Games as Stories (via Tale of Tales)

We who love interactive fiction, story games, role-playing games, video games, and their myriad synonyms still have a lot of thinking – and, more to the point, talking; or, even better, creating – to do before we know what they’re about.

The thought that games can also be stories, or should have anything to do with stories, is quite recent and rather strange. Usually what you would see was a game, such as The Great Dalmuti, with a sparse narrative premise; or hard-coded stories, such as Choose Your Own Adventure books, with some non-linearity built in and good or bad endings. Even the early role-playing games such as Dungeons and Dragons were less like stories than tactical simulations.

Yet so many modern games are powerfully affecting, often on a narrative level. Shadow of the Colossus would be excellent only for its gameplay, but the religious mystery throbbing at its heart makes it captivating, and the beauty and vastness of its world brings it even further – I found it transformative in a way that no movie could be. Because I played the game, I performed the actions that caused such sorrow; I felt responsible for them, wrapped up in their consequences in a way that no book or movie could evoke.

So: the form has potential, however under-utilized it may be. Why then are these successes so rare? Tale of Tales proposes in The Meanings of Games that game designers – being, most often, left-brained engineers – are failing to realize that ever-more of their movie-watching audience is expecting a story.

When most people play games for their content and not for their mechanics, it is of vital importance that this content is carefully considered. We cannot simply assume that the player will understand that the muscular hero and the armored vehicles and the neverending bloodshed is just a metaphor for an intricately elegant system underneath. We need to realize that the audience interprets these things as stories, and not just as dressing.

The games that are being produced today have an intense expressive power. But nobody seems to be controlling what these games are saying. The stories and characters flow out of the game design naturally. But that game design is riddled with morally problematic concepts. Mathematics is not ethical. It doesn’t need to be. But we know very well what happens when humans start thinking in abstract systems and lose sight of the practical realities of life…

The designers expect what art is needed to arise dynamically, almost magically, from the gameplay; or at best they design evocative gameplay and call it art.

We don’t know how to tell truly non-linear stories, yet, so instead we create linear stories and hand-wave in the illusion of choice. Shadow of the Colossus is interesting because it instead welcomes its linear storyline, which is told well and portrayed beautifully, shunting interactivity to world exploration and puzzle-combat. This works for SotC, but would it work for other games too? How to isolate the elements of success, when it seems that every masterpiece is utterly unique?

Tale of Tales to the rescue again: in Of Cogs and Machines, it suggests that you should know what you’re setting out to do. Are you creating a game-as-system or a game-as-story? What if these goals are incompatible, or at least orthogonal?

Games-as-systems push you to become as good as a computer would be. They require your submission to their rules and don’t allow you to add to them. They are perfect. And that is their limitation. And why they are not art. Perfection is a level cap. It implies an upper limit to the possibility space. It ultimately confines the experience of the user.

Which is not to say that games-as-systems can not be enjoyable. They most certainly are, especially as they continue to challenge you to become perfect. Systems can also bebeautiful. Systems create patterns. Patterns bring pleasure to the human brain. Or think of the beauty of mechanical clocks and ship engines. Marvelous spectacles to behold!

Compared to those, the game-as-story is small and modest. It does not offer much. It requires your attention, your devotion, your willingness, your creative input. It cannot mean anything without you. But with you, its potential for meaning is limitless.

This implication challenges many of the assumptions that underlie game design, but it does explain why so many games’ stories are not merely poorly-written, but actively offensive to any thinking person’s intellect, morality, and sensibilities. It’s because the story doesn’t know it’s not a story, but rather a premise for the gameplay. It’s The Great Dalmuti all over again!

Even if we write off the majority of video games as games-as-systems that have no true narrative intentions, that nonetheless leaves open the question of games-as-stories. What are they? How do they work? Why have we seen so few – or do we simply not recognize them, yet, for what they are?