This post was written in response to Ian Bogost’s article here: https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2017/04/video-games-stories/524148/.
Let me point out that I highly respect Ian and his work, but since my bailiwick leans toward narratives and visual development, I felt he missed a few points and would like to respectfully respond.
Story is essential to games.
The linear progression of an idea from point A to point B to a logical conclusion lies at the corner of almost every single type of gameplay. In order to build a game structure, a progression that most people will understand right out of the box, you’ve got to structure it as a narrative of some stripe.
Most games have a beginning, a middle and an end.
When Ian sketches out the difference between the “narrative” of the game and the “environment” of the game he seems to be putting forth the idea that, by building your story into the world you are thereby doing away with the need for narrative. But that story is still needed to inform those design decisions, in order to maintain consistency throughout the design of multiple environments, multiple levels, a narrative is required. The artists and designers need a story that will steer the design choices they make so that the entire game fits together in the mind of the player.
Even when it comes to the mechanics of the game, the key component that makes a game “fun” and “compelling” the narrative is important with regards to how the mechanics are presented to the player. The player, ideally, never sees the math. They see the UI, the visual (and story-centric) elements that allow them to run those mechanic. Without an overarching narrative to guide those decisions, you get a series of “really cool” mechanics that may never quite come together into a whole. You get a “meh” experience that loses it’s lustre fairly quickly.
Even puzzle games like candy crush benefit from the addition of a story. As cheesy and clunky as that narrative may be it’s still provides an essential path for the player to follow. It allows them to get the satisfaction of “completion” in a game that will truly never have a conclusion.
Remember when Computer Generated Imagery first became a big THING for film? It stumbled and staggered quite a bit. It INHIBITED storytelling in a great many cases, it broke the suspension of disbelief that decades of practical effects had honed to a believable experience. Filmmakers leaned on the tech too hard and gave up good narrative in favor of vertices and ray-tracing. It took Toy Story finally push through the idea that you can’t take the narrative design out of an experience. You can’t rely on the tech to tell your story for you, you can’t rely on the mechanics to make a game that will last longer then ten minutes.
The argument has been made that “narrative” games tell stories poorly, that they cannot compare to the experience that one gets from cinema, or television, or even reading a book. Games as storytelling art-form are still in their infancy. The technology has advanced, absolutely. We can build you worlds that absolutely look and feel as real as the one you are sitting in while you read this blogpost. But the use-cases for that technology always take longer to catch up. They need a breakthrough. We are still trying to find ways to keep a player’s focus on a linear story in a world that is so much bigger than what you have in books or film. Linear narrative is all about constraint and that is exactly where our problem lies. How do you keep the player following and interacting with a story when they can go ANYWHERE in the world you built?
The current example of games as simply linear narratives with player engagement is far too limiting. It’s too simple of an idea. It’s the easy road out for an industry that needs to pay it’s staff. The potential for games can, and will, go far beyond that point. We just haven’t made that next leap yet. It’s coming, someone out there, some grad student or assistant producer or overworked QA tester has it in them to make that leap. We are looking for our Toy Story, our IMAX, our Gertie the Dinosaur.
There are (as there always are) notable examples. The Halo franchise being the shining AAA example, but also on the indie-games front we have experiences like Undertale and A Night in the Woods that use simple graphics, simple mechanics but strange and compelling narratives to pull the players in. None of these games really have their “secret sauce” in the mechanics. If you take out the story, you can simply reskin those exact same mechanics with another world, another time and have an equally serviceable game. None of those titles would be the breakout hits they have become without a compelling story. A story so strong (in all three cases) that players are continuing to tell their OWN stories, to build new narratives in those worlds, to fill in the blanks left by the constraints of game design.
Is it possible to have a game whose mechanics are so good that players will be compelled to play it? Absolutely. They will play *that game* and go home. It will be swapped out by another mechanics driven title as soon as they get bored or frustrated. They are as interchangeable as the sneakers you have in your closet. But a game with a story drives loyalty, brings players into the world (and allows for multiple iterations) in a way that mechanics only games cannot. Players will forgive not-perfect mechanics if the story is compelling, if they have a *reason* to keep going. They will come back to a franchise and play something new even if those mechanics don’t get a significant update of change between story one and story two.
So, while games may not deliver pure narrative quite as cleanly as books or film or TV, I think saying that narrative is unnecessary is far too limiting a view. From the overarching idea that drives the underlying structure and creation of visual assets to the final delivery of your shiny shiny game mechanics, games are built on a narrative experience, and trying to take that out limits the experience for everyone.