Why Games are Stories (and Why That’s Scary)

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October 2, 2014 by Devin

Games are, essentially stories. After playing games extensively, talking about games with many people, and reading lots of articles about games, that has been the conclusion I have come to. Every single aspect of every single game ultimately comes back to story, and that is both empowering and frightening.

I want to begin by unpacking this idea that “Games are story.” What I mean by this is that the primary function of any video game is to make you care about the context around insignificant beings. In some cases this is easy. The player instantly cares about the smattering of pixels that make up the turret in Space Invaders because they have a sense of control over it and therefore a sense of empathy with it. Sometimes games have to do more legwork, like in the case of games with extensive narratives that attempt to make you care about a large group of people or things.

space_invaders

The best example I can use for this point is actually not a video game at all, but a sport. All sports are games, and all sports are, at their core, over inconsequential numbers. They are about people attempting to move an object, often a mixture of leather and air, across an arbitrary line on the ground in order to signal someone to change a number hoping to make it greater than a different number.

This explanation is, mechanically at least, completely sound, yet there is something missing from it. It does not account for the rabid devotion people have to certain people carrying that lump of leather, the amount of hard-earned money they would give to see people carry it, or the agony people face when those people carrying the leather do not carry it well enough to change the number on the board for displaying scores.

That is because sports, like all games, are stories. They are not about a man kicking a sphere around a grass field. They are about a stalwart hero coordinating with his allies against an impossible foe. They are about a rags-to-riches first timer proving he is capable of holding his own in the tumultuous arenas. Heck, the story around Tim Tebow was practically Biblical: God’s chosen in a den of lions.

Though ironically enough, the Lions were not that much of a threat.

Though ironically enough, the Lions were not that much of a threat.

I have not been around sports a ton, but even I can tell you that the best games are not the ones where the team you like completely destroys a different team in the same way that the best stories are not about heroes completely destroying all opposition without breaking a sweat. The best games are like the River City Miracle, where the Titans were able to barely beat the Buffalo Bills in a last-minute touchdown return thanks to Frank Wycheck’s lateral. That game which ended with victory led directly into another memorable game with the Titans. This time, though, it was tragedy as the Titans lost by a single yard in Super Bowl XXXIV, a twist that sounds like something that could have come from Shakespeare (if Shakespeare wrote about football).

And this idea applies to all games. Competitive games like Counter-Strike and League of Legends operate incredibly similar to sports, so just take everything I said about sports and apply directly to them. Single-player games, though, are still story even if the game has a narrative within it. The narrative is a part of the game’s story in general, but the story of the game is the player’s involvement and discovery of that narrative.

Games like The Walking Dead emphasize the player interaction by showing choice and using the game as a mirror on the person playing, but even games without choice are still stories about the player’s involvement. I actually love what Gone Home did with this idea. In it, you play as a young woman discovering her sister’s story of romance, and you do it by searching your house for clues about what she has been up to and why she is not home. In the same way that people playing games peer into the stories of the characters on the screen, so does the main character peer into her sister’s story. You may not be an active participant in everything that is happening, but you are an active listener, an active discoverer of the story. This happens in many games that have a strong central story, but Gone Home is the first game that comes to mind that makes this distinction clear.

Ultimately the job of any game is to make you care about those arbitrary factors that make it up, the pixels on the landscape, the lines on the field, or the numbers on the screen. Those that do this job well are games that work, and those that do this job poorly are games that do not work.

So what do we do with this idea? How does understanding that games are stories change how we perceive and interact with games?

Well, excuse me if this sounds a bit too pedantic, but allow me to back up for a moment and ask, “Why do we have stories?” As I alluded to earlier, a story is basically a contextualization of something (or somethings) to give it meaning. I believe those stories, those contextualizations, actually work on a larger scale to contextualize our lives.

Religions are the most obvious example of this. If you ever sit down and read the Christian Bible, you will realize that, at its core, it is simply a bunch of stories. They are stories about who people are, what they are, and why they are, but they are still stories. The Creation story in Genesis details those questions exactly, telling who people are (creations of a deity), what people are (made in the image of aforementioned deity), and why they are (it involves an apple). The god of the Old Testament is frequently referred to as the god who saved the Israelites from Egypt, a story that they used to contextualize their lives, their rituals, and their understanding of their god, who comes from an earlier story.

In the New Testament, this is continued. Jesus communicates meaning to his disciples by, you guessed it, telling stories. These stories were meant as calls to action, yes, but they also served to give meaning to the disciples’ actions and give them an understanding of the world around them.

But beyond religion, other forms of art also seek to give contextualization to our lives. Have you ever watched a movie, read a book, or even listened to a song because it made you feel like the world was not completely falling apart? The movie UP is a perfect example of this, as it is all about the main character’s journey to find meaning in his own life. He searches for meaning in grand adventures that he always wanted to go on, but the movie eventually turns this idea around and points to the smaller moments in life as the ones with actual meaning, like his relationships with his former wife and new adopted (in spirit, at least) son. There is no doubt in my mind that people watching that movie ended up hugging their loved ones a bit tighter, confident that those relationships meant something.

This is clearly what makes life worth living.

This is clearly what makes life worth living.

I feel like, for humanity in general, there is this fear that we are insignificant, that our actions and existence lack any actual meaning. In the same way that stories give context and meaning to the lines on a football field or the images on a screen, we use stories to give context to the breaths we breathe and the steps we take. We are led to believe that those things in the stories are significant, and thus we believe that those things in our lives are significant as well.

Thus, the effects of games as story, I think, are comparable to the types of effects of anything else as story. They use different tools, yes, but the effects on how we view the world and contextualize it can be very similar.

But here is the frightening part: what kind of stories are most games?

The most troubling theme I have seen from a lot of games is empowerment. To an extent, this concept seems to the core of most games’ designs for fun. Sometimes it is simply the game giving players the same challenge over and over again so that they get better at it and eventually become good at the game. Sometimes, as in the case with all role-playing games and a growing number of shooters, it is the game rewarding the player for playing the game by making the player’s character better. Limits on what the player can do are usually meant to be challenged and eventually overcome.

Mass Effect 2 comes to mind. In the game, you play Commander Shepard, and the game is built on tough choices you have to make that define your character. Do you help this certain character to gain his respect but by doing something unethical? Do you vouch for this person even though they are in the wrong? Do you support this character even when they do not want to support you?

These questions could be used for serious discussion about sacrifice and making hard choices, but in the game, literally every single one could be answered with, “You do not have to worry about it if you have leveled up enough” (aka “you are awesome enough”). Mass Effect 2 is not even the worse perpetrator of this idea. There are plenty of games out there designed to be appealing by how much they stroke the players’ egos, and I am worried that this is a hurtful trend.

This guy is the most awesome space captain that ever space captained.

This guy is the most awesome space captain that ever space captained.

I am not even talking about violence in video games as many others have done; I am talking about the contextualization of that violence. Games can most certainly have real world violence, but when a game has recreations of real world violence that the player perpetuates while also still reinforcing the idea that the player is awesome, I worry about the state of gaming as a series of stories.

Look at it this way: if someone created a bible of games, what would be the major themes? Going back to the Christian Bible, there are many stories of how the Israelites are God’s chosen people, yes, but most of the time, they are screwing up. Their stories are about the follies of humanity as much as it is what makes humanity special.

But games? When was the last time you utterly failed at a game and that was supposed to happen? This might happen at the beginning of a game, but rarely is the game that ends this way, that points out the limitations of the player or even acknowledges that the player might have made some bad choices on their way to the end. And when these themes do happen, such as in the case of Spec-Ops: The Line, I hear people complain about they were annoyed that they could not get a good ending, in other words, completely missing the point.

Consider this: when NFL players mess up partially because of their huge egos, many people blame the culture they grew up in and were around. They were often surrounded by people stroking those egos, so it was no surprise when they had huge ones, thus leading to generally poor behavior.

When gamers react violently to anyone who would offer criticism, such as with the case with Feminist Frequency and this latest GamerGate nonsense, is it really surprising? This medium that we love is filled with positive messages of reinforcement no matter who we are, as long as we can press some buttons correctly, and this ego stroking can create and foster some terrible personalities.

So where do we go with this? How do we fix this? I, for one, am not sure. I love video games, including many ego-stroking ones. I enthusiastically play an MMO that likes to reward me for basically doing anything within it, from killing a bandit to chopping down a tree. I feel good when I am empowered, and when life makes me feel down and insignificant, that is a good feeling that helps me and many other people get through the day.

But on the other hand, I recognize the need for more diverse stories within gaming, games like Papers, PleasePapa & Yo; and even Depression Quest. These are games that offer messages that I may not always want to hear, but at the same time, I think the gaming community and the gaming medium is better for those stories, and I applaud the developers looking to make them happen.

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One thought on “Why Games are Stories (and Why That’s Scary)

  1. megpie71 says:

    I have to admit, the games which speak to me most are the games which have the most interesting stories (or at the other extreme, the ones which don’t really have any intrinsic story of their own, but allow me to weave my own story around them). Heck, I’m a fan fiction writer, and the fandom I’ve written the most for is a game – Final Fantasy VII. I love the story in that one, because it’s unusual in being a revenge tragedy which would fit neatly onto the Jacobean stage (before the release of Advent Children, we quite literally only knew the fate of one of the in-game cast post-game) alongside things like Macbeth or Hamlet. There’s no way of getting the “happy ending” – there is no happy ending to get.

    (Incidentally, at least part of what I like about the ending of the immediate sequel, Advent Children, is that this ending, while a bit more positive, is not foolproof either. Yes, the protagonist has managed to sort out some of his issues… but it’s up to him to keep moving on in life, rather than staying in the one place, and we’re never really shown whether he does or not).

    But I’d argue that a lot of the time, game developers have gotten tangled up in the game mechanics, and forgotten the importance of the story. One example which springs to mind is the EA version of “Dante’s Inferno“. Now, faced with a story about a journey through hell, filled with a lot of snarking about mediaeval politics and commentary on Catholic theology, we could have got a game where, for example, the aim of the main character was to say a novena and ransom the soul of their beloved out of hell (and you’re given a certain number of prayers with which to do this). We could have got an in-depth exploration of themes about sin and sinning, and what is at the heart of each of the seven deadly sins – why are they so terrible? We could have had a game which explored the nature of sin, temptation and forgiveness, as well as subtly pointing out a lot of the ways video game enculturation is profoundly anti-social, not to mention being anti-Christian. What we got instead was another vaguely cod-mediaeval-themed heroic fantasy beat-’em-up where the aim was to beat up bad guy after bad guy in order to rescue the damsel at the end.

    Waste of a good story, really.

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