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Editorials Videogame Storytelling

Published on July 30th, 2013 | by Joshua Poole


Stories in Games: Powerful or Pointless?

Games can’t tell stories. At least according to George Lucas. Is that true, and what does it mean to you and me?

He would know, right? Good ol’ George would be able to tell us easily what a good story involves, what it entails, how to know when it’s successful. After all, he firmly believes that he told an excellent story with the Star Wars prequels. So we can use him as a touchstone: everything he says is actually the opposite of reality. At least in some respects.

While speaking at a panel a the University of Southern California, Lucas and Spielberg discussed the failure of games to be a proper medium of storytelling. They had some very strong words to say to support this. Things like “…by its very nature there cannot be a plot in a game.” He supports this with saying that you can’t have plots in things like football games or, oddly, “feeding Christians to lions.” The problems, according to Lucas, are control and empathy.

This is not going to be a post bashing what Lucas said. This interview broke last month, there’s already been enough articles criticizing everything that was said. But the idea of stories in videogames still warrants discussion. We see a constant divide in gaming over the subject, split between casual gamers that want to shoot birds at pigs, “hardcore” gamers that measure worth by kill/death ratios online, and the rest of us that enjoy a variety of gaming experiences.

Lucas isn’t far off, honestly, with a few things he said. The popularity of games like Call of Duty has been tied to the online play it offers, the ability to challenge yourself against people who think in insults and slurs. The “campaigns” that these games offer are 6-8 hour tutorials on how weapons work and what the maps look like. The reason you buy Call of Duty or Battlefield isn’t because you want a great story, it’s because you want to shoot things repeatedly. People outside the industry, and even some inside the industry, look at the sales numbers for those sorts of games and declare them to be what all gamers want. That isn’t the case.

When games first came around, story wasn’t really needed. You didn’t need to understand the reason Paddle One was playing so fervently against Paddle Two in Pong. Mario being a plumber eating flowers and mushrooms to get special powers was perfectly fine because that didn’t matter. If you wanted story, you game up control and graphics and played text-based adventure games. But in the ’90s we started seeing the rise of the PC adventure game. These were often simple point and click or side-scrolling games, but the focus was actually on telling the story. Over time, story started cropping up more and more in games. Some even had actors filming live-action cutscenes.

Fast forward to today. We have games that spend as much time, energy, and focus on their writing as they do on their gameplay and visuals. But is what Lucas posits accurate? Does the fact that we have control over characters mean that we lose touch with the plot? Does having virtual actors and characters mean we have no empathy?

No. Having control presents storytellers, and gamers, with a unique opportunity. Instead of telling a linear story with no real variations, writers have the opportunity to present a multitude of options and let them lead to different endings, some with minor differences, others with major. The ability to import characters in games like Dragon Age and the Mass Effect series even allows for direct continuation of stories based off earlier choices. It’s like reading a book through, wondering what would have happened if some plot point in the middle shifted left a few feet, then getting to read a whole new ending to the book because of that one change. It’s something that simply can’t be done on a large scale in movies, television, or books.

Speaking of books, the idea that we can only empathize with characters portrayed by actors we see and hear is an insult to people who can read. Before visual media came along, books were gripping readers by the heart and leading them on all sorts of emotional journeys. Seeing and hearing the characters wasn’t necessary in the least. So put aside the fact that as technology improves we’re getting to the point where characters can look just like their voice actors, it is entirely possible to empathize with game characters. I know grown men who decried overly sensitive tales in games and movies for years that were brought to their knees by The Last of Us.

The potential for empathy, for control to actually lead to better storytelling is there. We’re seeing it done right in a lot of games. Some are stumbling a bit in their attempts, but more and more we’re seeing developers reaching out to capture, not just the minds, but the hearts of their audience.

Sure, people, even story-loving gamers, will continue to buy CoD and like games for the same reason people continue to go see Michael Bay’s explosion-fetish-fuel movies like Transformers, or Hugh Jackman as a six-foot tall Wolverine: because sometimes you want to forget about story, turn your brain off, and just watch action. That does not mean, however, that videogames and storytelling have to be treated as mutually exclusive.

Do you prefer story-centric games? Think that they detract too much from what games are “really” supposed to be about? Leave us a comment and let us know what you think!


About the Author

is the name of me. Gamer born with a controller in one hand and a keyboard in the other. Odds are, if it's a console, I've played it. At least since the mid-90s. Gaming and writing are my passions. These are my thoughts. Feel free to leave a comment!

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