When Games Matter: Why Games Aren't About Story

When Games Matter is a weekly exploration by Drew Dixon of meaningful moments in games. Operating under the assumption that games do in fact matter, Drew seeks to highlight those moments that have much to say to say about who we are and the world we live in.

If you have a story to tell, videogames might not be the best medium for you. I essentially agree with Will Wright (lead designer of Sim City and many other successful games) who says, “Games are not the right medium to tell stories . . . video games are more about story possibilities.” Before you list your the top 5 story-driven games that changed your life, think for a moment about what it is that you like about those particular games and what those games ask you to do.

When we sit down to watch a movie–we expect to be passive, when we sit down to game, we expect to participate in the action. We expect that what we do “in game” is going to matter. We like to play games because they engage us in ways that other media can’t. That does’t make games better or worse than books or movies, it just makes them different and I think the best games emphasize this.

Consider Bioshock, one of the greatest narrative-heavy games in recent memory. What makes playing Bioshock a memorable experience? It is not so much Andrew Ryan’s monologues or Atlas’ radio messages so much as it is a combination of those elements and your own experience of the world being spun by them. The “story” of Bioshock exists somewhere in between the expositional narrative being laid down by Ken Levine and company and your unique participation in it. Andrew Ryan is undoubtedely one of the great characters ever envisioned in a game. However, were it not for the hours spent defending ourselves from crazed splicers swooping down on us from the ceiling, learning how to best handle each Big Daddy, and determining what to do with the little sisters–Rapture would not come alive to us. The contrast between Ryan’s vision for Rapture and it’s actual state might be seen but it would not be experienced.

In fact, what makes Bioshock‘s story particularly memorable is that the game’s narrative breathed new life into the idea of the silent protagonist. Bioshock asks us to do a lot of seemingly mindless shooting but in the game’s climax–all that mindless shooting  makes sense. So many games require mindless shooting that it is all too easy to take such actions for granted–Bioshock highlights this and gives such actions weight and consequence.

On the whole, Bioshock isn’t particularly dynamic in terms of player choices. There are really only two: either save or harvest the little sisters. And yet everyone who plays the game will have a markedly different experience in the world depending not just on how they interacted with the Little Sisters but based on every move, bullet, and plasmid. Their experience will be colored by every sign they stop to read, every corner into which they wander looking for supplies, and every window out of which they look to take in their surroundings. Bioshock is a special game because of the tremendous detail devoted to each of these elements such that most everything the player does contributes to bringing Rapture to life and making the player feel like an essential part of that world.

So if a game is going to attempt to tell a story, it must do so in a way that significantly involves the player in its telling. This is why most game stories are terrible–because the mechanics (namely what you spend most of your time doing in game) do not add anything to the story itself–they are mere tack-ons or fillers to transition us from one piece of expositional narrative to another.

When Will Wright says that “games are not the right medium to tell stories” and that games are more about “story possibilities,” I think the Sim City creator highlights what makes games special. The best games give us a sense that we are making our own story and our place in that story is absolutely essential. Games engage us most when we assume a key role in that story’s telling.

About Drew Dixon

Drew is an editor at Christ and Pop Culture and editor-in-chief of Gamechurch.com. He is also a pastor, soccer coach, and writer. Drew also regularly writes for Think Christian, Bit Creature, and Paste Magazine. He has also written for Relevant Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @drewdixon82

  • Stevensukkau

    Amen! The medium is the message, period. And Bioshock has a clever way of making sense of one of the medium’s biggest hurdle-the silent protagonist. I haven’t played Bioshock two, but I can’t imagine they keep using the same trick. I am very interested to see how Levine and his team tackle the silent protagonist and exposition in Bioshock Infinite. Will they use audio logs again? Are radio dramas that play out during gameplay the best vehicle for story in games? Or just the easiest, most practical solution?

  • Seth T. Hahne

    @Drew – Interaction and participation doesn’t make games Not About Story. When Will Wright says something like “Games are not the right medium to tell stories,” it tells us less about games than it does about the kinds of games that Wright likes to make. He doesn’t make story games. He makes simulator experiences. And that’s fine for him. But for him to say that games are not the right medium to tell stories is asinine.

    Mediums are rarely as limited as the less-imaginative would believe. Machinarium tells a cute story that would not be as cute in any other medium. Morrowind tells stories that would not be as engaging in any other medium. Braid tells a story that wouldn’t be as interesting in any other medium. Shadow of the Colossus tells a story that wouldn’t be as tragic in any other medium.

    In all these cases, the story told draws its power from the experience had. These are each stories are empowered by their gameness. Story is as essential to these games as game is to their stories.

    I’m tired by all of the last five years’ argument between gamey-ness vs story-ness, as if the more thousands of words poured into the debate would ever create a tension that never existed in the first place. Some games are stories, and that’s fine and natural. Some games are not stories, and that’s fine and natural. And some games encourage experiences that become stories, and that’s fine and natural. This continued worrying of hands over whether story belongs in games is like creating an argument that books shouldn’t ever be non-fiction instructional manuals because look how good they are at telling stories.

    It’s baffling to me how this ever gained serious traction in the critical sphere. If it was one article five years ago and people chuckled dismissively and moved on, that would be one thing. But that fact that we’re still having this conversation, like across the realm of gaming fandom, is mind-bogglingly frustrating.

    @Steven – “The medium is the message, period.” How is this ever true? Like ever?
    ________________

    Note on silent protagonists. They are not a hurdle. They are not a problem. They are, in actuality, a story-telling device. Their aim is to put you more solidly in the role that you are playing. Those hands could be your hands. That crowbar could be your crowbar. When a protagonist says something to you, it’s not the character you play who responds. It’s you. You respond with that voice in your head and tell that part of the story yourself.

    You may not like the device and there may be games that make poor use of it, but there is nothing broken in the device itself.

  • Stevensukkau

    @seth

    ““The medium is the message, period.” How is this ever true? Like ever?”

    Bioshock is a great example. You pick up an audio recording of Andrew Ryan extolling the beauty and paradise that is Rapture, while you explore the hell that it has become. The message says Bioshock is great, the medium says it is hell. Which one is more powerful?

    It’s more complicated than that obviously, and I have a hard time wrapping my mind around the concept. It’s not easy to explain, but there are huge differences in what message you’re being told between reading the lord of the Rings, and watching the movies or playing the game.

    Like in Skyrim, why do I find it tedious to read the books I find while exploring a dungeon, yet I don’t mind reading something as thick with lore as The lord of the rings? It has something to do with the change in medium.

  • Seth T. Hahne

    I don’t think that’s what “The medium is the message” means. In the case you cite, the medium is videogames. Within the videogame, there is a narrative in place that is developed through three aspects: 1) plot (what happens to you as you travel from plane crash toward Andrew Ryan); 2) flashbacks (via the recordings); and 3) environment (what you observe in current-day Rapture). All three of these things contribute to the story and its only in their synthesis that you can guess at the authors’ intended meaning and only in processing that synthesis through your own experiences can you propose your own meaning. The medium (videogames) is not the message but merely the conveyance by which meaning can be accessed (i.e. without the videogame, the message would never reach you).

    Confusing the Andrew Ryan propaganda and the environment for the message and medium (respectively) is an incorrect proposal of what medium and message even are. It’s the medium that conveys both propaganda and environment to you, the player/reader. The medium is meta—outside the game’s contents—for it is the game itself.

    “Why do I find it tedious to read the books I find while exploring a dungeon?”

    Because you, as an individual, have an individual’s tastes and interests and yours don’t happen to intersect well with that aspect of what Skyrim offers. Don’t mistake your tastes and inclinations for a problem with the game.

    I find nothing compelling in the Jetpack Joyride/Rat on a Snowboard types of games that Rich enjoys. That doesn’t say anything about those games, their value, or whether they make “correct” use of their medium. All it says is that they don’t fit my own personal interests.

    We need to stop confusing our unique tastes for immutable critical law if we ever plan to have worthwhile conversation about games, their nature, and their future.

  • Steven Sukkau

    Oh, I think we’re misunderstanding here, let me try to do a better job of explaining my thought.
    What changes when a story becomes interactive?
    That is, does the way a narrative is delivered change its message? If they made Bioshock into a movie, would that change the way you experience the story? I think we would all agree that it does. But I believe that change is very powerful. So powerful, it can have an effect on the message. Does that kind of explain what I was trying to say earlier?

  • http://electexiles.wordpress.com/ Drew Dixon

    @Seth,

    If you read my column, I am not really saying games shouldn’t tell stories–I was probably a little too nice to Will Wright–but again I think my point still stands. Games need to strive to make us feel like what we are doing in them matters in reference to their story.

    Anyway–I probably shouldn’t have insinuated that I agree with Wright completely because I don’t but again if you read this whole column I am not actually making the asinine conclusion you think I am. I am really just saying that games have to strive to tell stories differently if they want to be compelling. I think given your examples we agree on that point.

  • Seth T. Hahne

    @Drew – Actually, I did read the article and mostly agreed with it. I took issue the Will Wright quote and didn’t think it matched what you were saying in the article. I in fact said Wright’s conclusion was asinine (because it is), not yours.

    Here’s something I will take issue with you on, though not strongly: “Games need to strive to make us feel like what we are doing in them matters in reference to their story.” The use of need there bugs me. Gaming is such a new medium that I hate to see us treating it prescriptively right from the get go. We don’t really even do that with books, which have a head start on games by half a millennium.

    I think that we can say that if a game intends to involve us in its story through our actions, then that’s fine. And we can judge it on how well it accomplishes what it sets out to accomplish. I can see other entirely useful scenarios where the story occurs wholly apart from your individual efforts intentionally and in such a manner that it never feels as if your interactions with the game are even part of the story—and that could be the games intentional meta-narrative.

    I think instead of talking about how the medium needs to direct itself in relation to the stories that wend through different games, we’d be better off talking about what matched our tastes and why. Boxing the medium in at this early stage doesn’t seem helpful to me and may prove the enemy of innovation.

  • Seth T. Hahne

    @Steven – Of course the way one interacts with a story alters one’s experience of that story. It doesn’t change the story but will shape a reader’s reaction to the story. This is evident in the fact that we praise videogame stories at all. Our gamer’s interaction gives us greater investment in stories that are universally weaker than what we’ve found in other mediums. (I don’t think this weakness is intrinsic but more a remark upon the kinds of people who are writing videogame stories.) The medium of gaming soothes our narrative criticisms because it offers added value. It’s the same reason we don’t hold Billy Madison to the same critical standards as we do The Godfather—we understand that we’re being delivered something in addition to story and that extra something may be enough to help us overlook weaknesses in the story department.

    What you originally said (Medium is the message. Period.) even goes beyond what McLuhan himself would have said. That was my objection.

  • http://electexiles.wordpress.com/ Drew Dixon

    @Seth yeah that is fair.

    I think my criticism applies mostly to “AAA” games but yeah I’d say that is a fair point.

  • http://daveden.wordpress.com David Kennedy

    I’m just thinking out loud, but we can enumerate the things that make a good story. Is it possible that the criteria for a good story in books are different from the criteria for a good story in games?

    A book, like a movie, delivers its story in a linear fashion. Every element of the story from the plot to the pacing is under the writer’s control. A good writer knows how to use these elements to create a good story. However, that same story in the context of a game could lose its strengths entirely since it relies on elements not found in games, or that are out of the writer’s hands. In a game, the pacing of the story is almost always at the player’s discretion, and often the plot is too.

    I think what Drew is saying is the criteria for a good story in games should include some level of player influence – whereas what Will Wright is saying is that games can’t have a good story, period.

    Seth, I don’t think that critically evaluating what makes stories in games good or bad is a dangerous thing. I think it can only help good games get better. For example, let’s look at Uncharted 3. My issue with the story in this game is that it was written for a movie. When you introduce player influence into the formula, the story falls apart. Nick Drake is a serial killer when the player has control, but when the player doesn’t have control Drake becomes completely helpless to stand up to the bad guy with the gun. To me, that makes this story a bad game story. It would probably be a fine story in another medium.

    Thoughts?

  • Seth T. Hahne

    “I don’t think that critically evaluating what makes stories in games good or bad is a dangerous thing.”

    I can think of no one on this site ever (not even that one guy Jason from way back when) who would suggest that critiquing story-value in games is a dangerous thing.

  • http://daveden.wordpress.com David Kennedy

    Sorry, Seth, that was the impression I got when I read “Gaming is such a new medium that I hate to see us treating it prescriptively right from the get go.” Drew was saying what makes a good game story. I thought you meant that we shouldn’t do that.

  • Seth T. Hahne

    Taking all of my comments in this thread together, one should clearly come to the conclusion that I value critical evaluation of game and story and the interaction of play and story. It’s all over my thoughts as laid out here. What the bit you quoted was saying was that we shouldn’t come to the discussion with hardset and established rules for a medium that is even now evolving. We shouldn’t apply shortsighted limiters on the narrative capabilities of videogames. To say stories in games should look like A and shouldn’t look like B as if such rules yet existed is a quick way to lead to an impoverished, ghetto-ized medium. That happened to American comics for fifty years and we’re only now beginning to see our way clear.

  • http://daveden.wordpress.com David Kennedy

    Looking back over your comments, I’d like to ask you about two specific things:

    “This continued worrying of hands over whether story belongs in games is like creating an argument that books shouldn’t ever be non-fiction instructional manuals because look how good they are at telling stories.”

    Can we at least agree that certain stories don’t belong in games? (I’m looking at you, Uncharted 3.) Certain stories just don’t translate well, and by that I mean stories that involve little to no player influence. Can we objectively call a bad game story what it is without creating “a tension that never existed in the first place?”

    “We need to stop confusing our unique tastes for immutable critical law if we ever plan to have worthwhile conversation about games, their nature, and their future.”

    Again, I just want to say that there is such a thing as a bad story. Also, there is such a thing as a bad game story. We can critically assess these things, and doing so doesn’t mean that we’re creating “immutable critical laws.”

  • http://thefeedbackloopmusic.blogspot.com/ Luke Larsen

    Awesome. YES YES YES. Relevant just wrote an article related to this, but seemingly glorifying the “story” aspect of video games.

    http://www.relevantmagazine.com/culture/tech/blog/28155-the-greatest-story-ever-played

  • http://followandengage.com Jordan Ekeroth

    Wow what a great, well-written article. Those guys at Relevant only publish the best stuff dont they? ;)

  • http://www.godatplay.com God at play

    I see what you did there Jordan :)

    When I see “the medium is the message” I think of a general concept that suggests how you deliver meaning is different in every medium. Every medium has a “grain” and going against it will work against the effectiveness of a message.

    What I think Drew is saying is that you can’t apply traditional storytelling to the medium of videogames. I guess I don’t see what’s so contentious about that… What Seth seems to be arguing about is tangential to the point I’m getting.

    Even the Will Wright quote…as a fellow professional game designer, I’m going to have to agree with that completely! You shouldn’t TELL stories in games. “Story possibilities” is a great way to put it; see Dear Esther as an example.

    An example of supporting evidence is a talk Jonathon Blow gives called Conflicts in Game Design. He visited a website that suggested a funny prank one could pull in the game Deus Ex. You grab an American flag and then carry it around with you. Whenever there’s an in-game cutscene, you place the flag right in between the two characters that are talking. It completely ruins the dramatic or emotional feeling you’re supposed to get from the cutscene (hence hilarity ensues).

    This example perfectly supports what both Drew and Will Wright are saying.

  • http://goodokbad.com/ Seth T. Hahne

    So you’re labeling Dear Esther as a negative example? Because that’s pretty much a to-the-T example of a game telling its story, a story that would remain insensible without the intrusion of the narrator’s overt references to what’s going on.

    “You can’t apply traditional storytelling to the medium of videogames.”

    But you can. Games do this all the time. Grim Fandango, one of the acknowledged best examples of the adventure genre, presents an enjoyable, linearly told story. Most adventure games do this as well. (Some better than others.) One of my favourite things about WoW is all the storytelling that goes on throughout the game—traditional storytelling too (whatever that means).

  • Steven Sukkau

    David Jaffe recently talked about this tension between story and gameplay. He says, “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 [video games] special. I love using the medium to express things that I feel and the team feels. If I had a story I needed to tell, I’d write a book,”

    That’s his main argument: each medium has different ways of telling stories, and video games are a very specific art form. “Video games have an interactivity and a language all their own. To respect that is to be honest with ourselves with what it’s good at and try to evolve that, and bring that to the table,” he explained. “That’s why we’re special, not to kid ourselves to think we’re movie makers. We’re not.”

    http://penny-arcade.com/report/editorial-article/david-jaffe-wants-to-use-game-play-to-tell-stories-and-he-isnt-afraid-to-fi

  • http://daveden.wordpress.com David Kennedy

    Seth, I’m curious about Grim Fandango, since I’ve never played it. Is the story told through cut scenes? If not, I wonder if the reason it tells a linear story so well is because it’s such a linear game. Maybe adventure games just lend themselves to traditional story telling methods a lot better than other games where the player has more freedom of choice.

    As for WoW, surely the story is told through cut scenes exclusively. Although I haven’t played it either, so I could be wrong.

    I’d like to suggest that, while cut scenes do provide a method of delivering a traditional story in video games, they “go against the grain” of the medium as the commenter above suggested. They are an attempt to force filmic narrative on interactivity, to borrow the phrase from David Jaffe.

  • http://goodokbad.com/ Seth T. Hahne

    @Steven – Jaffe can like what he likes, you can like what you like, Drew can like what he likes, and everyone else can be entitled to their tastes as well. What that doesn’t get at it a defense of why should games Not Be About Creator-Authored Story.

    Jaffe’s inadequate response is that games are not good at it. This is not an entirely useful claim because 1) some games are good at it—just not every game, 2) even if no game yet told a worthwhile creator-designed story through an engaging game, that would still only be anecdotal evidence from a selection of games designed by people who are still wrestling with the medium. Jaffe likes player-created stories. That’s fine for him. But to pretend like his own taste is the way things ought to be is him wearing sillypants.

    @David – Neither Grim Fandango nor WoW deliver their stories either exclusively or primarily through cutscenes. GF uses cutscenes during chapter breaks, but the rest of the story develops through player-driven dialogue. WoW so rarely uses traditional cutscenes that I can think of only one off-hand. The rest of the time, non-player-derived-story is delivered through 1) simple RPG-style dialogue with NPCs, 2) in-game events with dialogue (like when Gordon Freeman interacts with Eli Vance in HL2), and 3) lore books (which are more Easter-egg than anything).

    As far as cutscenes going against the medium, I’m not sure how that is necessarily the case. Again, it seems like a way to box the medium to be something specific when there doesn’t seem any intrinsic need to do so. When you play Donkey Kong, is it really a break in the game when you climb to the top girder and experience that tiny cutscene where the great ape shuffles off the screen to explain to the player why he has to move to the next screen’s challenge (all the while freezing your character, rendering “play” impossible)? I hardly think so. On the other hand, did I enjoy the lengthy cutscenes in Final Fantasy XII? No, I did not.

    There’s a difference between good cutscenes and bad. And to declare them oppositional to the intent of games simply because they are sometimes not great seems to miss the point. Plus, again, why place unnecessary walls around what could otherwise be a growing new medium?

    “Maybe adventure games just lend themselves to traditional story telling methods a lot better than other games where the player has more freedom of choice.”

    This is entirely more sensible than what Jaffe suggests. That author-driven story may function as an integral part of gameplay better in certain games than in others. Don’t Take It Personally would be stupid without creator-driven story. Same with Shadow of the Colossus. One of my favourite games of 2010, Recettear only starts to really come to life once the story elements begin to trickle in.

    Would Team Fortress 2 or Counter-Strike benefit from a narrative arch? Probably not. ANd that’s fine. There’s plenty of room in gaming for all kinds of games. Games with creator-driven story (Dear Esther), games with player-driven story (Minecraft), games with both (Skyrim), or games with neither (Tetris).

  • http://www.godatplay.com God at play

    You are right to suggest that there are videogames out there that deliver powerful experiences that include a narrative. That’s part of the reason why my vocation is that of a videogame creator!

    I suppose I should have been more explicit when I used as strong of a word as “can’t”:
    “You can’t apply traditional storytelling to the medium of videogames if you want to deliver meaning using the medium’s full potential.”

    The point I am trying to make is one of effectiveness, because the core subject is what “(video)games are about.” Interaction is one of several things that make videogames Not About Story. That’s because videogames are delivered through a medium. Mediums are defined by technological features and limitations and not by abstract structures (which are very carefully inserted into mediums).

    Story is an abstract structure for meaning that is dependent upon certain technological limitations. Oral tradition and literature seem to fall closest in line with this structure, and that’s why they are almost synonymous with storytelling. Cinema is somewhat close, but I’d like to point out that Orson Welles and his team had to specifically break from traditional storytelling in order to fulfill the potential of cinema.

    Sadly, I’m not developed enough as both a videogame designer and as a writer to convincingly and articulately explain what videogames are currently “about.” Certainly it’s something involving virtual proprioception, a sense of being, and the procedural. There’s a very good chance they are also about interaction. Beyond that I am not sure.

    I can tell you this, though. Videogames surpass the limitations that story is dependent on in a much more drastic way than cinema, allowing us to explore meaning completely beyond the structure of the story.

    And I am so incredibly hopeful and excited to be doing my part to see what is out there beyond the story!


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