A writer paints a world not out of words, but out of imagination. The sky is not blue because it is blue; the sky is blue because the author says it is. And we know those words to be true. Not because they've told the truth or because they've told a lie — that matters not at all — but because a story is always true if we believe inside our minds and feel inside our hearts. In some ways, writing is all about power. An author is the creator of her own world. But there's no power at all without belief. And that belief...it comes from feeling. Imagination creates feeling and our emotions anchor a fantasy, making it reality. It's how a story works. A good one, anyway.
Maybe that's the problem with video games.
Earlier this week I was asked by my fellow Newshound Mark to pick my favorite video game ending and I found I could not. I scoured my list of played games totaling over 250. I ransacked my childhood memories for any ending I've ever experienced that would be worthy of calling a favorite. Favoritism is a relative scale of course, but ethically I could not name something nestled in mediocrity as my favorite or it would be given luster that just wouldn't be appropriate. So I searched on and I found myself in this article, putting my thoughts on paper.
Films and games have one important distinction from a novel. They are visual. It would seem to make a world of difference, but only at face value. Tonight I watched the movie Wind River. It's a murder mystery set in a rural Wyoming town. The people don't have much but jobs and drugs. In fact, no one is happy at all. The air is so cold it can freeze your lungs if the perpetual snowfall doesn't bury you first. Sheep fall prey to wolves and the wolves fall prey to the hunters, who kill not for sport but for survival. What little they have is earned, and none of it is what they want. It's just what they need. That, and death.
The movie had a camera rolling the whole time showing me things. But it didn't show me any of what I just described. My imagination did. The film's visuals and the character's words meshed together into a tapestry my mind turned into the actual story. The screenwriter couldn't tell me how things were, he could only show me and let me get there myself. When I did piece it together, I found feelings. Desperation. Rage. Sadness. Futility. None of those emotions describe my life right now. Not even close. But for two hours I felt them. They were real, just like the story. While Wind River is based on real events, it didn't actually happen in our world, at least not that way. But it did in my mind because the creators told the story and told it well. It's real because I believe it to be real.
Gaming stories don't achieve this. Some were never meant to try, but most, I think, were at least intended to be truly good stories. After all, why would a writer want to waste his livelihood producing forgettable trash when he could produce something magnificent? Journalist Cara Ellison once wrote a rather unique preview of Crysis 3. Her piece was likely not what the developers had hoped for when she arrived to conduct her preview, but its message resonated with me when I read it years later. As part of her preview, she provided an excerpt from Michael Read, a producer for Crysis 3. I've cut a few bits out so that you can stomach it:
We’ve taken on a whole new form when it comes to storytelling with this one... We have Prophet – the leader of the squad in Crysis 1, had a small cameo role in the beginning and the end of Crysis 2, and now you’re playing him in Crysis 3. So you also have another character called Claire Fontinelli, she’s one of the leaders of this rebel group that’s operating inside the dome fighting Cell and Psycho fights alongside her in this quest to basically shut CELL down. Prophet’s goal ties into this as he’s having visions of the future and things that are potentially going to happen...He’s trying to explain to the rebels that there’s more to what’s going on than just, you know, CELL fighting for these energy resources and what they’re doing under the Dome to do this...Human? Yeah. I know. If you remember the story of Crysis 3 (you don't), then you're probably laughing. Here was Cara's response to "Prophet's goal":
I’ve been asked to sum up this Crysis in the past and the word I’d use to describe it is human.
My brain somehow thinks that he has said “Prophet’s goat” which I immediately perk up at: I imagine this goat having visions and attempting to draw them in Crayola with its tiny goat hooves for this high-tech douchebag Prophet in ten kinds of body armour waiting arms crossed – “What, goat, what?”. Fifty infinitely customisable weapons lie behind Prophet, totally pointless as this is a scene about a goat and its dreams.She arrived at the same conclusion I did: no one cares. These gaming storylines, we've seen them a thousand times — or at least 255 times according to my games played here on TA. The world in a game is fine. But wait, the developers have created this badass gameplay scenario and so you've got to meander through level after level as the cutscenes and forced dialogue stifle your soul with an everflowing avalanche of pure garbage masquerading as story. How many of us have come so close to just turning off Assassin's Creed as a fun mission is rudely interrupted by a painful walk around Abstergo labs for, well, none of you can probably remember what you were doing there?
But sadly this is not about a goat. It is about this guy we seem to have little reason to give a shit about, because the game industry spits out dudes like Prophet every day and they land on my front lawn and make a mess. I shouldn’t have begun asking about the story, because I really quite liked the shooty-killy parts.
It's not just that — there's more to a story than the plot. There's also the pacing of that plot. Pacing creates tension and emotion in any story. A story told one sentence at a time every day for a year wouldn't have the same impact as a story told in one sitting. The pace of the story is integral to helping our imagination put everything together and letting our hearts interpret the feelings within the story. But the drive to create good gameplay serves as a tripwire at best in a story's pacing, though often it can be an impenetrable wall. An extreme example is The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. The game has a plot, but the game's philosophy is entirely about doing what you want, when you want. It is literally impossible to create effective tension and emotion when two related quests could serve as bookends to 50 hours of arbitrary wandering and side quests. There's no drive to stop the evil cult's summoning ritual because every event in the world will wait until you're ready to do it. In such a game, there is no pacing at all. Without it, the story cannot be told well.
Yes, that's it. That's the problem with video games. A game's story is a mechanical vehicle to transport us from one gameplay scenario to another. The game writers want to tell a story, but the story can't be told because no one putting the story in the game wants to tell the story — they want to create gameplay experiences. So instead we're left with tales that induce nausea, pacing which resembles the stumbling gait of a drunkard, and characters so faceless they might as well have been made of Play-Doh.
The answer to Mark's question earlier is Thomas Was Alone, perhaps the only example I could find in my entire history of a game I found to truly be real. I've written about it before, but if you're unfamiliar I'll tell you why. It's the story of a colored shape named Thomas. He was alone until he was not. The creators use narration, colors and basic shapes to create a world. Every new scene was a continuation of a great journey. Levels are short and simple, with no room to wander. I could imagine how Thomas felt and the powerful words allowed me to feel it as well. The ups and downs of his tale were truly magnificent and the quick pace of the levels made sure the emotional ride didn't stop. As a game, Thomas Was Alone was fair. But as a story, well, it's a cut above the rest.
Some of you may believe I've just contradicted myself, to which I'd say every rule has exceptions. Thomas Was Alone succeeded because the story didn't care at all about the gameplay. The two were really entirely unrelated. This allowed the story to breathe. Another example released recently. My friend Kelly wrote a review for The Pillars of the Earth. The game is an adaptation of what is by all accounts a wonderful novel. To create the game, the developers chose not to create a game at all. Instead, they created a visual novel. It was the only way to tell the story true to the source material without corrupting it. By her review, it seems the developers found success.
There are undoubtedly other exceptions. Many people probably read the first paragraph or two of this article and posted them below. They aren't wrong, even if I disagree. Every story is real if you believe it to be so. But for me, I truly love stories. And I at least sort of like video games. I'm just not sure the pair can go together. Hopefully someone can show me how I'm wrong.