Wednesday, May 23, 2012

#22: Why Games Should Not Be Compared to Other Mediums

As prior articles I have written may have led you to believe, I tend to take story in games seriously. I am heavily critical of plot-lines in games and I expect narratives to be sensible. However, there are some people who are as critical as I am that I take issue with. When discussing the plot lines in video games, some people like to make the argument that “If this was a book/movie, then it would be so stupid!” More often than not, I would agree. However, that statement demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding. The stories of video game should not be compared to the stories of books and/or movies, just as movies should not be compared to books.

One of the big reasons for this is that script-writing in a game works differently than in a book or a movie. This difference is a very crucial and fundamental one. With a book or a movie, one of the primary concerns is the overall storyline. Plot, character development, continuity, conflict: In a book or movie, these are the focus of creative energy. In a game, this is a secondary concern. The primary concern (as it should be) is in the gameplay. Developers are focused on making sure that the level design and game mechanics are top-notch. They test and test to make sure that players are challenged to avoid the game getting boring, but not so much that it gets frustrating. Now, you can argue that some companies do not do this as well as others, but most of them make this the biggest thing on their checklist. The writing takes much more of a backseat. What happens more often than not is that the levels are completed and the writing team has only a rough idea of who the characters are and what the plot is supposed to be. They take these levels and the plot and form a loose story that tells the tale they want while justifying going through the all of the levels that the design team created or are currently creating. Some scenes may often require entire rewrites because of a problem on the designer end of things.

The best examples this style both working and failing can be found in the Uncharted series. The first two games had very well-written and gripping narratives with character the audience would come to love and grow attached to. The third game, while still very good, had a noticeably less-stable plot. Many of the new characters went underdeveloped, certain plot lines went nowhere, and there was an entire section of the game could have easily been cut with no effect on the narrative. The developer commentaries included on the disk gave a very good indication of why. To be fair, Amy Hennig and the Naughty Dog writing team are very talented and the story is still quite good despite its flaws. It still serves as a good example of why narratives in games are not the same as in books or movies. The argument can be made that this process may or may not work and may need to be experimented with, but, for now, it is a fact of life in the industry.

Which brings me to the next point: That gaming as a storytelling medium is still in his infancy. Unlike book, which have had hundreds of years to perfect their craft, and movies, which have also had a long time, though not nearly as long as books, games have only been in the entertainment market since 1972 with the Magnavox Odyssey. Games as a storytelling medium have been around for even less time, since the NES (Nintendo Entertainment System) era, when games like the original Final Fantasy were released for the first time. Before then, they were nothing more than small experiences devoid of any real story. While people have written tons of material regarding how best to write a book or make a movie, but games have little in the way of that. The visionaries of the medium are only just now really starting to experiment with how to tell really compelling stories using it to its fullest.

Which again serves as an adequate transition into may last point. Games, by there nature, are interactive. This is the biggest separator between them and other mediums. The audience is an active participant in what is going on. This lends itself to new approaches in telling a good story unheard of in other mediums. Now, I have already discussed how stories in games can benefit from this interactivity several times before, but I nonetheless find this fact is something I need to repeat again and again. The strengths of interactivity are that you are able to use the environment and the situations the player has to deal with to tell the story in much more effective ways than movies or books can with descriptions or dialog, something which Bethesda, despite all of its flaws, is known for doing very well. Also, a game can be used to explore philosophies and concepts by letting the player immerse themselves in a world and discover for themselves the implications behind them, allowing them to learn and make choices in an environment free of any real-life consequences, demonstrated in games like Fallout: New Vegas and Deus Ex. Lastly, since the player is going through the game as the main character, he/she is automatically sympathetic towards the protagonist and/or is allowed a glimpse into the protagonist's beliefs and idiosyncrasies through the mechanics of the game, something that movies and books are completely unable to do. These are storytelling technique completely unique to games. Books and movies cannot utilize this tool-set. Because interactivity makes the story in a video game so completely different than movies and books, it is unfair to compare these mediums.

Games have their own set of strengths and weaknesses when it comes to storytelling, as do books and mediums. However, they are in no way similar enough to these other mediums to warrant comparison. We have evidence of this. Whenever the make games based off movies, they are very rarely any good. If they are, the game either takes place in a different time period than the movie or the player is playing as a new character who has previously never been mentioned in the plot. The same can be said of games that are made into movies. That is what makes this particular comparison so egregious. It is possible to argue that video game plots are bad. I do all the time. However, we should not be comparing apples to oranges. Nothing will come out of it. While I am sure many of you already know this, it is such a common misconception that it needed to be addressed.


SougoXIII said...

Great post, couldn't agree with you more on the point the the game industry is still in its infancy. For me, most game stories fall into two camp: the ones with a brilliant idea but were executed terribly and the ones with solid execution but is not exactly deep.

Funny how you mention Uncharted because one of the first reaction I have after finishing Uncharted 2 is 'Wait, did I just play through an Indiana Jones movie?' I would say that the Uncharted series is the closest game that we have to a movie.

newdarkcloud said...

I know what you mean with putting most games into those two camps. There aren't a lot of games that reach for the stars and succeed. I mean, I applaud New Vegas but it is hardly perfect. That game has a few major flaws plot-wise.

I always did like the Indiana Jones feel Uncharted had. It does the whole cinematic thing very well and it's stories are generally stable, if not very deep. One thing they definitely get right is characterization, which is why I and many others love the series so much. Part of me wishes they would do more storytelling in the gameplay part of the game, but aside from that and Uncharted 3's mediocre-by-comparison plot, I don't have many bad things to say about the series.