El Jeffe’s Lounge: Are Video Games a Narrative Medium?

For the longest time I’ve been convinced that video games haven’t achieved great storytelling like other mediums such as film or books, but now I’m not so sure. I know lots of people who love stories in games, but honestly, I often find video game narratives hard to follow or not worth the effort.  I’ve always blamed the creators for not investing enough in story.  At the same time, I never thought it mattered, so I didn’t invest much either.  I play games primarily for gameplay.  When I want to experience a great story, I still turn to books and movies, and I’m starting to think it’s not the developers’ fault.  Maybe that’s the way it should be.  Maybe video game aren’t meant to tell great stories.

There are numerous flaws with my old argument, the largest of which is I think video game developers do invest in story.  They seem to genuinely care about their characters and the worlds they build around them, as do many of their fans.  Furthermore, the industry has grown up and clearly wants interactive entertainment to be the dominant medium of all entertainment.  Games now have Hollywood-sized budgets complete with complex, story-driven scripts, sometimes penned by famous screenwriters.  In fact, just recently I’ve actually complained that story often seems to take relevance over gameplay these days, sometimes negatively impacting the core “game” experience. 

The other major problem with my old argument is there are games out there that have come very close to achieving great storytelling, if not always great stories.  I just finished Alan Wake, and I don’t think I’ve ever been so engrossed in a video game’s story.  It’s clearly inspired by many horror greats spanning all mediums (especially Stephen King, whom it references multiple times), and it has a strong sense of character and setting.  The storytelling is also compelling and makes it easy to stay engaged; its episodic narrative borrows from television and recaps what has happened in previous levels, catching the player up if they’ve taken a break.  I cared about what was happening, and I continued to play to find out what would happen next.  And with the episode recaps, it was easier to stay focused. 

Other recent examples include Heavy Rain, Red Dead Redemption, Grand Theft Auto IV, Fallout New Vegas, and Mass Effect 2, to name a few; all of these games have stories that are entertaining, although just short of the quality in other mediums.  None of them have captured my imagination quite like Alan Wake, which is probably the closest I’ve come to caring about a video game story as much as I would in a film.  None (including Alan Wake) are quite there yet, but they’re close enough to be taken seriously.

However, I don’t think video games have quite figured out how to strike a balance between story and gameplay; that is the hurdle the industry must overcome if it ever wants me to look forward to stories in games as much as I do in other mediums.  Games with the best storytelling often feature gameplay that is secondary to the experience.  As much as I loved Alan Wake, the actual gameplay amounts to wandering around, shooting stuff, and solving the simplest of puzzles.  It’s survival horror lite, and if the story wasn’t so compelling, I don’t know if I would have kept going.  The gameplay actually gets a bit tedious and repetitive, and it feels like it gets in the way of the story a bit near the end.  The ultimate illustration of this dilemma is Heavy Rain, which can barely qualifies as a game.  It’s an interactive story more than anything else, with walking and quick-time events being the closest it ever comes to gameplay.

 

Speaking of Heavy Rain, it’s an interesting example that both shatters my old argument and simultaneously supports it.  The storytelling is great (except for the terrible voiceover work), and on par with a movie, but the story itself has holes the size of the Grand Canyon.  And if it were made into a movie, I’m not sure how much I would enjoy it.          

On the opposite end of the spectrum you have games with great stories that get lost in the gameplay.  Stories largely depend on pacing, and in video games the story’s pacing will always be interrupted by gameplay.  For the past decade, Rockstar’s studios have been at the forefront of video game narrative with games like Grand Theft Auto IV and Red Dead Redemption, but their titles are still large, expansive games first and foremost.  It’s hard to sustain a narrative throughout 25-35 hours of gameplay. 

 

I always start off extremely interested in the story of Rockstar’s games, but I find it hard to stay focused after dozens of similar missions, subplots, and tangential missions that have nothing to do with the main story.  I get lost.  Maybe if their games were shorter they would strike the perfect balance between story and gameplay.  Rockstar shaved roughly 10 hours off their typical game length with Red Dead Redemption—with positive results—but there was still fat, and I still got lost and eventually bored.  Maybe Rockstar will find the magic formula with L.A. Noire, but I suspect storytelling will outweigh the game’s mechanics and fun factor.  (It’s still one of my most anticipated games of the year.)

I have the same problem with RPGs, which is kind of funny, considering RPGs are largely about story.  They are so long and filled with so many characters and side missions that I’m often lost in their narratives.  I have a confession to make: I love the Mass Effect games, but I don’t really know what’s going on in the overarching story.  I connect much more with individual missions, especially the loyalty missions in Mass Effect 2, and they rarely intersect with the main story (from what I can tell).  Same goes for shooter series like Halo and Gears of War, although that’s mostly because I don’t care about the stories in those games.  Strangely, I follow the plots in the Fallout games, but I’m not sure what they’re doing differently, if anything.  Now that I think about it, I also love the gameplay in Fallout, so maybe that series has found the perfect balance between story and gameplay.

And maybe it’s just my problem.  Like I’ve noted, many people love stories in video games and seem to have no problem with them.  Still, I’m convinced the video game medium doesn’t naturally lend itself to narrative.  The core experience of video games is about action and interactivity, neither of which comprises the core of story.  As the industry tries to deliver cinematic, story-driven experiences in our games, it often feels like they are trying to shove a foot into a shoe that doesn’t fit.  Story and gameplay feel like two opposing forces to me, and one or the other always seems to win in the end.  Then again, there is a growing list of games that nearly strike the perfect balance.  Maybe it’s just a matter of artists developing a medium that is still very young instead of artists trying to transform a medium into something it’s not. 

  

All I know is if stories are going to be part of games, they ought to be good, which brings me back to my original argument.  Stories in games need to equal those in books and movies, and they need to be matched with equally compelling gameplay if interactive entertainment is going to thrive as a narrative medium.  What do you think?

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Author: Jeff Derrickson View all posts by
Jeff Derrickson is a member of the Perfectly Sane Show and co-host of Movie Dudes. He studied English and mass media at Northeastern Illinois University.
  • MagnusR

    The way I see it, film and literature have some more flexibility when it comes to telling stories, while videogames are somewhat restricted in which stories they can tell effectively.
    Game stories need to fit the gameplay nicely, and some stories simply aren’t suited for the videogame format.
    That said, I still think there is plenty of potential when it comes to videogame story. Take so-called ambient storytelling, where information is relayed to the player through surroundings the player explores himself. Games like Half-Life do this very effectively, and it’s a type of storytelling that is actually better suited to games than, say, film.

  • keltar93

    I see what you mean, and fully agree. I always hear everyone talk about how great a game’s story is, but I don’t think it’s essential to making a great game, or even an example of games as art. It is the interactivity, the act of playing the game, that should come before all things

  • http://n00bketeers.com/ Beezball

    I think you’re on point here, but at the rate that video games are getting better at telling story I find it hard to complain.

    Sure they may not be the greatest yet, but coming from the Atari age to now in just a few short decades is unbelievable. Even just the progression from the PS2 era has been very noticeable. I really think they are getting so much better so fast, that I can only praise them, even if they haven’t “arrived”. It just seems like they are moving the medium along at a lighting pace, and that’s all you can expect really.