Stories in Games Aren't Problems, They're Solutions
April 26, 2017 9:23 AM   Subscribe

Stories in Games Aren't Problems, They're Solutions. "We make stories out of our trips to the convenience store and turn our co-workers into characters as we relay the events of the day to our partners. Driven by both profit motive and creative impulse, we contort our words (and worlds) until broken stories are whole. Sometimes we tell stories without spoken language and other times we build new languages from whole cloth just so that we can evoke a feeling we can't find in the sounds and symbols we already have. We invent new problems so that we can solve them with new stories and this rules." Waypoint's Austin Walker responds to a particularly polarizing piece from Ian Bogost.

Youtube's Waypoint's Patrick Klepek also includes other reactions from the industry in his reaction.
posted by kmz (58 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
I have never seen an article explode like that in the games community. I have a lot of games industry people on my Twitter feed and they were all talking about it.
posted by flibbertigibbet at 9:28 AM on April 26, 2017

I feel like there's wildfires that go through Games Twitter quite often. (See: frustum culling.) But yeah, this was particularly intense.

And randomly, my favorite tweet about Austin's piece.
posted by kmz at 9:33 AM on April 26, 2017 [1 favorite]

I'm trying to name my manifesto.
posted by RobotHero at 9:34 AM on April 26, 2017 [2 favorites]

This one had it all; massive subtweeting by people who I think are just passive aggressive as a Twitter house style now, the usual "but I don't write the headline!" chestnut, a long side argument about Star Trek's holodeck...

Anyway it put me in the mind of The Talos Principle, a game with story and gameplay fused in a way that is both extremely awkward and somehow successful. It is my jam, but I know people who hate it for the same reasons I love it.

Some people like games that are mostly story, some like games that make their story in the gameplay, some like games that offer storytelling as a spice. Some people like Stevens Sausage Roll. Luckily there are games for us all.
posted by selfnoise at 9:42 AM on April 26, 2017 [2 favorites]

Just some thoughts from having read both sides of this:

1. No, games do not need stories, in the same way that architecture, music, and sculpture do not need stories. But it's quite possible to combine non-narrative art with story in interesting ways. A beautiful game like poker, chess, or go can consist of beautifully designed systems in dynamic tension.

2. The AAA industry probably isn't the place to look for either beautiful systems or beautiful stories. The structure of many AAA games alternates between the two: here's a mechanical puzzle, here's a cut-scene or dialogue tree. I'll put in a plug for Supergiant because almost every new mechanic introduced for Bastion and Transistor says something new about the setting.

3. 100 years ago, critics and filmmakers both needed to create whole new systems of aesthetics around the pivotal concept of montage. Today, we need to create whole new systems of aesthetics around the concept of interactivity and space.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 9:54 AM on April 26, 2017 [9 favorites]

I only have two words as a response to Ian Bogost's piece:

"Dark Souls"
posted by mysticreferee at 9:55 AM on April 26, 2017 [1 favorite]

Anyway it put me in the mind of The Talos Principle Dark Souls, a game with story and gameplay fused in a way that is both extremely awkward and somehow successful. It is my jam, but I know people who hate it for the same reasons I love it.

Whenever story-telling video game discussions pop up, I always mention my love for Dark Souls. I love that things are not explained in that story. That I'm just thrown into this universe. Some things happened previously. Their legacy can still be felt.

Now here's a sword. Off you go. You can delve deep into this world and try to piece things together. Or you can just kill anything that moves if that's more your thing. You create your own story and see what you want to see. I enjoy this aspect of Dark Souls quite a bit. Actually, I think I do this for a lot of video games.

Skyrim is another example. I completed that main Imperial story-line once. All my other replays are just me creating a character of my own choosing. Sometimes I'm a good guy. Sometimes I'm a murdering psychopath. Other times, I imagine myself a thief who means well but still does some bad things. I like it when I have more control and more options when it comes to video games. But that's a personal preference.
posted by Fizz at 9:55 AM on April 26, 2017 [1 favorite]

I'm not a gamer, but What Remains of Edith Finch looks very intriguing to me, especially as it takes place on Orcas Island, which is one of my favorite places in the Pacific NW.
posted by Atom Eyes at 10:05 AM on April 26, 2017 [2 favorites]

I mentioned above how I enjoy video games that give me more control and more options. All that being said, there are still tons of video games that I love that do not do this. Life is Strange, Brothers, Persona 5, Bio Shock, are just a few of my favorites. I mean look at the recently released Night in the Woods. It has platformer elements but it's largely a game of walking around and talking. And I don't mind that. There's something wonderful inside of these stories.
posted by Fizz at 10:10 AM on April 26, 2017

Bogost's piece is academic clickbait. It's so bad, it's inspires everyone to write things defending storytelling in games. I mean look at this quote from his article:
Yes, sure, you can tell a story in a game. But what a lot of work that is, when it’s so much easier to watch television, or to read.
How can someone write that without thinking "Wait, why would someone tell a story in a novel, when it's so much easier to watch television?" For a person that has created video games, he has a shocking contempt for the 'interactive' in interactive fiction. The interaction that you have with the story is something in itself that you can't get from passive media.
posted by demiurge at 10:10 AM on April 26, 2017 [11 favorites]

Don't want to post too much in my own thread, but this was too good not to share: "wow the video game discourse this week".
posted by kmz at 10:18 AM on April 26, 2017 [3 favorites]

There are different kinds of games. Is Super Mario Bros a railroad? Kind of. It's very linear. You don't have to do everything, kill everything to get to the end. There are short cuts. But it's much more constrained than the early mainframe game "Adventure." There were hard limits to that world, too, but it was programmed to trick you into thinking the possibilities were vaster than they really were.

Story in games comes from discovery, whether that's discovery of the space you move through, discovery of the rules that make gameplay work, discovery of lore built into the game, etc. I generally prefer games that don't feed you a set narrative and let you choose your own goals to work for. Wasteland and Pirates were old-school games that had enough narrative built in to please people who needed it, but were very sandboxy for people like me. Minecraft has no real narrative at all (except survival), but building becomes its own narrative. Generative worlds are hard to get right, though.

It seems like a lot of modern games are barely games at all. Gameplay based on quicktime events are basically choose-your-own-adventure books. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but it's not a GAME. I guess a lot of people like it, because they keep making them.

I got back into tabletop RPGs a couple of years ago, and it's so gratifying to create a story with a group of people in person. A story that can go anywhere and do anything, because it doesn't have to be preprogrammed.
posted by rikschell at 10:26 AM on April 26, 2017 [2 favorites]

Even tabletop RPGs have their simulationist versus narrative divide as well though.
posted by Artw at 10:35 AM on April 26, 2017 [3 favorites]

(There's a fair bit about that in the latest Ken and Robin)
posted by Artw at 10:37 AM on April 26, 2017

Sure, ttrpgs can be railroads or sandboxes too. But they have access to the tool of improvisation that computers won't reach without true AI.
posted by rikschell at 10:48 AM on April 26, 2017

I would take issue with the notion that city planning games don't have characters or narratives. The narratives are emergent stories of growth and disasters, and the character is... drumroll... THE PLAYER, urging themselves into the roll of someone who would give a damn about how that plays out.

The nature of a game is going to depend a lot on wether it relies on those emergent narratives or on prescripted ones (either linear or tree). It'll also depends on which of the defining traits of games - interaction or immersion - it leans on the most.

"Both" is thoroughly acceptable, of course, but some are going to lean hard one way or another and that's okay.

In short there are lots of different kinds of things out there, not all of them are going to be everybodies taste, and none of this is worth freaking out about.
posted by Artw at 11:00 AM on April 26, 2017 [3 favorites]

The thing is, with computer games, there's an almost inevitable story aspect. it isnt' even that story is good, bad, preferable, or likable, it's all but inevitable.

Even with your straightforward abstract, rules focused, games. We see computerized versions of pre- (or non-) computer games, poker, chess, go, cribbage and the like with no more story than the originals had. But even among the abstract, rules focused, games like Pac-Man, Defender, Space Invaders, Tetris, story creeps in.

Note that of the four games I listed, three have a story. It isn't a very deep story in most cases, but it's a story. Out of that list only Tetris is truly without a story.

When we play chess we don't have a story. No one feels compelled to imagine the black pieces and the white pieces as symbolizing aliens, or Commies, or Nazis, or whatever other villain you wish to envision.

This is because I've played a bit fast and lose with the term "abstract". Chess, go, poker, are truly abstract, as is Tetris. We relentlessly anthropomorphize things, but tetrominoes, black and white stones, and cards are really damn hard even for humans to anthropomorphize. But once people started using better graphics, some degree of story became all but unavoidable.

Nishikado could have made Space Invaders completely abstract, replacing the invaders with featureless geometric shapes and calling it "Shoot Things" instead. The gameplay would be identical. Yet he, doubtless without even thinking about it, chose to introduce the skeleton of a narrative. Even the name of the game implies a narrative of some sort: Space Invaders. Someone is invading, from space, for some reason. We don't explore the reason in the game, but the narrative is inherent in the title and the animations. It provides an emotional hook into the game that wouldn't exist otherwise.

The existence of even the tiniest shred of narrative is, I think, why Space Invaders, Pac-Man, and the like were more popular than chess and go. They're easier to play and that helps, but they also tie into our emotions even if just a little, and that's something that pulls us in.

I've often felt we went wrong in describing computer interactive entertainment as "games", but its too late to try and invent a better term, because a lot of what we do with computer interactive entertainment isn't recognizable as a game in the traditional sense. I think it's worth it to at least try to describe the different things we conflate under the term game, because I think that relates to story in games.

Abstract, rules focused. These are the games most like traditional games. If there is a story it tends to be minimal, if not positively skeletal.

Then there's the opposite: interactive stories. The early, text based, interactive stories were often more gameified with puzzles and word trickery to try and entertain, and while often modern interactive stories do have game elements some don't much. Life is Strange, for example, has a few game elements tacked on and frankly they feel annoying and tacked on, the "game" would have been better without them.

In between you've got a whole mushy middle, games where story and rules interact in some ratio.

There's also simulators, which I'd argue don't exist on the same axis, but also have story creeping in, and sometimes have stories as their explicit goal. Minecraft started with no story at all, though later additions imply the vague outline of a sort of story. And games like Dwarf Fortress and RimWorld have story development as a central element.

But good, bad, or ugly, stories in games seem inevitable. People tell stories, and once you move away from the most abstract of abstract games we seem to introduce stories to games without even thinking about it.

I'd also argue that in some cases story is the only real means of distinguishing a game from its competitors. Is there really much gameplay difference between Call of Duty and Battlefield? The answer is no, not really. So a story helps produce a distinction that otherwise would't really be significant enough to attract fans.

Given the inevitability of story in most games, I think developers would be best off consciously addressing the issue and deciding how much story they intend to introduce. Space Invaders is a more compelling story than Shoot Things, but do you need cut scenes full of bathos and contrived conflict with a character for the lone defender? No. There's no doubt that some developers spend more time on story than they really should, and there's also no denying that there's some truly awful stories tacked onto otherwise decent games.

But the issue will never be if stories are good for gaming or bad for gaming. Stories are inevitable. All we can do is decide how to deal with them.
posted by sotonohito at 11:04 AM on April 26, 2017 [7 favorites]

I read an interesting theory before that explains how we are always internalizing things into personal stories. Humans remember things in stories - I went to the store, bought an apple then came home. Stories let us give meaning to events and retain them in proper order, so good storytelling can tickle our natural yearning for narrative, which is why we want to hear stories.

So when we read a novel we are internalizing the told story into our own experience of the story. Something like "The hero was in danger, but then escaped!" lets us briefly experience fear at the danger and relief at the escape. But the experience is always secondhand.

Games allow is to experience stories directly. Not just the narrative the game tells us but our experience playing the game. This is why the playthrough of Dwarf Fortress can be so memorable or even an amazing recovery in Tetris can stick with us.

Once you understand that stories are ultimately personal and present in every game you realize novels and movies are doing a bunch of work to simulate what games can do natively. The real question is "How can a game ensure the player experiences a satisfying story?" Rather than discard narrative I think this allows for a deeper understanding of what games, and stories in general, are capable of.
posted by lubujackson at 11:23 AM on April 26, 2017 [11 favorites]

Videogames are better when they have stories written for the medium, instead of steven seagal movie caliber writing from people who probably think they should be writing for films or HBO shows (hello Quantic) or is shoehorned into mechanics where the dissonance between player actions and character design is too great.

Not to say I agree with the original article; the claim "Are the resulting interactive stories really interactive, when all the player does is assemble something from parts? Are they really stories, when they are really environments?" is bullshit. The first is called worldcrafting. A few years ago, when I had a weirdo string of sci-fi-ish recurring dreams, and instead of trying to write them down (because I can't write good), I've started creating the world where they could happen. If I ever get to write them, it will probably be a lot better because I have a lot of parts to build from. On the second, I guess the author never heard of a picture is worth a thousand words. If you want to portray the brutality, say, of the war in the Balkans, there's a lot of walls with bullet holes. For the author, apparently that's just "environment".

And yeah, it's not like we don't create narratives on our own mind. In UFO:EU, OpenTTD, Sim City, I have always played imagining the story behind that. Like, for instance, when I started a number of riots on SC3K after demolishing a few blocks to make way for a new highway because PEOPLE WERE MAD THEY WERE LOSING THEIR HOMES AND PARKS GODDAMMIT. Or decided to establish a new town in OpenTTD because the ungrateful bastards of the city I started from thought I was making a terrible job and well I'm outta here and you can forget your high speed train byeeeee. Or changed the name and picture of the owner after 30 years because it was time to retire and the previous owner contempt to air transportation was holding the company back.
posted by lmfsilva at 11:23 AM on April 26, 2017 [2 favorites]

I'm with demiurge on how clickbaity this is. It's playing up a false dichotomy between mechanics and story in video games that was tired in 2007, let alone 2017. The most damning critique I can give of it is that plenty of people responded with links to things they'd written in, like, 2010.

Austin Walker's piece is great, though. "What need does story in video games fill?" is an awesome question to dive into.
posted by sgranade at 11:40 AM on April 26, 2017 [1 favorite]

I'd also be remiss if I didn't link to Videogames Are Better Without Mechanics. "The wargamer’s dream of simulation is just a complication of actually doing things, and doing things has been thoroughly revealed as pointless in postmodernity" indeed.
posted by sgranade at 11:41 AM on April 26, 2017 [5 favorites]

I've enjoyed games that are all (scripted) story and games that have no (scripted) story, though I lean toward preferring the latter - the most gameplay-optimized roguelikes, turn-based strategy, etc. I definitely felt, at one point, like the discourse around "video games as art" was weirdly stuck on scripted stories/experiences, on whether games could do what movies do - and that mainstream reviewers were way too easily impressed by games that did do what movies do. So when I saw Bogost's headline I had an automatic "hell yeah" reaction to seeing someone stake out the extreme version of the position. To be honest though I have not been closely in touch with video game media for some years now, and I'm getting the feeling that games criticism has probably already moved on - or certainly diversified - from where it was when I though this critique was needed.
posted by atoxyl at 11:42 AM on April 26, 2017 [2 favorites]

I can't believe I've read all these thinkpieces about story + games and nobody has bothered to bring up the case of Portal 2 which, for my money, is the perfect example of why games are perfectly able to bare the weight of narrative.

Portal 2, to me, is a game about trial and error. Both the mechanics themselves, working out puzzles, teasing out the ways you are able to move around the environment, and in the narrative which is about the rise and fall of a scientific powerhouse.

Yes, you could watch a movie where you watch some goofball with a portal gun launch themselves over crazy test spaces to achieve a goal. And you would probably get a sense for what the creators of said crazy test spaces were trying to achieve.

But actually playing the game, being responsible for navigating those spaces and finding your way out helped me understand all of the characters of the story in a way that I don't think a movie or book could capture.

I'm thinking, for example, of an incredible section of the game that takes place outside the futuristic confines of the previous-games testing facility and plops you into the crude 1.0 version of that environment. As you watch the puzzles unfold, you start to understand certain things about why the facility developed the way that it has that could not be as precisely conveyed as being forced to take on the responsibility of navigating those spaces for yourself.

There's also a sense of scale I get from playing that game, a sense of smallness, that I've never felt on a gut level from watching a movie or reading a book. When you stand at the base of that old, decrepit facility and look up ... and up ... and up ... and realize where you have to be and how the heck are you going to get there anyway ... the environment and the game use the tools at their disposal to make the player (ie, the reader, the viewer) feel a specific thing...

...which is one of the goals of art and narrative, right?

Of course, Bogost is right, games can execute poorly. But there's exactly no case to be made that games can't find reasons to tell stories within the medium of games because the experience of making decisions as the character in the game makes me feel things in a way that movies and novels never have.
posted by Tevin at 12:00 PM on April 26, 2017 [10 favorites]

demiurge: "Bogost's piece is academic clickbait."

At this point, I'm starting to feel like "ludology vs. narratology" is this decade's iteration of the old "vi vs. emacs", "Trek vs. Wars", etc... flame wars of Usenet days.
posted by mhum at 12:28 PM on April 26, 2017 [7 favorites]

Bogost has gotten a lot of love from the blue in the past, but all I've seen from him lately is this #slatepitchy contrarianism on the Atlantic.
posted by Halloween Jack at 12:36 PM on April 26, 2017 [1 favorite]

There was (possibly still is) an entire fandom around building stories around Sims 2.

I think the example of the Star Trek holodeck is a bit odd because Star Trek mostly used the holodeck as a plot device. Time-travel stories without the problems of time travel or alternate-universe meta fanfic are the most common situations. But artists and designers from the start were using VR and Augmented Reality for experiments in immersive 3D pieces that had more in common with architecture and sculpture than cinema or classic "play" mechanics. Also, there's non-narrative cinema and text, so I get annoyed when critics get hung up on the quality of narrative as a central issue.

Dishonored 2 doesn't have a brilliant story as far as SFF goes. But the architectural design of the game from classic gilded age city blocks, to wrought iron industrial works, through Art Nouveau and Art Deco, and for the penultimate level, that Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired palace says a fair bit about art, money, and privilege.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 12:38 PM on April 26, 2017

The line "And yet, the game is pregnant with an unanswered question: Why does this story need to be told as a video game?" is better suited to a thought experiment than what seems to be a serious essay. I've not played the game, but with other walking/exploration games, there wasn't a single one that was "pregnant with [that] unanswered question". Interactivity and first-person view gives the player more investment in the game, story, character, and outcome. Bogost might as well of been asking "Why wasn't this just done as a series of graphic novels, and that'd save the time and resources that creating a film or a game required."
Why wasn't van Gogh's "Sunflowers" done as a sculpture? He used blobs of paint on the canvas, and he would've got a better effect if it were in 3D. Because he didn't sculpt, but wanted to create art, perhaps? Like someone who doesn't have access to the education and equipment to create a film, but has the access and education to create a game decides to NOT CREATE A FILM.

Then there's the penultimate paragraph where he just chucks it all in the trash, because lesser people need editors to review their work. Or the drugs take hold, one of the two.
The sentence "But what a lot of work that is, when it’s so much easier to watch television, or to read." completely ignores the fact that when watching a TV show or reading a book, you STILL have to deal with a story! There are still characters and plot arcs and motivations exactly like you'd find in a game so what, exactly, is the overall point? So Bogost is saying there "Stories in videogames - why even bother, really?" and in the next sentence says that the game can take apart the various elements and do *other things* with them.... including the story element. So, in order to take apart a story, you'd need an actual story in the game, already, and after it's taken apart, you'd still need the story there in order for it to have some sort of coherence, otherwise you'd just throw the story out completely.
If there's no story, then it's basically an Unreal Tournament/Quake Arena pit fight or a creative mode Minecraft server and they definitely have their niche, but people have been telling stories for tens of thousands of years (link to wiki on Australian Indigenous rock paintings), and they're not stopping because you're suffering from a case of the burnouts.
posted by Zack_Replica at 1:05 PM on April 26, 2017 [3 favorites]

I have a lot of thoughts on this subject (I co-wrote the narrative PS4 game Until Dawn, have been working on several more similar games, and am also working on an interactive live action hybrid thing - I spend most of my time thinking about this stuff for better or worse), but what most of this argument comes down to for me is very simple:

Films, plays, and town hall meetings are not the same thing just because they can all occur in a theater.

The same is true of "videogames," "games," or anything with interaction: they may all use some form of interaction at their core but they are all different. Tetris is not Life is Strange and Battletoads is not Her Story. It's a huge spectrum. To make blanket statements about it like in the Bogost piece is so beside the point it's almost not worth commenting on. (That said I really enjoyed Walker and Klepak's rebuttals).

My personal idealistic approach, in both non-interactive AND interactive (and often expressed far better in interactive), is to create a situation in which the audience / viewer / player is forced (enjoyably) to come to an understanding of the idea/concept/theme/quandary you are trying to express on their own - which can create a very deep, impactful understanding of that idea/concept/theme/quandary. Done well, interaction is worlds better at achieving this than static narrative. It's rarely been explored or accomplished the way it has the potential to be, but when it works, it's an outstanding experience worth striving for.
posted by SmileyChewtrain at 1:14 PM on April 26, 2017 [13 favorites]

I think, upon 24-hours reflection, what bothers me is that Bogost positions himself as an academic but if I had submitted this piece to any of my professors at any point up through my (not-especially rigorous) masters-level education it would have been returned ungraded with "LAZY" written in fat, red, marker at the end.

It is an exceptionally lazy work that doesn't build an argument, that doesn't essayerto do anything but toss around a couple contrarianisms without making any effort to justify or explain them.

posted by Tevin at 1:15 PM on April 26, 2017 [6 favorites]

Smiley, excuse my fanboyishness, but I just discovered Until Dawn a few months ago, and it's a hell of an engrossing experience. Kudos.
posted by DrAstroZoom at 1:43 PM on April 26, 2017 [2 favorites]

I think Ian Bogost is right (i.e., "right"), and what he's saying is really that the gaming community cannot even begin to grasp how conservative the extent of formulaic creativity has become. And the subtext is there's a reason for that: the game industry incentivizes both consumers as well as labor (programmers, game artists) to not know about and seriously consider more radical (in the sense of root, or the fundamental) attitudes towards game design. One doesn't learn to be an artist without looking outside their discipline.

These conservative industrial incentives are so deeply ingrained, that the defensive reactions are that way because of false consciousness. The existing cultural context makes many people closed-minded to what Bogost is putting forth; what is not recognized enough is that money and livelihoods are involved, and those are huge factors affecting how open artists and owners of game corporations/companies are to industry problems that their own well-meaning efforts directly contribute to. In this way, if you are remotely Marxian what Bogost is saying and the responses are both immediately obvious. Simple example would be, the rebuttals "Well by the lights of Bogost's own reasoning, why games but not movies v.s. manga?"—they ignore psychological differences about linearity, narrative that specifically applies to games, which are a different technological substrate.

The basic thesis Bogost wants to get across is that video games as they exist do not even begin to fulfill their artistic potential, and video game artists have a social responsibility—even beginning out of curiosity—to grow and mature beyond the status quo.

If you understand the concept of "James Joyce", you understand what the issue is. In that sense, I bet many artistically radical, experimental authors and also film critics who thought metacognitively and philosophically about art—infamous example being Roger Ebert, for example, his essay that video games could never be art—would have basically agreed with the challenge that Bogost is laying out.

It is more far-reaching than this. There is little discussion that game industry itself is built on and reproduces unjust control over software; this issue is largely unchallenged. See Richard Stallman, who has also at times talked about the relationship between software and art in the context of social justice and how people use and abuse these technologies and media. What Bogost is saying, essentially on the meaning and value of artistic integrity and the need to re-examine that even if it is difficult, goes hand-in-hand with that. The concern that Bogost and Stallman have both continually pointed to is how profoundly upside-down society's relationship to software really is, and how we don't demand, or strive for, change. No one's fault; there are powerful structural factors working against the level of artistic and social freedom could be envisioned.

And so yes, as a (white) academic, Bogost speaks from a place of privilege. But rather, it's the diminishing of public commons/space for ideas that's the problem, and not that he's performatively being controversial with words just to stir things up (the "gadfly"). The claim that he's doing so is itself evidence of hegemonic thought.

Most people familiar with games studies know the concept of "Mary Sue" and the idea that such a character is not ethical game design. You could say that there's a parallel phenomenon in the spaces of not characterization, but also narratives, and plot, and themes, and messages, and that reasoning takes you directly to Bogost's thesis yet again. So how much of this is Bogost being mistaken, and how much of it is society unable to shed a set of deeply-ingrained prejudices?
posted by polymodus at 2:04 PM on April 26, 2017 [1 favorite]

Most people familiar with games studies know the concept of "Mary Sue" and the idea that such a character is not ethical game design.

Don't want to cause a derail, but could you elaborate on what you mean by that? I'm a game designer and familiar with "Mary Sue" primarily in the context of fanfiction, and I'm not really following where ethics comes into that intersection.
posted by NMcCoy at 2:20 PM on April 26, 2017 [2 favorites]

The basic thesis Bogost wants to get across is that video games as they exist do not even begin to fulfill their artistic potential, and video game artists have a social responsibility—even beginning out of curiosity—to grow and mature beyond the status quo.

Sure, which is why the game artists (I categorically reject "video" as a distinction), comic artists, and cinematographers who stretch the artistic potential of the medium are generally working outside of the mainstream industry and its distribution channels.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 2:38 PM on April 26, 2017

The basic thesis Bogost wants to get across is that video games as they exist do not even begin to fulfill their artistic potential, and video game artists have a social responsibility—even beginning out of curiosity—to grow and mature beyond the status quo.
Not really. It's where he starts, but it's not the main structure of his argument or how he concludes. Saying that Bogost's thesis is "games haven't reached their potential" is like critiquing a building based solely on its foundation.

Bogost's argument is that, for games to be all they can be, they need to discard narrative. He even says it in his final paragraph! "If there is a future of games, let alone a future in which they discover their potential as a defining medium of an era, it will be one in which games abandon the dream of becoming narrative media and pursue the one they are already so good at: taking the tidy, ordinary world apart and putting it back together again in surprising, ghastly new ways."

That's not saying, "games should be better, and artists should push the status quo". That's saying, "for games to grow and push the status quo, they have to discard story in favor of mechanics."
posted by sgranade at 2:46 PM on April 26, 2017 [1 favorite]

I think Ian Bogost is right (i.e., "right")

This is pastiche, right?

In this way, if you are remotely Marxian what Bogost is saying and the responses are both immediately obvious.

I think it's safe to say Austin Walker is "remotely Marxian".
posted by kmz at 3:22 PM on April 26, 2017 [1 favorite]

I'm just now catching up with all these controversies and "frustum culling" sounds like something painful you might get from sitting for too long.
posted by numaner at 3:43 PM on April 26, 2017

But rather, it's the diminishing of public commons/space for ideas that's the problem, and not that he's performatively being controversial with words just to stir things up (the "gadfly"). The claim that he's doing so is itself evidence of hegemonic thought.
The space for ideas in video games has been broadening wildly in the last 20 years. In 1997, you needed a budget of millions of dollars and a large team to make a game that would be played by even a small percentage of the gaming public. Now, tools like Unity, Game Maker and Twine can get artists and writers making interactive experiences with very little startup cost. And these games can be widely distributed over the internet for people to play. It's the best time that it's ever been to play an ever increasing variety of video games. I think he's being performatively controversial (at least to a degree) because his thesis ("Games with stories are bad. Do something else, game designers.") is so absolute and contradictory to ordinary people's experiences but he provides so little argument for it in the article and completely overlooks that arguments that he does make can be applied to any other medium as well. I agree with Austin Walker that the nature of humanity is to tell stories. Give humans any kind of artistic medium and they will tell a story.

Also, if anyone knows what Bogost means by "games are the aesthetic form of everyday objects" (and that "Television [aestheticizes] economic leisure and domestic habit"), I would love to know, it sounds like total nonsense to me.
posted by demiurge at 3:56 PM on April 26, 2017 [5 favorites]

I definitely don't agree with Bogost, but also think that his argument is less radical than he's framed it to be. I think the meat of his argument is in this paragraph,

To use games to tell stories is a fine goal, I suppose, but it’s also an unambitious one. Games are not a new, interactive medium for stories. Instead, games are the aesthetic form of everyday objects. Of ordinary life. Take a ball and a field: you get soccer. Take property-based wealth and the Depression: you get Monopoly. Take patterns of four contiguous squares and gravity: you get Tetris. Take ray tracing and reverse it to track projectiles: you get Doom. Games show players the unseen uses of ordinary materials.

What he means by this, I think, is that games take systems of specialized rules, specialized objects, and specialized spaces of interaction (if you want to apply it to an example, the rules of poker, a deck of cards and betting chips, and a poker table with a dealer) and then use those to present experiences in their players. So, a game of poker has a story, but it's a story that is very action and process oriented, and very personal to the players at the table: he's been bluffing all game, but then I got pocket aces, and we both went all in, and then he hit three of a kind on the flop, but then I got my ace on the river, and I won the tournament! That's an experience (and later a narrative) that emerges from the unique rules, objects, and space of a poker game.

What he seems to be talking about with "narrative" are games that rely heavily on expository devices to convey a story, instead of letting the player's actions develop a procedurally generated story that is unique to their play. I haven't played Edith Finch, but I think that's what he's saying is unique about it among other similar "story games", such as Gone Home,

But walking simulators were always doomed to be a transitional form. The gag of a game with no gameplay might seem political at first, but it quickly devolves into conceptualism. What Remains of Edith Finch picks up the baton and designs a different race for it. At stake is not whether a game can tell a good story or even a better story than books or films or television. Rather, what it looks like when a game uses the materials of games to make those materials visible, operable, and beautiful.

That's what makes the "games shouldn't have narratives!" framing so bizarre to me, because this does appear to be a game that does have a story - Bogost is differentiating it from other games in the genre, because it's a story that comes from interactive play, instead of reading and listening. However, that's not how the article is framed by The Atlantic, and also at odds with the tone that Bogost is using for his argument. He's saying, "abandon the dream of becoming narrative media ," which really just seems like an argument of goals. In fact, the game that he's highlighting as a good example still has narrative components to it, from all I can discern (at the very least it has a plot that Bogost introduces at the start of the piece). That's actually not that controversial of an opinion - it's something I've seen floated a lot in the wake of the tired, decades old debate about Ludology and (bleh) Narratology.

So, as others were saying, this is academic clickbait.

Regardless, I think that even taking it on the above terms instead of "games shouldn't have stories," I don't really agree. It presents a false dichotomy, where heavily narrative elements aren't game mechanics. That's based on a false presumption of gameplay and story being intrinsically different, which I don't buy.

Games are a consumer form, and there are a lot of them. There's something out there for everyone, and I don't take much stock (any more) in grand pronouncements about what a game should or should not be. The Walker rebuttal piece is a nice summary. It's impossible to divorce context from any game's development, and narratives are often an intrinsic part of design itself - not a secondary.
posted by codacorolla at 4:42 PM on April 26, 2017 [2 favorites]

Ok, spending some more time to look into this:

The approach raises many questions. Are the resulting interactive stories really interactive, when all the player does is assemble something from parts? Are they really stories, when they are really environments? And most of all, are they better stories than the more popular and proven ones in the cinema, on television, and in books?

Well, the obvious answers are yes, yes, and it depends. THE central theory of cinema is montage, and it wasn't intuitively obvious to the first viewers of cinema that cuts between characters and events were moments within continuous action and not breaks in the scene. Environmental storytelling has a rich history: the 12 Stations of the Cross and dioramas (still produced by theme parks.) Any comic requires that the reader assemble the story from individual images using cultural conventions to signal continuity. I'll even defend Family Circle as a minimalist comic that often depends on the reader imagining the first two panels of a three-panel sequence (as well as continuity from the previous week).

The last question gives the whole thing away in contrasting games to very commercial media, much of which is based on a fairly standardized narrative form. Are those three forms the sum total of narrative in art? Of course not. Ginsburg's Howl has a "narrative" flowing from a madman commiserating with a friend about the madness around them, to poetic denunciation of a source of that madness, concluding with the spiritually prophetic "I am with you in Rockland..." and an ecstatic vision of liberation from madness. Tom Waits packs multiple different but thematically linked murder ballads into the individual verses of one song. Few argue that Howl is a bad poem compared to Forman's Cukoo's Nest or Get Behind the Mule is a bad folk song compared to Devil in the White City.

Our culture is filled with art that perfectly expresses narrative in a way that's enhanced by its form and context. Advertising posters exist on the mundane end. Religious iconography exits on the sacred end. I'd put Train on the list of works that should be part of this discussion of medium and narrative. The rules force the players to buy into actions that are revealed, at a later stage, to be morally repugnant. Train gets ignored because it's a board game involving a high level of abstraction. But many participants are horrified when the faceless pawns they've been loading onto trains are revealed to be Holocaust victims.

Bogost next goes into a side bit about visual realism vs. behavior. Which I think is also missing a key point. Many forms of narrative art have employed abstraction and symbolism. Multiple cultures created forms of theater where the actors wore masks or extensive facial makeup in order to assume traditional roles. Animated realism was largely popularized by Walt Disney starting with Snow White, in contrast to industry peers and his prior work. And even then, one of Lasseter's first animated success involved test footage of a desk lamp, which prompted the question, "Is it the mom or dad?"

And yet, the game is pregnant with an unanswered question: Why does this story need to be told as a video game?

One of the key values of games as a medium, and why we design them for education, is the first-person perspective where the participant influences the outcome. This is evident in Train where the participant realizes role-played complicity with the Holocaust. In education, we usually have a discussion about how the rules of the game may or may not apply to real life.

This is different from the gimicky "found footage" perspective that has become popular after Blair Witch where we're just along for the ride. Choosing the right perspective is a critical part of storytelling. That's not really addressed, just handwaved away by saying that a cinematic perspective wouldn't change anything.

games are the aesthetic form of everyday objects

What I think he's getting at there are games as a form of simulation. In simulating objects we can "play" with how they might be used. There, my objection is that simulation is only one of many diverse ways in which objects or concepts (see playing cards) can be represented in games. I think the biggest problem is that he overextends from an obvious statement that game designers need to master the aesthetics of their form, to a statement that form shouldn't include narrative.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 4:45 PM on April 26, 2017 [3 favorites]

Well, I wonder whether it even makes sense to talk about 'everything that happens with the aid of a computer' as a single artistic medium called "games". What is holding "games" back is the idea that every "game" should check off all the boxes: story, graphics, sound, gameplay, etc. And this is, I think, largely the fault of games journalism that rewards box-checking mediocrities like the Uncharted series for being merely competent in every area rather than genuinely excelling at anything.
posted by Pyry at 6:58 PM on April 26, 2017 [1 favorite]

I'm sympathetic to the idea of striving for a medium specificity for games. You don't want to spend all your time trying to paint like a photograph, and not doing anything with the strengths of paintings that look like paint.

I did work on two never-completed educational games, where the learning objectives we were given were just a big list of facts, and it did feel to me like games were ill-suited to working with that. The few bits where I did manage to identify things I could turn into tasks for the player, my boss rejected the ideas for not sounding "fun." And the "fun" things we ended up getting them to do felt very disconnected from the learning objectives.

So it was in the context of that when I read Bogost's Persuasive Games and it articulated a lot of my frustration there. Because we weren't using the strengths of the medium.

On Twitter, the creators of Night In The Woods (FanFare link) were making fun of the question "Why does this story need to be told as a video game?" like you have a whole story and then go down to the medium store and pick out what medium you're going to use.

I think most of Bogost's actual design experience is making educational games, where I think the question "why does this need to be a game?" makes more sense. If you could achieve the same educational goal more easily with a video or a book, maybe you should just do that instead.
posted by RobotHero at 9:35 AM on April 27, 2017 [1 favorite]

And adding on the subject of medium specificity, I think telling a story in a game definitely changes it, but not necessarily for the worse. So rather than say story is inherently a poor fit for games, I think there's more value in listening to people who are telling stories in games and seeing how they're doing it.

There's a Christine Love talk I've linked to sometimes.

Where can I find more like that?
posted by RobotHero at 9:43 AM on April 27, 2017 [1 favorite]

I did work on two never-completed educational games, where the learning objectives we were given were just a big list of facts, and it did feel to me like games were ill-suited to working with that.

Education is ill-suited to working with that (big lists of facts), but I'm a cranky middle-aged constructivist who's constantly asking as part of writing objectives, "so, what will the learners actually do after participating in these activities."

That said, gamification is one of the better ways for building "lists of fact" skills, like my old nemesis, multiplication tables or noun genders. The system can be adaptive to the learner's skill level, provide immediate feedback, and can adaptively focus on individual areas where the student runs into trouble.

If you could achieve the same educational goal more easily with a video or a book, maybe you should just do that instead.

You can't with a video or book alone due to limited capability to provide practice and feedback. Usually we design presentation media assuming a human instructor to facilitate that. An interactive system can provide practice and feedback in limited ways.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 10:03 AM on April 27, 2017 [1 favorite]

Also, if you're going to talk about games as educational tools, you're probably not going to reference Bioshock and Edith Finch and compare them to novels, tv, and cinema.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 10:15 AM on April 27, 2017 [1 favorite]

I guess what I meant was that's the context where this approach works well.

Once you're looking at a more artistic context, then "I told this story using ___ because that's the way I wanted to tell it" is a valid answer.
posted by RobotHero at 10:25 AM on April 27, 2017 [1 favorite]

Ian Bogost Is Better When He's Talking About Educational Games
posted by RobotHero at 11:27 AM on April 27, 2017

I like Tom Bissell's point: the thing video games can do that most other mediums can't is emergent storytelling. The story isn't the one written by a story director; it's the one that emerges out of the game plus the player.

The question Bogost asks-- "Why isn't this a movie?"-- isn't a bad question, though I think it's a problem far less than he suggests. I've played a few games where the designer seemed to struggle to make it a game at all-- my go-to example is Dreamfall, which collapses into cutscene after cutscene at the end. If you are principally concerned with telling your story, and don't have any real interactivity or chance for other stories emerging, then maybe a game isn't the best way to tell it.

But a good-enough answer to the question is often "Because doing things is more interesting than seeing things." Left 4 Dead is a bog-standard zombie story, which wouldn't make much of a movie. But being in that story is a lot of fun.
posted by zompist at 12:48 AM on April 28, 2017 [2 favorites]

And yet, the game is pregnant with an unanswered question: Why does this story need to be told as a video game?

ugh, someone needs to sit this guy down and explain to him what "fun" is

but on the other hand the article made me aware of the existence of What Remains of Edith Finch, which I started playing last night and am totally digging, so it was good for that. I love narrative games!
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 1:46 PM on April 28, 2017

posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 2:51 PM on April 28, 2017

I should have called it a "lecture" to play up the incongruity.

So like, I think "better without" is unfounded, but I do see people responding to it with kind of crappy arguments, like saying he must not like games if he says that. or demanding he prove his geek cred, or whatever. So I feel tempted to defend what he's saying even though I don't really agree?

Some of the reaction seems kind of treating saying games are bad at stories as equivalent of saying they're bad at art. But the people who treat those as equivalent are the people who I think would benefit from what he's saying.

The opposition I most agree with are people who already are telling stories with games. Visual novels, interactive fiction, Twine games, narrative-heavy games, etc. People who are actually telling stories with games and it sells it short to describe it as just an imitation of other mediums.
posted by RobotHero at 8:16 PM on April 28, 2017

When we play chess we don't have a story

A battle of two armies, ending when the enemy king is captured, surely.

posted by ersatz at 7:37 AM on April 29, 2017 [1 favorite]

Perhaps for some people that's the case, but I can't say I've ever seen anyone play chess and envision a story about the pieces like that. Anymore than I've seen anyone really envision a story for tic-tac-toe. You **COULD** invent a story to fit, but people generally don't when facing a game of that degree of abstraction.
posted by sotonohito at 2:19 PM on April 29, 2017

That's... literally what chess is, though. It's a literal description of both the rules of chess and its origin.
posted by tobascodagama at 5:36 PM on April 29, 2017

Emily Short: Writing in Collaboration with the System
posted by RobotHero at 8:58 PM on April 29, 2017

Bogost has now written an article about fidget spinners. In my mind this pushes the "story" article towards the "clickbait attempt" column than the "sincere attempt at expressing his philosophy of design."

Which I'm kind of said about, because like I said, I read Persuasive Games at a point where that was really useful for me.
posted by RobotHero at 11:09 AM on May 13, 2017 [2 favorites]

So I'm giving these updates because I apparently have conflicted feelings.

From Bogost's Twitter:
Not the most important observation right now, but, the Trump era sounds the final, if expected, death-knell for so-called serious games.

Instead of systems thinking we got literal sound bites as policy. The winning kind of computing—social media &c—sowed those seeds.
Ironic because it's so short, but it may represent his ethos better than the "Games without stories" article. Maybe because there's greater emphasis on what he wants more of, (systems) rather than what he wants less of. (stories)

The gerrymandering game is the sort of "games as systems" thing he'd go for, in that the player learns about gerrymandering through operating it.
posted by RobotHero at 9:40 AM on May 15, 2017

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