It’s Dangerous to go Alone…Video Games as Narrative

I’ve been waiting a while to blog about a topic that I felt could come a little organically, and while I will admit that I perhaps waited a little too long to start, I thought this story was a perfect question to present in this class. Recently, I was having a conversation with my friend about a game that had come out a little while ago, called Bioshock Infinite. As we were discussing the game, another friend of ours came over to listen, and then asked us something that inspired a really fascinating discussion; “Haven’t you guys outgrown games yet?”

The friend who I was talking to (out of privacy I’ll call him Mark) , began to argue that games were not a child’s toy anymore, that the days of Super Mario and Donkey Kong being the major games was over. He discussed how games have really made the shift into actual creative storytelling, stories that for the first time, people can actively write themselves. Games no longer simply tell you to save the world, but they now offer you the choice to let it burn or rule it as well. You aren’t simply running through panning two-dimensional backgrounds, completing little missions as they pop up. You’re creating relationships between characters, feeling for the plights of the different citizens who claim to need your help. “In a way,” he said, “for a lot of people, video games are becoming the new way to read a book, except this time they really are the hero.”

Granted, I didn’t exactly agree with games taking the place of books, but games have certainly earned their merit in terms of telling stories, inciting emotions, and teaching moral lessons that myths, legends, and stories taken to paper have done in hundreds of years prior. Video games have been taking these lessons one step forward though, because now, instead of just watching the hero make a choice for his own reasons, and learning from that why it was the right or wrong choice, games force the player-reader to take agency in the narrative and make the choice themselves, suffering whatever consequences may come.

Now that we, in this class, are discovering how to take reading into the digital age, I thought it would be pertinent to see how storytelling has already taken that step forward. Sure, there are a lot of military games out there, but there are also games that talk about a father’s redemption in the eyes of their child, a soldier that suffers through his own Heart of Darkness in Dubai, two brothers that would travel the world to be with each other, and a Journey, taken in complete silence, yet with more communication and understanding than most games convey. Overall, narrative has already penetrated the digital world, and now it is our job to save the texts that helped inspire these new stories, and help inspire a conversation that pushes us into the future.

5 comments

  1. Profile photo of Matt Spitzer
    Matt Spitzer says:

    This is certainly an interesting conversation. I would think that video games in part have their bad reputation because, from their onset, they were limited by technology. For example, what kind of story is Pong? None at all– all RAM and computing power had to be spent on creating the interactivity of the game itself.
    However, now, we have engines and memory enough to create beautiful renderings, complex controls, as well as (using the “surplus” potential memory and computation) a complex plot, and even “pick-your-own-adventure” type games, where individual choices personalize the games ending (of which there are sometimes dozens of possible endings).
    It would be interesting to review the history of video games and see when there was a push to increase story-telling, given that, it seems, technological limits monopolized video games for mere button-mashing early on.

    **EDIT**
    I stand corrected– the human “imagination” knows no bounds. Here is an example of what a fan fiction about the game of Pong would look like. It seems some people will always care about the story…
    “As if you could kill time without injuring eternity,” says Thoreau. So true.

  2. Profile photo of Katie Allen
    Katie Allen says:

    Brodie,

    This is a really insightful post, and though I don’t consider myself a gamer, I can appreciate what you’re saying about games and narrative. This post is a sort of interesting contrast to Ellie’s previous ideas about video games becoming more social, because it seems like the gaming you’re referencing is more of a solo effort. And yet, in order to feel ownership over the outcome, the gamer still has to connect to the story, and is therefore still connecting to “people” in a sort of pseudo way by investing in the game’s characters and plot. I can completely see where you’re getting the idea of games mimicking books in this way.

    I couldn’t help but think about this book as I was reading your post. It’s by educational theorist James Paul Gee, called “What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy.” I read this for a graduate class, and it’s just amazing what can be said about how the human brain learns, and how video game science has advanced in such a way that games now have the potential to actually be amazing teachers. Gee has another book called “Language and Learning in the Digital Age,” which I haven’t read, but stumbled across when trying to get the title right for his other book. I bet this too would be an interesting read, specifically in light of some of the things we talk about in ENGL 340, and some of the things I think you’re hinting at with your post.

  3. Profile photo of Gregory Palermo

    What a great point. I think that some of the bad rap video games get is that they are perceived as pure entertainment for public consumption, removed from the domain of “higher” aesthetic or moral thought. But books, too, are and have been thought of as [popular] entertainment for quite some time. Since literary theorists have come, in recent years, to view that the popularity of certain literary forms as the result of social pressures and ideological influences, we can and should apply this mode of thought to other artistic media. Proponents of cultural studies have argued that what medium is considered to be tasteful, lofty, or admirable or is an arbitrary judgment; the classification of video games as a ‘lower’ form of entertainment is one such judgment.

    I really like that Matt brings up the beautiful renderings, visual or otherwise, that are now possible in games with increases in technology. My optics professor was telling me about some of the cool ways that game designers calculate optical effects to realistically portray phenomena like muzzle flashes, particle scatter, refraction through water and gasses, etc. And video game designers are still–even with increasingly powerful hardware and the resulting possibilities for game complexity–limited by the memory available to them; approximations are necessary in generating even just these visual effects, since the solutions based on first physical principles are too memory intensive. As a result, software engineers have to make make judgment calls on how much of a certain effect to render for a given scale or distance. There’s certainly an art to it. Game designers, like authors and poets, are utilizing the tools available to them to generate an artistic effect through their medium of choice. And just as increasingly sophisticated technology can give these artists more flexibility and choice in their craft, so can it do so for writers and critics.

  4. Profile photo of Matt Spitzer
    Matt Spitzer says:

    Speaking of complex optics, see this link to view the [debated] “first video game ever;” not Pong (which comes at the end of the list), but the amazing CATHODE RAY AMUSEMENT DEVICE!
    And yes… since their genesis (video game pun muhaha) video games have been merely entertaining devices, relying on the absolute, most basic plot possible: a Conflict. Given limitations, there could be no backstory to either side, or details… it was simply, timeless Conflict.
    It speaks to something larger, though, for video games, that they stuck around after what seems like us to now such miserably repetitive and boring gameplay. As technology improves further, its quite conceivable video games will only become more popular and accepted by all demographics (perhaps even the prices will become more accepting of other demographics, but that is another story).

  5. Profile photo of Christine O'Neill

    I have nothing intelligent to add to this discussion, I just want to enthusiastically echo everything that’s been said here. Since I was young, being a video game writer has actually been my dream job. There are some video games that have been subpar in terms of action/quests/challenges/graphics etc, but with plots so compelling I’ve played them over and over again. In fact, there are a couple of video games I can call to mind right now that I finished playing and thought, “It’s too bad that this is only a video game. It deserves to be a book or a movie.”
    But that’s kind of a strange thing to think, because why are books or movies any more ‘legitimate’ than video games? I guess with books, people focus almost solely on story; with movies, people divide their attention between story and visual effects; and with video games, it’s a three way split between story, visual effects, and playing the game. Yet anyone who has played even a handful of video games can easily tell you that certain stories simply could not be told through any other media.
    I don’t know how many of you are familiar with a cult classic called Portal, but if you haven’t played it and I try to explain the plot, it’s going to sound dumb and boring when in reality, it is so brilliant that it has won a truckload of awards. There is essentially only one character who speaks throughout the entire game. You learn virtually nothing about the character that you are “playing,” but you can occasionally catch a glimpse of what she looks like through the portals. You are trapped in a nondescript building with no flashy graphics. What is a fun, funny, and fast-paced story in a video game would simply fall flat as a book or movie.
    They even made a sequel, which is twice as long and now has two speaking characters (and, I guess, a few small instances of other characters speaking).
    I mean… if you have a second… watch this trailer for Portal 1, and I think you’ll get an idea of how clever it is.
    Anyway, excellent post!

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