READ.ME: In Pursuit of Story

Back at the end of November, this article appeared over on community-led games writing site Bitmob. For those too lazy to follow the link and/or read the article, the gist is as follows: Shawn McGrath, creator of the psychedelic abstract shooter Dyad for PlayStation 3, made some rather bold proclamations on how inappropriate he thought video games were as a medium for telling stories. Specifically, he noted that “linear story and interactive anything are diametrically opposed,” that they “make no sense together at all” and that “any attempt to put storylines in games in any traditional sense is completely idiotic.”

Strong words indeed. So what was his justification for this? Simply put, he believed that game stories should be the creation of the player working in harmony with (or, sometimes even opposed to) the game mechanics. He noted that Dyad, his own creation, had a story, but that it was “not something that you can put into text” because it would be unique to each player. He then continued to note that character, themes and settings “belong in games, absolutely” and that “normal linear cause and effect — A happens, therefore B — does not exist unless B is entirely interactive, and that’s totally possible. But as soon as you start trying to tell a linear story, it becomes impossible.”

Basically, what McGrath is saying is that the future of storytelling with video games as a medium is in emergent narrative — those unscripted tales that naturally occur as you play a game and things happen as a result of other things — intentional or not. That time you built a huge tower in Minecraft and there was a creeper inexplicably atop it. That time you repeatedly diced with death in Spelunky and survived, only to come a cropper when you accidentally shot a shopkeeper in the face. That time you took… err… some crap football team (I’m not a sports guy, all right?) to the Superbowl and won against all odds.

These things have their place, for sure, and indeed emergent narrative can produce some incredibly profound experiences — particularly if you’re sharing them with others.

This doesn’t mean that McGrath is right, however.

Uruka has a few choice words for McGrath, played here by Helion. (Aselia the Eternal)

You see, the problem with blanket statements such as that which McGrath made is that in a medium as broad and diverse and “games,” taking a “one size fits all” approach is counterproductive and undesirable. There’s an argument that calling games “games” is not particularly helpful, either, and I’m inclined to agree at this juncture — perhaps “interactive entertainment” is a more accurate definition, because that covers both those experiences that are specifically designed to be a “game” (i.e. with rules, win/loss conditions and a competitive element — either player(s) against the computer or player vs. player) and those for which the term “game” isn’t altogether appropriate — like visual novels, for example.

McGrath’s comments prompted some discussion among members of a gaming podcast and discussion group I’m a member of, the Squadron of Shame. One of our number went on record to note that he didn’t care about story in games, but loved lore.

“Both gameplay and spectacle are the enemy of directed narrative,” he noted. “In other media, directed narrative still leaves plenty of room for imagination, and so I am fine with it there. In games, directed narrative only serves to diminish the possibilities of the world, and concessions such as locked doors and limited paths are constant reminders of that. And since you see, hear and interact with everything that the developers have put into place, there is precious little left to the imagination while playing.” He then continued to note that games such as the recent Halo 4 are good at providing a sense of spectacle – impressive things that make you go “ooh” and “aaah” while playing — but when it comes to making him personally care about the unfolding, linear narrative, he felt completely switched off.

Text and still images can be powerful fuel for the fires of the imagination. (Deus Machina Demonbane)

I thought the line about “imagination” was an interesting one, and it’s one of the more powerful things I’ve discovered about visual novels since developing my particular taste for the medium. Visual novels are a prime example of games — sorry, pieces of interactive entertainment — that work with the player’s imagination and that are specifically designed to let them fill in the blanks themselves. By, in most cases, depicting their action through textual descriptions with still images in the background accompanied by music, sound effects and sometimes voices, the player is left to use the same parts of their imagination that a good book tickles. You start to picture how the characters move, how they interact with each other, how the scene is unfolding. The visual elements on the screen serve as a starting point for that imagination — letting you picture a scene or how a character looks, for example — but the specifics of that scene are private to your own mind. How you “see” something unfolding in your mind’s eye as a result of reading the text on screen may well be completely different to how someone else reading it sees it.

Interestingly enough, this is also true for School Days HQ, which is more of a fully-animated interactive anime series than a traditional visual novel. And yet the imagination is still hard at work despite the experience depicting things happening a lot more explicitly than in a text-based VN. This is achieved by the fact that the game specifically chooses to focus on close-ups of its characters, leaving us free to imagine the specific context they’re in — the setting, the layout of the school, what the weather’s like, how they’re standing, all that sort of thing. At times when it makes sense for us to see the whole scene from a wider angle, we do so; but for the most part, our imagination is working hard to piece everything together rather than having it all spelled out for us. It then goes into overdrive once you’ve finished it a few times and understand the characters a bit more — you then start trying to read the things the characters do in the context of what you, not the protagonist, know about them from previous playthroughs.

Along with this “stoking the imagination” element, we’ve already seen in previous weeks how the fact that the visual novel medium usually turns away from what we traditionally call “gameplay” allows it to explore a much wider variety of themes and tell much more mature stories that simply aren’t possible using other play styles. There are, of course, exceptions to this “gameplay-light” approach — Aselia the Eternal is a notable example we’ve explored recently — but for the most part, visual novels distinguish themselves by specifically choosing to eschew skill, reflex or strategy-based gameplay in favor of concentrating almost exclusively on storytelling, with only the most basic forms of interaction available to the player at set intervals in order to direct the specific path(s) down which the narrative unfolds.

Kana Little Sister’s focus on quick-fire exchanges between the protagonist and Kana helps the player use their imagination to understand the pair’s relationship.

Does that make them “idiotic?” I think not. It simply makes them not to the taste of certain individuals. Just as I wouldn’t show a Michael Bay movie to someone who exclusively watched French arthouse cinema, though, I wouldn’t try and convince a hardcore Call of Duty multiplayer fan to sit down and play Kana Little Sister if they had expressed no interest in the storytelling possibilities of interactive entertainment.

Not everyone likes the same things. One size most certainly does not fit all — and that’s something that consumers, press, developers and publishers alike would all do well to remember as interactive entertainment continues to broaden and diversify as a medium of artistic expression.

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READ.ME is Games Are Evil’s weekly delve into the world of visual novels, a genre of interactive entertainment primarily developed in Japan which has carved out a small but dedicated niche in the West. Follow this column’s author Pete Davison on Twitter here.

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