I’m going to espouse a controversial opinion: Video games can be another genre of creative writing and a great vehicle for story.
If you’re a gamer, you’re going, “Yeah. Duh. Why is that controversial?”
Let me explain:
Let’s consider the current “genres” of writing to be fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction (including personal essay and memoir), and dramatic writing (including stage plays, screenwriting, and comics). Of those, story arc is applicable to all in some form or another; however, some genres like poetry rely less heavily on story arc, and it is essential to other genres like screenwriting.
Take a movie, for example, arguably one of the closest genres to video games, at least in appearance. What drives a screenplay forward is a combination of things: a character wanting stuff, trying really hard to get it, and having people/stuff get in their way; a “ticking clock,” or sense of time and urgency, what Susan Kim calls “the tyranny of chronology”; and a reason why all this is happening now, including some catalyst that sets things in motion.
One argument against video games as a storytelling vessel is that the time factor isn’t the same as in, say, film. And I don’t think it is, not in the same way. But it is still important; it just functions differently. The only place time can be really controlled is in cut scenes or sort of rolling platformer situations where if you die, you can try again. I’d say some games (notably Braid) have some unique takes on time and video game death. Perhaps the argument is that the ability to try again after death lowers the stakes. And I think it does, for the player. That’s why anyone ever invented “hardcore mode.” However, I think the stakes for the character are still there. Videogames are certainly a very different modality of dramatic writing. The “tyranny of chronology” is expressed differently, but it’s still there: you know when you’ve gotten to a cut scene that is a fixed point in “story time,” a point from which you cannot return.
So what role does storytelling have in video games? The PAX panel, “Is Storytelling the Most Important Thing in Video Games?” addressed just that. While I didn’t attend, here’s a summary. One of the points that the panelists seemed to be making was that video games have a ton of subgenres, and storytelling is vital to some and more or less irrelevant to others. However, one point seemed particularly resonant to me: that storytelling is why we care about playing a game in the first place. It’s what gives us a personal stake in the game. From the Penny Arcade panel:
“What players who value story want [is] to be at the intersection of agency and meaning,” noted Cameron Harris [a freelance editor and story consultant]. From her perspective, these gamers want their actions to have meaning. They desire to be important and change the world they’re experiencing. What they really want is for the game to say “you exist” and “you matter”.
Few other genres dare try to put the viewer/consumer/player in the experience of the protagonist. Frankly, few other players have the tools. And therefore I think narrative structure is going to look different than other genres have, in a large part because of the element of player choice. Consider Mass Effect, for example. Player choice determines Shepard’s moral compass and at minimum Shepard’s B-storylines. And if Aristotle, in Poetics, spoke of the necessity of catharsis, I can think of no better catharsis than being a hero for an hour, stepping into the shoes of someone and being able to make vital, important choices.
An interesting thought about the possible shape of story in video games is “Shandification,” as in the wandering narrative of Tristram Shandy, a term coined by the author of this video:
“The setting becomes the story, and vice versa.”
Sadly, I see pathetically few conversations about this stuff. Either I’m talking to fiction and screen writers, who often pooh-pooh video games as a legit vehicle for story, or I’m hanging out with gamers, who are so (understandably) defensive about anyone who might consider games illegitimate story vehicles that they don’t actually talk about the craft. My hope is that the ubiquitous “we,” as in both the literary community and the gaming community, can have some serious, coherent conversations about craft and storytelling in video games.
Thoughts? How the heck do stakes, story, and arc work in video games? Tell us, precioussss.