Wednesday 8 February 2012

Games Good Stories Bad

This post is part of a conversation with Mary Hamilton and Si Lumb. You should read what they have to say, because it is very good indeed.

This is a quick post I’m going to write in THIRTY MINUTES OR LESS (including pictures and captions but not proff-reading) - or your money back!

This week on Twitter, UKIE’s CEO Dr Jo Twist (she’s not that kind of doctor) asked which games had made us cry. The answers were mostly along the lines of ‘none, ever’. A few weirdos proffered up answers like Ico (it does have a brilliant, bitter-sweet ending I suppose) and GTAIV (which has the worst story/game integration of any videogame ever made and I still assume the suggestion was straight trollin’). Then the question opened up to be ‘which games made you feel empathy’ to which the answer was an even more unequivocal ‘none, ever’.

My name is Bender, please insert girder

You can’t have empathy with yourself. Officially, empathy is ‘Identification with and understanding of another’s situation, feelings, and motives’. With another. When you’re playing a videogame, it’s you making those choices and decisions, so you can’t have empathy. Even when bad things happen to other characters in the game, the scaffolding of game that the story is impaled upon still makes empathy very hard to come by. 

In passive media, you never have a personal influence on the outcome of anything. You know the story will play out a certain way and you are there just to experience it. The limited range of carefully chosen interactions you have in a game means that you are put in a strange position of having some control over the outcome of events - which prevents you from being a truly passive observer - but often (and quite deliberately) not enough to change the outcome of serious, pre-determined plot points. So when your dog dies or an innocent is jailed or someone is wearing a truly awful blouse, you can’t really feel for them because the mechanism that provides these moments to you is the same mechanism that prevents you from doing anything to prevent them.

I’m sure I’ve done this before

Games can create great stories, don’t get me wrong. But they are largely incapable of telling great stories. Games are about interaction and agency, about choice and self-determination. One of the points made by fancy-pants French sociologist Roger Caillois
when defining what a game is, was that the outcome of a game must be uncertain. The result cannot be known in advance. When you try and tell a story in a game, you must break that rule, you must make the outcome of events pre-determined.

There are some games that recognise that there is usually a zero-sum game being played between the amount of game and the amount of story a videogame can offer at any one time and break that rule in interesting ways. Bastion is the obvious one, featuring, as it does, a voiceover that narrates your progress as you play, allowing you to have your gaming cake and eat your story too. Then there are more out-there games, such as the Grow game series, where playing the game is in itself discovering the story.

But most traditional approaches, where gameplay and story are fundamentally different acts and story guides player action, rather than player action guiding story, still feel like remnants of a misguided cult, dedicated to the act of beating very square pegs into the roundest of holes. If anyone if going to make me cry at a videogame, it will be me...