essay, video games

A Set of Scenes

Even after my own post on why games are not stories, I guess I should have expected that others would agree with me too. It’s not that I felt I was in the minority on this claim — which I do indeed think — but more that I thought that many others would simply not bother to think about the problem or just say that games can tell stories or that games can be stories in that people can play through a narrative. What I did not expect was support from an author who is arguing my point but from what I feel is the wrong angle.

Over on CVG is an interview with Christopher Fowler where he asks the question of “[W]here can a game take a book?” only to then suggest that more books should be games because “Hollywood’s cowardice [of avoiding one-off books, epic tales] can become gaming’s unique strength.” He goes on to talk about how important Greek tragedies are to the process of making a story, the “the hero/ine has a flaw they can’t see, and that flaw gets exploited by enemies.” Yet, he concludes on the same point I did: “[H]ow could a book ever become a game?” because “you [don’t] really get the one thing you most wanted – freedom to participate and choose your course of action, not truly.”

We both agree that giving the player narrative options, the ability to change the course of the story or invent their own,fundamentally breaks the story telling process. You cannot tell a singular story to someone who can mutate the plot flow at any time. The very presence of the player is antithetical to the purposed narrative experience with valid paths — “more openings you have, the less powerful the tale is.” However, his solution to the problem was to remove the player completely from control and just give over the story to the character, “Games started embracing their stories and acknowledging [that the player has no real power or choices]. By doing this they opened up an incredible new vista for players. If you tell a story well, and then fill it with kick-ass action, you can have both a great time and enjoy a satisfying adventure.”

So, the way to move more books into games is to make it so that the player does not really matter? That every decision made by the player has been predetermined and the only real choice is that of a movie watcher, pause or continue watching (playing)? I don’t agree with that. I may not be happy about the ability of players to utter transform the experience of playing New Vegas, for example. I’m not thrilled with the idea that the player can dictate the plot and even what the story is about. I’m not happy about that.  But it does not means that developers should abandon making narrative pieces for players just to make more “kick-ass action” and linear pipelines for the player to walk down. It’s not about making the game look pretty. Just ask reviewers of Rage about that.

The most base level of making a game is to make it a set of scenes. The player transitions between these states like moving from scene to scene within a slide show. Press a button for the next slide, press a button for the previous slide. It is a narrative only is so much that the player reads or experiences the story as a transitional function on the part of the character that they are watching. The interaction is minimal or, if it exists at all, does not really matter. This, as a game, is the worst form of story-telling. This is making a book into a game by just adding a set of buttons for the player to press to get the next story beat for them to consume. This is not what the best games allow for a player to experience. It should be more.

The reason that making a book into a game is so hard is that the player should have some input on how the story turns out and that means accounting for branching paths, basically writing multiple stories and adding all the necessary animations and video for those options. This is a great deal of work and why many games turn into just a singular story where the main choice presented is how quickly the player can learn some techniques or master some variation of timing. It’s the later that I think Christopher Fowler is talking about. He wants the player to have choice in battle but not story, to tie the player’s hand to the mechanics and limit the total depth that the player can achieve when working on the narrative as well.

Then there is the paragraph of “a Hollywood maxim that says the best movies come from short stories. Well, of course they do! A movie is two hours, tops. A game can go the distance to reflect the entire novel, with all of its loyalties and betrayals, eccentric minor characters, twists and turns of plot.” What? I don’t disagree that short stories are the best at adapting to movies, they are the epitome of telling a story in a condensed form. However, thinking that players will experience the “loyalties and betrayals” of even the protagonist is stretching it in the thought that people will “play” that situation and still understand it. People would be watching a movie or maybe even a series of cut-scenes that show these things. If you divorce what the player is watching and what the player is doing, it introduces a dissonance that many of the first games tried and failed — you have a movie and a game, two seperate things.

The most troubling quote of the entire piece is this: “[t]here was never a moment when we didn’t think if this as a direct reflection of the novel.” We are talking about the game War of the Worlds. The same game where he says that “the first big shock is how much more faithful it is to HG Wells than either of the two movies.” Yet, he also says that “we upped the ante” by “setting the story in 1953” and instead of Martians, it’s “faceless alien[s] with one simple aim, total extermination of the indigenous race.” That is exactly like the story, right? Maybe the developers changed the story in the same way that a player might, exchanging one branching path of the story for another more interesting one.