It’s a point that comes up often in conversations about videogame storytelling: You read a novel, you watch a film but you play a game. Literature and cinema, while worlds apart from one another, are passive media. By contrast, games are much more of a performance – carefully orchestrated, but ultimately in the player’s hands. In that sense, the underlying structure of an altogether separate medium – music – is far closer to that of gaming than you probably realize.
At their heart, the way games guide players through their inner workings is a lot like how a musician reads a piece of sheet music. Musical notation is purely causal, as it directs the musician how the piece should be performed. Full of differing instructions like repeats and codas, you very rarely progress straight through a piece of music the way you would a novel or film. Time signatures, keys, rhythms, dynamics – sheet music contains incredibly precise directions on how to perform the piece. Not everyone can read it, either; musical notation must be parsed by a trained musician before a listener can interpret it.
In the same way, a gamer also has to follow very detailed instructions in terms of timing inputs, coordinating button presses and dealing with graded elements of control input intensity. You can’t hand the controller over to anyone, either – complex games require the specific skillset of an experienced gamer in order to be successfully parsed.
But despite this core similarity, there’s a crucial difference in audience expectations between these two media: People don’t assume that a piece of music must tell a story. More often, music transcends that and allows players to fashion imagery in their own mind. Beyond the auspices of the composer that wrote the piece, the emotional and intellectual interpretation is the musician’s own. It’s something that is meant to be personal. That’s not to say music can’t communicate a story – pieces like tone poems infer a plot without relying on spoken language. In fact, many aspects of modern-day film scores owe a lot to the narrative inference used in tone poems.
So why does understanding how games are written and their similarity to music mean anything? Because realizing that games aren’t scripted and coded around a communicative language is an important distinction to make when it comes to how they tell their stories.
Most narratives in film and literature aren’t embedded with complex logic on how their audiences must parse them. For instance, virtually all films expect viewers to watch from start to finish – while the scriptwriting and post-production editing is by no means straightforward, the viewers’ path through the story is fixed. In short, the viewer doesn’t perform the story; they experience it vicariously. But as much as recent games have tried to tell stories with the emotional trajectory of Hollywood action movies, the way they require players’ active participation to move the story forward creates an entirely different experience.
The fact that games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band emulate musical performance so convincingly, though in a technically toned-down manner, is not a bizarre coincidence. The “rules” of musical performance are fundamentally linked to the various scripting and coding languages used to build games. In that, reading the various commands in a game like Guitar Hero as they stream down the screen is effectively a simplified form of musical notation.
So when players level criticism at the jarring effect of “cinematic” cut scenes that wrench the game from the player’s hands, their reasoning is ultimately quite sound. These narrative devices are actually foreign bodies that don’t fit neatly into the experience of play. Despite their best attempts, they’re almost always less effective at communicating the intended mood or atmosphere than via the act of playing the games themselves.
This is often why film critics direct their ire at gaming: The critical tools at their disposal are only applicable to the passive experience of narrative. As such, they’re responding to the disjointed and decidedly modular approach that many games take toward storytelling – clear a room of enemies, watch a cut scene, wash, rinse and repeat. In other words, they object to the way games try halfheartedly to be movies. Unfortunately, despite the plainly obvious criticism that this approach doesn’t work, games still try to use it.
The major issue is that in order to tell a fixed narrative, the underlying gaming logic has to be reined in so as not to interfere with the plot. This normally means that the structure of a game will be standardized, either in terms of base ruleset or by its overall structure. The above “clear room of enemies” example is notable, as its very shorthand denotes an unfortunate commonality currently seen in gaming.
You wouldn’t interrupt a tone poem with spoken word segments to tell the story; you’d use the vast array of musical tools to do that seamlessly instead. Equally, games should look to their own compositional toolset and build a narrative around the techniques that have already defined the medium.
The issue at present is that games give cinematic stories far more credence than those told through gameplay itself. Most current games flirt with the conventions of film in the same way opera did with literature, wherein a libretto, or script, sat atop the musical foundation and forced a narrative on the viewer. This isn’t to say that operas aren’t meaningful musical compositions, but merely that their approach to storytelling didn’t fit with the medium, and the form died out as a consequence of that.
Narratives in games have become increasingly more important over the years, but the cultural influences that have shaped them aren’t necessarily the most apt. While cinematic narrative seems on the surface to be the most logical approach, they’re actually rife with issues that halt the basic elements of a player’s in-game performance. Most notably, they require the player’s viewpoint to be relatively fixed or controlled in order to tell the story, limiting how the game can be played.
It doesn’t have to be that way, though. Games like the wondrous Demon’s Souls afford you a huge array of functional diversity and control without trying to make you feel like you’re watching a film. You’re part of the process of how the game operates, and as you roam the twisted remains of Boletaria you unravel an unspoken narrative entirely in your mind’s eye.
In the same way, both Ico and Shadow of the Colossus also tell emotionally affecting stories through the act of playing the games themselves. The almost complete lack of dialogue and, in the case of Ico, a script that is only half subtitled (on its first play through), make players’ interpretations all the more personal. Actually guarding and guiding Yorda through the castle ruins is far more meaningful than simply displaying a fixed cut scene. Likewise, both games use geography magnificently to infer a story – the Colossi act as silent narrative totems. Both games tell potent stories, but they’re suggested to players via how they play rather than told in dialogue or cut scenes.
Videogames are changing, though – subtly, admittedly, but changing nonetheless. Much like in Richard Strauss’ tone poem, Tod und Verklärung, gaming is undergoing a narrative death and transfiguration. Cinema has taken gaming narrative as far as it can go. It’s time for games to look inward and honestly acknowledge that they are a performance art, not a passive one.
Ollie Barder is a senior games designer at doublesix. He also plays the trumpet and has sung in a fair few symphonic choirs over the years.