Gaming came to me later in life than most. My parents, believing that the Nintendo would convert my brain into rotting turkey fat, denied me the pleasures of console ownership. Instead, I grew up reading everything I could get my hands on. Amazing titles like Ender’s Game and Lord of the Flies sat side by side with Star Wars novels on my bookshelf. Later, that love of story transferred over to film, where movies like The Usual Suspects and Rear Window sucked me in.
When I started my gaming hobby in earnest with the gift of a Sega Dreamcast, I expected to see that same type of storytelling. I wanted a story that could snatch the breath out of my chest and affirm my belief that games had the ability to craft a tale more than a lifeless shadow. Ten years later, I still haven’t found it.
I know I’m not alone. Many gamers and forum dwellers pine for the day that we’ll see the Citizen Kane of games, but I don’t think any of us really know what it is we’re asking for – we just know that we haven’t reached it yet. Hell, I don’t think we’ve reached the Weekend at Bernie’s of gaming. But maybe we shouldn’t be asking when we’re going to see that type of storytelling in games. Maybe we should be asking if that’s what we want in the first place.
We all have a habit of looking to film narratives as the touchstone with which we compare those of videogames. It makes sense on a certain level; as a dynamic, visual storytelling medium, film is the closest approximation to videogames. But comparing stories in games to even the most rudimentary film stories is somewhat akin to saying that Michael Jordan in an inferior athlete to Joe Montana because he hasn’t scored as many touchdowns. Games are trying to play the game by film’s rules, so it shouldn’t surprise us when they come up short.
That’s not to say that there aren’t similarities. Compared to other forms of entertainment, gaming is still in its infancy, and just like the early days of film, game makers are consistently asked to use the tools at their disposal to craft works that exceed their audience’s expectations. Robert Holtzclaw, a professor of English and film historian at Middle Tennessee State University, explains that film had to accomplish much the same during the silent film era. Despite the limitations of those early black-and-white movies, there were a few directors who managed to craft narratives of amazing complexity. “In some silent films, there were stories in which we would cross-cut between periods, with storylines set in one era and another set hundreds of years later,” he explains. Truly creative and innovative people, it seems, can find ways to create remarkable experiences even with astonishingly scarce resources.
But it’s less an issue of capability and more an issue of the toolset to which creators in each genre have access. Film is, at its core, a passive form of entertainment that requires careful authorial control. When you watch The Godfather, you are experiencing that film the same way millions of others have; your reaction may be different, but the tempo, atmosphere and general feel of the movie were dictated by Coppola and his team. They wanted you to feel something very specific, and they have the uncompromising control to make that happen.
Games, on the other hand, are the antithesis of a passive experience. The nature of the medium demands that the audience has the ability to dictate the flow and the results of a game. To say this hobbles the construction of a story of much depth is an understatement. Pacing is perhaps the greatest victim of this phenomenon. Writers depend on the flow of a story to reinforce emotion and meaning in their words. Even Joseph Heller would have had difficulty crafting Catch-22 if the reader had the ability to pause the story to kill a hooker. No, game narratives have to be flexible and fluid, which doesn’t lead to deep themes and complex plots but instead encourages simplistic tales that can adapt to digital chaos.
While strictly linear experiences such as BioShock and Deus Ex have allowed for comparatively more thoughtful and complex stories, these games do not seem to be the future of this industry. The shift toward open – world, social and online gaming is becoming more and more apparent with each passing year. In addition, publishers are eschewing games that offer one-time experiences for titles with more replayability and long-term profit potential. Linear narratives that lead the player along precisely the intended path are becoming a rarity, not the norm.
This doesn’t necessarily spell disaster, though. We need not call for a priest to stand above game narrative’s jaundiced and wraithlike form to drone the last rights as Guitar Hero and Peggle watch with quietly reserved schadenfreude. While games that play out according to a true internal narrative may be fading away, a new type of storytelling, completely unique to gaming, is emerging. External narratives are becoming the stories that set remarkable games apart.
Single – player-only experiences are giving way to ones with robust multiplayer and cooperative gameplay. Where it used to be generally accepted that most games would feature primarily a single-player campaign with the possibility of a multiplayer option tacked on, we’re seeing a dramatic role reversal. Games like Modern Warfare 2 are fully realized multiplayer platforms whose single-player campaigns are short and often ignored completely by many gamers. Indeed, strictly multiplayer titles like Left 4 Dead are popping up more and more.
These games haven’t completely abandoned the idea of a story; developers are just allowing the story to develop in a completely different manner. External narratives demand that the player actually guide the story, that the narrative is not and cannot be fully defined and fleshed out without that external influence. The narrative in Rock Band has nothing to do with what venues you played or what songs you played to get there. The narrative happens when your 55-year-old mother belts out a Beastie Boys song and the room is torn between howling with laughter and joining in. Likewise, I don’t remember a thing from the single-player campaign from *Gears of War 2; I do remember my friend convulsing with glee every time he took a chainsaw to my chin.
External narrative is more than just our adventures in multiplayer. Some games do nothing more than provide you the tools to create your own story from the ground up. Civilization and its descendants are prime examples: With the framework Sid Meier and his team provide, you can rewrite the history of the world, complete with military and technological milestones on the path to Aztec world domination. The Sims is much the same way, albeit with less artillery and naked aggression from Gandhi. Games are evolving into an advanced version of the famous joke “The Aristocrats.” They give you the beginning, and sometimes the end, but the path you take on your journey is completely your choice.
Of course, plenty of games still try to maintain a complete internal storyline. But even those titles are handing more control of the minutiae of the story over to the player. Grand Theft Auto 4, for example, was praised for its tale of the American dream gone wrong. The story of Niko Bellic, however, was filled with gaps. Through the entirety of the game, you are given a loose framework for what’s to happen next, and you are the one who fills in the rest. The story of GTA4 was not simply the fact that you killed some random Russian mobster. The story, as in the devil, sits happily in the details.
This is the future of narrative in our games. I suspect that, as time passes, we will see the most critically acclaimed titles are not the ones with Objectivist-inspired tales of hubris or mute scientists enduring metaphysical trials. They will be the ones that provide us with the tools to tell our own stories. Perhaps the time has come to realize that the Citizen Kane of games will never come, and that’s all right – Citizen Kane would make a terrible videogame, anyway.
Dietrich Stogner is a freelance writer living near Nashville, Tennessee. You can follow him on his blog at www.neutronicfusion.com.