Objection is a new section where we debate hot topics in gaming, and leave it you guys to talk it out in the comments section. The first topic we’re tackling is Video Game narrative, and joining us we have James O’ Connor, a regular contributor to Hyper, Games Editor on Mania and PhD candidate currently writing a thesis on, you guessed it, video game narrative.
Alright. Let’s get this thing started.
MARK: Alright Mr PhD man, I think most, if not all, video game stories are dreadful. Would that be a fair assumption?
JAMES: Well Mark, I don’t necessarily disagree with this bold assertion. Not all game stories are awful by any stretch, but there’s a lot of rubbish out there. However, while the stories – that is, the events that occur within games – are rarely exciting, I would argue that games are ripe with narrative possibilities – that is, the way these often mundane stories are delivered. I feel, in fact, that there are some big mainstream games that are often made fun of for their crappy stories that actually have very interesting narratives. How does this distinction grab you?
MARK: This distinction grabs me. Vigorously! What big mainstream games do you speak of, and why are their narratives interesting?
JAMES: My go-to examples are usually the first two Gears of War games (and let’s hope the third one doesn’t let me down here – you reading this, Cliffy B?). When people talk about Gears, they talk about giant men ripping aliens apart with chainsaws. They never discuss the fact that it positions mankind as invaders, or that it depicts a society and a people that have been utterly destroyed, in every sense, by war. Almost nothing you do has a positive effect. In the first game, you explode a bomb that damages your side more than theirs. In the second one, you sink humanity’s last stronghold. You’re playing an incredibly fun and violent game, yet it is intensely anti-war. To me, that is interesting.
MARK: Gears of War presented as the prime example of how game narrative should work? By a PHD student. Wow!
It’s a great point, but that’s just your reading of what is essentially an excuse for bulked up dudes to shoot up/chainsaw/explode aliens. And that’s my main issue – in most games the narrative is created as an afterthought, shoehorned to fit the game mechanics themselves. If I was going to try and use the academic terms I’d say that the form doesn’t match the content. In AAA games like Gears the story is something separate, something that occurs in-between the shooty bits. I’d say a game like Flower does a better job of integrating narrative and story into the mechanics. Isn’t that the best way forward?
JAMES: Well I’d say the absolute best integration of narrative/gameplay in recent memory is Limbo. But everyone loves Limbo, so there’s really no scope for argument there.
In any case, I’m afraid I disagree with you on Gears – the story doesn’t just happen through cutscenes and backstory. They are there to explain the war you are fighting, but once you take control, you’re the one fighting that war. Or, more to the point, the characters are fighting the war, but you’re leading them through it (which I feel is an important distinction). The shooty bits are narrative, and I think the game encourages you to consider why this is the case.
Other recent games with interesting narrative aspects include Modern Warfare (not so much the sequel), Bayonetta, Mad World and No More Heroes (terrible stories, yes, but they all operate as cultural parodies), and Metro 2033 (such an interesting morality system!). Aside from Flower, Mark, which games would you give praise to in this regard.
MARK: Modern Warfare I get. It has that blockbuster feel – it’s tightly paced, guided and provides enough motivation for players to shoot the next guy wearing a turban/speaking in a Russian accent. But it’s hardly Apocalypse Now, is it? Modern Warfare is a great example of gamers happily settling for less when they should be demanding more. Being involved in an interactive story gives gaming a leg up over every form of media out there – but it’s an advantage squandered with cliché, tropes and plagiarism.
As for other games I would give praise to. Um…
At a push I would say Braid, because it integrates its mechanics into the narrative, which I love. Especially the final scene when you ‘rescue’ the Princess. But even that was spoiled with the pretentious ‘notes’ left throughout the levels.
JAMES: See, Modern Warfare interests me for more or less the same reasons as Gears of War. The AC-130 gunship level, for instance – I feel terrible every time I play that level. It’s such an unfair situation – you’re raining bombs down on the enemy, who cannot defend themselves against you, while your pilot offers disturbingly unaffected narration on your killing spree. I’m really interested in how these games can be so enjoyable, yet at the same time perfectly capture just how horrible war is, and the effect warfare has on soldiers. I look forward to waffling on about this for 15,000 words in my thesis!
As for Braid – I love Braid, but really I think it’s a game that was playing catch-up with other mediums. The problem with Braid is that once you’ve been told about/decided for yourself upon the ‘Atomic Bomb’ theory, you know that it’s the ‘right’ way to interoperate the game. Instead of being a game with metaphors, the game is a metaphor. An incredible one, but still, it doesn’t leave much to be analysed. Limbo, on the other hand, is a goldmine – I have my own theories on how the game is meant to encapsulate a lifetime of suffering over the course of a few hours, but there are plenty of other ‘readings’ out there, and they’re all as valid as each other.
So there you have it folks – that was the first edition of Objection! What do you guys think? Are games capable of telling decent stories, or are they doomed from the start? Let us know in the comments below!