A narrative, either true or fictitious, in prose or verse. Designed to interest, amuse, or instruct the hearer or reader.
Along with ‘why are we here’, the age-old questions of whethere videogames are art or a true storytelling medium have been thrown back and forth for over three decades. And as always with these kinds of things, there are two distinct camps. On the player one side we have the passionate defenders. Long in the tooth gaming sentinels who can wax lyrical on the merits of Kojo Kondo’s musical compositions or the ethereal beauty in classics such as ICO and Flower. They pine for the day when videogames are truly recognized as legitimate forms of expression in the cultural pantheon.
Then we have our player twos. Realists who aren’t interested in three act structures, monomyths, character motivation or mise-en-scène. No, for them a game’s only priority is to provide visceral escapism. A fun distraction from a bad day. In the past when I have been asked for my opinion on this subject, although never entirely fundamental, my view was one that leaned more towards player one. Recently however, I’ve had a crisis of faith. I fear that I maybe becoming a backslider. A secular heathen who has done the unthinkable and questioned the popular consensus of the gaming congregation. If you ask me now whether I think videogames could spin a truly compelling and memorable story I would say no.
Now before you throw me into the nearest river to see if I float, there is a caveat to my position. The rationale behind my admittedly prematurely conceived point of view came about shortly after watching the film Oldboy, a beautifully wretched film by South Korean director Park Chan Wook. A few days later, after seeing the movie for the umpteenth time, I bumped into an old friend whom I had not seen in recent months. As we quickly caught up with pleasantries, we decided to cancel the plans we had for the day and have a proper chat over lunch.
I mentioned that I had recently bought a Neo Geo, and had been spending an unhealthy amount of time playing Windjammers (1994), a Pong™ inspired arcade sports title by Data East. He grinned at the thought of me fused to a controller, captivated by the ‘Rolls Royce’ of consoles. Finally, I owned the machine we had both coveted for over 20 years. He excitedly mentioned that he had recently purchased Grand Theft Auto 5. I asked him what he thought of the game. He surprised me when he quickly told me that he had yet to play it due to him just finishing Red Dead Redemption on his PS3. Fueled by a large cola, he excitedly told me how much he enjoyed the game. The music. The epic scope of expanding vistas. Cheating while playing poker and a slightly disturbing obsession with randomly shooting birds and skinning armadillos.
Curious to know more I cross-examined him about the games story as I had not played RDR . His eyes shot up into their sockets as his brain attempted to recall the plot. He mumbled something about not wanting to spoil anything before recounting a stage that required him to capture an old gang member, a snake oil salesman and a dirty gravedigger.
He apologized for not being able to remember anything further, and remarked on how the game expertly captured the essence of the western genre, a graceful balance of the old west from masters such as John Ford and Howard Hawks, and more modern visionaries like Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood. Following his segue, I told him that I had been watching Oldboy again. He smiled, shaking his head in that ‘boy-oh-boy’ way. And for the next hour and forty minutes we got into a verbal rally about all our favorite moments from the film. The characters, cinematography and editing. More importantly, we were particularly animated about the film’s plot and story, each one of us taking turns quoting lines and acting out scenes.
Later that day we said our goodbyes and agreed to catch up soon. As I made my way home I began replaying the day in my head. Laughing to myself at the thought of our bad acting and contemplating how long we had been friends, when I realized how easy it was to remember the movie. Granted I had seen it the day before, but this just seemed to reaffirm what was emanating in my mind. A thought that made me feel like a traitor, but nevertheless I came to the conclusion that videogame stories are not only for the most part terrible, they are completely forgettable.
Yes I realize that if I think the stories are terrible, the fact that they are not memorable would be a blessing in the most fantastic of cosplay disguises. But even the story of the worst film can find a comfortable spot in your brain’s long-term memory more effectively than the best game.
But what about games like Uncharted, The Last of Us, Bioshock, Assassin’s Creed and Mass Effect? I will admit that these franchises have raised the bar with their application of cinematic craft to their storytelling. However, I am struggling to remember any significant dialogue beats or characterization from any of them.
The thing is, I don’t really have a problem with it. When I sit down to play a game I’m not expecting to be blown away by its performances and writing. A video game stimulates me in other ways. It’s a physical and mental challenge that is disruptive and requires me to remember enemy patterns, maps and power ups. Therefore I enjoy it in a completely different way in comparison to when I sit to watch a movie. That experience is passive. Something that is far easier for me to relate to and empathize with. I willingly suspend my disbelief and submit to being scared, thrilled, or appalled. Added to that, a game’s story is dragged out over ten hours or more. CD Projekt Red, developers of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt claim gameplay can last anywhere from 25-200 hours. Pretty hefty when compared to a movie or even a TV series. Unless you’re watching a Ridley Scott Director’s Cut or something by Lars Von Trier, with a movie you’re done in approximately two hours.
Plays, books, music, films and their practitioners have been around for centuries. They’ve all had a head start on videogames and so there will always be a natural affinity towards them. They’ve had time to establish rules, conventions and genres. Elements that are aped by games themselves, which brings me to my main point. Games are still evolving. Even its eldest statesmen and women are fairly young. My hope lies in the new generation of developers, designers and writers, the mavericks embarking on an intrepid journey to establish a unique identity, the ones that gatecrash conventions and tell rules to go fuck themselves. Then, maybe the next time I meet my friend we will be acting out and quoting a completely different story.