essay, video games

Games aren’t stories

As a follow-up to yesterday’s post on trying to define games as different various and sundry things, I thought I would state something that has been bothering me since my look into the divergent narratives of the recent Fallout games: I’m not sure games are stories. In the examination of the various endings and branches in Heavy Rain, Nick Dinicola over on Pop Matters highlights the same problem I was seeing. In his words, “you can’t recognize the inconsistency of branching plots if you only see one of them.” Yet, more and more major AAA games want to sell us on the fact that they are stories yet have decisions that branch into very different endings and themes. From the upcoming Skyrim to the next Mass Effect, players are promised narrative consistency that cannot happen.

See, I’m not convinced that knowledge of the unrealized realities, something Nick Dinicola at first bemoans and then accepts from Heavy Rain, is at all a good thing. By trying to approach the idea that a game, in and of itself, is a story we need some scaffolding in which to hang interpretations and various understandings of contextualized symbols within the work. That is, we can come to understand a story in numerous ways and through various frameworks, breed more and more interpretations by intermixing ideas, but there must be an understanding that the structure of the piece cannot change through the interaction with it. Books cannot change when read again. Movies are not mutated by the very act of watching. Our interpretations of the symbols and grammar of a work can change over time and often do, however, games in their very nature change every time we play them.

This is what makes games special and unique among mediums. The very act of a second playthrough or even replay of a single section creates a virtual world that is different from the last. Especially in the cases of Fallout 3 and New Vegas, these choices branch out from the very beginning and influence everything including an understanding of who the protagonist and even antagonist is within a work. Using the language of a game we can combine different elements and produce an output that is within the possibility space yet influenced by the individuality of the player’s actions and decisions. The very presence of a player means that an ongoing narration is taking place, if only within the player’s mind, to explain the choices made by the player and reactions of the game’s engine in return, communication using the game as a language. This means, of course, that stories arise out of games.

I may seem to land heavily on the side of ludogy and the study of games as just mechanics, but this comes from an intense love of narrative as a way to convey information. We learn and understand ideas better if they are stories. Be this as a function of culture or even evolution, we learn best through the use of frameworks that are dressed up in the form of stories. This is why, in turn, games use narrative methods as a way to propel a player through an experience. The mechanics of a game can be learned better if justified through some narrative in which our minds can understand. At a certain point in the game, for example, the player-controlled character completes a challenge and then he gains something that will help his journey as a reward. This makes more sense to us than the possibility that the developer just wanted to add to the noun-verb combinations. (It very well could have been the reverse circumstance.) Just because developers use this, however, does not mean there is nothing but narrative hooks, games can and often contain stories.

Games, like other mediums, contain entities that are not the player or even the protagonist. These characters have their own lives and functions and often change as a result of player actions. The influence of the player as a catalyst means that choices and decisions radiate out and often cause changes in the world. The protagonist, if not player-defined, changes as a result of the story, as the player understands it, and is a result of previous actions either defined or from the player. These character arcs are stories in and of themselves that are often dependent on the player. However, the major difference to understand is that the player is not part of the story. They are a director or even coach that can give orders and make decisions but never change as a result. A well-constructed story can elicit an aesthetic reaction from the player but this only comes about from an understanding of the language itself and not from the game contacting the player.

The systems of rules, sets of conditionals that run a game, allow for replay and changing outcomes and endings. This is why games cannot be stories. The ability for the encounter with a game to produce a different narrative per session or even replay precludes games from being stories. The very structure of can and often changes through interaction. This mutability means that games can be the springboards from which stories can be told — using the grammar or language of the mechanics and inputs — or even allow players to experience the story of characters within a work as a result of a player’s choices but never of the game itself. The very existence of choice, a necessary part of a game, means that individuality promotes differences that change even the simplest games from session to session.

The greater the ability of players to give rise to their interpretive  narratives, the greater the possibility space, the closer a game comes to being a simulation. This is why such diverse and socially challenging creations can be shaped out of experiences like The Sims and Minecraft. The less narrative provided, the more a player can imagine and write their own to fill in the necessary gaps in the interaction, bridge the communication. Introduction of any narrative, however, means that inconsistencies arise between the player and the game engine. This dissonance is diminished over time through learning the language of game and the player shaping their own narration of the experience through their learning. When developers add multiple far-reaching decision in a game, the only valid interpretation from a game must be the personal one from each player. Viewed as a whole, the collection of branching unrealized realities create a monstrous disharmony that distorts the perception of games enough to understand that the game itself, with all possibilities, cannot be anything but a space for a player to explore and create their own narratives from the journey.