Blow: Stories In Games Are Just Hot Air

Jonathan Blow, One man creator of the oh-so-pretty Braid platformer, as amazing for its interesting gameplay as its surreal visuals, says, essentially, that videogame stories are bad and probably wouldn't get much better with better writers since trying to tell a story in a game is a bad idea. One might wonder whether he's paraphrasing film director John Huston, who famously remarked, when asked about the "message" in one of his movies, that if one wanted to send a message, one should use Western Union.

One similarly might imagine that if you were to ask Blow about the story in his games, he'd say that if you want to tell a story, you should make a film. Or, perhaps, write a book. Seeing at what some triple-A titles have become-- long cutscenes with repetitive gameplay inserted instertitially-- one can't help but admit to at least some truth in the idea that there's something suboptimal about the way narration and gameplay are currently being combined. The flaws of the method get a pass when the separate elements are well executed in otherwise popular products. When either or both is weak, the combination itself makes the whole enterprise seem foul. In some games, one so dominates over the other that it is a wonder that anyone bothers; I tried the demos of a couple of JRPGs over the holiday break, the first ones I've ever played, and was amazed to find that the first hour or so of each of them consisted of scripted, in-engine cutscenes with no choices and player interaction limited to pressing the green button to advance to the next scene. Where's the game, I wondered.

Blow's answer falls clearly on the side of ludology: stories in games are for windowdressing, and the play's the thing. However I can't help feeling that this is not a bold statement about what can or cannot, or what should or should not be done in games, but rather just beating a retreat back into the nature of gaming before current audio visual technology made it possible to blend filmmaking and game design to the degree that is now possible. Compared to what may eventually be possible, I find it hard to imagine that even expensive and complicated games like Halo 3 are little more than a few static frames strung together to create the illusion of the movement of a galloping horse or a flickering candle flame. It's sixteen-year-old gameplay grafted onto 70-year-old filmmaking. That the combination should seem, despite its gloss, something more primitive than either of its component parts should be neither surprising nor disheartening.

Most of the ludologists focus on challenge, which they say is essentially diametrically opposed to the experience you get from storytelling. For the storytelling to work, the story must be finished. If finishing the story requires completing the challenge, then either the challenge must be so easy that everyone can complete it, or else not everyone will finish the story. Blow suggests keep the challenge, since that is what games are about, and cut the story down to the bare minimum: to a setting.

Games like that are fine, and I would certainly not say that a game that does this, as Braid does, is bad, or that it is somehow a 'primitive' type of game that needs to evolve into something else.

However, the feeling of accomplishment after completing a puzzle or challenge is, to me, only one of the multifarious emotions one can have after a multimedia experience. Certainly books, films, and games have different inputs, different outputs, and different results. I consistently am amazed when people describe activities like book-reading and moviegoing as completely passive, compared to games. It's laughable. Only the most simplistic forms of these media are as base as the storytelling in most games. The best require interpretation, and these interpretations are, at best, nearly much a part of your experience of viewing them as the vision the artists had when they made it. That interpretation is colored by things you've viewed before, thoughts you've had before, your personal life experience. What is pressing a few colored bits of plastic to that, in terms of input?

I'm being a bit facetious here, but I do think it's unfair that these activities are termed entirely passive compared to games, which are seen as active and "interactive", even though the best of them don't aspire to nonlinearity. I posit there is no interactivity in a game with a story, where the story matters, if the game itself is not nonlinear. If you can't affect it, you don't have input. It's a trick. You only think you do.

For lots of games, that's enough. For the cleverest, they make your lack of choice in the fictional world itself the subject of the game's story (kudos, Bioshock). I think you can only pull that trick so many times, though, and I think these kinds of tricks are temporary fixes. I think there's more potential in trying to figure out how to make an engaging story out of the guided interactions of customer-players and employee-players of MMORPGS then there is in trying to graft the choose-your-own-adventure model of nonlinear story-play into FPS games. Maybe that's only me, though.

Blow seems to be saying that if you can't firmly grasp the brass ring, you shouldn't try. I don't agree, and I hope there are still game developers out there who don't hold that viewpoint.

Last time, in response to Braid designer Jonathan Blow's statement that games shouldn't really try to tell stories, I pleaded for designers who felt that games could do more than just be puzzles with a backdrop, and do more than just emulate films.

Along comes Dan Houser, founder of Rockstar, developer of Grand Theft Auto!

And while he agreed the game is a "sprawling criminal journey," he said he no longer believes that the ultimate goal of videogames is to emulate movies. "There was a sense that in some ways movies were a higher art form and video games could aspire to be like them," he said. "I think now, because we and a few other companies are making products, that this isn't the case. They're just different and video games are capable of things that movies aren't."

Reluctantly, I agree. Now, is anybody else going to try to make games more than what they are, and different from films? Because I hope the only ones that think so aren't the ones making GTA. Really.

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Comments

I'm with you on this. (I only hope I live long enough to see the cool stuff - after all, if games are where movies were 70 years ago, either someone needs to pick up the pace, or I need to start looking for ways to extend my life. :) )

Nice piece!

Well, I do think that gaming is at a more primitive state relative to film. Pinning an exact date on it is probably not particularly helpful.

In any case I think that the rate of advancement is different from that of film. Even if we were to agree that, arbitrarily, gaming is where film was 70 years ago, I don't think that means it would take 70 years for gaming to reach where film is now. (I'm not sure, for instance, that film itself has advanced as much in the last 20 of those years than it did in the first 50 of them, except on purely technical points).

Next it assumes that the destination is known-- that games would be advancing along the same, or a similar curve, to film. That's not clear either. I don't think there's consensus on what games can and should become-- it may become something that is very different from film and advances along a very different curve than film. Perhaps steeper, perhaps shallower, perhaps something not as smooth.

I just don't think that staying on the production value treadmill forever is the way forward, nor do I think avoiding that entirely (as well as all other narrative elements of filmmaking) to focus on core puzzle gameplay is, either. Those are both easy ways out-- just diametrically opposed ones.


Rampant for over se7en years.

I think as with all things, games, movies and story telling evolve. Right now with the advance of technology and distribution some designers are attempting to combine the two or at least incorporate aspects of one into the other. This is not always successful but when it does work it adds a greater depth and level of not only enjoyment but re-playability as far as games go. There are some players who fall into what I call the "Atari 2600" mentality who see every video game the same way as one might view Atari's "Combat". Tanks spin, move, shoot, repeat. No one looked at the tanks and thought: Where do they come from? What models are they? Who's driving them? Why are we fighting anyway? Or what the consequences of blasting their opponents across the map in a spinning whirlwind of dizzy low-rez pixel carnage were. Shoot, reload, repeat. That's it. And for some that is all they want or expect from a game. Anything else is fluff to be skipped, avoided, ignored and gets in the way of all that shooting.

Personally, I fall more into the "Out of This World" or "Another World" mentality. (Depending on what country you are in). Here is a game that not only had the glorious gunplay we all enjoy, but it had with it puzzle solving, complex task sequencing, inventive varied gameplay, very accessible controls, robust characters, and yes, a fantastic story with depth and scope and all of it done with 2D - 320x240 pixel vector graphics, minimal music, no HUD and no dialog. Now THAT is an accomplishment. It was so good people have been updating and re-releasing the game over the past 15 years on many other platforms. Normally you have to factor in personal taste but there are some things that when they are done right stand out above the rest. And while the tech has advanced considerably, we have not necessarily progressed as much in the same areas of game type expansion. So while there may be a rut of games with underdeveloped stories, the answer is not to go back to neutered titles with nothing to offer players shooting for shooting's sake. The vision and focus just needs to be honed more. I think the prep-work and story should be fleshed out more (if not entirely) first to finalize the world and characters you wish to present, before the game starts development. Otherwise, you are simply writing stories by committee. So, while many game stories are not very good/bad, that's no reason to exile or abandon them. Any more than we should go back to 2D because there were some bad 3D titles made. Things evolve. Game stories will too.