Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The last thing I'm going to write about videogames...

...for a while, at least.

Some of you may remember that this blog used to be specifically about videogame journalism. I wrote a lot about my desire to see games become a legitimate art form, an expressive medium supported by a thoughtful and skillful print media. Although that is no longer where my professional aspirations lie, I'm still an avid gamer and I care a lot about the state of the industry.

Throughout this blog's first incarnation, I felt like the essence of what I was trying to say about games, about how storytelling and gameplay needed to work together, continually eluded me. Well, Leigh Alexander recently linked to this brilliant article and it suddenly all became clear to me.

The biggest obstacle I see to games telling great stories in an interactive medium is the inherent conflict between giving players freedom to do whatever they want in a virtual universe, and forcing players to go from one predetermined plot point to another until they are forced to stop at the end credits.

Think of it like this. If you were to tell a friend the story of, let's say, Grand Theft Auto IV, it might go something like this: "You play Niko Bellic, a Serbian immigrant to Liberty City seeking the American Dream. Niko fights the mob, makes alliances with old friends and new, finds romance, and ultimately establishes a role for himself on the tough streets of Liberty City." But if you were to actually describe what playing the game was like, it would sound more like this: "You play Niko Bellic. You hijack cars, shoot pedestrians and cops, blow stuff up, and generally wreak unbelievable havoc. Oh yeah, you can do the story missions and help your stupid cousin or whatever, but that's boring."

Grand Theft Auto IV may be an extreme example because of the enormous freedom it grants the player, but it demonstrates my point quite well. To the extent that players are free to do whatever they want, GTA4 fails as a storytelling medium. Even a story mission as simple as, "Niko drives his cousin to his house" can become "Niko runs over twenty people and sets fire to a cop car on his way to his cousin's house" if that's how the player chooses to tell the story. In doing so, the story loses all sense of cohesion as the game tries to paint Niko as a sympathetic character.

The trick, then, is to construct a game in which the player is free to play the game in any way he chooses, while also building a coherent story. I am not aware of any game that manages to pull this off. On one end of the spectrum, we have "visual novels" that have well-constructed stories, but relegate the player to being nothing but a page-turner. The other end of the spectrum has games like Minecraft, which gives players the freedom to do anything and go anywhere but is completely absent of any kind of narrative.

The only "game" I can think of that comes close to striking that perfect balance is a table-top roleplaying game. Players and the gamemaster can invent any situation, the actions of the players drive the story forward, and the players are free to take any action they want. It would be hard to imagine a videogame granting this type of absolute freedom with today's technology, but in ten to twenty years, who knows?

Although game journalism is no longer a field I'm actively pursuing, I still follow where games are going, and I'm excited for the future. I know the industry is full of incredibly smart, creative people and I think games have nowhere to go but up.


  1. To paraphrase Willy Wonka, "The novel can only go forward and backward, but the videogame can go sideways, and slantways, and longways, and backways and squareways, and front ways, and any other ways that you can think of. It can take you to any experience in the whole world just by pressing one of these buttons."