Observations and lessons from two decades of writing about video games

emHalo 5/em featured perhaps the series' most confounding campaign yet... but the online multiplayer still ruled.

Tell Me a Story

(Or “The Play’s the Thing,” originally published on The Game Beat, April 28, 2017.)

If you are connected to video games professionally, you probably heard some sort of discussion over Ian Bogost’s provocatively headlined Atlantic piece “Video Games Are Better Without Stories.” The actual piece is a bit more restrained than the headline implies, more arguing that games should get past the “cinema envy” that is driving a lot of linear character vignettes these days. The argument nonetheless got a bit of pushback from across the industry.

The whole brouhaha got me thinking about how we, as journalists and critics, handle the presence of story in games. It’s been said that a story in a video game is like a story in pornography—it doesn’t matter how good it is, but you notice if it isn’t there. That might be a bit glib, but it’s also probably true of the way most people play the most popular games these days. For a lot of players, the story is just meaningless context that can largely be ignored.

On this subject, I often think back to a 2015 Ben Kuchera piece that argues we should[…]”

After so many games of nearly incomprehensible stories and lore that requires terminals and study outside of the core gaming experience I’ve decided to give up on the story of Halo. Not that it ever showed anything interesting outside of a few neat, big ideas that no one seemed to know how to develop into a working narrative. If you want a great story and interesting characters let’s stop pretending the game starring a faceless, gravelly voiced super-soldier is going to provide it. Even Nathan Fillion, who punches well above his weight class when struggling under bad scripts, only makes a slight impression here.

It’s not that I’m not upset Halo 5 couldn’t deliver a workable story with a beginning, middle, and end. I am. It’s just that between the fun to be had in the pure expression of play within Halo 5 and the many multiplayer options the lack of story is a very small detail in a very large package that’s being sold for $60. You’re going to get your money’s worth, and my personal journey with the game has only begun. I can’t wait to play more, and to master the higher level tactics and the interesting Warzone mode.

In short, Kuchera’s argument boils down to:

You may disagree on the specifics in this case, but it’s probably not too hard for you to think of a game that you similarly love despite it having a horribly written and/or forgettable story.

Think about the implications of this argument. If even a horrible story can’t destroy a game that’s otherwise good, what does that say about the value of storytelling in games? What does that say about how much we should even bother talking about the story when reviewing a game like Halo 5? Do the readers even care, or should we really just focus on how the new weapons affect the balance of Team Deathmatch mode? Would Halo 5 be just as good if it just gave up and didn’t even bother trying to tell a story at all?

Looking from the other side, can a well-told story redeem a game that’s otherwise boring or a chore to actually play? This question can lead to a lot of debate among gamers, especially when well-known “walking simulators” like Dear Esther and Gone Home or text-based interactive writing like Depression Quest come up. These games are almost 100 percent story, with only the slightest hint of interesting interactivity.

It can be hard to anchor a traditional review of these types of games without the ability to fall back on the technical crutch of describing and critiquing mere mechanics. If I wanted to talk about plot and character development I’d have been a film critic, right?

Back at the opposite end of the spectrum, it often seems that games that completely lack an explicit story struggle to get traction with the critical establishment. While titles like Rocket League or Threes might occasionally become media darlings, the vast majority of titles that get coverage are ones rooted in some sort of narrative.

About today’s excerpt

This feature is excerpted, in slightly modified form, from the new book The Game Beat by Ars Gaming Editor Kyle Orland. It can currently be purchased in DRM-free .epub and .mobi formats as part of the Winter Power-Up Video Game Story Bundle, where it’s packaged with 10 additional books about video game culture and history for $15.

Story-free games probably get less attention partly because they come from genres (puzzle) or platforms (mobile phones) that are considered unserious. Sometimes, games that are too purely about play get labeled as mere “toys,” without the structure and goals that make games “meaningful” (compare the reception of Katamari Damacy and Noby Noby Boy for some idea of what I’m talking about).

Partly, though, I think many critics struggle to get a handle on a game that doesn’t have some sort of narrative hook to ground the description. “A game may not ‘need’ a story, but ‘who am I why do I care’ is absolutely the first question you’ll get from many, many people,” as Zak McClendon points out on Twitter. If writing about video games is like dancing about architecture, then writing about narrative-free games is like dancing about blueprints; there’s nothing solid there that forms a base to build on top of.

Then there are the games that are so open-ended that it’s nearly impossible to write about the story in a universal way. How do you describe the narrative of a game like The Sims when every emergent playthrough can develop in a million different storylines depending on player choice? What good is my description of[…]”

And let’s not forget the extreme spoiler-phobia that limits a lot of the public discussion of video game narrative. At or before a game’s release, when reviews are most in demand, some readers can be paranoid about having even the tiniest plot details ruined for them by a casual mention in a review. By the time enough people have played through the game and are ready to talk about the story in depth, those readers have probably moved on to looking forward to the next big game. The temporal window to get serious narrative discussion around games that merit it can be vanishingly small.

The main takeaway here (if there is one) is that explicit stories in games have very different levels of value to different people, and a story that you find incredibly crucial to a game’s value might be meaningless filler to someone else. If we can’t even agree if stories in video games are important, how are we going to start discussing whether a specific video game story is good?

Penny Arcade’s Tycho has a line about two distinct types of gamers that has stuck with me, and which you should keep in mind when considering your audience:

“I play games to enter a trance state and experience other lives, [Robert] plays them to defeat the designer of the game by proxy. That’s a significant distinction.”

Listing image by Collage by Aurich Lawson

Leave a Reply