First Person

First Person
David Jaffe, David Cage and Videogame Stories

Dennis C. Scimeca | 16 Feb 2012 16:00
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Videogames struggle with narrative because they are tied to mechanics that focus on the fantastic. If you're making a videogame where the primary mechanics involve running around shooting people, you've automatically limited the kinds of stories you can tell with that game because they all have to lead into situations where the player gets to run around and shoot people, and you need characters that fit the fantastic scenarios of those situations.

When David Jaffe said it was dangerous for videogames to aim at being a storytelling medium, his concern was for the industry slipping on its mastery of mechanics. He is, in essence, saying that mechanics are the root of games. I agree with that sentiment generally, and the challenge of setting videogames in the real world will be developing interesting mechanics for them. The best examples I can come up with from my medical mission trip to Jamaica would be putting the mission trip's pharmaceutical supplies in order on an insanely tight time frame or learning how to step in as a dental assistant when someone was needed there, which involved learning the examination and treatment procedures and anticipating the needs of the dentist I was supporting with no training or preparation to lean on.

I have faith that game designers can figure this challenge out, and when they do, the potential for emotionally powerful stories in videogames with real, human characters is endless. Imagine BioWare style dialogue sequences where instead of deciding the fates of intergalactic civilizations or foiling megalomaniac Bond-esque super villains, players are encoutering the kinds of situations I encountered in Jamaica. I was confronted by people on the mission trip who asked me for medicine even though they hadn't seen one of our doctors and received a prescription. It was hard to look someone who might never be able to afford those medicines in the eye and say no, but I had to because otherwise we would have had dozens of people asking for those meds and not had them for the patients when our doctors prescribed them.

I had to come up with words of encouragement and support for the children who came in to see the dentists and were clearly terrified at all the instruments laid out on the table. I had to figure out how to navigate politely through a crowd of people who were trying to get into the function hall after the doors had been locked because we'd hit max capacity for patients to be seen. There may not be easy dialogue wheels to craft around those situations, but if you want to talk about moral choices in videogames, try some of those on for size. Imagine the power of making those choices when all the characters and their situations are made relatable on a basic, human level.

Jaffe says that by trying to tell stories, videogames are truncating their potential to cash in on the mechanics they accomplish so well. Cage says that by limiting themselves to traditional mechanics, videogames truncate their ability to tell stories. They're both right, and they're both wrong. When videogame designers realize they can set their games and their stories in the here and now instead of always depending on the fantastic, they may finally discover the sweet spot between rules and story and demonstrate the full, dramatic potential of an interactive medium.

First Person is a column by Boston, MA-based freelancer Dennis Scimeca. You can read some of his other musings on his blog, or follow his random excitations on Twitter: @DennisScimeca.

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