    • SanguineAngel says:

      Gotta say I’m 100% with Tunnel here.

      Obviously, there are plenty of great games out there that rely totally on mechanics but for me, they never hold my attention long enough to complete it.

      I just need a narrative or character to pull me through, to engage me in the game world. And it really isn’t the same as reading a book or watching a movie. As Tunnel says – the interactivity, even you you’re not even making any game changing decisions, adds a completely different layer to the experience. I love books, I love films and I love games but they are all different.

      I’ll say this: It doesn’t need to be shakespeare. It has never needed to be truely great or a masterpiece to make a good film or a good book or a good game. It just needs to be engaging. Of course, it’s nice to come across true greats now and then and I’d be very happy to see more masterworks of creative fiction within computer games.

    • BAReFOOt says:

      I’m shocked, that nobody here has ever heard of the fact, that stories are only a subset of all experiences. And experiences is, what it’s all about.

      Plus, what we call “stories” is only a small subset of all stories. Stories do not have to have a single line of dialog. There can be stories, that are nothing but structured emotional experience. There can be stories, that are nothing but different kinds of touches. Or notes. Or whatever. You get the drift.

      There is no question whether games “will ever become mainstream”. Movies, books, music, sports, toys, learning (not as in school), etc… they are all just subsets of games! No exceptions! Games include all those aspects. They are the mother of them all.
      So games are already mainstream, and existed, long before even humans existed. (Look at dogs playing. That’s a game. Or at least a subset.)

      The whole discussion is silly, and shows how egocentric, arrogant, and completely and utterly incompetent some people are about the whole subject that they claim to be experts of.

  2. Gene says:

    WTF? They want games to be MORE mainstream? jesus fucking christ, every new game is so boring and easy because it has to appeal to the retarded exbaucks crowd, and they want it to be even more mainstream?

    • Jim Rossignol says:

      No, it’s not saying that. It’s saying they won’t be mainstream, not that they should be.

    • A Punctual Nord says:

      They are very silly people. This an obviously over-inflammatory subject and I don’t think an intelligent man or woman, upon viewing how commonplace and accepted video games have become in the last 30 years can claim that in 20 years they won’t be accepted by a majority. Practically any given person under age 30 from a 1st world country will have enjoyed a video game at some point. If not, they’re probably an extremely dull and close-minded individual.

      In 20 years the Eberts and Thompsons of the world will be buried and a new generation of kids, steeped in the culture of gaming, will join the fray. It’s only a matter of time before the residuum of the close-minded are dislodged from their positions of note and washed away by the current.

      Thank god for mortality.

  3. Ian says:

    Game-haters are just jealous that their favoured medium will never live up to the storytelling splendour of Bad Dudes.

    • Jim Rossignol says:

      Damn straight.

    • Haywire says:

      I am yet to see a novel or movie that challenged me to be bad enough to save the president, despite seeing him saved many many times in both media

    • 12kill4 says:

      thus Bad Dudes is about a system for assessing, through repeated practical experimentation, whether the baditude of the player is equal or greater than the amount required to rescue the President.

    • allrpg says:

      well said. You just pawned them. :)

  4. Dan Dickinson says:

    He sets the bar ridiculously high (I don’t know of any games that match his criteria, regardless of the license) in his example, but it’s worth noting that Pride and Prejudice and Zombies was made into an iOS game.

    I think it only didn’t meet the “10 hours”, the “two planned DLC packs”, and arguably the “no repetition” requirement (although what game isn’t in some form repetitive?)

    • Wulf says:

      Actually, to make a more interesting point: What form of entertainment isn’t repetitive at some point?

      It’s an action movie, they’re blowing stuff up again.

      It’s a soap, that couple are shouting at each other again.

      Those two jokers in that book I’m reading are having a laugh at someone else’s expense, their story will end with their come-uppance probably, but until then they’ll keep at it.,

      It isn’t just games that suffer with repetition, I’d say that even the greatest non-game related creative story works, ground is retreaded. The only way to avoid that really is to keep the story VERY short, incredibly short in fact, but then how much of a story is it? If you do that, it’s more like a game–oh wait.

    • DrGonzo says:

      The other way to avoid it is to be surreal.

    • Kadayi says:

      The entire article is pointless flamebait tbh. His challenge is as meaningless.

  5. Sev says:

    Bravo.

  6. Frools says:

    What if you removed the prefabricated story elements entirely from our contemporary caste of mainstream electronic games? What if there was no written or spoken exposition or explanation at all, only what the player did? No linear story-telling and no dialogue? What would we have left?
    Almost every multiplayer game ever?

    • Koozer says:

      We would be left with Dwarf Fortress, the best game every conceived. FACT.

  7. MadTinkerer says:

    Games are about what happens in the game. Each game’s actual, real, story is about what happens while playing. Games don’t need to be about pre-defined narrative, and often too much pre-defined narrative gets in the way.

    What we need is better emergent narrative (nevermind trite branching narrative or good/evil parralel stories). Ways to interact with characters beyond

    1) violence

    2) preset “quests”

    3) shopping

    4) preset dialogue trees (though the actual general structure of dialogue trees isn’t a bad place to start)

    As well as more different things that can happen to and with those characters.

    In short, we need adventure games where the characters can break away from the narrative and do unexpected things. Or, put a better way, an extremely flexible potential narrative that still gently leads you towards an actual conclusion, but anything can happen along the way and many different conclusions are possible.

    Kinda like the original Maniac Mansion, but with more emergent behavior.

  8. Kast says:

    “What if you removed the prefabricated story elements entirely from our contemporary caste of mainstream electronic games? What if there was no written or spoken exposition or explanation at all, only what the player did? No linear story-telling and no dialogue? What would we have left?”

    Dialogue and text aren’t the only storytelling elements in games. Commentators often fail to recognise the difference between story and narrative and that story isn’t the only way to examine something important.

    The narrative is conveyed in almost everything a game is: textures, models, music, sound effects, the interaction of the player character with other entities. The world of Portal, for example, is told in the scrawled Rat Man messages, the disconnected red phone on the desk, the rusting metal walls and the pzzt noise as you pass through the emancipation field.

    For a game to NOT be about something you would have to present a uniquely bland, blank-canvas experience with neutral or non-existent textures/sounds/music/etc which in itself can say something about the world (think Limbo).

    So, no, games without stories maybe can’t interpret the subtext. That doesn’t mean they can’t have any.

    • Jim Rossignol says:

      Yes, I mostly agree with that. I think the point I am trying to make is that descriptions – visual descriptions in films, textual descriptions in books – are given primacy because they can be “read” and interpreted in a way that lends itself to story-telling.

      Games are generally about something, but it’s not necessary they be interpreted in the same way, and doesn’t have to lean on dialogue or exposition to make it so. The author of that piece wants to compare them to movies and books, I say compare them to gardens or rollercoasters.

    • Ignorant Texan says:

      Or porn(Which, if my admittedly faulty memory serves me correctly, grosses more than the recorded music and ‘legitimate’ film industries combined).

      I read the piece twice, and incoherent may be a mild term. Why do I have the feeling he’s a comic book/gamer geek who’s having trouble with girls?

      And, what is this concern with ‘mainstream’? Video games are still relatively young, ~1/5 the age of cinema, and practically a zygote compared to books. 75 years from now, this argument may be worth having, but aren’t we a bit premature now?

    • lokimotive says:

      Exactly. This understanding of story and narrative is exactly what seems to be lacking from many a discussion on narrative in video games. From the linked article:

      You can apply this to just about any game you can think of. Starcraft – everything happens because Mensk is evil. Red Dead Redemption – Marston wants a new life, but he has to shoot everyone to get there. Mass Effect – Shepard gots to save the galaxy. That’s it. Events certainly happen, memorable moments occur, but the overall plot is as one-dimensional as the stereotypical comic story (evil villain is evil, has plan, hero stops him). While today’s games are certainly more elaborate, the plots are still no deeper than that of, say, Doom (Demons. Over there. Shoot ‘em.)

      Sure, and Moby Dick is about a guy hunting a whale. And yet it’s regarded as one of the crowning achievements in Western literature. That’s not because of the complexity of the story, per se, but because of the events that surround it and the way it’s told. And video games are in the unique position to tell a story in ways no other medium has the ability to.

      I feel like games are all about the mise en scene. Sure Morrowind has a fairly simplistic good versus evil plot, but it’s how you find out about that plot and it’s the world that you explore finding out about that plot. Why people don’t realize that is beyond me.

    • DrGonzo says:

      @lokimotive

      Well done sir. You have said what I wanted to say but didn’t even realise it. In fact I’m now reinstalling Morrowind in excitement.

  9. Peter Radiator Full Pig says:

    Games minus stories=games.
    Tag, stuck in the mud, cops and robbers football…
    No stories. Just so with computer games.

    Then again, there are books with no stories.
    But i prefer most books with stories, and most games with one.

    The way i see it, a medium can almost be defined by its limits, and how people work with those.
    Words must describe, not show, and some do this better than others.

    Movies can show and shout, but you most use other techniques to catch a persons attention and hold it, as well as that most movies dont feature the internal monologue, you must get around that.

    Games can easily have words (as they dont have to be as arresting as movies) and shounds and pictures as well as interactivity.
    We need to wait a bit before we find out limits…

  10. Erlend Grefsrud says:

    This is close to my approach in game stories: They serve as part of the interface metaphor and a way of translating the abstract system of the game into symbols people can attach meaning to, a way of letting players parse the mechanics and the goals of the game.

    Personally, I feel that stories in games often serve to disconnect me from the game itself. Even if the game might be enjoyable, it is given a sour taste by the silliness of its characters or story — Modern Warfare is a great example. This is one of the reasons why I enjoy the Devil May Cry/Ninja Gaiden/Bayonetta school of storytelling: The stories are just about characters being badass, which is exactly how you’re meant to be playing the game. The story is a function of the gameplay, seeking to reinforce it instead of attempting to justify it.

    I believe that the art of videogames lies in the systems they consist of, the rules that encourage behaviours and set moods. Stories shape consciousness by merit of their symbolic struggles and the different subject positions provided by the central cast, games shape consciousness by means of its rules systems and the literal struggles they provide — the actual sequences of events that the player instigates through engaging the rules are seldom of a recognizably narrative form. There aren’t any structure to people telling each other about memorable events in GTAIV or Oblivion, whose meaning only exists in relation to the system of rules and the players’ interpretation or expectation of them.

    This is one of the reason why social games are actually exciting — by eschewing story outside the interface metaphor of the metagame, they actually allow better integration of multiplayer into the whole of the game, rather than merely being a slightly surreal attachment like in the Halo series. Granted, other titles like Counter-Strike or the Battlefield series escape surreality to a certain degree, but — after a fashion, and especially now that they often come with skill unlock metagames — they were always social, weren’t they? Low on narrative content, high on social interaction and non-narrative memorable events?

    The fixation on stories is probably just a habit. Since most creative output in our age is narrative (novels, cinema, television), that is simply perceived as the “correct” standard. We’re all rather conservative at core, and when “story” has meant “art” or “entertainment” all this time, we simply expect it. It’s a feature, it’s meant to be there; it’s what everything else is like. Even PR is based arround narratives — brands are meant to embody an arc, with the current image as the apex of an ideal development.

    Certain forms of story are seen as the high intellectual point of this culture, and games are expected to conform in being able to tell those kinds of stories, about pretty abstract themes of politics, spirituality and identity. Since games are based on predictable and coherently defined rule sets with a limited amount of variations mixed in at the presentation level, they will struggle to explore unstable concepts through its own form. Sure, the interface metaphor can attempt to juggle metaphysical topics, but likely it’s going to be external to the game itself, as uncertainty can only be exceptions to the core rules and thus contradict the traditional aesthetic of the rule set. Of course, it can be argued that traditional game aesthetics are pretty nerdy, and hence we have Heavy Rain and point-and-click adventures alongside interactive fiction.

    Bank holiday ramble, over.

  11. Valentin says:

    I think you’re looking at this from the wrong perspective. Unlike movies and books games offer immersion by allowing choice(even if it is a illusion). Some of the most fondly remembered games ever made were so great because they had a story, because they offered that extra level of immersion. Sure you can drop story altogether and in some cases it will work but what’s the point.
    I’d hate to live in a world where Psychonauts, Monkey Island or KOTOR didn’t exist.
    So yeah, what I’m trying to say is that gaming has become such a vast medium that it can cater to mostly everyone’s needs nowadays.

  12. Dreaded Walrus says:

    When I read the Games Will Never Be Mainstream article, all I kept thinking was “Brain Training”. Brain Training was the best-selling game of all time in the UK up until recently, and it goes against pretty much every one of the author’s points. It is not ABOUT anything (by his definition), it’s interactive rather than passive (contains NO cutscenes and only small amounts of dialogue), and so on. There was a lot of holes to pick in the article in my opinion, but it was still worth reading.

  13. Mr Chug says:

    The main thing that changes when a game is adapted into a film (or from a film) is the change in the amount of action. 10 hours of shooting in Max Payne distilled into a couple of firefights, for example, which demonstrates the difference in the amount of action expected from either. I think the same lack of story could apply to film, though- if a movie studio made a film consisting of 2 hours of mindblowing martial arts or gunfighting without any filling dialogue or justification I’d still pay to see it.

  14. Mark O'Brien says:

    @TCM

    Sorry if it came across like I was telling you to go read a book or that your interest in stories in games is misplaced.

    I should have said that I feel that _my_ needs for story are best served my movies and books. Just as I don’t buy my breakfast cereals based on the quality of writing on the back of the box, I don’t buy my games based on the quality of writing in the game. At least not primarily!

    I don’t think it’s fair to say that it’s laughable to suggest that story is not needed in games, however. As Jim pointed out, there are many games without stories.

    I think my favourite types of games are those in which the player creates the stories by interacting with a system rich enough to generate stories. I’m currently in a Civ 4 phase, and I find that that is a really interesting game partly because of it’s ability to generate an epic narrative about the development of a civilization over thousands of years.

    Similarly, I really admire Dwarf Fortress, but I don’t have the time or patience to get used to the user interface.

    I thought the story of Crysis was stupid, but it in no way diluted the enjoyment I got from it. I really like all of Crytech’s PC games, but I think the stories for each one are pretty stupid and irrelevant.

    I’m not writing to say that if you value stories, you’re wrong. I’m just writing to agree with Jim’s point of view that sometimes, for some people anyway, story is not a vital part of the medium.

  15. Rinox says:

    Maybe we will have to wait until the time there are engines capable of randomly generating stories (that make sense) before we can truly speak of a going together of story and game. I mean, if you are aware that your story is truly unique (or as unique as any real person’s story could be) I’m sure you stop looking at it the same way as you’ve come to do at movies/books/fairy tales you knew already.

    I think Chris Crawford has been meaning to work towards that with his Storytron engine, but afaik we are still lightyears away of actually achieving something that could be applied on a large scale and in a ‘modern’ game. Still, who knows what we might be seeing in many years.

  16. Robin says:

    Bravo x 2.

  17. Zwebbie says:

    Call me simplistic, but I tend to think that if you go for something, you should go for it all the way. That means that if you want to focus on something that’s fun to play, don’t be bogged down by a shoddy story (most people tend to play Mirror’s Edge’s time trials instead of the story mode), and if you want to tell a story, don’t let clumsy gameplay in the way (like in the case of pretty much every RPG ever). What we have now is that games try to be good at both story and game, and end up mediocre at both.

    Games like Tetris and Dear Esther show that you can go all the way, ignore the other side, and be successful in the end.

    • DrGonzo says:

      No, don’t agree with this. Planescape was made better by it’s gameplay mechanics fitting in with the story. It’s the merging of story and gameplay. Not focusing on one of the other.

  18. Berzee says:

    For most of my life I have mostly sought out games for the stories — like a perpetual extension of choose your own adventure or in some cases make your own adventure.

    Now that I am a happier and less mopey person, I find myself discovering the joy of clever game mechanics and needing less misunderstood heroes of lore to keep me balanced. :P

  19. Alex Weldon says:

    As a board game designer who freelances in various capacities in the video game world, I’d like to say that games will have an easier time gaining acceptance as art when they overcome their inferiority complex and stop trying to be more like movies. When I see people pointing to the most movie-like games as evidence for games-as-art, I feel like they don’t believe themselves that games are art, because they’re choosing examples that remind them of another medium more than they remind them of games.

    What makes a game a game is the way it plays, and any game designer can tell you that making a fun game requires creativity, cultivated instincts, flashes of inspiration and lots of hard work and experience, just like painting, or writing a screenplay. Limiting our discussion of games as art to the narratives is like going to the art gallery and describing everything by what it’s a painting or sculpture OF. “Yeah, it was totally art. One painting was of some sunflowers, and there was another of a man and a woman in front of a farmhouse, with the man holding a pitchfork. And then there was this sculpture of a guy sitting with his chin on his fist. There wasn’t an orc or a space marine anywhere.”

    Visual art outgrew its obsession with representation a long time ago. Then it outgrew its obsession with being non-representational, and now it’s in a relatively mature state where artists can be representational or non-representational as they see fit. The fact that the mainstream games industry is still struggling for more and more movie-like plots indicates its immaturity. At least the indie scene is starting to dabble in abstraction and symbolism, albeit heavy-handedly.

  20. cliffski says:

    I just roll my eyes whenever I encounter the phrase “if games are ever to be taken seriously”. I don’t CARE if other people take games seriously or not. I enjoy them, they give me pleasure (and an income), and they make many people happy.
    Do the people who make Reggae Reggae sauce care if the sauce is ‘taken seriously’? I doubt it. At the end of the day, I’m aiming for people to be happy, and have fun, which I consider worthy goals.
    If you want to see what happens when recreational activities take themselves too seriously, just watch ‘the late review’. I dread the day when coverage of games descends into people with phds trying to out-smarm each other.
    Sometimes, you just want to click a mouse and blow shit up. Nobody should be ashamed of that.

    • Berzee says:

      But it can matter SO much just WHAT you’re blowing up. :P

    • Berzee says:

      I guess i should say “and it can matter” instead of “but it can matter” — since I’m agreed with you :)

    • golden_worm says:

      “Sometimes, you just want to click a mouse and blow shit up. Nobody should be ashamed of that.”

      And sometime you want to examine what your doing in a more critical way, and learn a bit about what it is you are engaging with, in this, your one and only real life. Nobody should be ashamed of that.

      That could be via a metaphorical story within the game, or a wanky debate about it afterwards. Just as discussing the artist and philosophical merits of Reggae Reggae sauce can be on a “Hmm this taste’s good” or a “what a exploitative marketing ploy” stance. Both have merits and limiting yourself to the surface pleasures is missing a whole load of stuff that underpins why we like what we like. Stuff that could lead us to more of what we like, or help us avoid the stuff we like, but that isn’t so good for us.

      TL;DR – it’s good to take games seriously, sometimes.

    • Adventurous Putty says:

      so much depends
      upon a blown-up starship cabin
      glazed with blood
      beside the white chickens

      –from “GAMES AS IMAGISM: POEMS”

    • Kadayi says:

      @Cliffski

      Agreed. The entire article seems like it’s another one of these god awful ‘Games are Art ‘ things, but substituting ‘Art’ with ‘serious’ and ‘about something’.

      Personally coming from an Art college background I’ve never seen the need for validation. He cites TV, Film and books as all being about things, but lets be brutally honest the vast majority of those media are just time killers as well, and the most successful examples of them (top grossing film, yearly best seller, most watched TV show) are generally pure entertainment vehicles. Consider Harry potter…is there some deeper meaning to it all? Or just all about a kid who finds out he’s a wizard.

      I think it’s entirely possible for games to convey meaning, especially ones that put you the player directly in certain situations that ordinarily you might not encounter. Daft article is daft.

  21. Berzee says:

    As to games being ABOUT something: there was a ballroom dancing game made for Ludum Dare, called “dancedancedance” or something. It basically boiled down to a projectile orbiting you, that you could fire at targets with the space bar. I’d have NEVER played it, if it was the same game but with spaceship sprites instead of waiters and spiffy dancers. Because of a mere graphical change and the story (the entirety of which is contained in that title, dance dance dance), I’ve played it for many minutes. :P

    • Berzee says:

      In other words, the graphics are part of the story too, so some of your examples of storyless games, I disagree with.

      (I am pretty sure I never liked Asteroids, Pacman, Space Invaders, etc, for similar reasons…because ghosts and aliens are not so exciting to me).

  22. Max says:

    I believe there’s a quote from John Carmack that gets thrown around often in a “look how stupid he was!” context that went something along the lines of “story in games is like story in porn: people expect it to be there, but it doesn’t really matter.”

    Honestly, though, I think it cuts right to the issue of what makes a “game” a “game.”

    I’d also like to take this opportunity to point out an excellent recent example: starcraft 2′s writing was borderline intolerable, but as a GAME, I found it utterly fantastic.

  23. Batolemaeus says:

    “We’d lose RPGs, but we’d keep The Sims.”

    I’m not sure I can agree with you there.
    Isn’t one of the greatest feature of games that they can be story building devices in themselves? See Eve Online campfire stories, the GalCiv2 diary linked early, pages upon pages of Nethack tales or the legendary Dwarf Fortress diaries. None of these stories were made by an author but instead evolved simply due to the interactivity of games. These stories never seem to be recognized whenever someone accuses games of being shallow. Of course you can reduce nethack to “look for amulet and sacrifice it”, but that’s hardly what the game is about.

    RPGs are no exception to this, at least in theory. Some of the most praised RPGs are fully embracing randomness and deviate far from the main narrative, if they even have one. But it seems this is always ignored.

    • Jim Rossignol says:

      Yeah, I mean you could keep the wandering about aimlessly part of Oblivion, for example, but most RPGs would die with their script.

    • Kieron Gillen says:

      Jim: I believe he’s talking about stuff like Torchlight, Diablo, Nethack, etc. Which all would get on fine without story.

      KG

    • Jim Rossignol says:

      Sure, anything based on repeated action/numbers would be just fine.

    • disperse says:

      I’m replaying Morrowind now and have to admit that its appeal is much more about the repeated actions and increasing numbers than the story or dialogue. The quest text serves to add flavor to the various tasks (ahh, I’m being naughty by stealing that book) but more or less ends up as a to-do list.

    • DrGonzo says:

      Did you two just deliberately misunderstand what he was saying or did I miss a joke? Torchlight is simply clicking on things.

      He’s talking more about Civilisation and the feud that develops between two nations are a few thousand years of being neighbours. None of which is written by anyone and possibly not even reflected in the game itself. But it is a completely unique story and imo far more effective than a written story.

      I couldn’t care less for FF7 which people claim is an emotional story etc. A story that has been created from you playing and not scripted at all really could have that impact that the death in FF7 is supposed to have.

      I realise this post is pretty illegible but I’m tired. So myeeeh

    • Corbie says:

      Jim said: “Yeah, I mean you could keep the wandering about aimlessly part of Oblivion, for example, but most RPGs would die with their script”

      Icewind Dale would be playable. Both Baldurs gate games. Fallout. Sure the narrative motivation would be gone but the other drive in RPGS (to level up, crush your enemies and hear the lamentation of their significant others) would still be there. MMO’s, most of which are nominally RPGS would be grindy-fine, how many people actually read the quest text after all? I’d argue that story, even in RPGS, doesnt make the game, just makes it better.

      It would kill adventure games right enough. I cant think of anything else that would make me want to spend hours trying to find a use for a glowing lump of coral or a rubber chicken. Maybe that’s my failing. :-)

      /Corb

  24. Tei says:

    Is possible to write a meaninfull videogame. I almost write one, but I am too lazy to finish it. Its was about economy, space exploration, ecology, friend and foe classifications and what you call home, and pure luck… but I am too lazy to finish it.

    Puzzle Quest make something possible: by giving a big context, it make a puzzle game meaningfull. So here is a key element to make games meaningfull, embed then in a another game, use the matrioska escape route.

    All of this, this article, the articles linked, make sense for me, but we are not seen everything, all the tricks, of what videogames are capable of.

  25. Face says:

    This topic must be in the air these days. Gamasutra ran an article recently by a game writer about some of the problems of game narrative-as-it-is-currently-practiced, which was interesting enough on its own, but the real highlight for me, and something that stuck in my mind all week, are a couple of mega-comments posted by another designer, a guy named Tadhg Kelly. Recommended reading! A sample:

    Excerpt from the article’s author: “…A game can be fun without a good (or sensible) story, but a good story with terrible gameplay is an outright failure….”

    Kelly’s response: “Exactly. If you excised the story from most modern games, or reduced the transitions (cut-scenes etc) to as short a length as possible, in most cases there would be no loss at all. Why is because all they are actually doing is diverting attention. Having just played through Starcraft 2, for example, the game is just much sloppier in its transitions because they wanted to tell a story, produce expensive CGI sequences, and so on. The original game managed to do a better job of setting the scene and moving along the action with simple briefing screens because they were shorter, more relevant and more efficient.”

    His ultimate point is something along the lines of “…the writer’s job in game development is essential but it is not a storytelling job” because “what games are is a worldmaking medium, not a storytelling medium. They share a lot more in common with visual arts like paintings and sculpture than they ever did with storytelling.”

    And I know, I know, I know: we all have our favorite “heavy story” game: Mass Effect 2, Planescape, one of the old Lucasarts adventures… I wouldn’t want to do without those stories either. But Kelly’s point stands. Like Jim said, games are really about what the gamer is doing moment-to-moment. “The problem for game writers trying to make movie-style plots is that the player’s attention is always focused on what they are doing rather than what the game script is saying. This tendency gets worse when a game’s action becomes intense. As the challenge increases, aesthetic elements either fall away or become irritating: The player wants to concentrate to gain their epic win, and they really don’t want to hear about why NPC X’s drug habit led him down a dark road at just that moment.” Unless the writing is so incredibly excellent enough to distract us from the narrative of our own actions, we really would be better off without that cutscene, wouldn’t we? And even if it is that excellent, the writing isn’t exactly, entirely working in concert with the GAME, is it? It’s something else. It’s its own thing: a parallel entertainment, running in concert with the game. That can be great! And it can make a game (Portal) great! That doesn’t mean that the worth of games can be measured by the quality of their scripts, their CGI, and the voice acting.

    This resonates strongly with me just now, as, having been a gamer since I was tiny, I’m reaching the limit of my ability to swallow one more cutscene trying to imbue pathos into my avatar’s quest to shoot all the man-shaped figures in the game at their tippity-top-most point. Yes, I appreciate a good story. If the story can be told in the way that Valve, in Portal, told a story (in the background, out of my way) I good with that. But what I want to do is to PLAY. Maybe it’s time to get a DS…

  26. Xercies says:

    Story – Games = No John Walker

    And that would make me sad :(

  27. allrpg says:

    I cannot stand the ‘go read a book’ argument. Only morons say this. yes, I dare you morons.

    Stories are important aspect of video games. I’ve been playing games since 2001 and I’ve never bought a game with a pathetic story. I always read reviews before buying a game, after all it’s my hard earned money and I want perfect entertainment by spending it.

    Visit any gaming sites and you will see top rated games are always a perfect package of good story and graphics. Number of graphics-heavy games are rare and I only say that FPS games fall in this genre. But even today’s FPS games are telling short stories between missions.

    • Ignorant Texan says:

      ‘Visit any gaming sites(sic) and you will see top rated games are always a perfect package of good stories and graphics’.

      Or, the power of advertising dollars.

    • allrpg says:

      @frightlever ,

      Puzzle games are for kids, oldies … real gamers play FPS, RPG, RTS etc. But even few puzzle games has sweet short stories hidden in them … portal anyone? I hope you won’t say Portal is a simulation or RPG.

      Racing games! You argue for racing games? Are those called video games? I am sure you need time to be mature in terms of hardcore gaming.

    • Arathain says:

      “Puzzle games are for kids, oldies … real gamers play FPS, RPG, RTS etc.”

      Gather round everyone, and see. It’s one of those Hard-Core Gamers we hear tell about.

    • Pod says:

      @allrpg

      You attempts to be some uberhard leet gam0r are completely nullified by:

      a) Only having bought games since 2001
      b) Claiming that you’ve “never bought a game with a pathetic story”
      c) “Visit any gaming sites and you will see top rated games are always a perfect package of good story and graphics.” — because no hardcore gamer ever accepts the AAA as actually being any good. Eesh, everyone knows that.

      Anyway, I put it to the audience that if you’re not a troll, then you’re a 16 year old who’s only ever experienced “story” from movies and TV shows.

      GO READ A BOOK. :)

  28. zoe01 says:

    My favourite games of all time are all story-based. TLJ, Dreamfall, Planescape: Torment, Sanitarium… just to mention a few. Stories give the games meaning in my eyes. With a good storyline and characters you can emotionally attached to games. And for me, that’s a very importaint thing.

    You can tell really, really great stories in almost every medium, and games are not the exception.

  29. bill says:

    Interesting article. And a valid point. Games (in theory) don’t need stories at all – they have other elements to model and involve – whereas books and movies without stories would be nothing.

    That said, I find that I never continue long with games without stories. The gameplay might be great, and the art and everything else might be amazing – but if it doesn’t have a story then once I stop I probably won’t go back to it.
    Then again, i’m the same with some non-fiction books. Even if i really enjoy them, if i get distracted I might never remember to get back to them. But if it’s a fiction book I’ll read it compulsively to the end – even if it isn’t good.

    Others seem to be different though, judging by the success of Civ.

    PS/ I’m not sure I agree about losing RPGs. Seems to me that for most CRPGs the story is filler. It’s basically about collecting loot, grinding and building your character. Many CRPGs are just diablo/roguelikes with the pretence of a story built on top. But if the core element was the story then we’d all finish the main quest quickly and save the world – rather than spending all our time buolding our character and doing side quests.

    • bill says:

      Another example would be the many flash games linked to on RPS. I’ve tried lots, and many have great ideas, very original and clever, and i’ve enjoyed them – until i got stuck and gave up.
      Whereas when i got stuck in Portal or Braid, I persevered because I wanted to find out what happened next.

      I’d have enjoyed portal without the story/characters – but i might not have finished it. (or i might, as it was short enough).

  30. Soobe says:

    Very simple fellas, its all about the ladies.

    Now you guys may know some video playin’ gals, but I sure don’t.

    Most girls, as far as I can tell, could care less about our favorite hobby. When you combine this with the fact that playing video games, by the very nature of the task (holding controller or worse(!), a mouse and silly keyboard), isn’t seen as a ‘manly’ diversion like say, working on a car or similar–well, you get a bit of a stigma–and perhaps rightfully so. Their are other things you could be doing with that time instead of playing games, like making money, doing bills, and so on.

    The final straw, and again, your experience will vary, is that it’s hard to share our hobby with others, especially in a social setting.

    I will put forward a very simple example–this past weekend I was at a party. My friends wife invited two very cute friends along, two girls I had not seen before. I get along fine with the ladies, but during a camp fire chat the thought, (independent of knowing about this article mind you) suddenly occurred to me–

    In no way, shape, or form, is my video game playing helping me with these ladies, nor will it EVER. In fact, it almost hurts, as the time spent with video games, enjoyable as it for me, constantly pits me in a world of fantasy and violence the like of which is far beyond the interest of the lovely women in front of me.

    Their are rarely any points of interest or places the two worlds meet, and even if they did, unlike say, working on a car or being a sports junkie, playing games–again–either doesn’t produce results a woman can see or use, or isn’t considered manly enough, simply because our media must cater to young and old in a way that exposes us to being childish.

    Again, it’s all about the ladies : )

    Until video games cross that boundary of being considered a manly diversion or something that can actually improve us or produce some sort of goods, we’ll always be outcasts.

    • golden_worm says:

      Re: Games are childish. I think its better to think of games or gamers as childlike, not childish. Children have a lot of good qualities that games can reflect and promote, like insatiable curiosity, willingness to experiment, and unbridled imagination. Childish seems to only invoke the negative traits like tantrums, naivety, or emotional underdevelopment.

    • Xercies says:

      I’d go even further in that you can’t really talk about games with them unless there really obvious ones like gears of War and the like and what can you talk about to them. At least with films you can talk about a whole host of things depth or no depth to be honest. Books are the same(though I’ve never had a women like a man reading a good book ;) )

      In fact probably one of the reasons i have pretty much regulated gaming nearly completely is I have found the social side of things in uni and much more happy going down the pub/talking to friends and chatting to the nice ladies then being on my own playing games.

  31. deneb says:

    Both the article and this response made for some good reading. I want to chime in with a couple of things myself:

    - The “games are interesting because X” argument: This is a really common point and it keeps surprising me every time I see it made. How about: Games aren’t necessarily interesting and nor do they have to be. Something like Modern Warfare 2 is as pretty uninteresting as it gets. If you were to ask a MW2 addict whether they found MW2 “interesting” that person would agree with me – he/she would just shrug and continue on with the killing. The flow, the immersion within a game, the experience, whatever, does not involve a conscious acknowledgment of how the game is interesting. Talking about such a thing is I think self-indulgence reserved for those who talk and write more than they play.

    - The “games are models” point is really the most crucial. The advantage of movies (and let’s stray a bit far from the Hollywood blockbusters) is that, similar to what the article is saying, the viewer has an easier time relating to the experience. The fact that the visuals are photorealistic, the actors very real, and also that making a movie at its core just involves camera, lights, and editing, is a great contrast to the experience of games.

    Games alienate. There’s no game that can fully convince the player of its photorealism. that can convince the player of its world’s (or a little more formally, domain’s) believability. It’s demanding of the player. It demands to be taken seriously. I think it’s a real problem with some developers that they try to cover up the fact that games are really about making models and that the models are extremely laborious to make and often very very incomplete. And I’d say that’s why titles like MW2 or the annual sports games are so popular: Simple premise, easy to relate to, and never particularly grandoise in their claims. They are confident in their identity as diversionary games. Compare that to something like adventure games.

    Even keeping all that in mind games still lose because the average person has no idea how games are made and how to make them. I really believe that’s relevant. The audience of a film can appreciate the mastery of a filmmaker while viewing the film, or understand his/her motivations for shooting the film. A game will never elicit that kind of reaction because beneath the always imperfect presentation there’s nothing readily understandable. It’s mystical, incomprehensible. There’s no camera, no lights. There’s source code, shaders, unit testing, art assets, development meetings. And when your audience has no clue how all that stuff works they are going to be expecting simple things: Like a diversion, fun, stablility, etc. Just as well. They pay sixty bucks for your at-best-uncanny-valley game and are hoping to be entertained above all.

    I’m pretty sure I could write more but I think the above paragraphs might have degen’ed into word soup by now…

    • Thants says:

      I don’t know why a MW2 fan wouldn’t find it interesting. I though the single-player did interesting things involving dramatic, film-like set-peices within the context of an FPS. Even the No Russian mission was trying to do something different and interesting, whether it was successful or not.

      Saying that games are alienating because they’re not photorealistic seems pretty silly when animation has been around forever. I think non-photorealism and people having no idea how they’re made applies equally well to 3D animation, which could hardly be more mainstream.

  32. bill says:

    I wonder if there will be a change in the whole “human brains crave stories” thing. The internet is already changing how we think – we can’t concentrate for long, we can’t read long articles or paragraphs, we try to do dozens of things at once, and flick between them often.

    I wonder if later generations will even be able to sit through a book. Something more immediate like team deathmatch might be much more appealing.

    Even the great defender of books over games, Roger Ebert, admitted that these days he has trouble concentrating for long enough to finish a novel. Imagine what kids raised on a diet of twitter and the web will be like.

    I still crave stories over games – but I wonder if we’re the last generation that will do that.

    • Ignorant Texan says:

      I’m a bit more sanguine about it. I’m sure when printing first appeared, people were bitching that it diminished memory and the act of active story-recreation by the teller and the listener. I think the need for narrative is hard-wired. Any thing new is a threat to established things, I’ll bet there will be a variation on this discussion in 10, 100, 1000, etc years time.

  33. Pilou! says:

    I think that The Sims pretty much sums up everything a game should be. It’s completely sand-boxy and lets you play it in whichever way you want. You create the story of your sims in your mind while at the same time, in the most recent iteration, you are able to complete quest-like objectives like in an RPG. I think more games should take some of its mechanics.

    But after all, I think that the ultimate game will be the one that gives you many, many options, alternatives, customization, so no gameplay will be the same and you would be free to do almost anything you want in it and not be forced to follow what the game designers want you to do. And it may include an amazing story too, as long as you are not forced to follow it. It should be completely optional. And procedural stories and dialogue trees would be amazing too. There’s nothing worse than having to listen to the same conversations when replaying a game.

    When we have more freedom in games, and when the emotional and cognitive interaction we obtain from them surpass the current state they have, they will undoubtedly have to be called art.

  34. Cooper says:

    The ‘problem’ here is ineraction.

    Interaction doesn’t kill off the author, nor make narrative impossible, but it does add emergence to narrative, and a level of variation (the same game twice is nothing like the same movie twice).

    This is the major difference games offer to film, books or TV. Something not really encountered prior other than through improvisational and audience engaging theatre and performance art. And it’s not like theorists of games are looking to the history of interactive art mediums. They probably should though.

    The question of ‘interactvity’ is a huge subject of debate in the arts world – so much deliberate blurring of artists and audience, of authoship and engagement. The idea of emergent stories (which we most often see from games hen we share our experiences with other gamers) is central to interactive art. There’s a rich body of work out there that I rarely see critics of games-as-art or games-as-narrative engage with.

    Sure, games are not pieces of interactive performance improv. But the changes they bring to traditional understandings of audience, narrative, and authorship are commensurate.

    I don’t think stories are supplementary to games. I would argue that what we understand stories as is driven too much by a theatre andwriting based narrative culture.

    You hit it on the nail when you mentioned technology and language. There is a world outside the text (Derrida was misquoted on that, nevertheless, the distillation of the spectrum of human experience to language and textual metaphor remains a widespread problem). And the uses of technology bring so much of that to the fore. We’re gonna have to break out of such reverence for the written word and formal spoken language before we seriously get to grips with the importance of physical, material, bodily interactions with technology so many of us have day in day out. Part of that importance is a serious disruption of the single authored, repeatable story with passive audience as the pinnacle of cultural form.

  35. Vinraith says:

    I’ve always preferred games that let me create my own story (very open RPG’s, grand strategy games, RTS’s with meta campaigns etc) to those that want to tell me one. There are a lot of shades in between, of course, and there are exceptions to every rule. In general, though, the more freedom to create my own narrative a game affords me, the longer I’m likely to play it and the more I’m likely to enjoy it.

  36. Lacero says:

    Too much to say and I’m too busy to do the topic justice, but no discussion of story in games in complete without referencing the bbfc study into games. In fact very few discussions of the way people approach games are complete without referencing it, but these things get forgotten or absorbed into the collective.

    http://www.bbfc.co.uk/download/policy-and-research/BBFC%20Video%20Games%20Report.pdf

    Ordinary gamers seem not to get very
    involved in stories, in part because they do not care much what happens
    except in so far as this affects either the excitement of the action, or their
    progress through the game

    Interestingly it seemed that professionals (reviewers mostly I think) had a very different take on the importance of story in games.

    With a few striking exceptions in
    this sample, notably among the professionals, it is a sense of progression
    through the game, as distinct from a strong linear storyline, that is
    appreciated.

    I know when I’ve been playing with people who, lets say, are more removed from the development efforts they always hammer the skip button on every cutscene. So in fact a lot of games do have no cutscenes, as far as the audience is concerned.

  37. tomeoftom says:

    Games are a set of rules, with a means of telling the player their current status in the game, and a means for the player to make decisions in the game. And that’s the most you can ever say about it without omitting from the definition some obscure genre or one-off experimental piece, (which are, obviously, just as vital to understanding games as anything else). The degree to which the experience of playing the game is exclusive the player’s consciousness depends upon the degree of agency afforded – this ranges from a perfectly linear story to a perfectly open sandbox/toolset. There’s a third layer to consider, too: if you could replicate the exact experience of a playthough of a particular game and copy-paste that into someone else’s mind, that person would still be able to apply a completely different interpretation of events.

    THERE! I’ve solved discussion of videogames.

    Oh, and the rule for art (so we can stop this nonsense): if the creator says it’s art, then it’s art; it’s up to you to decide whether it’s good or bad art.

    (Truth be told, this still leaves room for discussing whether a toolset-game can be art. Say an author of such a game says theirs is art – how much of the end-result experience is the work of the author, and how much of the player? Does the player consider their involvement art? Does that matter? Is the author claiming the art lies in the /guidance/ of the player to use the toolset in an interesting way? Does /that/ matter?)

  38. Sam Goldwater says:

    Isn’t part of the problem the lines we’re drawing for what one might call the ‘narrative veneer’ of a game? To an extent there is no escaping communicative aspects of an interactive system, even when the the cut scenes, animations, texture, audio and geometry are taken away. We naturally extend cultural associations to a rule set as soon as we are introduced to it.

    In this way I would argue that games systems are always about more than just the systems and processes they portray. The art of design is in the ability of a system, through its rules, to convey more than itself.

    The /rules/ of single player Modern Warfare 2 are, in a sense, as dumb as its veneer – the rules are of simple domination and projectile based destruction in one linear geometry space after another. It would be difficult to interpret a book of the rules written out in cold numbers in any other way than violent, right? What else could it be? Entities move on one side, they project entities that have a negative effect on a limited value assigned to you and when hit enough times the game stops. You perform the same activity toward those entities to progress.

    The veneer then, in this case could be as high or low minded as you like. This rule set could be applied to a game about Lars von Trier defending Antichrist on Newsnight, or a simplistic depiction of a world conflict. Either way the system is shallow – dependent on single minded, moment to moment domination.

    It could be argued that Stalker’s rule set defines more about its world than MW2 does for its own. The variables, the scale, the difficulty, the long as well as the short term considerations, the diversity of what could be described from the rules as ‘adversaries’ – all these aspects point it toward something that may even remind us of its source material. At the very least, the lonely hunter gatherer narrative is embedded in its rules.

    What would The Sims remind you of, deprived of everything outside the interaction code? Wouldn’t it still remind you of family life? You’d at least appreciate the comparison as soon as it was drawn. The joy and popularity of a system like The Sims I think is the natural ease of analogy the system makes to an idea of banal western life, and how its challenge element furthers the analogy in sharply observed, often witty ways.

    A more considered, ambitious approach to communicative analogy through the interactive systems of games (note, not the same as more complicated) will be essential for more culturally significant games in the future.

    For example, I don’t doubt that it’s possible to make a game of David Simon’s mini series, Generation: Kill. But it certainly wouldn’t be under the mechanics of Modern Warfare 2.

    • tomeoftom says:

      @Sam Goldwater

      I can only commend you for that comment – a really, really important idea communicated perfectly.

      “It could be argued that Stalker’s rule set defines more about its world than MW2 does for its own. The variables, the scale, the difficulty, the long as well as the short term considerations, the diversity of what could be described from the rules as ‘adversaries’ – all these aspects point it toward something that may even remind us of its source material. At the very least, the lonely hunter gatherer narrative is embedded in its rules.

      Yes! YES! This is the crux of the aesthetic elegance games can achieve, and, I suspect, the standard by which a (*shudder*) Citizen Kane of games will come to be judged.

  39. PASTRIES says:

    “perhaps we need to relent from the idea that stories are genuinely what makes games interesting”

    its not necessary to relent – i can’t even take that seriously as an argument in the first place. the burden of proof is ridiculously far on the side of those who claim that stories make games interesting… i mean, i can’t think of a single culturally significant game that relies heavily on story. in fact, if anything, it seems that a top-heavy narrative is the kiss of death for a game!

    and, no, bioshock is not culturally significant – i’m talking about true cultural phenomenons like pokemon, mario kart, poker, tetris, basketball. games that are truly ubiquitous.

    • Sick n Tired Of Mythical gamers says:

      Sorry, can’t agree. Your opinion is full of fallacy. Those games are meant for kids and old people and casual gamers at most. Hardcore gamers don’t play these pathetic games. one more thing, I’m sick and tired of mythical gamers who says old games were better than today’s game, classic games, etc etc. Go ahead play those games, don’t utter BS in our ears.

    • golden_worm says:

      “don’t utter BS in our ears” – and “Hardcore” gamers probably shouldn’t go round waving your fallacies in peoples faces. It just sounds wrong.

    • golden_worm says:

      and “Hardcore” gamers probably shouldn’t go round waving your fallacies in peoples faces. It just sounds wrong.

    • golden_worm says:

      fiddlesticks.

    • Mo says:

      This is exactly the point I wanted to bring up. Most ubiquitous games are focused on mechanics, not storyline. In fact, you missed out on a major one: The Sims. Similarly, other sim games like Civilization, Sim City and Rollercoaster Tycoon were quite popular with a more mainstream audience when they were released. All have a couple of things in common: minimal story, simple controls, but complex mechanics powered by very complex simulations. “Dumbing down” games is the real fallacy! Mainstream audiences can handle *far* more than we give them credit for. The bottleneck is in the interface.

      Developers who target the mainstream audience should focus on making controls more accessible, but maintain a similar level of complexity mechanics-wise. And instead of mimicking film-style storytelling, they should emphasize the primary strength of videogames, that is, mechanics triggered via interactions.

      You can see this in indie games such as Braid, World of Goo, and more recently, Limbo.

    • PASTRIES says:

      wow, Sick n Tired, thanks for the thoughtful rebuttal. i’m assuming you’re a troll (who uses the words ‘hardcore’ and ‘casuals’ seriously in 2010?) but just in case, let me try again.

      when the story in the game, whether that is simple old fashioned plot or an elaborate atmosphere or (shudder) environmental storytelling and AUDIO LOGS, has more weight than the actual actions of the player, that is a turn-off. to cite an obvious example, the disastrous heavy rain told a very poor story from the player’s perspective. i pressed X, then i pressed O, i watched a cutscene, moved around, pressed X again, etc. from the perspective of the characters in the game, there’s a rich, well-animated and lush story unfolding.. but since the player has so little to do with that story, boredom/frustration/hostility arises

      the game of poker, on the other hand, doesn’t tell a story. there are no characters, no plot points, no cliffhangers… but when playing it with people, your actions and the actions of your opponents create a tense back and forth drama in which the consequences (whether or not you’re playing for money!) are vastly more dramatic and rewarding than pressing X to jason, or to harvest a little sister.

  40. Patrick says:

    “Your opinion is full of fallacy. Those games are meant for kids and old people and casual gamers at most. Hardcore gamers don’t play these pathetic games.”

    This opinion is the of the all-to-common kind that helps ensure that video games will never go mainstream. Keep on weedin’ out those casuals and reinforcing the walls of your little society, though you should realize that no one really wants in.

  41. Cinnamon says:

    It’s obvious that techniques borrowed from other areas can add something to games but if the core of the experience is not an enjoyable game then there are definite problems for me when it comes to spending my time playing when I could be doing something else. Like reading a book, for example, since I love reading novels and time spent joylessly playing bad games for dribs and drabs of story telling doesn’t seem like an efficient use of time. When I was younger I didn’t see any problems with playing games just so I could see what the graphics and music were like in the next level was or to find out how the story developed but now I have a better idea of what I like and the buzz I want from games is the quality of the game itself.

  42. Jachap says:

    This article essentially articulates something I’ve been struggling with for a while.

    “Modern Warfare 2, as Mr Barrickman points out, is about shooting people.”

    That’s the crux, isn’t it really? Even that comment overstates the medium. MW2 is not about shooting people. That’s like saying Tetris is about building construction. MW2 – like most shooters – is about shooting targets, a constant shooting gallery of moving targets. In singleplayer, this is literally true, it’s essentially as sophisticated as those fibre optic shooting ranges you find in amusement arcades or heme parks. Heads pop up, doors swing open, people jump out with timed precision. Multiplayer is ultimately no more advanced.

    A game which was actually about shooting people would only require you to shoot one person.

    I actually find it preferable when the storytelling is kept to a minimum. Nothing reveals how stunted the storytelling in games is when each pained and tortured protagonist, each anguished cop or reluctant criminal and every “good” character I’ve ever played in an RPG has to blast his way through thousands of opponents to progress the story. Morality normally boils down to which side you kill, you’re a mass murderer regardless and the choices offered are basically as sophisticated as selecting Red or Blu at the start of a game of TF2 .

  43. Arathain says:

    Well written, Jim. An important subject well handled. I think the idea of true gaming narrative arising form the player’s interaction with the rules of the system is a great way of considering this stuff. Thinking in this manner may better highlight the level of narrative that is inherent to the system itself, and can thus be better understood in the development process.

  44. tom says:

    This sounds so much like some of the lectures i give at UNI its freaky.
    Its often easier to look at other creative forms that can be perceived as art and ask where the story is in them (cooking has rubbish stories).. This is even more obvious in the case of a lot of traditional (and particularly abstract modern) art. I dont think people particularly admire mondrian, rothko, pollock, for the narrative. The may be seduced by the story behind the creative act, but rarely by the experience of ‘story’ in the act of viewing. This to me is one of the bigger problems with the games/art issue, its nothing to do with story within the games but more the story outside them. Game production is generally anonymous, under shallow developer identities and rarely has the auteurs or crazy geniuses of more accepted art practice. People are traditionally interested in the drama of the individual creators, not the share prices of arena net.

  45. negativedge says:

    Fuck, even books aren’t about stories. Some people need to use that brain of theirs to think instead of jack into the blogosphere

  46. malkav11 says:

    Subtract story from most games, and you get a pointless exercise in basic mathematics or a context free shooting gallery, both of which would bore me to tears.

    Hell, I demand story from my -boardgames-. It doesn’t have to be a deep story or particularly exceptional, though that’s always nice. But it should inform the themes and design of the gameplay. Arkham Horror, for example. The Lovecraft Mythos source material is baked in from start to finish. Sure, there’s practically no traditional narrative to it, just snippets of adventure text that aren’t joined together in any way and brief backstories on the reverse side of character sheets. But a game where you do exactly the same things but instead of facing Shoggoths and Cthulhu you’re passing numerical tests against abstract numbers and arbitrary victory conditions would be hideously dull. And a game where you’re basically playing War except the suits and numbers on the cards have been assigned to specific Lovecraft critters would be equally pointless.

  47. xscoot says:

    But, that’s not true at all. Deus Ex, Planescape Torment, Morrowind, and Silent Hill 2, some of the best games of all time, have heavy emphasis on story.

    • PASTRIES says:

      “Deus Ex, Planescape Torment, Morrowind, and Silent Hill 2″

      by what measure are those some of the best games of all time? they certainly aren’t the most popular, or longest lived…

    • capital L says:

      Following up on PASTRIES point: Most of the video games I can think of (PC or otherwise) that have interesting stories seem to be less mainstream than the average game. What does that imply for this theory that games aren’t mainstream because of a lack of story?

  48. Mman says:

    Well since this part managed to come up here I’ll pretty much slightly tweak what I said in the sunday papers:

    I found this strawmanning of various game stories to try to make his point about them not being about anything the worst part of the article; in particular, trying to say that Red Dead Redemption and Mass Effect are nothing more than “Marston wants a new life, but he has to shoot everyone to get there” and “Shepard gots to save the galaxy” (sic) respectively is such a ridiculous abstraction of their stories to make a point they’re pretty much trolling (although admittedly in ME’s case the themes are more in the side-stories than the main one). The article has more of a point with Modern Warfare 2 and Starcraft 2, but even they have some small degree of underlying themes (although in MW2′s case its predecessor handled them much better).

  49. Hank says:

    Minecraft (thank you, RPS, for posting about it) has a wonderful story; mine. It captures the spirit of how I approach LEGO bricks. I am grateful there are only story-element components rather than pre-built narrative.
    That said, I agree with previous commenters about Morrowind and am thankful for its well-developed and enticing story-scaffolding.
    Humans live for stories, whether they be epic (RPG) or momentary (FPS); one of my best vid-game memories is from Desert Combat, swooping down in a chopper to rescue some beleaguered comrades.

  50. Carolina says:

    Some stories demand to be told. There’s your Rosebud, Mr. Ebert.

    • Carolina says:

      On a more serious note, I wanted to point out that while I generally agree with Jim on this, I can’t ignore the fact that some of my most cherished experiences with videogames came from their plot, even if it was thin as, let’s say, the Prince of Persia one.

      I went trough all those pits and mechanical jaws because there was a princess in peril, and I can remember myself as a little girl, thrilled during the sword fights, sad when I saw her despairing in her luxurious cell, and utterly happy when I —SPOILERS— finally defeated Jaffar and rescued her.

      I wouldn’t remember it as fondly as I do today if it weren’t for the story. I enjoyed my Bad Street Brawler or Budokan just fine, but without an emotional response elicited on the player, games are just diversions, as Jim correctly pointed out; sometimes they even can be awesome diversions, like PvZ; but I believe games can be much more than that, just as I believe that movies can be much more than just Ben Stiller’s comedies.