Oh good. Looks like we’re having the ‘do/can/should games tell stories?’ debate again. After a decade or so of people happily making games that tell stories, and writing stories that are games, without anyone raising the spectre of ‘ludology’ with any degree of seriousness, Ian Bogost has dredged up the old debate about story and interactivity in his recent article for the Atlantic.
For anyone lucky enough not to be familiar with the ‘ludology vs. narratology debate’, it involved a particularly tedious period in games academia where academics on various sides of the debate argued about the merits of the videogame as a storytelling device versus the videogame as a mechanical expression of play. It has been summarised and effectively dismissed by Janet Murray back in the ancient history of 2005. The ‘debate’, if it even was such, contributed very little of any worth to either academia or the games industry, and pretty much everyone forgot about it and got on with more interesting and productive undertakings, like actually making videogames.
Bogost, however, has apparently spent the intervening years watching people develop new ways of designing interactive narratives and decided that now is the time to tell them all that they’re wasting their time. In the meagre hours since the article was published I’ve already seen many informed and eloquent rebuttals appear online, many of which adequately summarise my feelings on the matter, but as it feels a bit like Ian Bogost is telling me my livelihood is pointless, I feel slightly vindicated in addressing his article in my own words here.
I’m taking a three-pronged approach to doing so, largely to allow readers suitable points to bail out before the article descends into inarticulate ranting. Firstly, I’ll address the ‘core questions’ raised at the front of Bogost’s article, because it’s actually very quick and easy to do so. Secondly, I’ll discuss narrative structure in general and how the nature of games both changes existing narrative structures and enables new ones. Thirdly, I’ll be descending into a personal rant about cultural elitism in media generally, because that sort of thing really ticks me off.
Firstly, those initial questions. From Bogost:
‘Are the resulting interactive stories really interactive, when all the player does is assemble something from parts?’ Yes. The act of assembly itself is interactive; even if the plot itself remains completely static, which is only true of some games, the fact that the player’s actions directly affect how they experience that story makes it by definition an ‘interactive story.’
‘Are they really stories, when they are really environments?’ Yes. We accept that a play is a story, even though its really a collection of people on a stage in a room moving around and speaking, and that a film is a story even though it’s really a few people flapping about in front of a camera, so it seems silly to suggest that a game cannot be a story because it’s really an environment.
‘And most of all, are they better stories than the more popular and proven ones in the cinema, on television, and in books?’ Unless you’re able to provide a qualified definition of what you mean by ‘better’, this is a pointless question. And even then, I’d answer that way I usually do when someone claims one form of media is ‘better’ than another; better for whom?
So the essential questions raised in the article are easy enough to answer; what I feel requires more focus here is why videogames are not only a valid media for storytelling, but an important one that exists independently of Bogost’s implied dominant paradigm of cinema, television and books. To discuss this it’s worth highlighting the differences between two essential elements of storytelling, narrative and plot.
‘Story’, ‘narrative’ and ‘plot’ are often used interchangeably when discussing media, but are actually different things. The differences between them and the way they interact were formalised by Russian scholars in ye olden days, notably by Vladimir Propp around 1928. Definitions have been changed and debated over intervening years, but essentially boil down to; the ‘plot’ of a story is the total of all the events in chronological order, while the ‘narrative’ is the way these events are revealed to the audience. A story that is entirely plot with no narrative would ready like a wikipedia synopsis, the events of the story listed as chronological bullet points. A story that has no plot, only narrative, would be a meaningless collection of unconnected scenes.
What writers in any medium do is use narrative devices and structures to tell a story in what is hopefully the most compelling way for the audience. Narrative devices can be as simple as choosing whose perspective to employ when telling the story. A story’s characters will all experience the plot in different ways, so limiting the narrative to a first-person perspective creates a different story experience, or narrative. Much like how the player character in a first-person shooter can’t see the enemies spawning in behind them, the protagonist of a novel with a first-person perspective can only deliver their personal view of events. A story with the exact same plot could be told from many different perspectives, delivering a different narrative experience with each one.
When Bogost questions the validity of game stories because ‘all the player does is assemble something from parts’, he’s focusing on plot without considering narrative delivery. Games like Gone Home, Dear Esther and What Remains of Edith Finch centre around static plots; the events of their plots exist pre-told in the past of their fictions. The player has no agency over the plot itself – unlike, say, a Telltale game, where a player’s decisions can directly affect what happens next. Rather, the player has agency over how they uncover these various plot beats, in what order and over what period of time, which can have anything from a minor to a dramatic effect on how they experience the narrative of the game.
What games let us do as writers that other forms of media do not is to create narrative devices and leave them in the hands of players. Players have a degree of control over their own narrative experience. Played to completion, Gone Home is always a story about a young woman returning home from college, and a story about her younger sister’s struggles with her own sexuality. This is the story Gone Home would tell if it were turned into a short film, something Bogost advocates in his article. But because it’s a game, it can also be a story about a struggling novelist, a story about concerned parents of a troubled teenager, a story about a family mystery hidden in the basement, or none of these things. Were they to write a film, the game’s writers could never tell all these seemingly minor side-stories in a way that is coherent and satisfying. By giving their audience agency to uncover as much or as little of the plot as desired, they’ve effectively turned a static plot into an interactive narrative that provides a different experience for each player.
What this interactive approach does for storytelling is lessen the constraints of the ‘dramatic arc.’ The dramatic arc is a storytelling technique that dates all the way back to Aristotle’s Poetics; sometimes called the ‘narrative arc‘, it’s method of propulsion by which plot is delivered. Bogost laments the difficulty of creating truly interactive dramatic arcs, and cites 2005’s Façade as the one credible attempt to do so. It’s worth pointing out that Façade was an academic experiment aimed a using computer techniques to develop a specific sort of interactive narrative, not a roadmap for all interactive fiction design and certainly not the be-all and end-all of interactive storytelling.
The dramatic arc itself is a product of linear fiction – while writers of films and novels can employ all sorts of temporal narrative devices such as the flash-back and the in medias res opening, the linear nature of the work means that drama has to progress forward. It’s always going to resemble an arc of some sort. Attempts to reconcile interactivity with dramatic arcs will necessarily end up feeling stilted, as a dramatic arc requires narrative to be delivered in a controlled linear form and the player’s agency interrupts this. See: every Bethesda open-world game, where the player is informed of an imminent world-ending threat only to ignore said threat to spend fifty hours performing fetch quests and trying on different helmets while the world remains remarkably un-ended.
But games like Gone Home and Edith Finch do not rely so much on traditional dramatic arcs. By leaving the time and manner that the audience experiences the plot up to the audience themselves, drama doesn’t necessarily unfold as a linear arc but as a fluid dynamic structure. A dramatic web, perhaps, that is open to exploration and interpretation in a way that traditional arc-based media is not. This is a pretty new form of storytelling, and it’s not, actually, unique to games. Experiential theatre productions like those of Punchdrunk allow audiences to roam and wander through the performance of a play, with productions often taking place in several locations on set at once. Like ‘walking simulator’ type games such as Gone Home, the plot of the story stays the same, but the narrative experience differs for each member of the audience based on their actions. Audiences don’t necessarily experience dramatic arcs, but dramatic webs consisting of various arcs that they can dip in and out of at will.
Which brings me to the conservatism present in Bogost’s article. He suggests that because games aren’t good at delivering dramatic arcs in the same way as movies or novels they are an inherently worse storytelling medium, without considering the validity of the different types of story videogames allow us to tell. Stories have traditionally featured dramatic arcs, therefore stories that do not must be doing it wrong. He’s enforcing the notion that ‘good storytelling’ is one specific definable thing and that everything that does not fit within this narrow definition must be ‘bad storytelling’ and therefore not worthy of pursuit. It’s this attitude that infuriates me most of all; I’ll happily debate narrative technique until the end of time knowing that we’ll never reach a real consensus, but I refuse to let anyone tell me there are such things as definably ‘good’ and ‘bad’ storytelling.
Good and bad writing, perhaps. But good and bad types of story? Good and bad ways of telling stories? It’s an insidious idea of ‘worthiness’, that some types of story are worth serious consideration while others are not based on some arbitrary content definition.
This kind of cultural elitism is epitomised by the existence of ‘literary fiction’, a non-genre which effectively defines itself as ‘better than other types of fiction.’ Proponents of literary fiction will derisively label anything that isn’t literary fiction as ‘genre fiction’, as if literary fiction transcends genre through its own importance. What this boils down to is the idea that literature should not be taken seriously if it has aliens or werewolves in it. Basically it’s anything that’s not ‘popular’ fiction, with ‘popular’ pronounced with as much disdain as can be mustered. Honestly, read this description of literary fiction and try to take away anything of value or meaning other than a sense of sneering elitism – no fault of the author, I might add, but rather a fault with the literary institution that gave us ‘literary fiction’ in the first place.
It probably doesn’t need stating that I don’t agree with this arbitrary labelling. I’ve read some ‘genre fiction’ that by any measurable definition of quality blows some of the ‘literary fiction’ I’ve read out of the water. The article above even details how certain works of ‘genre’ fiction have been ‘elevated’ and accepted into the cadre of ‘literary’ fiction after passing some unknown test of worth. Hopefully my liberal use of sarcastic quote marks adequately explains what I think of this kind of members-only club approach to literary categorisation.
This faulty idea that certain types of fiction are inherently more worthwhile than others is something Bogost perpetuates when he writes of Gone Home as ‘the video-game equivalent of young-adult fiction. Hardly anything to be ashamed of, but maybe much nothing to praise, either.’ What he’s criticising here, then, is not the narrative structure of Gone Home, not the quality of the writing or delivery, but the fact that it deals primarily with teenage issues. ‘If the ultimate bar for meaning in games is set at teen fare, then perhaps they [videogames] will remain stuck in a perpetual adolescence even if they escape the stereotypical dude-bro’s basement,’ he writes, sneeringly. Because stories about teenagers cannot be serious, surely?
At a time when more people from more varied backgrounds than ever before are using games to tell stories, it’s troubling to use a position of authority to tell people these stories don’t matter, that they shouldn’t be taken seriously because books and films do them ‘better’. Now I highly doubt this is Bogost’s intent here, as much of his other writing is laudably inclusive and encouraging, but by using the language of cultural elitism to dismiss an entire form of storytelling he is, whether intentionally or not, devaluing the work of thousands, perhaps millions of people who certainly do not deserve to have their stories dismissed based purely on the medium they use to tell them. Whether you personally find meaning in the stories told in interactive media is a matter for personal preference, but to dismiss all stories told this way because they don’t adhere to narrow cultural norms is reprehensible.