Friday Slide: Whose Side Are You On, Anyway?

A typical single-player, story-driven game is a very strange kind of media. No other narrative form actively tries to prevent you from advancing its story: not film, not theatre, and not literature. This leads to what I like to call the ‘dirty DVD’ model of game narrative, which is simply to say that these games’ stories are no more interactive or enjoyable than a dirty DVD is. You do what’s required to keep the story going (cleaning the DVD, solving a puzzle, jumping across a gap), but the actions you take and the story that’s told don’t seem to have much to do with one another. So my question is this: whose side are the game designers on, anyway?

You would assume that they want players to see whatever story they’ve put into their game, but they also deliberately keep the player away from this content with obstacles that tend not to directly tie into the game’s story.

The core problem isn’t a new phenomenon, but it seems to have gotten worse over the lifetime of the computer game industry. The basic idea is best exemplified in most story-driven action games. If you die, you have to repeat the level over and over, and the story makes no comment on your player dying and being reborn. It’s like these games suddenly become a crazy, alternate-reality version of Groundhog Day.

This type of thing is especially irritating in games that don’t give you any sort of narrative choices as you play. If a game has a means for players to make decisions that affect the plot (a quality that is nearly universally praised when it’s present), the contrivances that the software requires to be able to call itself a game feel more acceptable. Even classic RPGs like Final Fantasy are played from cutscene to cutscene, as though the dialogue between characters (who we suddenly have no control over) is a reward in itself. It’s kind of pretentious, when you think about it.

Bottom line: it’s time for games to stop borrowing so heavily from movies. In its infancy, the film industry borrowed heavily from theatre. However, filmmakers eventually realized that you shouldn’t try to tell stories on film the same way you do on a stage. We then understood the strength of cinema to be montage, the editing together of images into sequences that convey meaning in a way that a play cannot.

Some game designers today understand that games shouldn’t make a similar mistake, and they try to convey meaning through a game’s mechanics themselves. The Flash game One Chance is a good example of this. This makes for a more personal experience and is a much better fit than shoehorning cinematic language into a medium whose strength is not its linear, time-based nature, but its interactive feedback loop.