I’ve been meaning to speak my mind about the relationship we’ve had with film. Videogames are nascent and they didn’t come this far without having taken some queues from other media. I enjoy movies a lot, I’ve even tried to make my own. When I see movies, I see a medium that’s acutely self aware of its strengths and what all it’s capable of. The same I don’t see in games, especially the kind that borrow generously from film and aspire to be more like movies. When I look at games of that kind, more often than not, I only see a haphazard mess of disparate ideas clumsily glued together, far from what I would like to call a cohesive whole.
Put very bluntly, I don’t think videogames are a storytelling medium. I don’t feel they were ever really suited for it. There is definitely space for story in games but when they’re made to deliver them linearly like most films do, they fail to bring anything new to the table. Films have excelled at a lot of different things. They’ve established themselves and proved their worth in their storytelling potential over decades. The same hasn’t happened in games. Videogames are infinitely more complex, I don’t see why we feel the need to succeed at storytelling. With the games I make, I’m definitely not fighting that fight. What a poem can do with a sentence, a book in a paragraph and a film with a single cut, videogames have barely moved an inch in their storytelling potential over the last few decades. Except a few rare exceptions, most of the progress we’ve made has only come from shamelessly borrowing from film and literature. I feel if we spend all of our time trying to imitate film, we’ll be playing second fiddle to their brilliance forever, unless we focus more on what gives strength to our medium. Who’s looking for that?
There’s writing in games that adds to the fiction, which doesn’t interact with the game in any way. Then there’s writing in games that affects how you interface with the game and informs play in a meaningful way. A boss you choose to not fight at all, a friendly NPC that you decide to kill in cold blood, or a hint that makes you run off into the wild looking for treasure. If a story isn’t informing the gameplay, if every line isn’t a call to action, if the words are only working to set up a background to the discourse, then what place does it have in a game? We can still put it there, but if it doesn’t proactively influence and manipulate the player’s own motivation and intent then, I don’t feel like metaphors right now, but that’s just like a bad sandwich, man.
If anything, I feel games today happen to resemble pornography more than anything else. Porn speaks to our most basic instincts and desires just the way games do. Playing a modern big budget action-adventure game often involves shooting bad guys, watching numbers go up, collecting items and unlocking achievements while a story plays out in the background that has nothing at all to do with any of it. It feels good to level up, there’s a primal sense of satisfaction derived from seeing a list of items collected and quests completed. No amount of story is facilitating that reward and that’s almost exactly the way it works in porn. Obviously we’re aroused looking at two naked adults fondling their privates together and if we do away with the drama in the gym locker room that led up to it, we lose very little of the impact it has on its audience.
2001: A Space Odyssey didn’t bother with a ten minute monologue to explain the climax and War & Peace doesn’t include coloring sections. Films get their power from the cut. Comics get it from the space between the panels. Books rely exclusively on the power of language. Where do videogames get their power? I feel our medium is struggling to break from its confines and we’re choking it by trying to have it live up to standards that only distract from what makes it truly unique. We have to broaden our perspective on what videogames are and what makes them important, so we can together take them to a place they’ve never been before.
Videogames have grown up, it’s time to let them out of the cage.