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Late to the party: games and stories

By Failbetter, May 27, 2012 · Tagged with ,

Nicholas Lovell recently kicked off a wide-ranging argument about games and stories on Twitter, and Tom Jubert just posted a characteristically articulate response which reminded me that I meant to say something about all this.

Let me set out my own stall first. Tom says ‘If games weren’t about stories we wouldn’t be shooting down space aliens or building civilisations; we’d be deleting sprites and placing squares that generate +5 of resource X.’ My instinctive sympathies are with Tom. I won’t really play a game unless it has a story. Even the most vestigial and rudimentary one. I stay up late to finish tower defence games because I want to know how the plot turns out.

But I realise this is not a universally popular attitude, in fact it’s arguably a mental deformity: and it’s easy to find examples of successful games with zero story. I mean hugely successful, Tetris-and-Bejewelled-successful. Dial that back to ‘basically zero story’ and the field becomes even wider. Audiosurf and Geometry Wars have some sort of metaphor going on, but it’s really not a story, any more than my daughter’s potty has a story because it’s shaped like a frog. (Tom also mentions chess: agreed, the flavour here is so strong that it really is minimal story. But you see my point.)

This isn’t a new argument. In fact I suspect by the time you read this, someone will have posted a comment about Tetris on Tom’s blog. I just revisited the Storify stream, and yup, a couple of folk made it right there. Most of the arguments around this subject are familiar, sometimes frustratingly so. Let me try to summarise some of the positions I keep seeing (most of which are there on the Storify stream).

PRO: Games should be about extrinsic stories, ie scripted events and cutscenes and plot, because Mass Effect and Portal and Kojima and Silent Hill and Deus Ex.

PROish: Games are all about intrinsic stories, ie the ones you make yourselves through gameplay, not extrinsic stories, because Minecraft and Left 4 Dead and Dwarf Fortress. And Deus Ex.

AGNOSTIC: Games are such a broad church that you really can’t say.

PRO: Games should be all about stories – that’s the only way they can be capital-A Art, because Dear Esther and Bioshock.

ANTI: Stories are a blight on games – they get in the way of games becoming Art, because Flower and Passage and Molleindustria.

ANTI: The things that makes games game-y is not story. [But the thing that makes films film-y is not dialogue. Dangerous road.]

EBERT: Games are a blight on stories, because stories shouldn’t be interactive.

RELIGIOUS/MILLENIALIST: Games haven’t reached their true potential yet because they’re a young medium, and when they do their stories will become either (a) brilliant or (b) irrelevant.

ANTI: Games can’t have stories, because of some hardcore purist antinarratological academic argument that I’m not clear whether it’s meant to be taken seriously as more than a mental exercise.

Okay, getting slightly frivolous. But if you have any interest in the games / stories conversation, you probably nodded at most of those and can probably suggest a couple more. These conversations often have a Groundhog Day quality to them, and I wasn’t surprised to see Tom title his post ‘GAMES ARE STORIES: THE FINAL WORD?’ Why do we feel we’re going in circles?

What sticks out for me in the list above is how much ‘games’ vary. And indeed that’s the meta-argument the conversation often reduces to, the agnostic one: that arguing about whether story is important in game is like arguing about whether gravity is important in science. But we can say meaningful things about that! It’s important in astrophysics. It’s not so important in immunology.

In the Twitter debate, Mary Hamilton called games “a delightfully rich and varied medium.” I’d go further than that: ‘games’ is so general a term that it borders on taxonomic incoherence.

We compare films and games all the time, but dissimilar films are much more similar than dissimilar games. Pick two very disparate films and two very disparate games – I mean works with an audience, not unknown experiments – and you’ll see how deep the differences between ‘games’ can go, by comparison. Men in Black 3 has much more in common with Andrei Rublev than SWTOR has with Dwarf Fortress. Floating Weeds has much more in common with Debbie Does Dallas than Fallen London does with Time Fcuk. But Fallen London and Time Fcuk were once both nominated for an award in the same category. (And I’m not even talking about board or folk or street or pervasive games, I’m sticking with computer games.)

So look, it’s a failure of taxonomy, not of enquiry. We keep orbiting this uselessly general word. I don’t think we need a new set of terms – we have a rich and current one around game genres and approaches. I wish we’d use it more often in this kind of argument. It cuts through a lot of tangles, and it highlights the real areas of interest.

For instance: ‘Single-player FPSs aren’t stories.’ Really? ‘CRPGs aren’t stories.’ No but seriously. ‘Match-three games aren’t stories.’ Well, mostly true, let’s talk about why Puzzle Quest is a rarity. ‘4X strategy games aren’t stories.’ You mean they’re intrinsic, not extrinsic stories. That works. ‘Browser games aren’t stories’ – okay, here we need an argument about terms.

I love that we’re still talking about games-as-stories. And it still throws up practical, useful points. But the conversation has acquired an understandable rep for circularity. Let’s get a bit fiercer about terms, and maybe we can spend less time talking past each other.

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Tony May 29, 11:55pm

Thats a usefully succinct summation of the arguments. Honestly I think we are hampered in this debate by a confused and limited vocabulary. But this is as much on the story side as the game side. Extrinsic and Intrinsic are useful words. Thank you. I find 'narrative' and 'theme' are a useful words too. For example, chess has no extrinsic narrative (designer driven), a strong intrinsic narrative (player driven), and a solid theme (war of kings).

MondSemmel May 28, 2:19am

Talking about game genres may be useful in this debate, but this has major issues. I think one of the Portal 2 writers talked about there being game genres (FPS, RTS) instead of story genres (comedies, tragedies - as in, games). This is often a helpful label: Tell me game X is a tower defense game, and I instantly know tons of information about this game, including most of the game mechanics, without ever playing the game at all. But that's also a major weakness: These labels instantly limit games to specific mechanics, don't allow crossover between mechanics, etc. I haven't played Brütal Legend, but the RTS elements of that game seem to have been a major issue with its commercial success (or lack thereof), for example. Essentially, if you start developing games with the goal of making a "platformer", you have instantly thrown away most of the potential for innovation and are left with tinkering. This tinkering often leads to great games (e.g. Braid, Super Meat Boy), but it can also lead to stagnation (see the gazillion platformers developed to cash in on the success of said games). (I don't care that much about the story in games debate, but the genre thing felt important enough to mention.)

John Evans May 27, 10:25pm

Personally, I think that the more we learn about this, the more we can try to create [i]new[/i] things that [i]might[/i] be really awesome. ;)

Little The May 27, 3:55pm

Personally I agree with you -- story is the most important part for me. If the plot is dull or nonexistent, the game just can't hold my interest for very long. Personally, I feel that game stories should be a mix of extrinsic and intrinsic -- have a plotted-out story, but make it interactive. Otherwise we may as well be watching a film. But I'm sure this argument has been made before, which gets back to your point about circularity.

Bridget McKenna May 27, 8:31am

The fantastic settings, the fascinating stories and the wonderful writing are why I play your games. I work in the industry, and often wish for more emphasis on good story and quality writing in games (could have something to do with the fact I'm a writer by trade...). You do it right, and I marvel anew every day exactly HOW right. -Miss McKenna