Once Upon A Playtime

I’m on deck at DIY Days NYC to give a talk about storytelling in games (a talk that is, at present, called “Once Upon A Playtime”). Basically, with this talk I’m shunting aside the old question of Are games art? because that question is (to me) meaningless to the designer, to the creator. Instead, I’m focusing on the question, Can games be used to tell an effective story?

I don’t know the answer to that, yet.

When I first started cracking the nut that is this question, my kneejerk response was a blustery, stammering, “Well! Wuh. Pffh. Of course they can! That’s not even a question.”


Then I really took a good long look.

At its core, storytelling is (duh, bear with me) the act of me telling you a story.

Ah, but gaming isn’t quite that. Gaming is about you experiencing a story, and further, it’s about you making your own story from that experience. I don’t mean to suggest that this is a bad thing. It’s not. It’s a great thing. It’s its own thing. But is it classic and effective storytelling?

The campfire storyteller, the writer, the filmmaker, the comic book artist, they’re all telling a measured story. It unfolds word after word, page after page, frame after frame. It exists at the pace of the storyteller. It’s a roller coaster ride. You’re buckled the fuck in. Your only real options as the recipient of the story are:

a) Keep listening (reading, watching)

b) Quit that shit (put the book down, turn off the movie, walk away from the campfire)

c) Change the pace of my consumption (read more slowly, watch the film in increments, choose to read the graphic novel over the comic series as its released)

As a game, though, my options are larger, wider, and altogether stranger. Yes, in the Call of Duty games, I traverse the battlefield, unlocking cinematic events that continue the story that the creators are telling. (Be aware, I’m not arguing that games do not tell stories; I’m asking again whether these stories are effective.) But I can stop. I can dick around. I can run around the battlefield area, shooting holes in cars, or letting wave after wave of enemy spawn for giggles. In Halo, I might even partake in emergent gameplay — me and a co-op buddy might sit and screw around with a level (re: a “chapter”) for hours, building ramps for our Warthogs, grenade-jumping to get secret skulls, shooting rockets into each other’s faces. Whatever.

Given that an “avatar” in the game world is generally the story’s protagonist (Master Chief, f’rex), that’s kind of wonky, isn’t it? Imagine being told a story and then the storyteller stops in the middle and suddenly rambles on about how Master Chief tried to give his Spartan best friend a plasma fire enema, or how the two of them ran around on the battlefield playing a digital game of high-definition avatar grab-ass for a half-hour. The story’s arc suddenly plateaus, or rather, hits something that looks a static frequency. Meaning, at that point it’s just noise.

This isn’t a bad thing for the game.

But it might be a bad thing for the story.

Is the story just context for the game experience? Is it just The Thing That Frames The Fun?

Is the story that meaningful in a game? In a pen-and-paper roleplaying game it is, but even there, the creators of said game are not actually telling a story. Not even with a module. They’re giving the gamers the tools to create and engage in their own storytelling endeavors. In an ARG (alternate reality game), the “story” that’s concealed is one that might be meaningful to the canon of that property, but once more, I can experience the story in an ultimately arbitrary and random way. I can come in late, I can come in early, I can juggle the pieces and put the story together as I see fit.

In some ways, this is great, right? Games then embody show over tell. Half-Life and Portal show us the story. We can care, or we can just shoot things. We can search out the writing on the wall (in both games, literally), or we can give the story the finger and run around with the Gravity Gun, shooting boxes into the faces of Combine agents.

It’s too twee, really, but in games, are we talking about storyshowing rather than storytelling? Is storytelling an art that simply cannot operate properly in a game context? Does interactivity offer too many random elements? Does interactivity render the old storytelling mechanics inert?

I’m honestly having a hard time thinking of a video game that truly told an effective story. Are there any? I’m not trying to make anybody mad; it bears repeating that I’m not saying I have not enjoyed the stories and worlds put forth by games. I have. I love games. But has the story of any video game matched up with the best films, the best novels, in terms of storytelling potency, in the terms of true craft? Will video games have a 70s-era surge into craft? Can we ever see the video game equivalent to Taxi Driver or Apocalypse Now? Or Moon? Or District 9? Will video games ever give us something as powerful as Ulysses or The Things They Carried or even Lord of the Rings? Yes, I love Bioshock. I love Mass Effect. But even when I can explain a game’s story in a way that isn’t totally ludicrous, I don’t know that I’m really getting the same emotional urgency and narrative impact as the great stories of our time.

By putting the supposed target of the story (you, me) into the story, have we irreparably damaged the act of storytelling in that particular situation?

I cannot help but envision the day that we begin to tell new stories, static stories born out of our digital interactive experiences. Just as today I might tell you a story about how I went to the convenience store and got robbed (relax, that didn’t happen), I might in the future tell you a story of the time me and a couple of buddies invaded the Overlord’s base and how it was a total suicide mission in the end. Hell, I might tell you that story now. I might tell you how Hindmarch and I sniped some pinko fools, or how last night I protected a Little Sister from an army of Splicers but how everything went pear-shaped when the game dropped one of those ape-bodied brute splicers in my lap at the same time some dude started chucking firebombs at my face. I’m getting stories from the game, but the game is not telling me a story.

Help me out here. Noodle this shit. Give me a boost so I can get my head around this. It feels like a rabbit hole; I tumble, I tumble. Can you think of video games that have effectively told stories to you? Stories on par with the best and brightest? Did the interactivity — the sheer possibility of option — change your notion of “story,” or is it simply outside that notion entirely?