What Games Are For

I’m a big fan of player-authored stories more than ‘let me take you by the hand and show you my story.’ There are much better mediums to do that in, I’m not sure why we feel the need to do that in this medium, because those are resources syphoned away from what makes special.

When I can walk away from a game like Battlefield and feel that I have lived a story, and then I have a story to tell, I’m going to tell you something really cool. But when I play a game and I feel like I’m being told a story and they wrapped it in a video game… why didn’t they make a movie? Why didn’t they write a book? It’s clearly what they wanted to do.”  –David Jaffe

I have to rant here. I am totally with Will Wright, and the truth is that video games should not have narrative stories. That’s not why video games exist. Video games exist so people can have their own stories.

L.A. Noire and games like that are just movies trying hard to masquerade as video games. They’re losing sight of the fundamental thing that makes video games as an art form different than any other art form. Authorial control is no longer in the hands of the author, but in the hands of the player. That’s the way it should be.” –Thomas Robertson

Jaffe and Robertson draw a divide here. On one side is the cinematic experience, in which the player is locked down in scripting and experiences relative helplessness as the story marches along. Much like the audience at a film, the player is not an active participant in the direction of what is occurring. Laertes must always poison Hamlet; else Laertes must start the mission over. They group such games with films. Game makers have no skill at films, they say; the medium is not equipped for such narratives, and must fail in the telling.

Then there is the promised land – the game which means freedom. The player makes their own role, forges their own stories on simple mechanical bedrock.

Jaffe speaks specifically of the organic stories of Battlefield, but I think of the hilarious happenstance that occurs at the height of Super Smash Brothers, a game calibrated to produce the “holy shit” moments that are the heart of physical comedy. Then there is the competitive story, found in sporting events, war stories, and first-person shooters. When my teammates fall and I still manage to defeat the opposing team, or my Mass Effect 3 companions drop out and I still defeat Wave 8 on my own, then I organically become the hero, just based on my own success against a challenge. It becomes a narrative of victory that shores up one’s own understanding of self-against-the-world, a mostly personal narrative that serves to establish identity – “I am really good at this game, and I pulled out all the stops to make the win happen.”

Robertson focuses in more intensely on a role-based, social narrative. His Artemis provides each player a unique role to fill, essentially an archetype to master and perform within a larger framework. Class-based systems do something very similar, and explore a very common social narrative: people have strengths and weaknesses, and if you perform your role well then the team will succeed. It becomes a public narrative then – you pull elements of the private sphere into the public, and one’s actions exist in a wider web, tell a story that is more true thanks to the benefit of outside observers.

Mechanics are the basis of these narrative models. They don’t need the sort of hand-holding narrative that Robertson and Jaffe push against. Both are concerned with a notion of story ownership. If the game developer owns and directs the story, then it becomes unsuitable for games; better for the game developer to create a stage and props for players to create their own story. Truly, even such minimalist approaches to game development rely on narrative context, on the stories that we share as a culture; these are the tools that every storyteller uses, even those storytellers who just arrange the setting and rules. For instance, “Opponents” and “Allies” is often enough distinction; we know what an opposing force is, and that it reflects well upon us when we defeat them.

Jaffe and Robertson are right. Narrative minimalist games are quite valuable, especially since no other medium can hope to explore them in near the same way. Interactivity is a powerful tool in sensing one’s own ability in a hero narrative, or experiencing one’s role in a group’s successes. But I also think they are very wrong. They both argue that this is what video games are for, that games realize their purpose in exploring only those areas that no other medium can. Jaffe’s claims that other games siphon the resources that should be used for making true video games verges on insulting (after all, one could argue that money should be spent on enriching the poor, or rewarding good deeds…). Both Jaffe and Robertson argue that games should focus on interactivity, and to the exclusion of other parts of an experience.

Why? I agree that there is very fertile ground for pared-down experiences that utilize mechanics and only mild flavor to great effect. Mechanics are certainly artistically powerful, and the role of interactivity in an artistic experience has hardly been exhausted. But is that what games are for?

I argue that games – and the wider category, art – are supposed to generate enjoyment, thoughtfulness, community, reflection. It is always worth reminding that, while distinctions between media are useful, when they serve as barriers to new work they become snares. Video games and movies, as media, are not empty vessels to be filled; they are nets that capture their component parts, so that we may better speak of a type of expression, but they are hardly pure terms. Media are defined by what they contain.

Many people have leveled charges of filmhood at games like Uncharted, and, indeed, the level of scripted events and choreography evident in the series, along with countless other nods, give it an extremely cinematic and blockbuster quality. I refuse to see this as a bad thing. I love Uncharted, its writing is fantastic, something that I laud and seek more of in gaming, and serves to engender both compassion for the characters and provide insight into human interaction for the player. I imagine Jaffe might argue that good writing is properly in the sphere of novels, but why draw arbitrary lines by content? Video games can be more than mechanics, though there is room for focus on those mechanically heavy experiences. Art doesn’t need to display mastery of a medium’s specific strengths in order to be successful or compelling, and shoring up the walls of a medium, though specificity is tempting, is not an end-in-itself. Media are constructions, and, ultimately, illusory constructions.

So, Jaffe, Robertson, thank you for highlighting an exciting space that video games can still explore; the artists are there to do it, and I expect we will see plenty of that sort of game to come. You also make a good point in that games should not ceaselessly parrot films and books, that the rules of a medium often matter, that even though games can adopt movie pacing and storytelling to some degree, there are so many things for sleek games, games that are just the skeleton of mechanics, to teach us, and I, too, encourage games like that.

But you go too far, and draw needless barriers between what video games are for and what they aren’t. Good games should ultimately be insightful and compelling. This is a measure I think plenty of “narrative” and “film-like” games manage at least some of the time. Keep in mind that films and books are also very diverse magisteria, and we could learn a lot from parts of those fields; I’d love to see a game of pastiches, or an interactive play, or a shooter that utilizes aspects of the 70s avant-garde film movement. If film critique is applicable to a game, fine; there’s no hard law separating the media. Mixing media is an exciting prospect! Fusion of forms can generate fantastic art.

There is still narrative ground to be explored in the gaming sphere, and I daresay there will always be such a frontier. Determining who “owns” a narrative is a messy affair anyway, and interactivity fudges that up even more. We hear stories, and we forget where we heard them, and we make them our own the instant we interpret the words and images. Even a storyteller who “takes us by the hand,” as Jaffe puts it, to show us their story can’t just ram his or her vision into our minds – interpretation always complicates things. There doesn’t have to be a sweet spot of control over the story, and video games are wide enough to handle thousands of approaches to storytelling.

What’s more, minimalist games aren’t nearly as capable of addressing certain situations as narrative games. As mentioned above, minimalist games must still rely on certain cultural stories that assert accepted truths. It is thus more difficult for minimalist games to, for instance, challenge the stories upon which they rely. Larger narratives have the complex weight to turn back on these truths and challenge them in a way that minimalist works can’t. This is just a single example of when an interactive experience that relies on narrative complexity, that exists somewhere between the control of author and player, might be valuable; an authored experience has the focus to delve. Narrative experiences still have plenty of value to uncover.

Though it can be fun and useful to talk about, we don’t have to get a handle on what does and doesn’t fit under the umbrella of “video games.” That word is going to expand to fit in new experiences anyway. And we certainly don’t need to determine what video games are for – game-players have answered that question already.

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