The blanket claim that “video game stories suck” is broadcast less now than it was even a few years ago. The variety, quality, and level of engagement in the stories being told within this medium has improved dramatically in the last decade. However, that claim still appears on comments sections, social media, forums, and even respected websites every now again. This series will unpack the way games tell stories, but this first entry focusses on the biggest question of all: why do video game stories suck?
Of course, everything that follows must first be prefaced with the acknowledgement that some games tell stories extremely well and that this article does not attempt to tell developers how to make games. The other qualifying statement is that the answer is multifaceted; poor writing, poor acting, or poor delivery can all ruin an otherwise high-quality narrative experience. Nevertheless, when video game stories are viewed as a collective, the issue is more fundamental than any of those incidental factors.
In David Kushner’s book Masters of Doom, legendary DOOM programmer John Carmack is quoted as saying that “[s]tory in a game is like a story in a porn movie.” Carmack meant that in the context that they exist because they are expected to exist, yet the comparison is more incisive than that one interpretation allows. In a 2018 essay, Falmouth University game design lecturer Rory Summerley expanded on the connections between those two formats, as well as bringing musicals into the conversation, highlighting the structural similarities between the three. In each, writes Summerley, the “fictions can often be interpreted as just an excuse”: an excuse for gameplay, sex, or songs. In games, that structure sees the experience split into cutscenes for the story and gameplay for the engagement, and that dualism has proven seemingly insurmountable for developers.
Acknowledgement of this division taps into the wider discourse around that fraught term, ludonarrative dissonance. First named by Watch Dogs: Legion creative director Clint Hocking, ludonarrative dissonance refers to the unpleasant sense of misalignment between narrative and gameplay. The most oft-cited example is Uncharted’s Nathan Drake, the lovable rogue who routinely slaughters hundreds of hapless henchmen, but the problem pervades gaming, affecting shooters, RPGs, and strategy titles alike. Gameplay demands actions that the stories cannot possibly justify.
Furthermore, the incursion of gameplay into narrative destroys pacing. Casablanca, for example, works because every scene offers a clear contribution to the overarching story. Rick does not agonise over the day-to-day management of his gin joint or take a stroll around the city because such activities would have no bearing on the dilemma posed by Ilsa’s arrival. In comparison, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim allows players to chase butterflies for 700 hours despite the supposedly apocalyptic threat posed by Alduin’s return. Even when the running, shooting, jumping, stabbing, sneaking, or building is contextualised within the story, its prominence is overplayed. These physically demanding and potentially traumatic activities should be significant, but they are not. Repetition robs them of meaning.
The problem is that even though these problems have been recognised and deconstructed within games—twelve years after BioShock, eleven years after Braid, and seven years after Spec Ops: The Line—developers continue to treat gameplay and story as separate entities. When narrative is embedded within gameplay, it is often through exposition: a voice over the radio or a painfully trite walking section while an NPC spouts incomprehensible nouns. Otherwise, narrative takes the form of world-building baked into the environment, though world-building is not character-building, and characters are the driving force of most stories.
These incompatibilities will not be fixed by repeating the mistakes of the past. Encouragingly, change is already happening. Dear Esther and Gone Home were flawed, uncertain first steps that have led to more nuanced creations like Tacoma and What Remains of Edith Finch. Elsewhere, Telltale and Quantic Dream kickstarted a revolution of the narrative adventure that has since delivered wonderful stories including Life is Strange, The Council, and Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice. No doubt some readers will consider these games dull or boring, regarding them as poor models for engaging gameplay. However, the style itself need not be replicated, only the structuring principle that play is intrinsic to the story.
The reason for this need of change is that the most common interpretation of “writing” within games is only half of the story. Writing is about words; it applies to characters, storylines, events, and themes, yet in media other than text, writing has to work in concert with other creative concerns. In film and television, writing works alongside acting, direction, and cinematography. In dance, writing relies on choreography and performance. Successful storytelling means making the fourth wall invisible, as even poor prose can tear a reader out of a book.
As Linda Hutcheon, University of Toronto Professor Emeritus of English and Comparative Literature, writes in A Theory of Adaptation, “Anything that reminds us that we are only gaming destroys this illusion, for immersion in [the interactive mode of storytelling] relies on the transparency of the medium.” Cutscenes disrupt that transparency, creating a discrepancy between the protagonist as character and protagonist as player. If video game stories are ever going to escape from being dismissed as being present only as necessary parts of an equation, they first need to bridge that abyss that situates the storytelling entirely beyond the player’s control.
The requirement for this rethinking of the way game stories are told lies in Hocking’s word choice: “ludonarrative.” Video games require a new kind of storytelling because they are more than narratives. The concept of play is integral to their structure, but the vast majority of games that aim for the mainstream fail to try merging these two halves. That’s why the argument that video game stories still suck continues to get broadcast.
Next week’s chapter will look at a particular kind of video game stories: those found in branching narrative adventures, with a view to how they correlate, contribute, and contradict the tenets of hyperfiction.