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.

Matthew Schanuel

About Matthew Schanuel

Matthew Schanuel lives in Boston, Mass. He's a beer aficionado, a game player (and designer!), an academic-in-exile, a DM, and, most recently, an employee of a financial non-profit. He draws the comic Embers at night over at http://embers-at-night.tumblr.com/