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.
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.
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."
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."
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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