What’s in a Game?: The First Rule of Storytelling

In my last post, I reviewed an anime called Sword Art Online, and while it’s not necessary for any of you to go through and read it (unless, of course, you want to hear my thoughts on it) there is one point that you should take away from it when heading into this article.

You see, the main critique I had of Sword Art Online was how poorly it failed to follow what many consider to be the first rule of storytelling: “show, don’t tell.” Rather than show characters developing and showing how people are and how the world works, Sword Art Online spends most of its time telling you that characters are developing, telling you how people are, and telling you how the world works. What the show then proceeds to do is ignore what it’s told you and show you the exact opposite. Characters that the story tells us are solitary spend zero time being solitary, a world’s rules are ignored on a whim even in cases that don’t justify its themes, and those very same themes that the show continuously states as fact are continuously proven wrong and opposite to actual fact. What’s important to note here is how different the show’s statements are to the portrayal of the characters, the world, and the story itself. You may notice similarities to recent discussions of plot and development in video games. A certain, unavoidable… dissonance.

Because you don't hear it enough.

Because you don’t hear it enough.

Like all mediums of storytelling, there is distinct importance between what the game says about the characters and world within it, and what is shown to the player, and just like its counterparts, the art of storytelling in video games often fails to “show, don’t tell.” And there’s a reason for that. Mainly, that it’s not so easy to develop stories for video games as it is for film and television, and the culprit as to why that is so is obvious: in any other medium, the writer has complete control over every single character’s actions. In video games, well… a player can act however they damn well please.

Ludonarrative dissonance. The term seems to be clichéd at this point, but that’s how important lessons are molded into form. Eventually we’ll stop talking about how old that term is and how much everyone seems to repeat it so that we can realize that the reason it’s being repeated for so many games is because it’s such a foundational idea for any kind of storytelling in games. Not only does a writer for a game need to show and not tell to keep a well made narrative, it needs to integrate that kind of storytelling into the gameplay; they need to somehow, some way, make it possible for the narrative to be completely believable no matter what the player does.

That balance is not being kept in most of today’s videogames. Perhaps the main reason is the thought behind the name of the medium. Think about a game like Gone Home. It’s gotten raving reviews for how well its gameplay is used to explore the story and flesh out the world and the people within it while also developing the characters. It’s such a well thought out game that, at a basic level, exemplifies how a game can show the development of characters in a story by what they keep around the house, the notes they leave behind (in a way, telling, but how it’s told and done counts as showing), and the pictures on the wall, without telling you directly who they are. Everything is inferred by what they keep around them. Even the notes which “tell” about them don’t do it out of context. Most importantly, the interactive elements work seamlessly into the story. There is no dissonance. And gamers seem to hate that.

Story Driven Games

Go to Metacritic and take a look at any of the negative reviews of the game. People hate it. The main reason? That it’s not a game. Within the reviews, there’s complaint after complaint about how there’s no puzzles to solve or gameplay elements. How on a second playthrough, someone could “beat” the entirety of the game in 30 seconds. How it’s more of an “interactive story” than a game. I won’t argue the last part. There’s no way to really LOSE at Gone Home. “Winning” is just finishing the game. And “game” is the real buzzword here. The best video games of last year “The Walking Dead” and “Journey” could be considered more “interactive stories” than video games. If you watched the livestream comments of the DICE awards, an awards show where virtually all awards went to Journey or the Walking Dead, you’d see the same comments about both those games as you see now for Gone Home. How they’re stupid, don’t take skill, and aren’t games. Because people don’t think it’s a “game” people hate it. People discourage it. People don’t buy it.

And then because money speaks louder than words, developers don’t make video games that don’t have gameplay. Ken Levine, creator of the “critically” acclaimed Bioshock Infinite has said before in interviews how he thinks there’s no option for the game to NOT include gameplay, because it had to be a game. There had to be a win condition and a fail state. There had to be a challenge. The result? The term “ludonarrative dissonance” gets thrown around more than feces in an unkept chimpanzee exhibit. And while some upraised dissonance is arguable, it should come as no surprise that the problem arose in such force, and a surprise as to how much it continues to arise in games like The Last of Us (or really any Naughty Dog game), which at times appear to want to ignore the gameplay elements in favor of its own cutscenes where they are fully in control. So in either case, we end up with either gameplay that tries to ignore it’s narrative, or story that tries to ignore its gameplay. Rather than integrate both ideas seamlessly, we end up with a befuddled mess that causes ludonarrative dissonance to become a term we try to avoid almost as much as the mechanics that led to its use.

But let’s not kid ourselves, the thought process should not be to first make sure to show, not tell, then proceed to make sure the gameplay doesn’t break that deal. That kind of thinking is exactly what led to the dissonance in The Last of Us. Rather, the idea of “show, don’t tell” is something that should be expanded upon to include gameplay. As a first example, there’s something like Mega Man X. Rather than explain it all, I’ll just leave a little video from the animator, Egoraptor, to wrap your head around. He goes through it in the whole episode, but the main takeaway starts at around 5:56. Warning for saucy language, though.

As Egoraptor shows, Mega Man X is intrinsically designed to showcase the mechanics of the game, no matter how dumb a player is, not by a message blurb coming up to tell the player that a mechanic exists and how to use it, but by putting a player in a position to see and learn. Very simply, it’s showing the player how to play the game, both through literally showing, and simple trial and error. It should come as no surprise that the storytelling, while fairly basic, is fundamentally sound and the gameplay fits seamlessly with it. But for some reason, the more complicated the game gets-most notably our entrance into 3D worlds-the harder and harder it has been to keep the dissonance out of games.

Interactivity is the culprit once again. I mean, take a look at a Super NES controller compared to a 360 or PS3 controller. There are two more buttons and two analog sticks both exponentially increasing the complexity of the control schemes between the systems. And as we move forward into a new generation, they’re only getting more and more complicated. The WiiU has an HD touchscreen. The PS4 controller has a touchpad. The 2DS is a slab. The Xbox One has… idk, that Smartglass thing that I’m still not even 50% sold on. Oh, and Kinect… assuming anyone can figure out how to use it for something other than dancing games. What I’m getting at is that there’s no easy way to explain how a game works within the game itself without blatantly telling the player how to play it.

How do you use the controller and what buttons will cause what actions within the game? Some games like Journey imitate showing by subtly presenting a controller on-screen and imitating the movement on the controller that’s necessary to do an action (while not necessarily telling the player what the input from the controller will do). Some games flat-out tell you what to do to execute an action in a game, showing the action being imitated alongside what it does. The epitome of this being the well-worn and generally disliked “quick-time event.” Some games will just have a page in the menu or a loading screen telling you every single control in the game because of how complex the scheme is. And then there’s games like Mega Man X, games of whose numbers seem to be dwindling each year, which don’t tell anything about what the controls are, but just assume that the player will figure it out through experience in other games alongside trial and error.

The main question to consider, then, is whether any of that “teaching time” should even be considered within the scope of gameplay and story. Can’t we just let the game teach the player how to play the game without worrying if it’s integrated into the story? Gameplay interaction is essentially to video games as reading and talking (for the most part) is to books and movies respectively. The only issue being that every single new game involves new gameplay interaction. Every single new game asks the player to learn a new language. Do we include that within our ludonarrative or should it be expected that players know the language perfectly before coming into the game?

It’s one of many problems that the medium of video games must tread around, but doubtfully one it needs to worry about all that much. For all that can cause issues when it comes to storytelling in video games, it must be understood that in any case, the story and even the gameplay is ultimately expendable. I don’t need to know anything about the story of Joust to have fun playing it, and I certainly don’t need any more interaction in Gone Home than I have already. Video games are such a vibrant and open medium that so much is expendable. And sure, people may hate on games without much gameplay and stories whose gameplay gets in the way (and certainly it would be better if we put video games and interactive stories on a spectrum and gave it an entirely new all-encompassing name that doesn’t leave either out), but that’s the kind of differences that gives video games an advantage over other mediums. We can use exploration to present a world different from our own to critique an idea (Bioshock) or to learn about a family without saying a word. (Gone Home). We can use the act of killing giant beasts in order to save someone you love to critique the idea of the princess in the tower narrative. (Shadow of the Colossus). And with all that, at the same time, we can use a muscular racer to falcon punch the crap out of a pink puff-ball, a giant ape wearing a tie, and an Italian plumber for the sake of having fun. (Super Smash Bros.)

Interactivity is the main difference between video games and other mediums, and it is by and far the most important distinction. In any game, it is its greatest strength, and for those games who fail to utilize it, who fail to make the mechanics work, by itself, or within the context of the game, it is by and far its greatest weakness. It’s all about how it’s presented. Not by how it’s told, but by how its shown.

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3 thoughts on “What’s in a Game?: The First Rule of Storytelling

  1. Integration between story telling, and game play is so difficult to emulate. Even with one of the best games at this, The Last of Us, has mundane game play at times. It especially difficult because of how many more people are starting to enjoy multi-player games over single player. It adds too many variables to guide, toward the story. But one day I believe that it will happen, with a monumental game that will change how games are made. The Last of Us, is a small step in the right direction.

  2. Pingback: Tighten up the Narrative in Level 3: The grammar of videogames | Medium Difficulty

  3. Pingback: Tighten up the Narrative in Level 3: The grammar of videogames | bigtallwords

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