Getting the Message: Storytelling in Video Games

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A shot from Mass Effect 2, BioWare's unremarkably titled sequel to its 2007 sci-fi roleplaying game, Mass Effect.

The Bioware guys, Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk, dropped a few crumbs about Star Wars: The Old Republic and Dragon Age: Origins in an interview with, eventually delving into sticky conceptual stuff like storytelling in games. That got my attention. Storytelling's a topic I keep returning to this because it's the thing about modern games that's most disappointing, progressing (if you can call it progress) at roughly the rate of a doped up slug inching across a piece of sandpaper slathered in glue.

In the interview, the question is posed "Do you think a good, meaningful story is possible in an ever-changing world that all users can change?" To which Ray Muzyka responds:

I think a great story is possible, because if you think about it, the narrative is actually possible in multiple directions. There's a social narrative between players, there's the external narrative outside of the game with social networking. And then there's the internal narrative of the choices you make, and then there's the internal narrative of the story arch being created and kind of evolving over time, both on the player's user-generated content and the way they make choices and their impact on the world, but also the developers actually create a story arch that has some kind of purpose or overarching goal to it. So you can look at it almost like an onion with multiple layers of narrative, and that's one of the reasons why I think interactive fiction is so exciting, because it has those multiple layers that aren't really possible or as achievable in a more passive, linear medium. They can have good stories as well, but I think there are different kinds of narratives that are deeply exciting, in some ways more exciting, in non-linear fiction.

For the record, nonlinear fiction antedates the video game by decades, but read closely: For Muzyka, a "great" narrative is possible because it can be multidirectional. Great equals multiform, which is part of what I think is out of whack here, basically the notion that the medium--the vehicle for the content, i.e. the technology--is more important than the message. I think that drives straight to the heart of why we're still, today, wincing and/or rolling our eyes through even the best narrative bits of the most fictively "sophisticated" games. We've essentially traded the message away for what only seems deep and sophisticated (however "innovative") courtesy the latest visual advances, game interface widgets, and/or mediums like discussion boards, MMOs, Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube.

A few points of order. Not all games require sophisticated messages! No argument there. Nintendo's Mario and Zelda games employ thematically simplistic, surreal storytelling scaffolding to accommodate their dexterity-centric raison d'etre--what we call "platforming" shorthand. No one expects profundity from Sonic the Hedgehog or Metroid or Soul Calibur or Gran Turismo. And there's definitely a place for the sort of hammy, cliched, B-movie melodrama gushing from games like Resident Evil or Halo or Final Fantasy.

What's more, we already have our "Citizen Kane" analogues in gaming-dom, speaking strictly in gameplay terms, don't we? It's hard to imagine games with more perfectly tuned mechanics than your Super Mario Worlds, Civilization IVs, ICOs, or Metroid Primes. Those games qualify as artful in the purest sense of the terms, as far as I'm concerned, every bit as much as a piece of incredible architecture or a series of exquisitely executed dance moves might. (More amazing still is the fact that they succeed at being mechanically artful in spite of their lack of authorial control, the very point on which film critic Roger Ebert hangs his flawed anti-games-as-high-art-ever-and-amen argument.)

That said, I care about the message every bit as much as the medium. I can't help it, and I certainly won't apologize for it. So what I want to know is whether we'll ever see that bar really raised. BioShock got the ball rolling, but only just, and even then, its retro-dystopian story was a collage of ideas about determinism and free will explored decades ago by more able writers. That it made some of us sit up and pay attention was sort of like seeing a school bus in the middle of the Sahara. The bus was still the same familiar bus in an unexpected milieu--the medium changed, but the message didn't.

I need to clarify something else. When I talk about bar-raising, I'm talking about games-plus-something-else as opposed to Tic-Tac-Toe or even Super Mario Bros. The hybrid interactive form, i.e. games that are actually games-plus, the "plus" being cinema, prose, music, poetry, comics, visual art, etc. When you're watching a cutscene in Square Enix's Final Fantasy, you've stopped playing to watch a movie. When you bring up a fact-file in Resident Evil, you've stopped playing to read a slice of fiction. When you stop wandering around in Grand Theft Auto IV to take in a game's scenery or "look," you've stopped playing to admire its visual aesthetic.

Where game designers appropriate from existing artistic mediums, why should we judge their outcomes any differently?

Mass Effect's story compared with other sci-fi themed games was practically cerebral, a politically nuanced tale of interstellar technology and inter-species factionalism gone wild. But measured against books like Kurt Vonnegut's The Sirens of Titan and Gene Wolfe's Shadow of the Torturer and Neal Stephenson's Anathem, or movies like The Handmaid's Tale and Dark City and Solaris, it came across more like sucking on a really pretty lollipop. Muzyka and Zeschuk can talk "meta" narrative all they like--social, external, internal, whatever--that's just the medium changing, not the message.

Think about Mass Effect's message. Remember it's not Super Mario Bros. No "style over substance" excuses. What do you suppose Alan Moore or Neil Gaiman would make of Mass Effect's story? Kim Stanley Robinson? Charles Robert Wilson? Neal Stephenson? And why, if you know those writers and their oeuvre and take my point, should we judge the narrative development of certain types of games any less rigorously?

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