Thank you for the thoughtful reply. I definitely — definitely — needed another pass on this. Not gonna lie, I used a ton of examples at the end because I realized how close I was to 9000 words and decided that I had to go for it.
One of the reasons I had that disclaimer (and it was harsher) at the start was like… this is me doing me, y’know? It’s me going through the process of figuring it out myself. Admittedly, I was also doing it because people had asked me to take a collection of tweets and turn it into an article — twice — so it’s a loose adaptation of those rants, but it was also important, personally, to go through the process myself. That some of these observations are not new is completely understandable.
I think the follow-up essay I did clarifies a lot of this. It’s also got that great Alfred Hitchcock bit in it, so I think anyone reading this article should definitely read that followup. It’s linked at the bottom of the article.
For me, this piece is also important because I’m working on something else, and I need this for setup, especially for people who don’t know this stuff. Breaking down the “films can do this but games can’t do this without resorting to cutscenes” is gonna be really important in further reading.
Are they really?
For me at least, stories are lessons. Humans are wired to survive. Which is why we don’t kill ourselves even though our existence is meaningless (I thank Thomas Ligotti for this realization). So we crave stories because they are free life tips. Possible paths we may encounter in the future.
Yes, really (or at least, yes, I believe it completely). It’s something I’ve heard over the years, though I don’t think I’ve ever really read any super comprehensive take on it. I’ve just heard it enough and worked through it in my head enough to believe it’s to be true.
You are correct as well. Stories serve many purposes. We definitely have stories that teach lessons; I’ve got this gigantic tome called The Book of Virtues that I borrowed from my parents sitting next to me because I’m reading up on a bunch of old myths and legends about courage.
But I think learning is an intellectual process, right? That’s something we think about, and I think the best stories feature strong emotional components. Taking us through those emotional journeys, giving us those emotional components… that does something to us.
From personal experience: I never properly dealt with my interactions with the serial killer BTK. It wasn’t until I watched an episode of Castle that the emotional floodgates were opened and I came to terms with what had happened to me. Fiction’s power to help us process our emotions is just as vital as its ability to teach us lessons.
It’s interesting how I would disagree about most of your examples. Gone Home was great. Titanfall 2 is nothing special, and it suffers from forcing a feature (“Oh, a canyon, they want me to wall-run again.”). SOMA was incredible. Modern Warfare 2’s story was idiotic. Telltale games are actually better than most movies …and a whole lot of games.
I think one area where I failed was in getting across the idea that… Gone Home is this deeply polarizing game, right? Like, you may like it, and a bunch of other people may like it, but we can’t deny that there’s a huge, vocal dislike for the game out there either.
The problem with the people that argue about the game is that they tend to go way too far. They go “this game is bad and also any game like it is bad. It is not even a game!”
What I wanted to do — and some people ‘got’ it and others didn’t, so clearly I did not do it as well as I wanted — was explain my own frustrations with the game (I think a game’s story is the narrative the player experiences, and I think that narrative is fundamentally uninteresting (I also have issues with the sister’s story on the whole, for personal and storytelling reasons)) but then make it abundantly clear that this style of game is absolutely valid and meaningful.
Hence this statement:
The walking sim isn’t a bad idea, it’s just that, like with any other game, success is execution-dependent.
It was meant to be my “walking sims are valid, but some people find them unappealing, and here’s why.”
The hope being, of course, that people who are thinking about making walking sims will think more about engaging players aside from simply blasting audio logs at them.
My favorite walking sims? The Metro games. Some people call them shooters, and sure, there is some shooting, but I think they have more in common with walking sims than any other genre out there, especially Last Light, which is a tremendous improvement upon its predecessor.
As for Titanfall 2… it’s very much a Respawn game, and those guys made a bunch of other, similar games, so if you’re not into that kind of game, I totally understand. Personally, I like them because they’re the only games that get me to ‘play along’ with their extreme linearity. I have a tendency, as a player, to want to rebel. It’s why I loved DOOM so much. My character wanted to rebel just as much as I did. Running around a locked room like a toddler on crack felt exactly like what Doomguy would do. But for me, the artistry in the Respawn games is that… well, I’ve always wanted to play along. That’s fascinating, and something I want to dive into more later.
For me, the SOMA example refers explicitly to the first level, and while my introduction is accurate about my intentions, I should have made it way more obvious. The first level failed to scare me as a player because I understood how safe I was. This isn’t taking into account the existential horror or the interaction with the enemies. This is just the first level not working for me.
Regarding Telltale: I was trying to point out how their conversations are not ‘directed’ in interesting, cinematic ways, at least in the games I have played. Their issues with animations and simple (albeit wonderful) art design also mean they lose a lot of the nuance of a great human performance.
The recent Walking Dead reveal trailer was just so bad that I couldn’t help but laugh when watching, predicting everything that would happen inside, which isn’t Telltale’s intended effect. It’s performed so poorly that it reminds me of a bad Bioware sex scene, y’know? They may have great scripts or character development or what have you, but their ability to convey gravitas is lost a bit thanks to the often-uninteresting camera shots and limited performances.
It’s not “Telltale games are bad,” it’s “Telltale games are facing this specific challenge.” It’s a challenge I believe they can overcome.
I feel like your essay is biased.
Like you are trying to turn your personal likes and dislikes into science.
I’m not. That’s a failure on my part. What I’m trying to do is be precise about what I believe to be true, and my attempts at precision come across with varying degrees of success. Too often, it’s how you say.
But my recommendation would be not to claim that, say, Gone Home is shit — but to figure out why hundreds of thousands loved it.
My goal was to illustrate why people didn’t, because my hope is that people who didn’t will read what I have to say, continue on to where I provide counter-examples, and go “ah, I should not be trying to discard all of these games because I didn’t like this one.”
I believe that’s the worthiest goal.
What I could’ve done was make that more clear. I’m planning to make a video out of the walking sim sequence, and I will attempt to make that more obvious later. That bit is meant for people who don’t like that kind of game.
There’s no point in preaching to the converted, right? If you like Gone Home, you are not going to be saying “no one should make games like this.”
This article’s process could be laid out roughly:
- Movies tell stories like X, and games have a hard time doing the same thing.
- Some games try to tell stories with pure exposition that accompanies traversal, but some people don’t like that, and here’s why (lack of interesting decisions). Also, here are games that do something similar, but include interesting decisions, and I think they’re more successful.
- Now, at the polar opposite end, you might think that emergent narrative, being unique to games is The Best Thing, but that’s not really accurate either, because context and intent is important for a good narrative.
- Anyways, if we break it all down, we start to see a framework for successful storytelling in gaming, and it’s neither cinema, nor mere exposition, nor a complete lack of exposition.
So I’m not trying to make this random aside that Gone Home Is Bad, but to go “hey, you, ever wondered why people didn’t like Gone Home? Are you one of those people? Well, here’s why — and it’s not because the form itself is bad.”
To you, who’s actually made one of these games (and one that I think fondly of, despite my initially harsh review), this is one of those things you mentioned earlier as something you already know.
I think most gamers and developers are aware that telling a story through gameplay is money. The problem is that while games are amazing at creating atmosphere, their “interesting choices” are often, basically, whom to shoot first. And most “amazing player stories” revolve around a bullet.
I think so, especially now that we’re seeing a lot less ‘cinematic’ games and a lot more open games. Ubisoft’s commitment to this, Bleszinski’s statement about interesting games being ones you could put on YouTube, stuff like that… to me, it’s all very encouraging. But I still see vestiges of cinematic design out there, and I want people to realize that… cinema doesn’t work because of aesthetic, it works because of consideration. There’s a reason everything is the way it is. Simple imitation will not and cannot produce the same results.
But you’re right. Way too many player stories revolve around a bullet.
This is a problem I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, and it’s part of the reason I felt like I ought to write this piece. Telling a great story in a game isn’t as simple as “well, movies tell a broader variety of stories, so games should too.”
So, Step 1, an essay on why games can’t just be movies, and why the other two most commonly presented alternatives aren’t great either.
Step 2, the essay I’m writing right now, tentatively titled “Why Do Games Need Violence?”
I might change that. It’s hard to create a headline that’s interesting enough to get people to read, but not controversial enough to get people to focus entirely on it.
Step 3… well, let’s finish Step 2 first. ;)
I am excited that this is the case, though. Games are fine as they are, but this tree can grow so many more branches. This gives us — you, me, hundreds of others — a chance to, one day, maybe — a big fat maybe — be a part of the solution on the story-telling branch so dear to us. How many people can claim they witnessed a birth of an entirely new medium? How many can say they possibly helped to shape it?
Ultimately, this is what I want to be a part of.
Some dumb critic tweeted something the other day about how games ‘ought’ to grow beyond violence. I don’t think that’s possible, because you can’t grow ‘beyond’ verbs, you can merely expand your vocabulary.
I want to help expand the vocabulary. But I dunno how much time I have left, and I dunno if I’ll even be able to get funding for the game I’m working on right now. I can write essays, at least, so even if I can’t make A Game About Lying or any of the other things I want to do, hopefully my essays can get people to the headspace they need to be in.