For the last week or so, Joystick Division has been having a pseudo-conversation about the value of story in video games. While I think most of us here put a fairly high value on what games have to say, it’s relatively to consider storytelling so heavily. Nobody questioned the value of “the story” in Bad Dudes: ninjas kidnapped the president and he can only be rescued two dudes…that are bad. Even though some of the very earliest games were clearly an attempt at telling a story, any “story” to speak of was subservient to gameplay. Games are played, you play them as a game, you don’t consume them as a reader of literature. But the development of more sophisticated fantasies, nuanced plots, structured narratives and other academic sounding words have challenged what a video game even is.
As stripping the term down might suggest, a video game is a game played on video. Take table tennis, put the paddles on a screen and you’ve got a video game. We can call it Pong. You can read the diametric separation of paddles as allegory for the uncompromising competition between feminine and masculine identities in the player but that argument falls apart very quickly (it’s also liable to have you permanently uninvited to all future family events). Pong is just a game on video. That’s all the term means. But Heavy Rainisn’t just a game on video–in fact, as a game, there are significant shortcomings that make it not worth playing at all–Heavy Rain is a story told by a developer and a player. Pong and Heavy Rain are both called “video games” even though they really aren’t the same thing at all.
Putting an epic storyline into Pong would be as pointless as it would be absurd, just as much as taking the story out of Heavy Rain would make it unapproachable. But even in the case of Heavy Rain, calling it a “game” means that the mechanics it operates on must, in some way, comply with the design of a game. A game has rules, it has conditions for victory and defeat. If there’s any story at all, it must come after the conditions for a game are met. This leads to a false dichotomy between gameplay and story, where priority has always been given to the former—although less since the latter has permeated deeper into the medium. The more control story has over the experience–as in the case of Heavy Rain—the more likely audiences will be to question whether it should even be called a “game” at all.
Even the term “story,” is limited for convenience. “Story” lumps in huge swaths of aesthetics way beyond its territory. The music, setting, look and feel of the game’s physical location, the choice of language, the justification of the game’s events, themes and subtext, the intended messages, the accidental messages all get stuffed into the word “story” because it is the desired opponent for “gameplay.” Shadow of the Colossus has virtually no plot while Final Fantasy VII has a plot that needs several paragraphs to summarize, but both games are rightfully remembered for their “stories” more than their gameplay. In either cases, flawless mechanics could even have blunted the impact they had.
The apologetical solution is to marry gameplay and story into codependent and indistinguishable features. There’s nothing wrong with that solution–it’s produced some excellent titles–but it again puts gameplay in the driver’s seat and story riding shotgun. Story can only ever equal gameplay, while the contrary is not the case. The strength of stories in games are that it puts the pace into the player’s hands. Challenges are met in real time, the audience is directly engaged with the medium, there are plenty of advantages to games as stories that have been well used. The problem is that the mistaken thinking that games are and must be games before stories. It’s what keeps the cycle of space marines and distressed princesses turning.
There’s nothing wrong with Pong or Starcraft or League of Legends. Keep these games coming, they’re great for what they are. Keeping game design in mind when story writing is similarly a good habit for the medium’s continued health. But shoehorning “games” into stories that are better off just being stories limits the potential for exploration. The insistence that a game automatically fails when it doesn’t add in certain mechanical conventions severely limits the directions it can go in.