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Hey, Video Games: Tell Stories. Tell All Your Stories. Don't Ever Stop

OPINION: Do video games tell their tales flawlessly? No. Should narrative therefore be removed from games? Heck no.

Opinion by Nadia Oxford, .

Ian Bogost, the author of a controversial article titled "Video Games Are Better Without Stories," is a game designer, a philosopher, and a professor. He's published multiple books about game design and games journalism.

My résumé and lifetime achievements can't even touch the ankles of Bogost's accomplishments. I don't have a tenth of his education, nor a fraction of his bibliography. I do, however, knows what I likes. And I believe expunging stories from video games because they're imperfect is like pulling out a person's entire digestive system just because their appendix has gone rogue.

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I don't think I'm alone on this one. Bogost's article, which was published yesterday, riled up social media. The consensus seems to agree that even though video games are flawed storytellers, they're still effective at relaying motivational narrative – and that's what's most important.

"Are you lost? Listen to my tale..."

The crux of Bogost's argument is, "Film, television, and literature all tell [stories] better. So why are games still obsessed with narrative?"

A little deeper into the piece, Bogost says that while games provide a unique method of storytelling through interaction (e.g. hunting down audio tapes in BioShock or piecing together a narrative through found artefacts in What Remains of Edith Finch), games' failure to commit wholly to interactivity means the games' stories and gameplay wind up feeling half-baked.

"Are the resulting interactive stories really interactive, when all the player does is assemble something from parts?" Bogost asks. "Are they really stories, when they are really environments? And most of all, are they better stories than the more popular and proven ones in the cinema, on television, and in books? (...) Games' obsession with story obscures more ambitious goals anyway."

Speaking anecdotally, the stories for early NES games like Super Mario Bros and Dragon Warrior are what turned my head in the first place. Not because "Save the princess" and "Defeat the Dragonlord" are riveting on their own, but because said goals helped me maintain my focus.

A plot as simple as "go beat up a dragon" can help you keep your eyes fixed on your goal.

See, the NES rose from the ashes of a very confused time in gaming history. A lot of Atari CES games are difficult to suss out if you didn't have an instruction booklet to explain what's what. The games that are easy to pick up and play don't offer you a goal beyond "Get a high score!" which is a boring pursuit for all but a very specific breed of game player.

Along comes Super Mario Bros. Yes, you can try for a high score. Yes, you need to stay alive against a constant barrage of weird enemies and obstacles. But its single command – "Save the Princess" – gives you something to reach for other than high numbers. What happens when you reach the Princess? What kind of reward do you get? The only way to find out is to play.

Dragon Quest / Dragon Warrior aims to simplify and streamline role-playing games that were popular on PC in the '80s. One of the ways it does that is by offering specific story-driven goals within its larger narrative. You can't just make a beeline for the Dragonlord because he's ancient and unspeakably powerful. He's also isolated himself on an island. If you want to beat the game, you must re-trace your honored ancestor's footsteps and collect the same items he collected when he did the deed oh-so long ago. You need to find his sword. His armor. The magical artefacts that bridge the gap yawning in front of his foul domain. Etcetera.

Now, is there a college course that lectures on the prejudice demonstrated towards dragons in old-school games? 'cause I'd sign up in a heartbeat.

If Dragon Warrior lacked the story points that drove me forward and hinted at what I needed to do next, I undoubtedly would've abandoned the game. My brother owned copies of PC dungeon crawlers that were popular at the time, and their rambling, systems-intensive gameplay was just too complicated for my young self to stomach. I wasn't interested in maps, numbers, and stat rolls. Fairy tales, though? Stories about dragons and knights? I adored them, and Dragon Warrior's simple but instructional story of heroism was exactly what I needed to feel my way through its sprawling world.

Writing rules are meant to be broken (just do it carefully for God's sake)

I'll be the first to admit video games often tell their stories as coherently as a boozed-up bard. That's still not a good reason to stand up and say, "All right, I think we're done here." For one thing, practice makes perfect. For another, we already have reams of living proof that the earliest game stories, the very same ones that occasionally dissolved into utter nonsense, managed to raise up a generation of novel writers and film-makers. Nearly every game story has a moment (or three) that makes us tilt our head and blink in confusion, but riding over those rough patches doesn't erase any subsequent events that make us laugh, smile, or set our hearts a-flutter with anticipation.

I learned an important lesson during a period in my 20's when I thought I was the God-King of Fiction Writers: There's no such thing as a perfect story. Obvious, right? Sure, but a lot of writers immediately turn their backs on prose that doesn't adhere to specific rulesets, e.g. "Don't overuse adjectives," "Don't head-hop between characters' thoughts," and ye olde "Show, don't tell."

I can personally confirm that if you break any of these rules, Hemingway haunts you whenever you're on the toilet.

These are good, basic rules, and a serious writer should try to stick to them. But for a long time, I refused to have anything to do with books that deviated from the rules, and it turned out to be a silly way to live. My mother has an endless supply of books about Irish lasses getting their hearts broken by British jerks, and one day I just sat down and started to binge. The narrative was rife with instances of THE RULES being explicitly broken, but I cared less and less as I realized I was genuinely entertained by the book's characters and their motivations.

We don't need no YA fiction (except we kind of do)

I find this paragraph from Bogost's essay to be particularly telling:

"Writing about Gone Home upon its release, I called it the video-game equivalent of young-adult fiction. Hardly anything to be ashamed of, but maybe much nothing to praise, either."

And here we get to the center of the shrubbery maze.

In my experience, academia has palatable disdain for young adult (YA) fiction; I've heard the genre get derided for being simple, cliché, and poorly-written.

Sure, YA has its share of poison-trash that never should've seen publication – Twilight, cough cough – but no other genre has successfully introduced so many self-proclaimed "non-readers" to fiction. YA's plots are usually easy to follow, yes, but that's what makes them highly digestible and engaging. Incidentally, I believe some avid readers harbor subconscious resentment about Harry Potter introducing "commoners" to the joy of reading, but that's a Thestral of a different color.

Continuing his anti-YA train of thought (woo-woo!), Bogost adds, "If the ultimate bar for meaning in games is set at teen fare, then perhaps they will remain stuck in a perpetual adolescence even if they escape the stereotypical dude-bro's basement."

Not all YA fiction is created equal.

I'm 37. Three of my all-time favorite books are Watership Down by Richard Adams, The Neverending Story by Michael Ende, and The Last Unicorn by Peter Beagle. All three were written with young adults in mind, and all three have lessons that still resonate with me; lessons about true leadership, family bonds, and self-identity. They're all in there despite that dreaded "YA" classification.

We have the word "multimedia" for a reason

Bogost summarizes his thoughts near the end of his piece with: "Sure, you can tell a story in a game. But what a lot of work that is, when it's so much easier to watch television, or to read."

Reading a book is different from watching a movie.

Watching a movie is different from playing a video game.

Playing a video game is different from reading a book.

For fun, think of it as a kind of media-centric Fire Emblem weapon triangle.

If I feel like taking in a story about an evil empire, I can watch Star Wars or I can play Final Fantasy VI. If I just feel like vegging on the couch for a few hours and having the story fed to me, watching Star Wars is fine. If I feel like being immersed in the story – that is, chasing after a plot line and unearthing its nuances via side-quests while listening to a highly variable soundtrack and going mano-a-mano with the story's villains – then I'll play Final Fantasy VI.

True, it's difficult for a game not to leave seams behind when it weaves narrative into its mechanics. But tearing the pieces apart and segregating them isn't the answer. Maybe video games will continue evolving and perfect its storytelling craft. And maybe they'll continue to be a touch clumsy with their tales, but we'll still wind up being thoroughly entertained at the end of it all.

It takes all kinds of stories to make a civilization.

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Comments 27

  • Avatar for damienolenick07 #1 damienolenick07 9 months ago
    i don't see how video games could have function without some kind of story, imagine if Nintendo just dropped you in World 1-1 without context, their would have been no reason to play the game without some sort of goal. while video games may not be Shakespearian they have stories that i like. I'm currently playing Far Cry 4 and i'm obsessed with finding out who Pagan Min is and his motives. i'm hunting down every Mohan Ghale diary entry to find out clues and what happen in Kyrat.
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  • Avatar for PsychicPumpkin #2 PsychicPumpkin 9 months ago
    I love video game storytelling because I grew up on it. I've dreamed of a Super Mario game that peppered it's many worlds with the cavalcade of side characters that pop up in it's many spin-offs. Why can't Wario be a boss in the same game as Bowser, with a bit of story thrown in?
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  • Avatar for mattcom26 #3 mattcom26 9 months ago
    Games as a medium are not better or worse with or without stories. The determination comes down to a game-by-game basis, so the blanket statement "better without" comes off sounding pretty foolish to me. I certainly don't need a narrative to play Tetris, but Witcher III is transcendent in its storytelling and wouldn't be half the game without it.
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  • Avatar for BIGmog #4 BIGmog 9 months ago
    Most games give very little priority to story.
    Budget goes to graphics, sound, programming, etc. Then if there is anything left, they spend some money on a writer.

    Earthbound is a masterpiece because the director (Shigesato Itoi) is an accomplished writer.Edited 2 times. Last edited April 2017 by BIGmog
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  • Avatar for matt-b #5 matt-b 9 months ago
    Yeah, reading his article was pretty upsetting on a number of levels. His writing-off of an entire genre such as YA is very telling, as is his decrement of "dude-bro" games.

    All in all it seems like an article written with a laser focus on what he defines and finds value in as a video game; all creations outside that incredibly narrow scope are best expunged from society.

    EDIT: Which seems like a very cynical and sad world view.Edited April 2017 by matt-b
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  • Avatar for VotesForCows #6 VotesForCows 9 months ago
    I've sort of given up on TV and cinema stories. Games do it much better due to the immersion. Still read lots of books mind you.

    Nadia - agree with everything you say here. Great analysis, good writing :)
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  • Avatar for sketchlayerjosh #7 sketchlayerjosh 9 months ago
    Excellent article as always, Nadia.

    If the goal of a videogame is to achieve a series of tasks, then giving those tasks a context is absolutely necessary. Saying that story should be taken out of video games is silly, because the two things are intrinsically tied together. Tennis for Two is the story of two people playing tennis. Because games an inherently an extrapolation of an activity, EVERY game has a context and every game has a story. There's no video game (and there might be something on Steam that proves me wrong) is about being someone or doing something that you're not actually doing, and that requires context.

    In my opinion, the reason that retro video games hooked us so well is the same reason that YA books succeed. They give the reader or player just enough story that they have to fill in the margins with their own imaginations. It asks us, the audience, to participate. Even the act of play adds to the story in a personal way. My Ocarina of Time story is going to be different from someone else's, because my story is about a Link who insisted on rolling into every tree on his way to defeat Ganon.

    It's still a very young medium, and people are still trying to figure out what KIND of story games tell best. The least engaging ones are the kind that try to emulate passive entertainment like movies or television. What games do better than any other medium is establishing a sense of place. The castle in Super Mario is etched into my brain because I explored every inch of the damn thing. I can't say I have the same familiarity with any of the sets in a movie.

    Regardless, story and games are tied together by their very nature, and I look forward to seeing what kinds of new stories we get in the future.
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  • Avatar for perpetualgrimace #8 perpetualgrimace 9 months ago
    I definitely agree that removing story from games altogether is a little drastic. But I also see where he's coming from. I see story in games as an enhancement; I play them because I enjoy interacting with systems, building things, and being part of the world. If a game has a good story, then that certainly makes for a more enjoyable experience. But I'd rather have no story then a cringingly bad story (I'm looking at you, Xenoblade Chronicles X).

    I guess my point is that games should either go all-out with a well-done story, or keep the story out of the way and let the gameplay speak for itself.
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  • Avatar for swamped #9 swamped 9 months ago
    Good write-up, Nadia.

    There's so much internal contradiction within the Bogost piece, I don't even know where to start. He says Edith Finch could have easily been told as an animated movie in CGI and in the next paragraph undermines everything unique the game does as "novel expressions of the capacities of a real-time 3-D engine." How is that even different from what CGI animation does?

    Then he implies games should focus more on gameplay, after criticizing the gameplay of Edith Finch as unoriginal because it shared some elements with Gone Home. Ummm are we going to pretend that not also the way it works in every other form of media he thinks is superior? Yeah, Quentin Tarantino made Pulp Fiction and then no one ever told a non-linear story in film again. Are you kidding me? Films invent new techniques all the time and they're borrowed and improved upon by other filmmakers. Why would video games be different?

    I'm sure I don't understand the philosophy he's coming from here, but I'm not sure I want to understand a philosophy that seems so divorced from a basic understanding of history repeating itself. After all, before video games, TV was never going to be on the same level as films. And before that, films were never going to live up to books...
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  • Avatar for Thetick #10 Thetick 9 months ago
    "And yet, the game is pregnant with an unanswered question: Why does this story need to be told as a video game?"

    This question makes no sense.
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  • Avatar for donkeyintheforest #11 donkeyintheforest 9 months ago
    It was so hard for me to get through that guy's article. It was both poorly thought out and horribly written ("Hardly anything to be ashamed of, but maybe much nothing to praise, either." wtf haha).

    "...the best interactive stories are still worse than even middling books and films."

    I hate when people compare the entire works of one medium to those of another as if it's a legitimate comparison. Even just saying a story is "better" is completely subjective, and useless in his argument as he doesn't even bring up particular books or films to create some kind of standard of comparison.

    Whatever, I am generally more about systems than story in games, but If the story is good and/or it serves to take abstract systems and turn them into something better, then I am all for that.
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  • Avatar for pdubb #12 pdubb 9 months ago
    Say what you will, but if video games didnt have stories then I wouldn't some of the great real life stories I have in my life.

    Even the most barebones and ridiculous stories in video games can become a great moment that allows us to bond over shared terribleness. Ask any gamer over 30 if they are a "Bad enough dude to save the President?" and see if you get a smile.

    Bad or flawed stories never stopped people from making awful movies.
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  • Avatar for Mixingmetaphorsoup #13 Mixingmetaphorsoup 9 months ago
    There are so many things that I could bring up as points against Bogost's arguments. I just... ugh. The point of a game's story doesn't need to be "on its own, this will stand up just as well as any other piece of media". Part of the joy, as you said when talking about Final Fantasy VI, is interacting with the world and characters personally, and gaining a connection to the work that doesn't often exist in other mediums.

    Also, I feel there is actually A LOT of value to environmental storytelling. Not only is it a better, less gameplay-segregated way to tell System Shock and BioShock's story than cutscene flashbacks and forced exposition dumps, it should just be respected as another way to tell a story, graded on each game's merits, rather than being inferior in general. I play Magic: the Gathering, and while that kind of environmental storytelling is much different, the joy of discovering an entire new, unique world and all of the little anecdotes inside it is something you couldn't tell in the same way using another medium. Actually, now that I think of it, what I just described is basically also Planescape: Torment.

    Finally, I just think the biggest thing, again, is just having a personal connection to the work. Even if the stories aren't amazing, my favorite games always have a world, theme, or even art style that make the game unique and special in a way that some mediums just can't be.
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  • Avatar for sleepiest #14 sleepiest 9 months ago
    Gotta love that sweet sweet discourse.

    In all seriousness, it's been really heartening to see videogame critics rally around story as people read and react to his piece. Glad to see you call out the YA snobbery, oh God-King of writing.

    Bogost and Ben Kuchera were the first people to make me realize that there was a way of critically looking at games. Funny enough, they're also the two people that I would never turn to now for an opinion.
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  • Avatar for Lord-Bob-Bree #15 Lord-Bob-Bree 9 months ago
    There's not much for me left to say, but:

    What does he consider a "story"? He's able to dismiss Gone Home and Edith Finch as "environments" instead of stories, but I don't see why that has to be the case. A straight narrative isn't the only want to tell a story.

    "Think of a medium as the aesthetic form of common materials. Poetry aestheticizes language. Painting aestheticizes [...]"

    Really, he seems to be confusing what a medium is made up of for it's purpose. The purpose isn't the material, it's what you do with those materials.

    In regards to rule-breaking, one could even say that some of the best stories are ones that break some rules, rather than restrict themselves. While I don't exactly have a great command of the history of literature, etc., I would not be surprised to see that what was once rule-breaking ended up becoming rules themselves.
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  • Avatar for Roto13 #16 Roto13 9 months ago
    "Film, television, and literature all tell [stories] better."

    Except when they don't. I'd love to see Ian Bogost attempt to tell 999's story through anything besides a video game.
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  • Avatar for sleepiest #17 sleepiest 9 months ago
    @Roto13 Great example!
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  • Avatar for sleepiest #18 sleepiest 9 months ago
    Wanted to add, on reflection his piece is also a denial of creative impulse under the grounds that it isn't "good" or "being done right" which...why, dude? It's the everyday creativity that ya and fanfic comes from that lead to the most wonderful things.
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  • Avatar for SatelliteOfLove #19 SatelliteOfLove 9 months ago
    His weakness in the player-generated or player-chosen fields was especially telling that he sees games as misshapen films or books. ZTE and playing a Thief in Shadowbane canNOT be done in anything else than certain video games.

    "We have the word "multimedia" for a reason"

    That too.
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  • Avatar for link6616 #20 link6616 9 months ago
    This arguement crops up a lot, but I think it's really important to talk about the idea of the "gestalt experience." Basically, it's looking at something from a holistic point of view, or a very fancy way of saying something is more than the sum of it's parts.

    Could we tell Ocarina of Time's tale as a movie? Of course! But Ocarina of Time as a narrative isn't really about it's plot, it is about that sense of adventure. The "classical" plot elements are there to serve as a way to guide players to have a certain narrative, a narrative of adventure. And that narrative of solving the mysterious and complex water temple can only be told by the agonizing giving in to using a guide.

    Even visual novels, which as similar to books as they might be, do gain something from their multimedia experience. (although frankly it's probably more that the interactive aspect let's you get away with the "5 different stories after x core event" type set up which you could do as a movie, but would feel strange.

    Zero Time Dilemma and it's whole series probably could make an anime, but I don't think it would keep a lot of it's impact even though it's puzzles are pretty bland.

    That said, I do somewhat agree with his post. Many games do have story or gameplay getting in the way. In the case of say, DQ1 as mentioned here, the story is so minimal it serves only to provide goals and context. Whereas say any bioware game, the gameplay is getting in the way of some excellent story telling. (most bioware games would make better visual novels, just saying, even the ones with good gameplay).

    But, just because some/many games get the balance wrong means its a bit foolish to decry stories as a whole.
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  • Avatar for LBD_Nytetrayn #21 LBD_Nytetrayn 9 months ago
    I love the New Super Mario Bros. games. They're generally not very heavy in story, but for the most part manage to at least prod my imagination on a little bit.

    "Bowser has taken over Peach's castle and remade it in his own image? I've got to see that!"

    Not much, but gets the job done.

    New Super Mario Bros. 2 is my least favorite because it feels like no imagination went into it beyond the coin aspect. It just... happens. As@PsychicPumpkin said, throwing Wario into the mix would have made it more interesting.
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  • Avatar for ojinnvoltz #22 ojinnvoltz 9 months ago
    Gameplay trumps story for me. But there's nothing like when gameplay is used to evoke feeling/convey a message to the player. Ending E of Nier: Automata is possibly the greatest experience of empathy I've encountered in a medium and it does it through gameplay. Towards the end of God of War when you have to protect your family, throughout the whole game the circle button is associated with eviserating foes, but they flip it and you use that button to keep them alive. But your usage of the button to protect them is futile; the circle button is still tied to death since your family already died. Getting bummed out pressing a button! Gameplay is king, but it's moments like the previous examples that show the full potential of games as a medium. Gameplay should be used to make the player complicit to the events of the narrative. "Would you kindly" can suck an egg. I felt more when I had to shoot those doctors as Joel in The Last of Us. Imma cut myself off before I rant more. I had a blog about this on 1up. This site ever going to get that sort of stuff? I miss that sense of community that site had.
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  • Avatar for orient #23 orient 9 months ago
    Bogost's article cites What Remains of Edith Finch as a "lovely little title" that, he posits, could be made as a film and lose none of its impact (maybe even make it better). This dismisses the two key elements that make all of my favourite games worthwhile: exploration and discovery. You don't need systems-driven, choice-heavy games to feel these things, that's why "walking simulators" work. I agree that a base level of interactivity is required to make your game story interesting, but who is Bogost (or anyone) to set this arbitrary bar of interactivity? As with all media, mileage will vary from person-to-person.

    Time to stop fixating on the dictionary definition of "game" and comparing walking simulators with Monopoly. Time to move on.
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  • Avatar for ArdeaAbe #24 ArdeaAbe 9 months ago
    I feel like Bogost is throwing out the baby with the bathwater here. I love reading, TV and video games and sort of meh on movies.

    Like@link6616 mentioned I feel that games really succeed in the gestalt. My most recent example is FFXV. It's a flawed game and the story isn't the greatest but I really felt that story. I spent 30-40 hours with the bros on the road, getting to know them, learning about them. Seeing them pumped by victory and having quiet moments by campfires each night really made me attached to them.

    Without that intereweaving of story into the gameply I would not have been pulled into the story the same way when I hit the later chapters. That really allowed me to feel the changes as various twists and turns of the story happen. It was hard not to feel like a dick in the swamp in the chapter after Leviathan.

    Could video game storytelling use some improvements? Hell yes. I want to see more interweaving of mechanics and story, not less. More work to refine that combination. Not completely removing story from video games.
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  • Avatar for Talraen #25 Talraen 9 months ago
    As I get older, I start to appreciate story in all mediums more and more. I'll echo@AredeaAbe's thoughts on FFXV. As a game it had issues, but the story absolutely worked for me, and better than it would have as a movie or a book. Why would we give that up?

    Honestly the whole premise is asinine. Story isn't great, so let's just get rid of it? Sorry, that's indefensibly inane. Like what logic is that even based on? You know, books don't really let you picture scenery as accurately as movies, why not remove that too? Come on. This is basically a troll story.
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  • Avatar for Talraen #26 Talraen 9 months ago
    Deleted April 2017 by Talraen
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  • Avatar for SkywardShadow #27 SkywardShadow 9 months ago
    Everything you wrote resonates with me, including your favorite stories being among mine.
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  • Avatar for Drachmalius #28 Drachmalius 9 months ago
    Wow, this is the first time I've ever heard anyone arguing that games shouldn't have a story at all. Clearly some games don't need one, like Puyo Puyo Tetris (but they added one anyway).

    To answer the question of why games still tell stories even if they are done better elsewhere comes down to human nature. Humans LOVE stories, we all do. We like to find them in different forms and relate to them however we can, or make fun of them if they're bad.

    It's impossible to divorce games from story as a whole. Bogost may be smart and accomplished, but it sounds like he's missing something very obvious here.

    Also, after reading the article, his focus on "walking simulators" undermines his argument. "Dreaming of the Holodeck" isn't what most games are really doing with their stories. I think he's honing in on one particular trope in gaming that he doesn't like, and making a blanket statement about the medium as a whole. Has he really thought this through in regards to games like your Final Fantasy, Resident Evil 7, or Bloodborne? Those games have stories that do not overtake the play experience, but add additional layers for the player to connect to the game. Removing them wouldn't have any positive effect, only negative (unless you really hated the Bakers in RE7 or something).Edited April 2017 by Drachmalius
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