The Importance of the Player: Why Game Stories Are Mostly Bad

The latest episode of Big Red Potion brings up a point that I have been struggling with for a few weeks now: from a purely narrative level, the stories in the video games that I have played were all bad. All of them. Few even try for stories and instead prefer the player join in certain scenes. I may have liked characters in a game and had an emotional response from what happens to them — the fate of Eli Vance at the end of Half-Life 2: Episode 2, for example — yet never have I liked how the plot has worked out unless the story is from me. It is only when the game has allowed me to make choices and have those choices matter that stories have developed that I have experienced and not just read or viewed, the difference between a game and any other passive medium.

I have probably written over twelve thousand words about my ideas and research from playing Oblivion back during the summer. Yet, despite writing many of my own posts in the first-person perspective to detail the adventures my character was having, I was never the protagonist of the story in Oblivion. After my look at New Vegas, I have come to understand that Oblivion, along with Fallout 3 and New Vegas, are not actually about the player-character. Fallout 3 is about James. New Vegas, while harder to pin down, is probably about the companions of Courier Six. In Oblivion, the story is about Martin. How do I know this? He is the one who changes as a result of the story. It is only when he comes to understand his heritage that the main quest ends and the credits roll. His story ends the narrative. Or does it? I can continue to play after he makes his choice and determines his fate.

This is why players are important: without them, there is no story. It’s that simple. Games are a forward-facing amalgamation of languages, spaces and narrative bits. Players are perpetually the story catalyst, the item that does not change but excites change in the elements around it. This is why I think that understanding reader-response theory as it applies to video games is incredibly important. [More on that in the coming months as I finish some research.] The interpretations that arise out of the experiences, the record of the ethical or otherwise decision making during a session, is the story of a game. While a developer may set the pieces out or make them easier to fit together in a certain way, it is the player who completes the puzzle to reveal the picture of the game. The duty of the developer is not to tell a story but to make it as easy as possible for the player to tell the story to someone else, even themselves. The moment to moment play will be justified in the mind of the player, the reasoning behind certain choices over others. The better a game is at both allowing a variety of interpretations and even incorporating them, the greater a player can immerse themselves in the world of the game.

To go back to the example of Half-Life 2: who is the protagonist of that game? It’s obviously it should be Gordon Freemen. Yet, out of everyone in the events that happen, he has the least free will. Ignoring the fact that he is utterly controlled by the character, his fate is in the hands of G-Man, who can seeming take him from and put him into stasis on whim. Gordon Freemen, as player-controlled, must transverse areas that are linear, one beginning and one end. Everything is seemingly controlled to within a small range in which the player can act, with even that being an illusion too. With the the developer’s unseen hand ever at work, the player is pushed forward in the story of the game to the point at which Gordon is again put into stasis and the game ends. Who exactly is the protagonist then? It’s not Gordon Freemen. He does not change. No, it’s the player.

Half-Life 2 is praised as having one of the best stories, yet really has no story at all. It’s all illusion. No one changes at all within the entire game. Why then do so many people, including me, like it so much? It allows the player to tell a story with ease about their sessions. When a player speaks of the events, it is the player describing them, yet the actions the character made. A narrative is constructed from the tools the developer set aside and the actions the player took with them. Left 4 Dead was designed around this idea with some characters only speaking at random moments. Pass the same pipes in the same level dozens of times and only on the last time will one character remark to another about them. Valve is very good at creating the directed randomness needed so that each time is different and special, that each session is its own separate story. No choice really matters in their games, but all seem to and that is enough for most people. (Half-Life 2 is better at demonstrating what control means than BioShock is, something many people have overlooked.)

Of course, the opposite of Valve’s highly controlled approach is dangerous too. Open world games, ones in which player freedom and a large possibility set are features, would seem to be the best for people to tell stories. They can do whatever they want! Yet, sessions often devolve (frequently mentally) into just being a Space Asshole — “all he does is annihilate and fight.” Even with a story, there is a clear distinction between the official cannon over here and most of the actions of the player over there. Just because there is freedom, many games including Grand Theft Auto 4 seems to say, does not mean that we will accept your choices into our story. This means that while players can develop stories and live out scenarios, they are trapped in the personal heaven or hell that exists between character death and the next story beat.

By ignoring the player’s actions, as in most open-world games, developers are creating stories that exclude player input. They are telling a story but it is not about the person the character the player is controlling. This is how I feel about Oblivion, Fallout 3 and to a large degree New Vegas. Grand Theft Auto 4 is probably the worst offender in recent history. Even first-person shooters fail at this too. When was the last time a choice — other than what weapon to use — mattered to the story in a FPS? The reason most video game stories are bad is that they do not include the player in them. I am not making the case that developers should stop trying to add stories but they should know that without giving the player choices that matter on both the mechanic and narrative levels, the stories will continue to be bad, something viewed and not experienced.