Video Games Aren’t Better Without Stories

There’s a story about Matthew Arnold where his sister criticised him for being as dogmatic as Ruskin. Arnold replied that “the difference is that Ruskin was dogmatic and wrong.” I want to acknowledge in opening this article that I will be working from a relatively dogmatic perspective; that said, it might so happen that I’m also right. In April 2017, Ian Bogost (a major figure in Game Studies) wrote an article for The Atlantic, titled ‘Video Games Are Better Without Stories‘. Given that all of my work here (as well as my actual academic work) revolves around video games as narratives, I disagree. Let’s chat about it.

Bogost’s basic argument is that in video games, the focus on storytelling actually “obscures more ambitious goals.” The solution, he suggests, is that video games stop trying to be stories and start focusing on the things they’re good at: “taking the tidy, ordinary world apart and putting it back together again in surprising, ghastly new ways.” That’s the position being put forward.

In putting forward his argument, Bogost refers to the Star Trek ‘Holodeck’ as the “longstanding dream” of what video game narratives should look like. “In this hypothetical future,” he says, “players could interact with computerized characters as round as those in novels or films, making choices that would influence an ever-evolving plot.” By referring to the Holodeck, he’s also positioning himself against Janet Murray’s Hamlet on the Holodeck, a seminal 1998 text on narrative in games. It’s actually subtitled “The Future of Narrative Cyberspace.” Bogost argues that the Holodeck is “an almost impossible bar to reach, for cultural reasons as much as technical ones.” Fair enough. But is that a good reason to dismiss video game narrative as a worthwhile goal?

It seems to me that Bogost is setting up a straw man: he establishes the Holodeck as a supposedly longstanding dream for video game narratives, shows that it’s an impossible goal, and then concludes that Video Games Are Better Without Stories. But video games aren’t all trying to be the Holodeck. It’s a bit of a dated reference, frankly – and even if we assume that Bogost is primarily arguing against Murray, he’s arguing with a book that’s twenty years old. Twenty years is a very long time in terms of video game narrative. When she wrote her book, Murray had never seen many of the games that are cornerstones in our contemporary discussion of video game narrative today. Never mind the Holodeck, Murray hadn’t experienced Halo, Hollow Knight, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, Half-Life 2 – or even the original Half-Life, for that matter; her book came out in July, and Half-Life in November of 1998. Each of those games has their own integrity as a narrative form quite aside from this pursuit of the Holodeck that all games are supposedly involved in.

As a premise, then, the article is already deeply flawed. It assumes that all games are trying to reach the Holodeck, and then criticises them for falling short. For instance, Bogost criticises environmental storytelling as falling short of the Holodeck:

“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?”

There’s a lot going on here, and I want to deal with each part in turn.

“Are the resulting interactive stories really interactive, when all the player does is assemble something from parts?”

This sentence reveals the underlying straw man assumption: that all game narratives are working towards the Holodeck. Bogost argues that interactive stories are not truly interactive, because the player is essentially just playing through pre-ordered events laid out by the developers. These games don’t have the reactive storylines that one might expect from the Holodeck – where, as mentioned, “players could interact with computerized characters as round as those in novels or films, making choices that would influence an ever-evolving plot.” Bogost is making a relatively reasonable point here, but his terms are messy. Video games are quite clearly interactive. You have to play them, rather than just watching or reading as in films or books. That’s a meaningful type of interactivity. Even watching and reading are in a sense interactive, when you get down to it – the distinction might sound petty, but it’s important. As a term, ‘interactivity’ is vague. That’s a problem. But alright, we understand what’s generally intended, even if the actual words used are a bit vague. Obviously games do not have the pure reactive storylines of the Holodeck. Note again the straw man here: Bogost is technically correct, but so what? Games can have other sorts of narrative structures and configurations and intentions beyond this idealized Holodeck. They are not non-interactive simply because they do not have reactive storylines. Put another way, even if the player is just assembling something from parts, assemblage can itself be a type of storytelling.

“Are they really stories, when they are really environments?”

This is actually a really delicate bit of theory. We have to be careful here. Let’s talk about this six word short story, which is often attributed to Hemingway:

‘For Sale: Baby Shoes, Never Worn’

Now we might instinctively say that there’s a story in those words. There’s clearly two parents, and they had a baby, and the baby died, probably in a miscarriage or during birth. We feel sad, because we imagine the grief of the parents putting these shoes up for sale. But none of those details are explicitly given in the text. All that’s there is a ‘For Sale’ notice with a description of the items for sale. Everything else – the characters, the implied events – we just made all of that up, you and me. So here’s the question: where does the story exist in the six word story? Is it something that inherently resides in the text? Is it something we make up ourselves, prompted by the stimulus in front of us? Does it exist in some complicated relationship between the two? Do we even count the six word story as a story? Why? It’s not directly telling you about the relevant events, it’s just giving you information that might prompt you to imagine a related story in your head. Is that good enough to be counted as a story? If so, what’s the difference between that and environmental storytelling? Isn’t that also just giving you information that might prompt you to imagine a story in your head?

I’m not necessarily putting forward my own argument about the definition of story here – I’m just pointing out that it’s not a simple question. Bogost seems to be asking his question rhetorically, going at least some of the way towards dismissing environmental storytelling as a legitimate narrative form. He’s not coming out and giving us his own personal answer, but by raising the question he’s implying the significant possibility of the answer being ‘no’. That’s one of the rhetorical functions of questions, as Bogost well knows.

“And most of all, are they better stories than the more popular and proven ones in the cinema, on television, and in books?” 

This question is vague and deeply subjective, to the point where it’s barely worth asking in a professional academic capacity. It’s okay here, because Bogost isn’t writing a professional academic article. He is writing something pretty subjective; for instance, he goes on to announce that “the best interactive stories are still worse than even middling books and films” – which, okay, yeah, pretty subjective opinion. But this sort of writing illustrates one of the methodological problems of my own response. Bogost’s argument is on some level intended to be entertainment. It’s published in The Atlantic, rather than the MLA or the Journal of Narrative Theory or something. Bogost is allowed to make sweeping subjective statements without supporting evidence – for instance, he can announce ex cathedra that the best interactive stories are still worse than mediocre books and films. From an academic perspective, it’s hard to even begin a response to that claim. Which interactive stories does he consider to be ‘best’? What does ‘best’ mean in that context? What are some examples of middling books and films? What constitutes a ‘middling’ book? In what sense can you treat books, films, and games as comparable narrative media? In what sense are films, TV, and books more “popular and proven? Is the suggestion that more people watch TV than play games? If so, what data supports that claim? Doesn’t it also seem odd to claim that books are more popular than video games, especially among children and young adults?

Bogost’s terms clearly aren’t defined with any particular rigour, which makes me feel like it’s an overreaction to respond to his article with any seriousness. At the same time, it’s a piece from a major Game Studies theorist suggesting that my narrative approach to video games is fundamentally wrong-footed – that it somehow misconstrues the true value of this new medium. Indeed, he explicitly says that “Players and creators have been mistaken in merely hoping that they might someday share the stage with books, films, and television.” Players and creators, and also arguably narrative theorists like me. Bogost’s position as a significant scholar kinda conflicts with the subjective and informal nature of the article. It’s subsequently hard to know how to read some of his comments. That’s why I was a bit fiddly about his ‘rhetorical questions’ above – it’s not clear whether he’s legitimately undecided on those issues, or whether he’s deploying the questions as a rhetorical shorthand, all but explicitly dismissing environmental storytelling as a legitimate narrative form.

Bogost’s loose terms also create problems for talking about story as a concept in itself. For instance, while discussing The Vanishing of Edith Finch, he asks “Why does this story need to be told as a video game?” We might reply that it doesn’t necessarily ‘need’ to be told as a video game, but that the video game medium impacts the way in which the story is told. If it was in a different medium, it would be a different text. Different mediums are configured in different ways and have different functions. Each medium has a cluster of media-specific effects that could not easily be achieved by other media technologies, if at all. For instance, the video game version of Edith Finch asks the player to navigate an avatar through a simulated virtual space, exploring more or less at their leisure. The medium impacts how you as an audience member receive the story – after all, the medium is the message. The specificities of each medium impact the ways in which stories are told.

But Bogost seems to think that the medium is not part of the storytelling process. He writes that the character vignettes that make up Edith Finch are “each keyed to a clever interpretation of the very idea of real-time 3-D modeling and interaction.” He goes on to delineate the different types of modelling and interaction in the game: “in one case, the player takes on the role of different animals … in another, the player moves a character through the Finch house, but inside a comic book.” But then he suggests that these different types of modelling “are not feats of storytelling, at all. Rather, they are novel expressions of the capacities of a real-time 3-D engine.” That’s a bit of a weird claim. Aren’t they both? Aren’t they novel expressions of the capacities of a real-time 3-D engine presented within a narrative context as part of a cohesive and purposeful story? The medium is part of the final text. Masterful use of the medium is part of the storytelling process – that’s why a master theatre practitioner will not necessarily also be a master novelist. Again: the medium is part of the text. King Lear on film is not the same as King Lear on stage. They might have the same dialogue, and the same string of plot events, and maybe even the same actors – but they aren’t the same text. They’re in different mediums. And the specific languages of film and theatre may be used to accentuate and convey the same basic plot in two radically different ways, even assuming that dialogue and plot and actors are identical in both versions. Ultimately, I guess I’m not really sure what Bogost thinks ‘storytelling’ is. If purposeful and deliberate use of the medium is not a feat of storytelling, at all, then what is? What’s left?

As a concession, I would be willing to debate the question of whether or not much is added to Edith Finch by the gameplay element. It might be that the gameplay does not add all that much to this particular text. It might be just as poignant an experience as a film, say. But it does not then follow that all gameplay is somehow superfluous to the art of telling meaningful stories in video games. It does not then follow that stories and video games have no productive interplay, no new and exciting modalities. It does not then follow that video games and stories are better off without each other.

I’ll close with Bogost’s final two paragraphs:

“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. A greater ambition, which the game accomplishes more effectively anyway: to show the delightful curiosity that can be made when stories, games, comics, game engines, virtual environments—and anything else, for that matter—can be taken apart and put back together again unexpectedly.

To dream of the Holodeck is just to dream a complicated dream of the novel. 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 final paragraph really accentuates the point I made in the opening. Video games shouldn’t be dreaming of the Holodeck – well, are they? I rather think that video games are trying to carve out their own space as a narrative media, amidst multiple conflicting desires. They are drawn by money, drawn by fame, drawn by gaming culture, drawn by the successes of other mediums and – yes, no doubt, also to some degree drawn by the promises made in science fiction shows and elsewhere, of the Holodeck and the Matrix and everything else. At best the Holodeck is one influence among many.

Bogost’s subjectivity also re-enters in these closing moments. Video games are so much harder than watching TV or reading – again, are they? My little brother probably has a much easier time gaming than sitting down and reading a book. If you asked him to read a book for four hours, or play a game for four hours, I’ll tell you what he’d pick. He doesn’t have any experience reading for that length of time. It’s not a natural in-built characteristic of human nature that we all find reading easier than gaming. Indeed, some would say that if our attention span has actually decreased, the more demanding feedback loop of gameplay retains our attention much more powerfully than any mere paperback. And again, with the idea that narrative is a lesser ambition for video games – it’s such a partisan claim that there’s not really a whole lot to say about it, from the academic perspective. I mean, sure, that’s his take. No worries. Games will carry on doing their thing, and if they ever all simultaneously take up Bogost’s idea, I guess I’ll be out of a job. That’d be lame.

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