Saturday, 26 May 2012

Games Are Stories: The Final Word?

This post originally published at GAMESbrief.

Nicholas Lovell argued recently that 'games are not stories'. As much as he's obviously after a sound-bite the TV chaps will lap up, he justifies a slightly more considered version of the statement with reference to the (true) fact that story tends to be less important in games than in mediums like film or literature. I think Nicholas overestimates slightly how important story is to those other mediums - surely script in those areas is often just as susceptible to the whims of various directors, editors and actors as it is in our own - but I take the point. A movie, no matter how Hollywood it may be, begins with a script. A game, almost always, begins with gameplay and setting.

That's interesting in itself, though. I've never come onto a job where either of those two were particularly up in the air - it's always a sci-fi mmo, or a desert shooter, or a zombie RPG... The setting, it seems, comes in the same breath as the core gameplay. I'd argue that this suggests an alternative take on games - that, in fact, they revolve centrally around their narrative contexts, that these are chosen to work in harmony with the mechanics and that every scrap of work done after that decision is t its best when it works toward both of those goals.

There is a reason that we play cowboy games, and football games; and not precision clicking tests or abstract tactical challenges. A random coloured shape serves all the mechanical purposes of a heavily armed nazi, but we prefer it when our actions in games carry weight and meaning.

I'm reminded of the various discussions that go on around games being fun vs not-fun. It's supposed by some that games need to break free from being fun in order to be important; to be what games are supposed to be. Others say fun is the whole point of games - why would we want to play anything else? Both sides seem to miss the point - a game needs to be entertaining. Like any other creative medium, if we wanted the bare facts we'd look elsewhere. But fun is just a subset of entertainment; not-fun games canstill be entertaining.

I think when we try to argue whether games are or are not about 'story' we end up talking about writing, and opinion is predictably split. Some love cutscenes, others hate them. That's not one we need to solve. But we should be careful trying to claim that games aren't about story, because without story we'd still be playing stuff that looks and feels like tic-tac-toe.


  1. There are some interesting issues with this line of thought, in so far as it seems to imply something like chess is also about story, since it's framed as a medieval battle. All I could say in response is that sure, to that degree chess does tell a story; but plainly video games go far beyond chess in even their dramatically barest incarnations - enough, I'm sure, for this not to be such a problem.

    What are your thoughts?

    PS My Masters exams are over, summer is here, I've got two new indie games I can't wait to talk about in the next few weeks, and some time to actually update the blog. Stay tuned :-)

  2. Even something like chess contains this loose interpersonal narrative that is inspired between the two opponents.

    As you mentioned, if a game lacks any kind of intrinsic narrative framework, it would simply be an abstract simulation of random tasks.

    Of course there are exceptions within genres as such as arcade where the objective of the game is entirely focused around a single core mechanic. I play ITG to accurately hit the notes and better my score and technique. However, a friend of mine who is quite a renowned player in Australia doesn't actually consider it a game, but rather a set of rules in which a challenge has been formed.

    I believe that by stating "games are not stories" he is applying a very narrow definition of story to games. Games can both recite a narrative, and provide the player with the agency to affect the narrative structure, and therefore the game world. It's like saying films are not stories because the viewer fell asleep half way through and failed to understand the plot.

  3. Sorry Miles, this was sitting in the spam filter for some reason.

    Agreed, though. For a bit more on the topic, check this out: