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A Story about Stories

LA Noire cars

Over a year ago there was a small explosion of outrage in the twittersphere regarding a piece in Edge magazine claiming that games can’t tell stories. It’s old, you’ve probably seen it before but then again the same is true of most of my inspiration for these articles. I was exercised enough about it at the time to want to write about it but I had no suitable mouthpiece. Now that I have, it would seem remiss if I failed to get my thoughts down while still vaguely relevant.

At the time most of the commentary regarding the article focused on the fact that it was clearly nonsense. Philosopher and designer Chris Bateman made a point of collecting gaming anecdotes from people in order to refute it. I mean, seriously, who hasn’t been awed, shocked or enthused at one time or another by the plot of a game? Whether it’s the huge twist in Knights of the Old Republic or the big reveal in Halo we’ve all encountered points in a game with enough intensity to wedge themselves permanently into our memories. So what’s an experienced and respected games journalist doing posting such twaddle?

Well personally I’m not so sure it is twaddle. I think the article contains an important point, albeit one that was perhaps not made very well. And that point is only tangentially related to story, and has everything to do with expectation.

When you put someone into a realistic, interactive environment, as most modern games do, their first assumptions are going to be that they’re in a realistic, interactive environment. They’ll explore, push boundaries, find out where the inevitable rules and limits are. But they’ll also expect that environment to push back at them, likely fairly aggressively. After all it would hardly be much of an interactive environment otherwise.

But at the same time gamers have become used to consuming games like they do cinema. They expect a plot, and characters, to engage them. Not just that but they also expect their avatar in the virtual world to be a key player in that plot. They want to feel important and powerful. Wouldn’t be much fun playing the cashier cowering behind the till when the petrol station gets robbed, would it?

This creates an instant contradiction. The gamer expects both to be able to ride a plot without foreknowledge of its twists and turns for the excitement and thrills it provides, while simultaneously being in charge of the game environment. You can’t have both. At its essence this can be expressed by the simple issue of the player killing NPCs who have pivotal roles to play in the plot. Games employ a variety of tricks to stop you ever doing this because doing so would expose the fundamental impossibility of having both a genuine story and a completely open world.

Skyrim Dawnguard E3 2012 Screenshot 7
It’s this disconnect that’s at the root of the perception that games can’t have a proper story. Not so long ago games were not particularly realistic, and they were not particularly open. Back then we were happy to consume the plot in a relatively passive way by riding the rails that the game placed us on. Technology has moved on, and so has game design. And we’ve arrived at a situation where the clash between plot and play is being exposed more frequently and more cruelly.

Currently, and quite correctly, when this conflict arises the game play is generally allowed to win over the plot. What’s less obvious is that there are other elements to what people think of as “story” besides the pre-scripted twists and turns along which the game will run. Atmosphere is one example. A game that makes good use of graphics, sound and setting to make the player feel squarely part of the virtual world that it creates can get away with a certain amount of plot railroading because it compensates for that break in realism in other ways.

Another is the emergent narrative that arises from the actions the player takes inside the mechanics and plot that the game provides. Everyone playing Gears of War will get the same plot, but the places and manner in which you kill your foes or triumph over the set-piece battles in the game will be different.

It’s a key element to consider because this is where the clashes between action and plot arise, and where a game becomes personal to the player. Designers have little foreknowledge of how people will interpret their games. Each long, languorous slow dance between a game and its player will be different, unique. And the best games only rarely manage to reach the audience that they deserve.

Mount & Blade: Warband - so ugly that I dare not show you a character's face
This emergent narrative points to one possible solution to the conflict, showcased best by the Mount and Blade games. In these titles there is no predefined plot but every effort is made to ensure the player can easily create their own instead. There is a flavourful world to explore, peopled with realistic and well-differentiated characters, and a slew of quests to complete alongside a meta-game which can lead toward various conclusions that most gamers would recognise as “success” of one kind or another.

But the problem with Mount and Blade is that it can take a long play time before even the most imaginative player appreciates and understands the game and its world sufficiently well to start building their own railroad. It’s simply nowhere near as engaging as a title that gives you a character, a motivation and a story and drops you into exciting action from the get go.

Adding plot to an open world setting, the solution explored by the Elder Scrolls games amongst others, tends to result in the worst of all worlds, as I’ve explored previously. That way the player tends to get sidetracked from the plot, while finding that it still has to conflict with their freedom of action. Long term this is probably the solution we should be seeking to explore. But the technology isn’t there yet. Frontier Developments tried with current generation consoles with a title called The Outsider, which attempted to defy linear storytelling in just the manner we’ve been exploring. But six years later the game is sidelined in development hell, because the hardware isn’t there yet.

That’s unfortunate. Not only because of the wonderful new directions that non-linear storytelling could take games in, but because I’ve started to suspect that its absence has become a real stumbling block over the progress of the medium. Lately we’ve discussed the issue of the clumsy manner in which violence is handled in most games. Could that be partly because the sort of subtle, nuanced plotting required to portray such serious issues sensitively requires exactly the kind of linear plots modern gaming eschews in favour of open-world design? Seems possible. It may well we need the means to overcome the fundamental contradiction between plot and play before gaming can truly grow into the mature form it deserves to be.

Let’s Have a Heated Debate

Mrs Merton preparing for a heated debate, which is likely to be more sensible and mature than most video gaming debates

There’s been a slew of articles here on NHS of late debating the merits of next-generation consoles, the rise of mobile gaming and the sustainability of current industry models. And not just here: in the wake of E3, it’s been a popular topic all over the internet. I have nothing that I especially want to add to that debate, but what I do think is rather more interesting is the manner in which that debate has been conducted.

I was inspired to write this piece after watching a discussion on twitter between @will_luton, the creative director of a mobile gaming studio and games journalist @robfahey on this very subject. Aside from the topic itself, there was a rapid acknowledgement between them that it has become a curiously polarised and rabid discussion, in which adherents to one side or another not only ferociously defend their opinions in a joyfully fact-free manner but seem to insist that the model they’re defending is the only viable one. And that this isn’t just coming from fans, but some senior corners of the industry as well. Recently, I did see a piece discussing the topic on CVG that rose above the muck, but aside from that, it’s been a remarkably unhelpful debate.

This is sad, but not terribly surprising. Outside of politics and sport, there’s not a topic of conversation I know that’s capable of reducing people to raw, screaming bundles of quivering indignation faster than games. You can see it everywhere: conversations in game stores, the message boards and comments threads of gaming sites, even in press releases. That it exists is pretty much indisputable. The more interesting question is why.

There are various angles one could consider. Perhaps the most obvious, given the grammar failures and logical fallacies you’ll commonly see in these debates, is simply that the participants aren’t terribly bright. I don’t really buy this. For starters, there’s circumstantial evidence that gamers tend to be slightly smarter than average. More compellingly, you can see the same shrill tones rapidly being adopted in exchanges between well-known gamers and writers that you know full well are capable, upright human beings most of the time.

Another possible factor is money. Gaming is not a cheap hobby once you’ve shelled out for a console and are paying upfront for AAA games on release day. If you’re on a PC things are arguably even worse given the exorbitant cost of high-end hardware. So pinning your colours to the mast of a particular platform involves backing up your decision with sizable sums of money which, in turn, is likely to make people feel needy for reasons to justify their choices. There’s mileage here, because there are similar effects observable in other high-cost interest groups like home cinema and hi-fi. But it can’t be the whole story. Debate in games is noticeably angrier than in other areas, and the disease still affects gamers who are lucky enough to be able to afford multiple platforms.

The revolting Aris Bakhtanians preparing for a debate about his reptilian comments on sexual harassment in games

There’s a clue, I think, in the nature of these discussions. Can you imagine someone as crass and pig-headed as Aris Bakhtanians feeling enabled to defend his grotesque sexism on a audio-visual fan board? While audiophiles vigorously debate the merits of lossy versus lossless audio formats, do you really hear them demanding rigid adherence to one model to the exclusion of all others? What’s strikingly different about debate amongst gamers isn’t so much the manner of delivery, but the level of maturity. Refusing to acknowledge other people’s feelings and opinions, even if you don’t agree, is immature. Rigid adherence to a fixed and absolutist point of view, regardless of logic and reason, is immature. Shouting and sulking when you don’t get your own way during a discussion is immature. Simply put, the unfortunate hallmark of a lot gaming debate is a lack of maturity.

Which of course begs the further question of why this should be the case. And here we have a chicken and egg problem to solve: is gaming discussion immature because gamers are immature, or do otherwise sensible gamers commonly lose their marbles in gaming debates because the pervasive culture around them is immature?

To answer that I think we need to delve down into the history of the industry. It’s easy to forget in the modern era of mainstream games that gaming was once a minority hobby, and one that was largely confined to children. The very term “game”, divorced from digital connotations still has powerful connections with kids and immaturity in the minds of most adults, as anyone involved with board or role-playing games can tell you.

There’s no single point at which video gaming suddenly became acceptable and mainstream: it’s been a long, hard slog to get there. But it’s undeniable that most of the major outlets for news, commentary and criticism date back to the early days of that transition when games were still perceived as an activity for kids, and many gamers were twentysomethings, teenagers or younger. A lot of the big name sites were founded around 1996 when those in my generation, the first who grew up with the hobby and therefore represent the torch-bearers for carrying it into the mainstream, were around 20. They, naturally, aimed their material at those age groups because it was representative of their audience.

Too many gamers react like this when confronted with opinions they don't want to hear

The problem is, simply, that for most outlets, the writing has never grown up. Why would it? For starters, let’s face it, there is something slightly disturbing about grown men pretending to be digital barbarians ploughing their way through hordes of orcs. And in turn, the industry product itself has never grown up: even those of us who’d like to see more mature, more interesting games aren’t getting them, as John Walker lamented on Rock, Paper, Shotgun a couple of months back. Without a mature audience, why would the product grow up? Without a mature product to comment on, why would games journalism grow up? And without mature journalism, why would debate grow up? And without mature debate, there’s pretty much no hope to improve the level of thinking that fans devote to games. It’s a horrible, self-perpetuating circle which ends up leading otherwise sensible, mature people to think about games at the level of teenagers.

What hope is there for moving on? In the short-term, none. In the medium term, a great deal. There are two big name sites, Edge and Eurogamer, that frequently manage to strike a higher tone. Initial signs are that the newest kid on the landscape, Polygon, is gunning the same direction. Articles discussing the level of infantilism in gaming, debates like the one which inspired this article, small blogs improving the level of commentary are all becoming more and more frequent. All of us, writers, readers and commenters alike are part of this process and can do our bit to help. Just like gaming’s journey into the mainstream, it’s been a long hard slog, but those of us trying to pull debate out of the mire are finally gaining critical mass.