Beware the straw man
August 14, 2008
The arrival of Jonathan Blow's highly regarded Braid has fanned the fire surrounding the question of storytelling in games. As I wrote in my recent "Narrative manifesto" essay, lots of very smart and passionate people are thinking hard about how to create genuinely interactive narratives. Games like Braid and the forthcoming Far Cry 2 are described by their creators as efforts to redefine how players experience game-based stories (or is it story-based games?).
As I've mentioned here many times, I'm terribly excited about all this. Lots of us are, and why shouldn't we be? These ideas are sure to impact game design in useful ways, and as we often see in the arts, the inevitable ripple effect will provoke all sorts of other ideas and reactions the originators could never have predicted. These are all positive developments, and I think most of us serious gamers have one message for these innovators: Go Go Go!!
But a curious thing has happened while all this talk of narrative has been going on. Suddenly, we've decided that all video games up to this point have proven themselves to be hopelessly incompetent storytelling devices. One needn't look far to find all sorts of well-meaning bloggers, enthusiast press writers, and podcasters bemoaning the sorry state of storytelling in video games, some going so far as to ridicule the medium for its misguided efforts to marry gameplay with narrative at all.
One rhetorical strategy for making this accusation stick is the old "straw man" argument: oversimplifying the opponent's position, then attacking the simplified version. So we are reminded of sports or puzzle games with unnecessary story elements tacked on as evidence of the misguided nature of narrative games. Or we explore the limits of games like GTA4 and Bioshock and bemoan the promises broken when it comes to fully identifying with Niko or making truly meaningful ethical choices in Rapture. These "failures" are seen as defining the limits of narrative gaming - reminders that games just aren't quite up to the challenge of telling good stories.
I'm the first to admit this narrative medium is still emerging from its infancy...but what a handsome baby it has been! It requires no strain on my part to recall a fairly large collection of games that have provided narrative experiences I've found compelling and meaningful. System Shock, Deus Ex, The Legend of Zelda: Windwaker, Planescape: Torment, Bioshock, Planetfall - these are only a handful of the many I could name. Are any of these perfect? No. Could they be improved in all sorts of ways? Certainly. Although I'm not sure about Planetfall. That one may be a perfect expression of story within a text-based structure.
We often hear that movies are far more capable storytelling vehicles, and that may be so. But consider this: how perfectly constructed is the much-heralded The Dark Knight? In my view, not very. It strains more than it should from heavy-handed metaphors, and its plot mechanics too often make me aware of the wizard behind the curtain. People do smart things in The Dark Knight when the movie needs them to be smart; but when the movie needs them to be dumb, they do really dumb things.
These are mostly mechanical problems: a medium straining to embed literary devices into a visual storytelling form. How different, really, are these problems from the ones we wring our hands about in games? I loved The Dark Knight, but we shouldn't fool ourselves into thinking that film has permanently mastered the art of storytelling simply because it is more "evolved."
Video games continue to grow and explore ways to communicate meaning. I've been playing Braid and thinking about how this game conveys Blow's ideas about interactive storytelling. Lots of good, interesting stuff to explore here, and I'll do that here soon with a little help from my friend Iroquois Pliskin.
In the meantime, I can't help also thinking about Super Mario Bros and Grim Fandango and wondering if Braid would ever have been possible without these and other excellent games like them. No game is the final destination or the ultimate statement. Every game is another step in the journey, and many of those early milemarker games - flaws and all - gave us stories we should never forget.