Last week at the DICE summit in Las Vegas, David Jaffe delivered a talk in which he argued that videogames shouldn’t attempt to tell stories. The short version of his argument is that there are better media for sharing philosophies or life lessons, and videogames should instead focus on the mechanics they do so well. His argument is interesting in the context of what David Cage said at GDC in 2011 about traditional mechanics and how they take away from the ability of videogames to tell stories.
Jaffe is afraid that by trying to emulate the cinematic techniques of movies in the pursuit of creating emotionally important videogames that game developers are allowing their muscles for mechanical design to atrophy. To a point I think he’s right. The line between interactive movie and videogame is pretty thin. But perhaps there’s another way to look at it, which goes along with what Cage said at GDC about drawing off the experiences of our real lives for inspiration in the stories we tell in videogames.
I was on a medical mission trip in Jamaica last week. I didn’t stay at an expensive, all inclusive resort, though I saw plenty of those on the way back and forth to the Anglican Church in the town of Port Maria where our mission team did its work. I was out in the country among people who mostly spoke Jamaican patois (a mix of English, French, and Afrikaans), in neighborhoods where even the nicest houses were little more than one story buildings with a years old coat of paint and corrugated metal fences, and where the people who lived there might get paid the equivalent of $15 American for a week’s work.
I made friends with people who lived in shacks with no electricity or running water, and who looked at my iPhone like it was from another planet. In their eyes, I was the alien. When I went to visit a primary school, I noticed a few kids poking my arms, potentially because they’d never had a chance to touch a white person’s skin before. The same thing happened to a few other people who visited that school. I was confronted with strange food. The monetary system baffled me for a few days, as everything was priced in whole dollars, and item prices could be many thousands of dollars.
In his DICE talk, Jaffe talked about his belief that the way our minds operate while tackling videogames isn’t much different than the way they operate while tackling our real lives. My experience in Jamaica very much speaks to his point. I navigated that strange, new world in much the same way I navigate the virtual worlds of videogames. When the mission team arrived at our lodge in the town of Ocho Rios, I walked all the paths to figure out how the place was laid out, which is precisely how I tackle new levels in first person shooters.
When we were brought to the function hall at the church where we worked, the first thing I did was walk around the place in a clockwise circle from the door we’d entered through. I walked through every doorway I could find until I reached a dead end, and then backtracked and continued on the circle. That’s precisely how I handle dungeons in games like Dragon Age or Fallout, always clockwise, always following paths to dead ends to make sure I don’t miss anything.
When I got back to the United States I landed at John F. Kennedy airport in New York City. Walking around the gleaming white terminal, surrounded by shops with expensive goods I realized how alien a world that might seem to someone from Port Maria in Jamaica. The reality we live in is filled with strange, new worlds for us to explore, and videogames are uniquely suited to simulate them for us. The trick is to design engaging mechanics that work in the real world and don’t depend on fantasy, which was part of David Cage’s point at GDC.
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 punchingsnakes.com, or follow his random excitations on Twitter: @DennisScimeca.