Player Problem: Challenge, Linearity in Videogame Stories

A lengthy rumination on videogame stories, and their recent attempts to be meaningful.

Gametrailers recently released a one-off feature video with the headline “Why Do Game Stories Suddenly Not Suck?” Although the headline is a bit much — the actual video is merely called “Narrative in Games: Unexplored Territory” — the video features several industry “storytellers” ruminating through their own thoughts on the problems and allures of stories in videogames. It’s an engrossing, compelling video about a subject that has become nearly paramount to anyone who wants to think of videogames as an artistically significant medium.

Indeed, the problem of story and videogames is one that has me obsessed recently. And it is certainly a problem. Narrative exposition and gameplay are two things that exist at odds with one another. One necessitates an author that controls the pace and content of a story, while the other is explicitly interactive, with a player agent who actively resists the control of an author. Thus, there is a tension between creator and user. Its something wholly unique to the interactive medium and though it’s problematic,  it’s also where the most potential for growth exists artistically.

This tension has been manifested in two different types of games — the ones that are explicitly driven by a creator and the ones that offer player choice as primary mode of experience. For the former we have games like the recent Tomb Raider, which sought to tell a deep, mature story of the development of a “survivor” through non-interactive cutscenes and dialogue. The latter includes games like Proteus and even Minecraft, where the player experiences a story through their own actions, essentially compressing it into their gameplay.

It may seem that Minecraft has little place in a conversation about stories in games, since most would say that it doesn’t have a story. But I’d argue just the opposite: Minecraft has many stories — they’re just dictated by the players instead of the creator. I think, particularly, this idea that Minecraft (and other non-explicitly narrative games) has no story comes from our conceptions as stories created by a single author. There is some significant anxiety that if we don’t have an author, we can’t have all of the other elements that make a story. But every game of Minecraft that you play has a character, a protagonist, and action that occurs. Surely, it may have conflict, but it hardly needs it. This is a radical idea of what defines a “story,” but what is a story except an experience recorded?

To get back to my larger point, there exists the problem of games like Tomb Raider, Uncharted, and Call of Duty, which are explicitly guided, linear affairs. Linearity isn’t wholly bad in videogames, and it doesn’t necessarily hamper the potential of a game’s story, but these are examples of stories that would better be served in another medium. Consider that Uncharted‘s story wouldn’t have had that problem of Drake being a mass murderer had the entire thing been a movie instead. And Lara Croft’s evolution in Tomb Raider would have been much less disassociating without the issue of the player’s skill conflicting with Lara’s amatuerishness. This kind of dissonance doesn’t exist in movies, so why aren’t games with it not just movies?

Indeed, some of the most memorable moments of these games are the ones that you play the least. Through Quick Time Events, developers have essentially found their solution to the problem of making something that is visually awing and also interactive, so that the whole thing also includes the “game” part of videogame. But it’s a token level of interaction that just avoids the problem without confronting it.

The Gametrailers video makes a significant argument out of Dear Esther, which has the dual problem of being artistically rich and entrappingly linear. It’s so linear in fact that the pertinent question of Dear Esther is whether or not it’s a game at all — since all you do in it is move forward and look around — instead of something along the lines of interactive art. If there is value to an experience like Dear Esther, it’s that it reveals the dramatic difference that interactivity makes to the experience of a story. When you watch a movie or read a book, the story is something that is told to you, but in videogames it’s something much different. The story isn’t something told to you, nor is it something that you yourself tell. It is the strange middle-ground between the two that a game like Dear Esther so strongly elucidates as you make your way along its guided path.

The more useful example of player agency being integrated into an artistic experience, though, is “The Stanley Parable,” a Half Life 2 mod remarkably similar to Dear Esther in content — all you do is more forward — and equivalent in artistic merit but which also introduces the simplest level of player choice, since you are constantly asked to make a choice between two mutually exclusive paths. This is enough to unmistakably call it a game.

But the success of “The Stanley Parable” is that the gameplay affects the story and not the other way around. When you choose one path instead of the other, the game’s narrator compensates. It’s important that videogames always be aware that gameplay and game systems come first. Story is the supplement in games instead of that which is being supplemented. (At this point, this is hardly a revelation. But while the industry as a whole seems to have realized this implicit hierarchy between gameplay and story, no one seems quite sure what to do with it.)

Many of the games which are more obviously “artistic” — Proteus, Dear Esther, Minecraft (arguably), and “The Stanley Parable” — also entirely forgo challenge. You can’t lose these games in large part because they’re not about winning or losing, but rather experiencing. It’s an interesting shift with a lot of implications — foremost among them that It makes the very term “game” outdated.

I think the refusal to have challenge or obstacles in these games is a reaction against the culture that surrounds videogames–namely that videogames are critically reviewed based on how fun they are. Games like Dear Esther are near-impossible to judge on a fun-based scale, but they open up the conversation and let in the light for more in-depth, artistically-inclined discussion. Consider also the example of Braid, which had explicit elements of challenge in its gameplay and was vivisected in reviews for having an “incomprehensible story.” Dear Esther’s story is just as full of ambiguity — and just as quick to draw the “pretentious” label — but it benefits from not having anything else for the reviewer to latch onto. Braid’s interesting time-change mechanic made it a fun game, but it also drew attention away from the depths of its story, since the gratification that comes from understanding something complex and intricate is very different from the gratification of beating a game system by getting a key into a keyhole.

But these “no challenge” games worry me because by forgoing the challenge in games, they remove too the implications of that challenge. While much has been made of these games as experiences, I think it’s worth it to have challenge in games that also asks you to think and consider your role as agent.  For all the games that have asked us to “beat” a system, we’ve had remarkably few that are able to successfully offer up a commentary as to what it means to “beat” that system.  For all the praise that was thrown at Dear Esther as an artistic experience, it is essentially a visual novel. In refusing to be a “game” in the traditional sense, it sidesteps the whole problem of stories in videogames, just as triple-A games with quick time events sidestep the problem of making interesting spectacle that the player has actual interaction with.

Essentially, we should be making as little separation between “story” and “game” as is absolutely possible, because when the line between the two is its most unclear, the experience is something wholly unique to videogames.

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