On Monday night I went along to a public discussion panel in Westminster Hall entitled “Taking Video Games Seriously“.
It was a strange sort of gathering- but interesting for all that, as I’ve not been to a talk like it before. It was chaired by the rather charming Labour MP Tom Watson, and featured contributions from various speakers (including Tom Chatfield, author of Fun Inc. and Ed Vaizey, Shadow Minister for Culture) and was attended by people like me (i.e. busybodies from agencies), other interested MPs, various NGO representatives, Games Industry lobbyists and also the Gamer-interest pressure group “Gamers Voice“.
It was a pretty wide-ranging discussion, and if you are interested in exactly what was said, there is a highly accurate liveblog of the event very helpfully posted here.
My reason for writing this post however, was sparked by one moment in particular- a question from a journalist at the back of the room who asked the panel why games were so bad at doing narrative. He said he understood the debate about games not seeking to ape the conventions of film, but felt that the kind of storytelling employed by classic LucasArts games like Grim Fandango had been regrettably superceded by newer games like BAFTA-winning BioShock that instead offer “nothing more than the ability to machine-gun Ayn Rand fans”.
I do happen to think that the questioner was wrong though, in a very specific way.
LucasArts made several cherished ‘point and click’ adventure games that were better narrative vehicles than other games- or at least they seemed that way. In my opinion, the gameplay they represented was simply more narrative-centric than other forms- because it prioritizes the development of story above game-world immersion, ‘sandbox’ exploration and player agency. LucasArts adventure games like Monkey Island or Grim Fandango seem to tell better stories to observers because they give a more familiar approximation of linear, text-with-pictures type narrative forms than any of the more modern popular genres (particularly FPS and MMORPG) do. They look like better stories.
The distinction between looking and playing is important here, I think. I remember watching Monkey Island being played and imagining it must be great fun – it was funny, brilliantly animated and seemed to make intuitive sense as a story. Ironically, as an observer I was probably deriving as much enjoyment from spectating as my brother was from playing the game, given that a great deal of playing simply consisted of moving Guybrush around the screen and reading the text prompts that resulted. It was basically an animated picture book; extremely well-crafted, but a picture book nonetheless.
Personally I don’t miss the ‘point and click’ genre at all (with the possible exception of Myst). Having recently downloaded Monkey Island for the iPhone I quickly realised why I never finished the game the first time around and salvaged the disk space.
I don’t personally believe that the narrative itself is intrinsically better in this sort of game (good though it often is), but more to the point, I certainly don’t believe that any given story is better told in this format. In fact, it was the mention of BioShock that made me sit up and pay attention because BioShock has one of the best examples of a truly game-specific mode of storytelling that I can think of.
*spoiler alert – the twist in BioShock is revealed below – if you haven’t played it you should probably stop here*
Now BioShock has been (justly) celebrated precisely for the fact that it is a narrative-rich world, in fact it is positively overflowing with narrative elements – but only if you choose to engage with them. Rather than asserting the priority of text over image, of figure over ground, the game functions as a world first and foremost.
Indeed, if you want to machine gun as many Ayn Rand fans as you like simply to get to the end, you can do that. You won’t avoid the story completely, but you’ll get a much more streamlined version. Hell, if you don’t even want to use the map, you can turn on a compass that will automatically point you in the right direction! Shoot away, and navigation be damned!
Of course, if you want to find out more, you can do that too. As a shooter, it’s mechanics are clever, well-balanced and satisfying, but Rapture’s depth as an immersive world to inhabit is hard to rival. There is a game achievement available for uncovering every scrap of narrative describing cracked visionary Andrew Ryan’s underwater city- though it will take you considerable time to get. Essentially, it’s up to you how much or how little narrative you chose to wrap your experience of playing in, and that’s what makes it a modern videogame in the truest sense.
Of course this is more or less true for most modern games. What makes BioShock special is the pivotal scene roughly two-thirds of the way through the game; the confrontation with Andrew Ryan himself.
This is where everything goes topsy-turvy; your character’s true origins, purpose and worth are unveiled in brutal fashion.
Ryan reveals that your character is nothing but a pawn, a mindless automaton who has been doing the bidding of a hidden power up to this point, under the influence of deeply buried pyschological ‘trigger words’.
The manner in which he reveals this is shocking: he commands you to kill him – using your trigger word – and refuses to defend himself, challenging you to defeat your programming and relent.
Now it is not simply the twist itself – the ‘story-flip’- that makes this part of the game so powerful (though it is brilliantly conceieved). It is also the fact that the game remains ‘a game’ throughout this exposition. Unlike other narrative interventions in games (like the Metal Gear series for example) your agency isn’t removed by a cut-scene- your ‘screen-hands’ remain in place and at your command. Indeed, whilst Ryan is talking to you, you are able to switch weapons or plasmids in anticipation of the fight to come.
It never arrives.
Instead, as well as a ‘story-flip’, you are disoriented by a physical and unexpected ‘control-flip’, which confounds your most basic expectations as a player. As the twist is revealed, your powerlessness is made physically manifest. Once the trigger-word is uttered, the controller in your hands becomes dead weight. Useless.
Your on-screen hands repeatedly bludgeon Ryan, until he can no longer get to his feet, and beyond.
Nothing you do with your controller can change this.
Not only are you a powerless pawn in-game, you are a powerless pawn out of the game as well. The device and control system that has been mastered by you, has allowed you to reach this point, is overridden completely.
This might sound simple, but because the game remains a game throughout – your first-person perspective and your HUD remain at all times- the loss of control is a sudden, physical sensation. Like a slitting of the spinal cord that connects you to your character, you, the omniscient conciousness that not only animates the on-screen body but controls (even pauses) the world of Rapture itself at your convenience, become a mute and paralysed observer to a brutal crime.
Your complicity in the story is compounded by your inability to act (and to interact) when it matters.
It is one of the most powerful bits of writing for a specific medium I can think of. It left me feeling used in a way no storytelling alone could convey. It affected me the player, not simply me the observer. It was, I guess, a kind of storyfeeling.
This ability of games, to suddenly remind you of your physicality – to play with the sensations of your interaction with the game device itself- is the most criminally underused tool in the industry’s box of narrative tricks. The sudden realisation that the games designers are breaking the fourth wall- are speaking to you, the player, the guy who is playing this game right now– is a device that other mass-produced media cannot replicate.
The only other (and equally brilliant) example I can think of that employs this approach is in Legend of Zelda: The Phantom Hourglass (on the Nintendo DS). There is a moment in the final third of the game when you are asked to transfer a symbol on your in-game map from your active screen (the one you can interact with using a stylus) to the map on your inert screen (that displays information but cannot be manipulated).
This seemingly simple task completely confounded me. I tried everything I could think of, but the sum total of my knowledge built up in-game (and from hundreds of hours spent in previous Zelda games) proved totally useless. This problem had no analog with a Zelda game on any other Nintendo device – which is it’s particular genius.
I was on a train at the time, and out of sheer frustration was about to slam the DS petulantly shut when I realised… that shutting the DS was the answer.
By bringing the two screens physically together – effectively preventing you from actually playing – you could move the mark across this otherwise impenetrable boundary.
It was laugh-out-loud brilliant.
A playful, unexpected and welcome acknowledgement of you as a player, as a person holding the device and physically interacting with it.
Again, the fourth wall is breached. You are recognised as not simply controlling Link the character, but having the ability to collapse and close the game’s entire narrative universe whenever you choose; the game has deliberately brought your physical context into it’s locus of effect. It is telling its story in your space, through your hands- not simply via a screen, some text, and some music and some sound effects.
This is how games can tell stories no other medium can.
They know you are playing them, and with this knowledge, the player – you – also become their medium.
The more designers that realise this, the closer I think we’ll get to a truly unique narrative form that is born of and designed for games alone.