Your Take on Narrative in Games: Responding to Bogost


#1

As I was writing this I didn’t think it was going to be a response to Ian Bogost’s article in The Atlantic, “Why Video Games are Better Without Stories”, but that’s sort of what it became.

Any thoughts or constructive criticism on the piece are welcome.

Mostly though, I want to open the floor to the forums to voice their opinions on the state of narrative in video games in 2017. What works, what doesn’t? If you disagree with Bogost, how and why?


#2

Ultimately, I think what doesn’t work is chasing the Hollywood blockbuster type of storytelling.

I feel Call of Duty is an excellent example of how this does not work. They pulled it off once with the infamous Nuke in Modern Warfare, and have been chasing that acclaim since. The best stories games have told, in my experience, have been ones that really take advantage of the amount of time you spend in their world with their characters.

Persona and Mass Effect spend hours upon hours building your relationship with each aspect of the game. Then they use that time to make you care about the story in a way that’s wholly different to how I feel about other forms of media.

This can also be accomplished through systems like in Breath of the Wild or Spelunky. I don’t wholly disagree with Bogost. But I feel that giving up on traditional storytelling in games is a mistake.

Games are still imitating other forms of media in many ways. For better or worse. If we stop experimenting in, in all aspects gaming, we lose out on countless potential experiences.


#3

I appreciate games that manage to create meaningful storytelling within “traditional” genre frameworks, like Mass Effect or Zelda, but I’m really fascinated by the modern breed of games that are really trying to find mechanical ways to generate narrative immersion. Its cliche but Papers Please is such a great demonstrative example; its my go to for talking about how a game with a relatively simple set of interactions can combine and frame them in a way that places the player inside the narrative


#4

I frankly think that Hollywood blockbuster storytelling doesn’t even work in film either.

Aside from my assertion in the piece above that narrative in general is subservient to basically every other part of a piece of media: the look, feel, sound, touch, etc. I tend to agree with you that “time spent” is a totally viable method for instilling familiarity and creating narrative cohesion.


#5

This is a masterfully articulated piece, you should be proud.

Plot’ has been something I’ve been flirting and grappling with in my mind for the past couple of years. I’m trying to complete two different fiction projects and have been stalled and stymied by world-building vs actually fucking writing. My rationalespoiler[/spoiler] seems to be that constructing a world with its own internal logic and lore will make telling stories in that world easier and more varied due to a defined context.
I think there was a vlog by Max Landis (yeah, I know; a friend had linked it to me.) In it, he pointed out a sort of dichotomy of plot vs characters, and that himself and many are always willing to forgive an underwhelming story as long as it hosts developed characters. Which reminded me of Mass Effect.

When you consider the plot, it’s fairly boilerplate, pulp scifi/fantasy.

But the first time a game had ever made me cry was in Mass Effect 3 when the genophage is cured. And before that, I literally leapt out of my couch, made involuntary noises, and sprung up and down when Jack made her appearance (she had been my love interest in ME2.) Mass Effect 3 was kind of a moment in video games, and for many reasons. For my part, it had run me through an emotional gamut that had been building over the course of years as I bonded with its characters. I wasn’t alone, as so many were so livid at the game’s conclusion, feeling that those bonds deserved better. That kind of dedication to a game about saving the galaxy from space robots. But it had a defined fiction–a sense of place with its own set of rules, a nigh tangible tone, and characters players will never forget. That it just so happened to be contained within “Hollywood blockbuster” trappings is kind of irrelevant. And it’s only one means/style of “storytelling.”

Granted, this isn’t necessarily unique to video games. Readers got so pissed with Sherlock Holmes’s death that they forced him to come back, in the same way that players provoked an actual response from Bioware for ME’s ending. But the quandary of what “story” even means spans creative expression.

P.S. Jack I will always love you even if I am a space robot god consciousness


#6

First, that’s a pretty S+ tier username.

Thank you so, so much. As somebody trying to brute force their way in to the games writing industry, you feedback goes a long way!

And yes, I’m inclined to agree that building a world to live in is priority number one for fiction. Perhaps 98% of those internal systems are never even written about in the final product, but all serve to create an ecosystem in which a plot can be nurtured and grown organically. I’ve never finished writing a book in it’s entirety, but in retrospect I think the issue is that the world didn’t have defined boundaries and systems such that the narrative could grow itself without my top-down interference/prodding.


#8

I’ve been thinking this over for the past week. There’s something to be said about plot informing mechanics and all of that, but the one think that’s been sticking out in my mind is the perfect example of Ian Bogost’s ideal game does exist: The Witness.

The Witness, and by extension Jonathan Blow, exhbit and represent the end point (starting point?) of what games without narrative can be like. Braid is a start at a game without a plot - some pieced together fragments that lead to something that is hard to sustain in its own narrative. The Witness represents games without plot, expressing ideas through mechanics. There is definitely some unsavory portions of The Witness, but most of them come from the way it pontificated it’s message through FMV sections - something that could honestly be missed or skipped over. It handles a lot of that stuff poorely, but the examination of discovery and perspective is interesting. It felt genuinely good to figure out the rules of those systems.

There was a criticism of Ian Bogost’s piece that reduced his argument to the idea that he wanted games to be boxes and circles and nothing else, which felt a bit unfair. A game that has gotten a lot of praise lately, in regards to being plotless, is the game Everything, by David OReilly. There was praise for it, but it too is a plotless game that simply exists as an experience of being.

You can look at a lot of games that Ian Bogost has written and praised and get a similar idea of what can be done: He’s done writing on Mountain, also by David OReilly. In it, he argues that you play not as the mountain, or a player controlling the mountain, but the indecipherable gap between player and a mountain. His examination of Proteus offers similar insights, at least in the first of the trio of examinations.

I’m not arguing games should stop telling stories. My two favorite games of the year so far are Night In The Woods and Nier, but the way this argument was dismissed felt hurried.

The thing that I felt was most forgotten or not looked at comes in the form of his previous argument, Video Games Are Better Without Characters. I don’t agree with everything in here. Some of it rubs me the wrong way, but one quote that I want to pull out of it is:

What if the thing games most have to show us is the higher-order domains to which we might belong, including families, neighborhoods, cities, nations, social systems, and even formal structures and patterns?

There is something about seeing systems of oppression from the bottom. It’s easier to see the systems that keep people down when one is at the bottom and the systems are actively pressing down upon you. In this sense, the argument is that games, not just video games, but just play in general is something that can enact systems and demonstrate them. If you want to read something else he wrote that argues this sort of point, I feel like his article upon the game Train does a great job of examining this.

I think the argument is blunt and dismissive of narrative efforts, but there is merit to what it can accomplish that other mediums can not. Ian Bogost has always seemed to have an eye particularly for medium, and his latest piece was no exception. There are people who will tell stories through games because that’s all they have, or all they want to tell stories in. The synthesis of mechanics and storytelling can feel great and dismissing storytelling feels cruel and short sighted. I want stories, but there are points to be pulled from his piece.

There’s something to be said about storytelling in game’s youth, but there’s also a lack of knowledge about it’s past. Video game’s capability as a bard is still being discovered, but there’s larger systems at play that games can help us discover, and I think that’s just as important.

Sorry for this being ramble-y and long, I’ve just been thinking about this one for a while.


#9

I definitely agree with the main argument of your article. How a story is told is far more important than the specific plot points of that story. A profound experience might seem trite if converted to a different medium.

In terms of games, I feel like the most straightforward example of this is actually professional sports. People simply wouldn’t watch football for it’s own sake. If the exact same game of football as the super bowl played out, but was just between two randomly assembled groups of dudes who just happen to be extremely good at the game of football, nobody would really care.

The idea that The Falcons are “Atlanta’s team” despite the owner, coach, and majority of players not being from Atlanta is a narrative conceit designed to get us to buy into the “character” of the team. The seasons and playoffs create long term stakes and a rising dramatic tension curve. Even the obsessive stat-keeping is largely to set up sideplots (Will player X break record Y?) and also to create an extensive “lore” for the game.

And sure those stories aren’t “as good” as traditionally scripted narratives if we judge them by the exact same standards as traditionally scripted media. They’re sloppy and clunky, and usually work better if you ignore chunks of them outright, but they’re clearly incredibly affecting in ways a book isn’t. The transparent rules of the game give every moment an incredible clarity of stakes, and the events of the story are dramatically validated by the system itself.


#10

Yes! I love this analogy. As somebody who never grew up watching sports, to really be able to understand their emotional impact I’ve had to talk with friends who live and breath it. For them, it’s not so much about the game itself - one of my closest friends sees on average twenty games of baseball in person, per season. The kicker being, he doesn’t actually watch the game. He gets box seats, score card in hand, and muses on how each player movement plays in to the more grand (and speculative) narrative he builds in his mind.


#11

Thank you, extremely well researched for a forum reply! I’m glad we’re getting in to the gritty. I’m shootin’ from the hip here and I’d be lying if I said I’m not four beers deep, so let’s go shawwwtayy!

So, to preface this, I was not familiar with Bogost’s writing before the past week, nor am I fluent in it now. I suppose, for me, his piece about narrative in games struck a chord because I feel so strongly about the nature of narrative in the first place - that it, as a construct, often receives more praise than it’s due. That children in school are taught what Picasso’s Guernica is “about” rather than leaving the painting to speak for itself. That there is even the notion that when a person sees art that they might not “get it.”

I think my position is that, no, you get it. It’s exactly what you need/want it to be. Without any understanding of the artist’s intent, the power of creation is that it doesn’t matter, you extrapolate what you like. As they say in tabletop miniature games WYSIWYG.

What I mean is that Plot, as a construct, is entirely positional. You mention The Witness, which I agree intends to function as a video game in itself, that is, purely mechanical - without narrative. But in my personal experience with The Witness, the plot was in some ways more rich than something more traditional like Uncharted 4. The human animal sees faces in trees and clouds because we’ve become designed to make sense of the chaotic, the irrational, the natural – there is narrative in everything. The “plot” of The Witness, in my experience, would be a bit too abstract to write down on a napkin, hand to you, then say “hey MynameisMichaelKern, this is the plot of The Witness” but it’s a narrative regardless

So to circle around back to my article, and in retrospect I didn’t communicate this effectively, traditional narrative, as a device, is not nearly as important as the manner in which it’s communicated. Picasso could have written down on a napkin “hey MynameisMichaelKern, Guernica is about the tumultuous nature of civil war” but that would be to deny the painting it’s power. The power of Guernica is that through it’s body of painting, it transcends it’s implied narrative. That how it was made is far more important than what it’s “supposed to mean.”

Wrapping back to Bogost, my issue is that in this piece (and again, I’ve not read more of his work) he seems to say narrative = valuable, that there is something more inherently important about narrative than how that narrative is relayed.

Also, I think I just debated with myself rather than the points you made? I dunno, go home drunk @NoCoastGaming

Thank you again for your detailed response!


#12

Fundamentally, I can’t get past the way Bogost’s piece appears to erase and/or minimize the contributions of a lot of lgbtq voices whose primary contribution to games has been through things like Twine.

About the part where Bogost’s starts talking about how games like Edith Finch or whatever failing to move the medium forward as a whole I get this mental image I cant shake of like John Ruskin showing up in some poor artists house, looking at the paintings and saying, how does this move art forward you fool, you dunce? and then flipping his inevitable cape and stalking out.

Or like, maybe more favourably, Bogdanovich watching like Die Hard and going, this is not worth anyone’s time, this is not True Art!

My only other quibble is the repeated reference to holodecks and novels, which feels like a willful misunderstanding of both (the holodecks is interactive movies, not novels).


#13

That’s totally a fair criticism of it, and sort of what I wanted to get at when I said there’s people who want to or only can tell stories through this medium. Some of the stuff that rubs me the wrong way in Video Games Are Better Without Characters, and I didn’t feel like delving into right away because of how long the post had gotten, is his complete dismissal of identity politics. It reads as ambitious, but ultimately cold and unsympathetic of people’s struggles. There’s value in seeing the greater systems but people’s experiences are what makes it worth seeing in the first place.

The imagery definitely fits though. His sort of comparison that feels shitty, to be honest, going so far as to call it “cinema envy.” No one says “This movie doesn’t move the medium forward,” or claims comics are jealous of books.

I know there’s definitely a much more thoughtful version of that article that exists though, that doesn’t seem so caught up in how effective storytelling is and supposes what the weaknesses of a medium are, and instead focuses on the strengths. This version written by Bogost definitely feels needlessly malicious though.


#14

Hey, no problem.

I think there’s a place in the middle here. I think a lot of what we’re discussing is what Bogost wouldn’t call narrative or plot, but would call something else entirely. One of the things he’s trying to focus in is this idea that plot, written by a writer, and delivered, and to use your own example, put on a napkin, isn’t worth telling, at least in a game. He even puts it as bluntly in the article, stating

To use games to tell stories is a fine goal, I suppose, but it’s also an unambitious one.

A lot of what Ian says, throughout a lot of his body of work, is that systems are what matters, mechanics are what matter, and the things they represent and present to us is what is truly important. So, there’s definitely this duality in this argument, where his tone indicates he sees narrative as fundamentally valuable, but his argument is that story is small fry, and we should be reaching for something beyond it, because video games are uniquely positioned to go beyond it, in the sense of a self discovered “plot.” He’s arguing for the organic stories that come from EVE, or the experience of walking around in The Witness, are what video games should truly be about.

It’s a noble goal, but some people want to just bounce around a rust belt town and talk to one animal on one day, and then the next day talk to a different animal entirely, and that’s the stuff that requires plot. I feel like the biggest thing Ian forgets is choice. His main crux, for why video games are bad at telling stories, is

The whole way through, I found myself wondering why I couldn’t experience Edith Finch as a traditional time-based narrative… The story is entirely linear, and interacting with the environment only gets in the way, such as when a particularly dark hallway makes it unclear that the next scene is right around the corner.

It ends up feeling like he’s conflated all games as linear, and asking “Why not just make this a TV show?”

In an effort to distance video games from narrative, he ended up saying “Why not just tell stories another way, because, frankly, video games suck at it. Video games should stick to their lane.”

He simultaneously erases the voyage of walking as something being its own story, but also ignores the circumstances of people who just want to tell a story in this manner, and comes off as ignoring contributions of marginalized people, as @PW_Shea has pointed out.

Ian’s presentation of this argument is what ultimately defeats something that could have been seen as insightful, that doesn’t come off as attacking narrative, but embracing a synthesis between even the simplest mechanic of choice, and narrative. It’s sort of what makes it all the more frustrating, because I entirely see the flaws in his arguments and see where he’s needlessly offensive, but at it’s core, there is something interesting about embracing mechanics and systems as a method of delivery unto itself - which I believe is more the plot that would be present inside of The Witness, EVE, or a grand strategy game.


#15

Others have had this opinion already, but we need any narrative in games so narratives will grow stronger.

Right now Nier Automata is my favorite game of all time very easily. I hope in 10 years Nier Automata wont even be in my top 10. Because people get inspired by Nier or an Edith Finch and make better stories.