When it comes to video games, the story is often one of the most important parts to the average consumer. It is the driving force behind the player going from one level or area to another and in some cases the story can make or break and otherwise great game. At the birth of video games, technological limitations kept stories simple such as race to the end, defeat the dragon, rescue the damsel in distress, etc. At the same time, the action you could do in a game would reflect your goal. If the game was about a frog crossing a busy street. then it makes sense that the mechanics would involve moving slowly and being crushed by cars and trucks. However with advancements in technology and theory allowing more complicated games and with that, more complicated game stories.
So at this point, video games have reached the point where game stories rival even the biggest budget movies and the technology is available that almost anyone can make a game with a little effort using programs like Game Maker. The more people there are making games, the more creative advancements that can be done to video games and and video game stories but as more and more games are being released, an important issue has arrived for everyone, like me, hoping to make games in the near future. Are video games the proper medium for self-expression?
One of the reasons why some writers write and some movie makers make movies is to express an idea important to them. Even popular culture movies like Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy expressed some pretty deep ideas while still being a Batman movie. Likewise, video games are being seen by some as the new platform for which writers, programers, and designers can express themselves. Plenty of games have already gone that way, notably games like Bioshock and Braid have been praised for telling a deep and meaningful story compared to other popular games out there. Being able to express yourself in your work is why we have great literature and classic films and to have meaningful work like this in the realm of video games would surely cement it into the realm of art.
On the opposite side of the argument, game designer David Jaffe has famously said that video games are the worst platform to tell a story and that game developers should stop focusing on creating a Hollywood movie and calling them games, but instead focus on creating experiences that are unique and authentic to the player. He called it player-authorship and I have already discussed why I think that authorship needs to go back to the players. By doing this, a game would no longer tell the story of a character but instead let players create their own stories, to tell and share with each other and most importantly unique to themselves. To not allow player choice or player authorship to be a part of the game story is greatly under-utilizing what video games can do. His argument caused an uproar in the gaming community, believing that what he meant was that video games cannot tell a great story. Jaffe used an example of how a Christmas cookie commercial stirred up more emotion from him than any game he’s played and I believe is because he has memories attached to that commercial and likewise, games are about creating experiences for the player, which really leaves the writer/designer in a tough position to express his or herself.
So again, the question is whether or not video games can be a medium for self-expression. Braid was a game that is famous in part for being an innovative platformer and for having a far reaching narrative that expressed creator Jonathan Blow’s idea of regret. However, because of the way it tried to tell its story, that idea was never properly conveyed through relying on the text between each world but having game mechanics that don’t really express the idea of regret. To the player, their only concern was trying to save the princess, with references to Mario every couple of levels.
I once had a conversation with a young woman about the game and she asked me if I could give an example of how regret could better be done better. While I did regret not thinking of this example when I was talking to her, later I did remember one game that made me feel regret. That game was Fallout: New Vegas when I was forced to murder someone for the greater good. It was a ghoul who wouldn’t let me pass without first getting past a bunch of insane super mutants and after so many failed attempts finally just had to kill him. He wasn’t a bad guy and it was something that really made me want to think more about what I was doing. In fact, I was so nervous about killing another innocent person that I cheated in one part to make sure that the right person was executed by Boone for this revenge.
The difference between New Vegas and Braid is not just that the scenario in New Vegas could have been played out multiple ways thus changing the meaning, but that there is the likely possibility that players will feel differently about the situation and any emotions they had attached to that scenario was completely authentic. The issue with someone trying to express themselves in a game is that they often have to jump through hoops of non-gaming elements to get their point across. Braid relied on a text based narrative in-between worlds but did not utilize the proper rhetoric to get its message across. Other games have to rely on cutscenes where player choice is removed from the equation and pretty soon, the player is just an actor on stage following the script and the choices of the director, fundamentally challenging the notion of a game.
In New Vegas however, and indeed in games like Skyrim, Minecraft, Deus Ex, and Pokemon, there is no director and the message being delivered is up to the player. Dues Ex: Human Revolution is a game that brings to the forefront the ethical issues surrounding commercialized artificial augmentation, a very real and very serious topic being discussed today. However, unlike other popular mediums that have discussed something like this, the game refused to take a stance and let the player determine how the game unfolds and what meaning it has based on the interactions of the characters. It’s in these kinds of games that I see the most arguing over who is right and who is wrong. David Sarif or Bill Taggart? The Empire or the Stormcloaks? Legion, NCR, or Free Vegas? The idea is that the developers have foregone pushing their own kind of agenda and instead have created a frame work for which players can express themselves through the game.
This is the kind of stance I believe should be adopted by developers because this is what makes video games unique to other forms of art. Other mediums out there, literature, film, painting, sculpture, etc. but video games are interactive art. They don’t just require the player’s presence, but the player’s participation and because of that, each game, each playthrough, is played out uniquely for that person. If you meet another person who has played game, chances are that it played out sightly different whether it be from what weapon they have chosen to fight off the hordes of enemies or if they decided to help an old lady or not. The best games out there, I don’t think could ever be turned into movies, because that means the game is linear and doesn’t allow the player to really express themselves. To a certain extent, I think that developers are aware that video games are there to be the framework for the player’s creative self-expression and instead of making mostly linear Hollywood movies, they instead create really fancy coloring books, establishing a world and game mechanics that fit an overall theme and let player’s decided on what meanings to give it.