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Video Game Stories (are not really stories)

It can be hard to reconcile the two extremes of the debate about the quality of video game stories. On the one hand there is a growing assertion that video game stories have finally come of age. The stories are complex, multi-layered, and more importantly move the players with real and deep emotions. They have prominence inside the industry and story is now considered a major componant of any large video game project. They are art.

On the other hand the public still turns to more traditional narrative forms for their storytelling and critics are harsh in their judgments of the values of video games as artistic expression. They seem tacked-on, predictable, and stuck in an adolescent world of dragons and lasers. If the story is in the hands of the player how can it be art without the auteur vision of an artist? They are not art.

This divide comes from the fact that although games may fulfill many of the same functions as fiction and include fiction they are not stories or even narratives. They are experiences.

Although this distinction can seem like semantics it is at the core of a vast misunderstanding that affects not only the way society values the uses of video games but also affects the way that the "entertainment" industry attempts to translate video games into narrative media such as movies, tv, etc.


Games don't need stories

In a simplistic model video games can deliver satisfaction via the mastering of skills and the accomplishment of measurable goals sometimes in competition with other players. This does not require any story or narrative elements at all. This requires direct involvement and action. We try, fail, and finally master skill after skill and task after task. There are no games in which we do nothing. We must be acting on some level just like in most narrative forms (movies, books, plays) we are generally passive and unable to act directly.

As we play (do) games they become long complicated activities. The result is that we experience them much closer to how we experience our reality than to how we experience narrative.

So why is this distinction important?


You had to be there

One major reason is that activities do NOT generate stories. They generate events. The distinction is important if we are judging the "stories" of video games or trying to translate a video game experience into a more traditional narrative format like a movie or transmedia grouping. For instance driving across the country is not a story. It is a personal experience. It might be a moving and meaningful experience but we would not call it a narrative [Editors Note: All experiences might in fact be a type of story/narrative but not in the traditional sense we are discussing]. However a traditional story can be constructed from the elements of that experience. It's a little easier to see it the other way around. There are many movies, books, and stories about road-trips but they are not roadtrips.

This applies equally to video games. Your experience may be emotionally powerful and personal but it is not a story. It is your personal experience. It could be turned into a story but it is not one yet.

This is why when gamers talk about their adventures playing games to friends and family eyes may glaze over. Even other gamers rarely care to hear the story of "then I got to that large monster I've been trying to get to and my group and I killed it" or "I figured out how to take out the tank with a hand gun! It was amazing. It happened like this..." Of course it felt emotional. If you have put sixty hours of your life into the game, when the tower finally falls, or the last boss goes down, it is not because of the plot that it feels so good. It is because you have accomplished a goal that you have put all of your considerable talents towards for a full week. You WON! That feels amazing. That feels emotional, and it is... but not really because the plot has moved you.

The reasons for this are complicated but quite simply the goals of fiction and reality are different. The player is having an experience not creating one. If I am playing the game Romeo and Juliet saving two young star-crossed lovers is a great goal. But is it the best story? Games are trying to provide an experience not a story.


But aren't there stories in video games?

Sometimes. But much of what people assume is "story" is actually more like "framing" or justification for the action.

A simple version of this is Angry Birds. When Rovio initially play-tested the game people became distracted by the fact that "the birds" or more accurately "the players" were trying to annihilate harmless defenseless pigs. The action of crushing them over and over maybe seemed a little psychotic. So they created the justification or framing that the pigs were "bad" because they stole the birds' eggs. So the player is justified in their building-toppling pig-squishing crusade. It is similar to setting up a game of pretend. "I'm playing Spider Man and you're playing Electro". These are more in the line of instructions or scenarios used to further the action and/or game.

This means that the stories in games are not generally related to the experience of the game-play. They are "around" the game-play. This is crucial when exploring transmedia narrative spaces and translation.

As the framing gets more complicated and uses more and more stories to frame the action it can get confusing. But it is obvious to anyone who has ever written for video games and other traditional media. Fiction in games must be written around the game-play and never interfere with it. The process is very very different.


But video game writers write don't they?

To underscore the different approaches let's use an example of how game writers have to tell stories versus how more traditional media authors tell their stories.

Let us take a common game playing skill that is the core of hundreds of titles. It's "jumping". Really it's not jumping. In fact you could consider calling it "jumping" to be the first level of storytelling or framing. Imagine a great game where the game play is built around jumping. 40 to 120+ hours of jumping. Now you have to create a plot based around something who jumps a lot. Maybe he is a jungle explorer and has to jump over pits and swing from vine to vine. Maybe she's an international thief who has to jump from roof to roof and over enemies and traps, or maybe (more sensibly) it is a magic plumber who collects cold coins and mushrooms from boxes.

How many script writers sit down to write a script about jumping? How many great novels have been written around jumping? How many playwrights have decided to cripple themselves by imposing a limitation that their next play must be written around a character that must jump every five seconds? Of course someone somewhere out there might be able to do it but that doesn't change the fact that by their nature games don't start with stories; they start with game-play and that leads to very difficult hurdles for writers.

The problems don't end there either. Game-play must be varied with increasing and repetitive challenges. Levels, bosses, alternate paths, interactive dialog, and over 40+ hours of constantly changing content. [editor's note: I have written on some games and it may be one of the most challenging writing environments a writer will ever face. This is just a sampling of the stumbling blocks a game writer must endure. Any writers feel free to chime in.]

This is all to make the players experience satisfying.


To the Critics and the Producers

Transmedia producers and those trying to create traditional media from video games need to understand that the back story and all the other "writing" that goes into video games is much less important than the emotional experience of those playing the game. Much of that writing is written around the experience but it is not the experience. The experience is where the magic is. Don't translate the framing, the writing, or the costumes. Translate the experience.

This is what games do well. This is why they are dominating popular culture. Games don't simulate experience they ARE experience and a great game can create an actual experience of sadness, loss, joy, or wonder through the creation of an artful situation. For all their setbacks games have an almost unfair advantage in affecting us viscerally.

Knowing how games arrive at their goals and what they are really doing should help critics to evaluate games based on their true goals. It is not important that they have "great stories" but that they create emotional and satisfying experiences for their players. Those can not be evaluated by reading the backstory. It must be experienced. There is no way to evaluate or critique the success or art of a game without experiencing it. The experience is the measure of a game. For those games that aspire to art this is the way they will be judged. Does the accomplishment resonate, does it complete the player, expose them, let them grapple with their inner demons, inform them, inspire them? Does the environment created lead the player into an experience that will change them? Does it let them explore themselves from the inside out? The stories in games are merely tools and not products in and of themselves. The experience is everything in critiquing games and understanding their amazing impact on us.