Friday, January 4, 2013

Stories In Games: A Survey Of Quality

Games as Art. art. Roll it around on your tongue for a bit. "Games as art". If you're reading this, you're probably familiar - in fact, OVERLY familiar - with this debate. The number of personal issues wrapped up in the concept is staggering. Almost every gamer has a stake in the debate, as a justification of their life choices if nothing else. And everyone's got a different definition of art, so it just gets worse and worse every time it's brought up. So why do people care? Who gives a shit if some old guy doesn't think that your hobby has any literary value?

The answer is that "art" is itself social validation. Art transforms games from a casual activity or a time-waster to something inherently valuable. A person who spends their time reading literature is considered well-educated and well-rounded, and a person who spends their time playing games is considered to be human garbage. Gamers want games to be art so that they can explain to themselves why they spend so much of their lives on a giant hamster wheel, pushing through content X to reach Area Y and unlock meaningless ephemeral reward Z. Gamers want games to be art so they can feel like they're done learning things.

And what represents "art in games"? Games like Shadow of the Colossus or Ico or Journey, games that evoke isolation and use sweeping, distinct visuals to make a very stark impression on their audience. But these games, as a whole, don't really say anything. They're artistic, but there's still something lacking. Something about them isn't really "worth it". They don't challenge the viewer. You can certainly have a memorable, emotional experience with those games, but you can do that with ALL games - and all books, movies, etc. for that matter. So they're "art", but they're still not getting to the root of why art is considered to be important and not a waste of time.

Games and Literature

So let's switch mediums now. What happens when we compare game stories to literature? How do they compare not only in terms of technical delivery, but also in terms of content and concept? What is "literature" about? What gives it societal approval? What do games lack that literature delivers? How does the interactive medium of a game fundamentally affect the delivery of a "story" compared to a book or movie? In short, why is it okay to spend your time reading literature, but not playing games?

If you look up any "Top 10 Books Ever Written" list, there's going to be a lot of recurring themes. Almost all of these books center around social interaction and relationships. Most of them are about members of the aristocracy or upper-class (Anna Karenina, War and Peace, The Great Gatsby, Hamlet...). Some of them are relatively meandering and slice-of-life (Ulysses, Middlemarch, A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man...). Some of them deal with "potential realities", in as grounded and real a manner as they can manage (Brave New World, 1984...) A few of them deal with war and combat, but in a very reflective way, often as a tragedy, but always in a way that reflects deeply on participants (All Quiet On The Western Front, Slaughterhouse Five, Johnny Got His Gun...).

While these books cover a vast number of subjects and concepts, there is an underlying element to all of them that helps create a coherent definition of "literature" between them. That element is the human element - a combination of sympathy, empathy and understanding that opens up a dialogue between the work and the audience. "Intellectually acclaimed" novels often deal with issues like relationships, human fears, mortality and insecurity. Even if the people are a million miles away from us, the issues they face are grounded and "normal", which helps us connect with their situation and their plight. This doesn't mean that a good story has to be absolutely realistic either - "1984" and "Brave New World" are both "sci-fi", but use the changes they make to reality in order to say something about reality.

While the specifics of craftsmanship are still up for debate and people can argue about whether individual parts of the list are good or bad, in general the human element is what separates "literature" from regular old "books". Although it's not just the printed word that's affected: it's also what separates Watchmen from most other superhero comics. It's what separates Saving Private Ryan or First Blood from countless jingoistic John Wayne movies. The human element is the part of a story where you can reach in and feel its heart beating, and the sympathy and empathy you create with that feeling are what makes the story more than just a story. They become about learning and changing and growing as a human being, about becoming better and wiser and more developed.

We have books and movies that don't really have "the human element", or have it in a comparatively shallow and manipulative way. Those works tend to be "fun"; they can still be very good, but they're just not particularly meaningful. Indiana Jones, for example, is an enjoyable movie for most people, but it doesn't really say anything deep. It's pure power fantasy, and the folks over at Red Letter Media even suggested that a huge reason that the fourth movie doesn't work is because we don't really care about Indiana Jones "getting old". He's not developed enough as a character for that to work. In essence, he's just a Rugged Tough Guy in a hat and jacket carrying a whip - he's not a person, he's a concept. Movies and books like that, again, can be enjoyable and well-made and good, but they have difficulty pushing past the boundary to really become a work of art. But it's difficult for games, and here's why:

Games Should Be Fun

There's a school of thought, and it's probably the most common school of thought for games, that games should be "fun". It's inherent in the name. Game Equals Fun. You PLAY a game. Ergo, it's fun. This works great for games that emulate movies that are also meant to be fun, like Indiana Jones, but it becomes difficult because there are also movies that are not meant to be fun, like...really, most of the ones considered "high art". The approach to serious material calls for a different tone than "fun" requires, a tone of somber reflection instead of casual shootin' action.

Now maybe you're thinking "dude, there's games that try to be not fun, or try to make things unpleasant for the player. What about SPEC OPS THE LINE?" And to that I say "ehhh" because really Spec Ops just had unpleasant cutscenes, and those cutscenes were forced by the game's narrative. You couldn't NOT do the unpleasant thing, and it's really just a testament to how shitty games are as a whole that people didn't even think to try. When it comes to actual gameplay, Spec Ops is pretty normal, by which I mean "the gameplay is irrelevant". Gameplay problems are a multi-headed hydra so I'm going to try to burn a few stumps here right off the bat:

1. Gameplay Rarely Has Effects On The Game's Story. This is because so many things happen or COULD happen during gameplay - people dying, missions failing, etc - that game devs are more likely to make gameplay segregated from the story than to try to factor all those potential events into the game's ongoing narrative. When games do have more emergent narratives, they do so at the cost of "acting", which is to say written dialogue, audio performances, etcetera. You can generate natural narratives with games like X-COM or Crusader Kings 2 but you're not going to hear a voice actor deliver a  detailed soliloquy for your fallen soldier. It's just not technically possible. If you want a "film-style story", it's going to have to be pretty linear.

2. If Gameplay Has No Effect, Why Is It There? Or, alternately, "could you tell the game's story without ever actually showing the combat"? Games have a lot of combat. They have a lot of time to pad out, and in most cases "combat" is why you're there in the first place. Hell, it doesn't even have to be combat - replace "combat" with "climbing" for the Uncharted series. It doesn't affect the story, it's just something for the player to do. In movies, most of the stuff that makes up "gameplay" is stuff that'd be skipped over as a montage or something. If there's combat in a movie or a book, it generally has a purpose - someone gets hurt or killed, perhaps. In games, that kind of stuff is generally left to the cutscenes (as well as all the interaction), making one wonder what the point of the gameplay actually is.

3. Does Gameplay Even Show The Reality Of The Story? "Ludonarrative dissonance" refers to the difference between "the game's reality" and "the story's reality". For example, if someone pulls a gun on a character in a cutscene and it's treated like a serious issue, even though the character can take forty bullets and walk it off in gameplay, that's ludonarrative dissonance. The reason it's important is because in a story you generally have one coherent reality. If someone gets shot, then that's it, they're shot. They might not be dead but it's generally expected that they'll behave in a manner consistent with a person who's been shot. It'd be really weird if they had a scene in a movie where a guy starts shooting people and shrugging off bullets, but then later goes back to being realistic and vulnerable again. Yet games do this all the time, and it only further necessitates the question of "is this gameplay helpful to the story"?

4. Gameplay Is Not About Social Interaction Because Social Interaction Is Hard To Do. This is the crux, and explains the previous three things. The reason we keep social interaction in cutscenes is because the components of social interaction (i.e. people talking) are difficult to assemble naturally in a constructed reality. It's relatively easy to program "shooting someone" because that's just objects and physics. Objects and physics are easy because they're incredibly reliable. There is one set of rules for physics, and that's it, things just follow those rules. People, on the other hand, are relatively complex. So complex that we don't even know how to deal with them in real life with 100% accuracy. We can get a general idea of people's motivations and viewpoints and values but the differences between every individual person is so huge and so random that the idea of generating them naturally through programmed processes is just astoundingly difficult.

It gets worse when you try to put speech into the mix. Not only are people's thought patterns and speech patterns incredibly different, they're also full of anomalies. People don't just spit out words like robots, they choose words and stop to think best how to express ideas and put their own little quirks on the way they talk. It's not something that can be spontaneously generated, Turing Tests aside. Games are forced to rely on pre-made sentences and fragments with only a hint of contextual data input like a character's inputted name or a response to an event, and they're forced to do this because they can't "generate" speech and have it feel natural.

Comparing Literature To Game Stories

So now we have (a) a list of things that are generally considered to be "valuable" for literature and (b) a list of reasons why games have trouble doing those things. But even if we excuse the actual mechanics of interactive storytelling, the other problem with games is that games tend to be, for lack of a better phrase, stupid. Like, on average, a game's story is something like Star Wars - even at its best, with the best possible storytelling and delivery, it's going to be a Fun Action-Adventurey Romp. What games actually try to have a serious setting, and take steps to actually deliver on that setting? Yes, there's games set in "reality", but it's always like military shooters that are really just covering up for the fetishization of jingoism and anti-terrorist activities. Apart from MODERN SHOOTGUN WARFIGHTERS, games tend to throw in fantasy elements and then don't really follow through with how they're used in the setting (because that's not really "fun").

Bioshock, for example, is a story about an underwater paradise that turns out to fall apart because Objectivism is a philosophy for greedy shitheads. But it's also a story about PLASMIDS and SPLICERS because the game needs superpowers and enemies respectively. The problem I had with Bioshock is that the splicers don't feel like "people affected by plasmids", they feel like Video Game Enemies, a problem worsened by their class-based distinction. Could Bioshock have been a good book story? Yes. But think about what would have been necessary for the transition. First off, they'd get rid of the Plasmids, and probably the Big Daddies and Little Sisters, because they're basically unnecessary. Secondly, the plot is really stupid. Like, really, "set this guy loose in our underwater death hole and hope he's magical enough to survive it while vaguely leading him towards his assassination target". It's really dumb in any context besides a video game. And that's basically it. All we have left is the collapse of an underwater utopia and a mediocre message about greed and short-sightedness.

Or let's pick on a game that I actually sort of like. Final Fantasy 8 has a lot of good undercurrents to it - it's a JRPG about child soldiers that actually takes the lesson of "children aren't emotionally prepared to deal with serious situations" instead of the usual JRPG lesson, which is that fighting is awesome (except sometimes it's not). Final Fantasy 8 is about a taciturn loner who, quite realistically, is actually a maladjusted orphan adopting a defensive persona in order to avoid getting hurt by people. And also he's been in a military academy since he was a little kid. But it's also about "random battles" and "gunblades" and "guardian forces" and a bunch of wacky anime stereotypes to round your party out and these things are all really dumb. How am I supposed to sell people on the seriousness of this story when everything outside of the main plot line is actively detracting from a potentially serious tone?

And maybe you're like hey stop being a big stupid baby and just have some fun and it's like okay we're not having fun right now, we're trying to talk about serious respectable plots. When you throw this kind of stuff into a story it needs to have some level of grounding to it. It needs to be internally consistent and it needs to affect the characters in a consistent way. This is not what these kinds of things do in video games. In video games these things exist primarily for  gameplay and "rule of cool" and then are justified in the story afterwards.

And this isn't just a "game" thing either - sci-fi and fantasy of ALL kinds are treated like this unless they're really exceptional and well-executed. "1984" is sci-fi, but it's a very tight sort of sci-fi whose changes are about exploring the ramifications and ethics of a fascist dictatorship, not just about "cool stuff". Compare 1984 to Half Life 2 and the latter's dystopia just feels tacked on to provide a setpiece for shooting things. Games have bad stories because "fun" generally MAKES bad stories, or at least shallow stories. Star Wars and Indiana Jones are both compelling, but they're not exactly complex. They're not intellectual. They're good, and they're fun, and they're entertaining, but they're not really artistic. They're shallow, and being shallow means that you don't really learn anything about human nature from the experience. There's no takeaway with most games, you don't learn about people or become a better person. You're just given an exaggerated and ridiculous scenario and the only things you "learn" about are tainted by a lack of applicability.

So let's wrap this up.

Question: Why Don't People Take Games Seriously

Sub-Question: What About Literature Is Valuable
A1: People look for a "human element" in stories.
A2: The "human element" is what allows for the development of empathy & personal growth in the reader.
A3: This is why well-regarded books tend to be about the psyche and social interaction.
A4: Literature uses its stories to say something about "us", and applies well to reality.

Sub-Question: What About Games Is Dissimilar From Literature
B1: Games have trouble representing social interaction in gameplay (as opposed to cutscenes).
B2: Games tend to have problems making their narrative realities mesh well with their gameplay.
B3: Games often favor ungrounded or unrealistic settings for purposes of "fun" & gameplay expedience.
B4: Ergo, games find it difficult to address serious topics in applicable ways.

Sub-Question: What Are Games Most Akin To
C1: Games have more in common with "fun" movies or books, like Star Wars or Dragonlance.
C2: This doesn't mean that they're not "emotionally engaging", but it's a casual sort of emotion.
C3: The reliance on over-the-top settings makes it difficult to treat them as "serious" narratives.
C4: This is not a problem unique to games. Most games are just "action movie" equivalents.

Possible Answers
D1: Games aren't taken seriously because they don't really ever try to say anything about the human condition. They don't create empathy or reflect on who we are, they're just "games".
D2: Games are almost always burdened with a huge amount of irrelevant gameplay that makes it really hard to get into the story if you're not willing to put up with all that stuff.
D3: It's hard for games to deal with well-respected subject matter because it's outside the scope of interactive media and it's technically difficult to accomplish such scenarios.

Final Conclusion
We've all failed you, Tim Cain. I'm sorry. It's all of us.