Video games are a terrible medium for storytelling. In their purest form, stories are words, or pictures: something static that the reader must interpret for themselves and take their own experience from. In time, these have adapted into plays, television, film – and now, video games. Each has its own method, and each has its own merit.
With other media, we are given one person’s view of a story. All potential decisions that characters could make have been made already, and will remain the same however many times we read or watch them. The author or director has created a world for us to look into, and very little is required from their audience other than to sit and enjoy.
Perhaps that’s the key difference between video games and every other medium – the rest are passive, but video games require constant engagement from their player. They step away from all other forms of entertainment to tell their story interactively.
This is where the problem with video games lies. Stories are often forced into the medium without consideration for its strengths or limitations. If a game’s story is good, it will suffer from human input distracting it. If a game’s story is bad, it will rely on these distractions to make it worthwhile.
If a game developer forces the concepts of storytelling that they have encountered in other media onto their work, the end result could never be a game in its purest form; it could only be a weak emulation of what we have seen until now.
Some games realise that their story is unimportant, focusing instead on the gameplay and visuals. Others remove gameplay as far as possible and keep the experience as pure to cinema as they can. On a rare occasion, a game will be made where both the gameplay and the story are well polished, but even when both aspects work flawlessly as individuals, they cannot combine for a seamless end product.
There will always be the feeling that one or the other has been shoehorned in, either to make the action feel worthwhile or to make the story feel like it’s in the player’s hands. After all, that’s the main selling point of video games. People watch movies for a story that somebody else has written, but we play video games to take control for ourselves. Rather than relying on a set narrative, we behave how we see fit, and the game must act accordingly.
However, despite the allure of active worlds that respond to our decisions, games are still bound by the same linear narrative that all media are. They can offer the illusion of choice, but set paths are always visible, and any decision that a player makes cannot be chosen organically.
A video game is only a game; it’s not a movie that will continue regardless of input, because that would oppose the purpose of video games as a whole. If a player wishes for a cinematic experience while gaming, they could reduce the game’s difficulty, but that isn’t depolarising gameplay and storytelling; it’s just diminishing one so that the other can become more apparent.
We either need to embrace what separates video games from books and movies, or we need to refine game-like aspects for a fluid experience that doesn’t attempt to be something it’s not. If a game is going to feel inherently like a game, then this should be better integrated, rather than ignored. When a developer wishes to produce a game that feels like a movie, they shouldn’t create movie scenes with interspersed gameplay – they should create a game that tells a story as it’s played.
If games accept that they aren’t movies, their potential is no longer limited by the confines of multiple media at once. Games aren’t limited to a single plot that must be followed from beginning to end, and so deviating from the main path is unique to them, and should be encouraged.
The thought of a leading character in any other medium stepping away from their task to go on an errand would seem ludicrous, but that’s only because it’s outwith the limitations of something other than a game. When a linear plot is interrupted by video game mechanics, there should be no need for them to be excused – stories must be adjusted to meld with gameplay and not to clash with it.
The clash between action and inaction in games is not their only storytelling flaw. When games step away from the traditional paradigms of writing, they still suffer from their own limitations. The story doesn’t need to take on a linear nature, but this in itself results in a host of problems. For each decision a player is able to make, there must be multiple results. In a short space of time, the number of possible eventualities would become infinite, making true choice in video games impossible to create. After a while all possible outcomes must tie together and continue as if the decision had not been made, otherwise the game would become lost in the freedom it tries to offer.
In extreme cases, rather than writing multiple outcomes for a scenario, there will be a ‘good’ option and a ‘bad’ option (and not necessarily in the moral sense). In these extreme cases, there is not a bilinear result; there is only an option that will continue the plot thread and an option that will sever it. When these decisions rely on a moral compass, they often rely on binary actions, with the character coming across as either a saint or a monster. On the rare occasion, decisions can be placed in a grey area, where the player must try to decide which is the lesser of two evils.
Due to the pre-ordained nature of plots in games, choice can only be an illusion. A writer has already come before you to decide what could happen, even if you would choose an alternate, unavailable path. It’s a futile endeavour, where a medium designed entirely to give us control over decisions is trapped by plot paths that are all ultimately the same.
The potential video games have to create experiences is enormous. Virtually anything that can be imagined could be visualised and played out in the form of a game. They may not offer as refined an experience as a movie could, but that isn’t their objective.
Of course, there’s room for error, and limitations have to be put in place, but that’s the cost of creating an experience that is far more complex than words on a page, or a movie on a screen. Expressing a story in a form that allows the reader to take complete control is bound to have a clumsy result, but that’s the fun of video games.
Games need to take a step away from tradition and re-evaluate where they want to head in coming years. Storytelling is integral to videogaming, yet more often that not, the two step on each others toes without so much as an apology.