“Now that games are considered ‘art’, they need to feature more mature, responsible stories and life lessons.” No. No they don’t.
The Art in Gaming
The idea of story-telling as an art form is as old as the concept of art itself – but the sentiment that art in gaming comes entirely from the content of the narrative is as big of a fallacy as saying that art in music comes solely from the content of the lyrics. Now, I enjoy a game with a solid narrative – or the occasional lyrical lore of Slick Rick’s whimsical story albums – but those narrative aspects do not wholly represent the artistic value in their respective mediums. Can a game be as artistic without a traditional narrative or any substantial narrative at all? Game Theory’s MatPat makes a compelling argument that it can. In his woefully underrated YouTube series DeadLock (#bringbackdeadlock), The Last of Us is pitted against Pac Man to see which is the artiest.
Both sides make great points on behalf of their respective games, but specifically I want to focus on the idea of choice taking something away from an art form. The classic reasoning is that art is a communication from the artist to the audience and anything that gets in the way of that communication – like player agency and choice – take away from that artistic expression. This is the basis of a view (held by Roger Ebert, among others) that games need to emulate movies and books to be artistic. This view is patently and absolutely untrue.
Now I should say that the aim of this writing is not to crap all over narrative-driven games, but to discern the artistic value at the core of our interactive medium, and to illustrate that games are and have always been artistic in their own right. Today I would like to explore how facilitating player choice in gaming actually adds artistic value, how our medium is inherently different from books and movies, that narrative does not define our medium and that gamers too play a huge role in shaping the artistry in video games.
I’m going to be talking about “narrative-driven” games a lot in this writing, so let me define exactly what I mean. There are many ways to tell a story or to construct a narrative, each one working a little differently in the context of its own medium. I want to be very clear that when I’m talking about a “narrative-driven game”, I’m referring specifically to games that use the traditional definition and structure of narrative. Games that use a string of connected events to march the player towards the end of a story, one piece of exposition at a time. Games where the artistic value is generally focused on linear narrative rather than dynamic gameplay. Of course, concepts like “artistic value” are difficult to nail down, but more on that a bit later. First, we need to look at a few themes and sentiments in gaming culture today in order to identify why some consider narrative to be the artistic driving force in modern gaming.
A Shift in Ideology
Recently there’s been a dramatic shift in video game ideology that prioritizes “smarter”, more thought-provoking games – games with deeper characters and greater meaning. The idea is that because gaming hardware has evolved to let developers present more fleshed-out characters, enhanced dialogue options and longer cutscenes, developers should use these opportunities to create narrative-rich, cohesive epics that teach us valuable lessons about social responsibility and the world around us. If this sounds great on paper, that’s because – on paper – it is. In fact, if this is the driving force behind the game you’re making, I would recommend just sticking to paper instead. Consider that mediums such as books and film can convey messages much more directly. If you’re setting out to make a strong point, directness and brevity are key.
This shift in ideology is perhaps best vocalized by Chris Franklin in his excellent and informative YouTube series Errant Signal. In his review of GTAV, he praises the game’s graphics and attention to detail, but laments that it lacked a singular narrative, that it didn’t commit to any particular set of ideals or politics and that it didn’t find enough worthy social targets to “take down a few pegs”. Afterall, how could such a technically competent, detail-driven game miss the opportunity to make a statement about our society? Why would the developers toil so long and hard on a project without adding some critical social commentary that would live on as the artistic impression on history that is GTAV? Why is it just violence for violence’s sake?
To me, asking these questions is akin to asking why a show as beloved as Rick and Morty (if you’re not familiar, please do yourself a favor and check it out) never commits to a political message or specific ideology – or why it’s just a show with humor for humor’s sake. Almost every episode is rich with meaning and takeaways, yet there is no singular agenda or message other than Rick’s sense of science nihilism.
Similarly, every moment of play in GTAV offers something to take away from it, if you choose to. It may not be perfect or always deeply meaningful, but it gives players the freedom to take what they deem valuable away from each experience. More to the point, it allows players to forge their own mini-narratives without an overbearing plot hammering them on the head with whatever life lesson the developer deems worthy of learning that year. This is key: your audience is not stupid. The people who play your games are going to be able to formulate their own life lessons if they choose to.
Ludonarrative dissonance is a term that means the gameplay (ludo) and the narrative (narrative) are at odds with one another. It’s a term that comes up a great deal in conversations about modern gaming because more often than not, narrative-heavy games have this conflict working against them. Ever play a Call of Duty game where your character dies about 240 times during the game, but then dies again and stays dead in the story, leaving you wondering what the difference was? Ever get stuck on a difficult part of a game for days only to beat it later and totally lose the pacing the plot had built up? Ever get told by the game that you have to “hurry”, only to fully expect the game doesn’t care how much time you take? Those are all examples of ludonarrative dissonance, and each one degrades the effectiveness of both the narrative and the game. This last example can feel especially betraying to players because it puts them directly at odds with the game creators. How many narratives have you played through where your NPC buddy with the shifty eyes ends up betraying you in the third act? You probably saw it coming, but it didn’t matter because you – as the player – have no control over the situation. Because you – as the character in the game – have to go through the motions and can’t figure out that characters with shifty eyes are most often dubious.
I get that you’re “playing a role” of a character that is less observant than you might be, but is that really rewarding? Are those the kinds of roles you want to play? It’s one thing to yell “don’t go in there, stupid” at movie characters that are lacking the wherewithal of basic human survival, but when that character in some way represents you or your actions it reflects poorly on the player too. It feels almost like the game is lying to you – like it lacks trust in your ability to make entertaining choices for yourself. Basically, it’s the video game equivalent of having food ordered for you on a first date, or your parents answering your excited inquiries with “just because” for lack of trust in your ability to understand the answer. It’s patronizing and insulting to your audience. You should never be the kind of developer to purposefully mislead your audience like this.
This idea is perhaps best represented by the eventual introduction of quick time events to major titles. To me, these events always came off somewhere between a desperate need to mash gameplay together with cutscenes, and the developers simply not trusting the player with enough freedom to properly enjoy the best parts of their game. Typically, these glorified reaction tests will rear their ugly head right as you’re about to actually do something exciting. The game will flash a prompt on the screen, essentially degrading the player’s entire experience to a pass-or-fail state. Worse yet, some games don’t even trust the players enough to perform the simple task of pressing a button in time, instead opting to simply wait until you press it or hilariously enough just pretend that you had (I’m looking at you, Telltale games).
Look, experimenting with different, even simplified inputs is not the issue here. I freakin’ LOVE One Finger Death Punch, and I very much enjoyed Heavy Rain for what it was – a game that decided from the start that it would try something new and stuck to its guns. Those games are consistent in their approach and I applaud them for it. What I dislike here is game creators yanking control away from the player for the sake of spectacle or exposition.
Games can be phenomenal at asking players questions that provoke thought and experimentation. As players, selecting between carefully weighed options can be a cathartic and profoundly enlightening experience. However, being presented with choices that don’t matter or plot elements that are supposed to evoke a certain response or promote a specific agenda just don’t work as well in this medium. Some people might be on board with whatever point the game is trying to push, but it will rub the rest of the audience the wrong way. Allowing players to make their own choices is at the very core of gaming. Giving the player the ability and knowledge to make interesting and well-informed decisions is the very nature of good game design.
The “I Don’t Have Time for Challenging Games” Fallacy
Another common theme I’ve heard echoed in every part of this discussion is, “Gamers are older now, they have jobs and kids. They don’t have time for challenging games and learning when they’re just taking time to relax.” Even Wisecrack’s phenomenal carrot and stick video brushed this off as a hard fact. This point is harder for me to argue because there is a great deal of truth in that statement. I have a full time job, an after hours game development career, a fiance I live with and an addiction to gaming that someone outside our industry would quickly diagnose as unhealthy were it not for the tangential relationship to the aforementioned game development. Time is rarely on my side. The idea here is that because we have less time, we should be playing games where progress is easier to make, saving time in the process. This seems to make perfect sense.
The fallacy here is the assumption that learning is inherently devoid of entertainment value (i.e., “I just got done with homework; I’m not playing games to do more learning.”) and that lack of progress in video games necessarily requires repetition. For now, I’ll address the latter assumption, as this idea of repetition has been beaten into us by earlier games and cemented in our minds by today’s narrative-driven ones. While early games were typically limited by technology and used repetition as a means of extending game length, modern games have adopted this tradition while trying to tell compelling narratives at the same time.
The result is often that of a skipping record (records are like big blu-ray disks with no video), forcing you to experience the same part of a story over and over and over again. This effect is objectively devoid of any artistic or entertainment value. The simple, and to me, lazy, solution to this was to ease up the difficulty in narrative-driven games in order to make this effect less prevalent and allow players of any skill to experience the artistic qualities of the story without slowing down too much. I believe when people say, “I don’t have time for challenging games”, this is typically what they are referring to. They don’t have time for repetition. They don’t have time to watch the same cutscenes, conversations and quick time events over and over. To developers that stand by the approach of easing up the challenge or restricting player freedom in order to tell a compelling narrative, I again urge you: cut out the middle man. Make a movie. Write a book.
There’s certainly a great deal of satisfaction and accomplishment that comes from finishing a game, but we can probably agree that seeing a plot get resolved or the main antagonist get their comeuppance isn’t the entire reason we play. It’s not just a mad dash to the credits; it’s the proverbial rose-smelling in between. There is something powerful that compels most of us to pick up a controller and engage with the medium rather than just watching the cutscenes on YouTube. I think it’s important to understand what that compulsion is and why we feel that it is worth our time. When a game is truly enjoyable, it won’t ask you to qualify it as “enjoyable, but only when some progress is made”. It should feel fun to play, period.
Of course, anyone that’s played a good rouge-like game or Dark Souls already knows at least one alternative approach – don’t force the player to repeat narrative sections of your game. Allow your audience to roll with the punches. Make your games broader instead of longer. If you’ve played XCom on ironman mode (even on easy difficulty) you probably know something about real loss in gaming. Games like The Last of Us can make you cry and feel real emotion for sure, but losing a valuable teammate in XCom will make your soul weep with sorrow at the very thought of picking the game back up again for days. And yet, eventually you will pick it back up, regroup and move on. Forever learning a life lesson of how to deal with loss that a narrative can only attempt to communicate through distant characters on a screen.
Where do Video Games Fit In?
On any given topic, more often than not, video games are compared to movies, but this is a misleading comparison. The difference between these mediums is not just skin deep. Books, movies, poems and paintings are single-form mediums. What I mean by this is not that they’re not interactive (they’re not), but that the artistic message in these mediums is meant to be directly consumed. A more apt comparison to video games would likely be another two-form medium such as a play or (in order to avoid similarities between movies and plays), dance.
There are countless styles of dance. Some are highly choreographed and specific, while others are wild and uninhibited – yet they all share one thing: They require both a dancer, and something to dance to. These are the two forms of the dance medium to which I’m referring to. Similarly, video games always need a player and something to play. I realize that gameplay culture isn’t really seen in the same artistic light as dancing, but that’s slowly changing. With speed runs, Let’s Plays, Twitch personalities and community play-togethers gaining in popularity, the players themselves are becoming recognized as part of the artistry. Even if you’re playing alone, you still have an audience – you. Just like dancing by yourself takes nothing away from the artistic value of the dance, playing by yourself makes you no less an artist.
Now, at the start of this writing I said the aim wasn’t to crap all over story-driven games, and it isn’t. Theme, setting and tone are instrumental in fleshing out why the actions and objectives in your game should matter to your players. Building context around the gameplay is absolutely paramount in game design. The important takeaway is that those elements should be servicing the gameplay, not the other way around. But hey, everyone can enjoy dance in their own way. No dance is “wrong” or “shouldn’t exist”. But as emerging indie developers we have a lot more freedom to take risks and explore new gaming frontiers. We have an opportunity to experiment and find new ways to move while the rest of the industry is still doing the Hokey Pokey.
Until Next Time
For now, I hope this writing has at least made a strong enough case to definitively say “unintentional ludonarrative dissonance in video games takes artistic value away from the whole” and that “narrative doesn’t need to define games just because it can”. Major parts of our industry are doubling down on an approach to game design that is both dated and frustrating. If you’re an indie dev, or someone who is trying to break into this industry, I encourage you to explore why your game is fun for you to play or to think about. What is it about your game that will carry your players through its entirety in an engaging way besides the narrative? Extrapolate those ideas and use them to their fullest extent. Until next time!