When was the last time you played a game with an interesting story? If you know what to look for, it might not have been so long ago. Was it exciting? Did it make you cry? Or laugh, or feel some sort of catharsis, or anything at all? Most of all, how fun was it? Was it fun to play in particular, to move through with a controller, because sometimes it isn't and this is a very odd thing.
Now, when was the last time you played a game with excellent gameplay? Was it clever or refined? Were you on the edge of your seat, too captivated to get up and leave long after you should have? Most of all, was the plot any good, if there was even a plot at all? Was it well-written in particular, standing well on its own as a story, because sometimes it isn't and this can't even happen anyway. If that one caught you by surprise, I'll elaborate: it can't happen because without gameplay, there isn't really any story to begin with.
An example of a game that does both right.
To elaborate on that, the reason that stories often have to be subtly changed when adapting them from one medium to another is because every tale, even the ones spoken by mouth, are tied to one format or another. Try taking the raw, unaltered information from one format to another, and you get the artistic equivalent of a compiler error; simply filming an individual talking isn't going to be worth a ten-dollar ticket, not that they could get away with charging you ten dollars, anyway, and a comic book filled with panels of black and white text is ridiculous at the very best. In short, your story is full of holes because so many things don't apply now.
Try removing it from any format, and all you have are a series of loose guidelines for a creative work as opposed to the work itself. Most plots are formulated with one medium or another in mind, and the story in effect becomes inseparable from its medium, at least in its original form, because they are one and the same. 300 isn't a movie with a story, it is a story. Likewise, 1984 just isn't a book with a story, but a story in and of itself. A game and its story are inseparable from each other because they are two sides of the same coin, rather than opposing forces as is widely believed. And this is the tricky part.
I can imagine that would be the biggest conceptual leap ever, so to demonstrate, I'd like you to do a little exercise. I want to you to try writing a short story about the greatest level you've ever played. Or the worst. Or any level, really. Whatever you remember most vividly.
And I want you to describe it in detail, exacting detail. Your precise moves, the way you felt, a meticulous description of the location you were in and the characters around you, and a little backstory, some background on what the game is about, how you got there, and what the stakes are. In other words, context. You should definitely describe the mechanics and how they work, too, particularly how they affect you as you play.
Now, read it back to yourself. Chances are that it reads like a traditional narrative, and an exciting or moving one, too, albeit one with a whole lot of background information involved. If it doesn't, read Kotaku's article "What Dark Souls is Really All About", and you'll probably get the idea; It's generally the kind of story I'm talking about.
Why did the story turn out like this, and not as an unreadable, incoherent, incomprehensible mess? It's because what you experienced was a story after all, one driven mostly by your own actions, for sure, but still a narrative with all the necessary tropes.
Video games are interactive. What this means is that you experience whatever happens firsthand, rather than simply having it described or shown to you. What this means is that they can be heavily compressed when conveying information, since it generally takes much more time to describe an action or event or any detail about or principle of the unviverse the universe the work takes place in than it does to live it out.
Take Super Mario Bros. for instance. In the first level alone it is established that:
- You can jump on enemies to kill them.
- Enemies move relatively slowly, and change direction when they hit a wall, moving the opposite way. The Goombas sidestep, while the Koopa Troopas trot on all fours.
- If you touch an enemy, regardless of the details, you will shrink from your super form. This represents damage.
- You can also kill enemies by hitting the block they are standing on, knocking them off and sending them flying out of the way.
- I should've mentioned: There are these blocks all over the place. They come in three varieties, the first of which is the "?" block. If you jump high enough that you hit the block from below (I should also mention that these blocks are inexplicably standing out of your reach while standing, floating in midair.), something pops out of it. Sometimes it's a helpful item. But mostly it's just gold coins. You have a counter for these coins at the top of the screen. Also from the top of the screen. Also above the screen is a timer, which steadily ticks down from...
...And so on. I wasn't even close to done yet. I still had to describe the power-up system, the other two block varieties, the controls, the physics of movement and the details of jumping, hidden blocks and invisible blocks, and lots of other stuff, not to mention a description of the layout of the scene, which is necessary as the geometric structure of the environment and the exact position of the objects placed within it is critically important.
Look at the manual in the link above. It takes a while to get through, as most manuals do, and there's a lot of small details (like physics and other spatial details, among other things) that they leave out because they expect the game to show them to you. It doesn't even include a diagram of the first level (it would be ever harder to describe it with text alone.) Throw all those in, and the manual could get as much as twice as long. Super Mario fansite TheMushroomKingdom has to exhaust several webpages to cover all of this information. Other sites aren't doing much better.
It took me one minute, 48 seconds to play. And that's being generous.
See what I'm getting at here?
Do you understand now?
That video games are interactive does not keep them from telling a worthwhile story. On the contrary, it allows for a level of nuance unattainable in other mediums. The few details that vary from one playthrough to the next only serve to better explore the context of the story as a whole. For example, if you didn't die at least once, you wouldn't be aware that you could die, really, seriously die. Many other forms rely on ambiguity: one tends to assume a character can die only because one is not sure of the single definite outcome of the plot. In a game, however, one has seen all possible outcomes, thus establishing suspense on the basis that every outcome is a real possibility instead of a mere illusion.
In any case, nothing was ever hurt by being interactive, and it isn't necessary to split experiences between the hour-long cutscenes called "stories" and the growing, changing organism we call the game. The fine line we use to split them is largely imaginary, a construct we've created to make game design more manageable, and the concept of a video game itself easier to wrap one's head around. Try comparing Portal to a non-video game and you'll find that we may have reached a point where what were originally games have evolved into something else entirely, an interactive form so wholly unprecedented that we couldn't even begin to understand what it was, and elected to compare it to something we were more familiar with. The only obvious connection between real-life games and the peak of what we've created (not including sports simulations, board game simulations, and the like), is that both have clear-ish rules that define what you can and can't do (making the ludic perspective most useful and practical). Well, fine, but so does an office.
It isn't such a conceptual leap to imagine that maybe we don't know everything about what it is we're making, that there's more to our artform than we realise, and that maybe we've missed something fundamentally important. But try not to think about that one too hard if you don't want to. You might give yourself a headache. I admit I may be getting a bit ahead of myself at this point. But I have to give a disclaimer here: I'm not arguing that gameplay doesn't exist, and that it's all just story in playable form. No, I'm arguing that, all things considered, story in video games works best as an extension of the gameplay, as a part of the same core experience. Nothing we haven't heard before, and no harm meant (although I hardly believe I can get away with posting something so counter-intuitive without some repercussions, anyway. Bear with me for a moment.)
Some people say games that put emphasis on storytelling suffer in terms of gameplay as a direct result, although what usually happens is that the people who want to make a good story try use film as a frame of reference (the dreaded "Hollywood Envy"), resulting in a work that doesn't mesh with an interactive format, and doesn't use the most of its medium to deliver the kind of unblemished quality we're used to. It doesn't help that the stories we do get are usually pretty bad from a purely narrative perspective, which doesn't at all make up for their botched technique. There are all kinds of clumsy and cumbersome problems that come with this approach, like the aforementioned long cutscenes.
You can keep reading if you like. You don't have to finish it.
And on a closing note, it could be argued that video games are closer to theater than film. It's telling that the old word for an actor on the stage and the word for someone who takes part in a video game are the same: the player. About three days ago, I went to see a live performance of Annie. The details of the night aren't important, but it occurred to me that playing a video game is kind of like acting in a play. The play has the same score, the same script et cetera, but many different individuals will act out the same parts around the world and through the years, and as such every performance will slightly different in the details. So maybe Mario doesn't pick up that first mushroom, and maybe Link heads to the second dungeon first. But despite this, certain things will happen in the end, no matte what, and the story itself will remain short-changed. The princess is always in another castle.
The big difference between theater and video games is that theater is fine-tailored to an audience, sacrificing actor freedom in the process, while video games, which can only be experienced primarily through their actors, are tailored thusly. The emphasis shifts from something that would be fun to watch to something that would be fun to act out, so we loosen our constraints on the player, and let her experiment and improvise to her liking. Interestingly, I think theater would be a lot like role-playing if actors were granted the same level of freedom. Although I suppose acting is role-playing, literally speaking. And look at how big they've gotten. That's a good sign.