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.


  1. Even the most basic writing workshops discuss the ~human condition~ but most game writers have "evoke an emotion" as their highest ambition. There's good stuff coming out, especially from small studios and independent developers, but the gaming industry needs to seriously re-evaluate how they view conversations about story. Like anyone, I have serious problems with the creative writing workshop program, but game developers and writers could take a lot of basic lessons from it about how to have these discussions.

  2. A longform reply to this post by myself can be found here:

    1. In your post about why games are art, regardless of whether they are "good" art or not, I don't think you ever laid out what you are claiming art to be, its qualities or properties, such that I can really analyze whether you're right or not.

      What is the working definition you're going with?

  3. I wonder what you think about Telltale's The Walking Dead.

    It is a game that does not aim for fun, is not fun, and yet has been phenomenally successful both commercially and critically. It contains a social element tied to mechanics in it's dialogue system. There is little to no ludonarrative dissonance, and I would argue it has the "human element".

    But you seem more concerned with how games are perceived to be rather than how they actually are, so whatever. It has zombies, so I suppose it's just a dumb adolescent power fantasy.

    To take another tack, games might not be literature, but could they be paintings? Sculpture? Architecture? Evoking powerful emotions in players is certainly better than nothing. Saying that games can never be art as long as they're "fun" strikes me as the same as saying that paintings can never be art as long as they're superficially "beautiful".

    This is not to say that games don't have a long way to go. I think that there should definitely be more work on making mechanics mesh with story, and making stories better in general. But it is still a young medium, and I believe that it will continue to mature.

    1. Walking Dead is a game that shows the limitations of the medium - which is to say, you can't really change anything, and there's a lot of linear storytelling. Honest, as maligned as it is, HEAVY RAIN is a better example of storytelling with games than Walking Dead is.

    2. Also as far as power fantasies go, I wouldn't say that Walking Dead is one of them - I'd just say that zombies are a boring, overused concept. Yes, there's some necessity to it in the story, since you can't have the "I was bitten, oh shit" scenario with much of anything else, but really, zombies are so overdone that they don't have any emotional impact anymore. They're just "things".

    3. I don't see why linear storytelling is a negative mark against games when it isn't a negative mark against anything else. The Walking Dead responds to your actions in an appropriate way given the story it wants to tell. There are parts of it that are wildly different depending on the choices you make, and more importantly, the character of Lee is different. The final episode really rams this home with the scene in the hotel.

      But anyway, I think a game with a completely linear story can still be meaningful. What games have that movies and books lack is interactivity. There can be art in that, and it can be used to forge a deeper connection with certain characters. You can say that's just manipulation, but so are any number of literary techniques. Structuring sentences a certain way, using certain words, etc.

      I would posit that the reason games aren't taken seriously is not because they inherently lack something that books and movies have, but because the language has not yet been developed yet to analyze gameplay mechanics properly. Even most professional reviewers simply fall back on things like "the shooting/jumping/whatever feels good". Storytelling may not be very good in most games, but even that does not necessarily indicate that they have absolutely no artistic merit.

      As for "zombies are so overdone," sounds like a personal problem. I didn't have any trouble engaging with Walking Dead's story, but then I've avoided most zombie-related media in the last couple years (including the Walking Dead TV show!). Just because something is currently a fad on the way out ALSO doesn't mean it doesn't have merit.

    4. It's a negative mark because games are an interactive medium. This isn't a theme park ride and it isn't a movie. If the things I'm doing aren't affecting anything, I could just watch it on Youtube and get the same experience.

      Also, the reason zombies don't have merit is because all the possible facets of a zombie apocalypse have been explored. When you say it's "new to you" or whatever, that's a personal problem on YOUR part. We've had plenty of well-regarded movies that dealt with it, going all the way back to the 70s. The fact that you don't know about those things doesn't make them somehow valuable culturally, it makes you uninformed.

    5. All possible facets? That's a bold claim. I didn't realize I had to be a scholar of zombie fiction to determine whether a game about them was good or not.

      I guess all that empathy I felt in TWD was worthless because the Simpsons did it.

    6. I'm still not convinced that a good game story can't be linear. Gameplay can serve purposes besides facilitating choose-your-own-adventure plots. It can serve to create a deeper emotional connection with the characters in the story. It can help elicit appropriate emotional responses to particular situations in the story. Gameplay always changes something, and that's your moment-to-moment experience of the game itself. That's what makes it different from a youtube video.

  4. I also posted a reaction to this piece here

    I've been thinking about a lot of this stuff recently, and come to many of the same conclusions as you (a surprise, to be sure), but I think that there are some underlying premises in this and other arguments about smarts games/games as art, which need to be reconsidered if we're going to make more sense of the issue.

    For starters, it's less than clear to me that most art is any more challenging than video games. From there, while "good" literature is "challenging," it appears to be more challenging than video games only in so far as it is, on average, more artfully and singularly created.

    This isn't just a rehash of the point that art can't be successful if unauthored, but rather a suggestion that in so far as literature challenges us by being obscured or asthetically administed philosophy, video games do that poorly or not at all only because of the economic and social constraints on their creation...which is why games associated with auteurism seem to succeed better at this than those which aren't, and why games which don't need to make money (private, small, indie games), are ven more successful at doing this.

    1. You had me until you started defending comic books. Sorry, Ethan, but no medium so reliant on defending a status quo can really be considered "literature". It's just not going to happen. Does Batman "address" things like tragedy? Yes. It's also a super-long-running comic that will never permanently kill off its main character. It's an exercise in power periodically broken by some dramatic moments, whereas Watchmen is a closed, linear narrative with a defined beginning and end. Also, superhero stories by their very nature rely on the suspension of logic and realism in order to make themselves exciting, which is why Watchmen had so much to rip into - the infusion of superheroes into political situations being the primary target.

    2. I didn't claim comics as "literature." I was remarking only on the aspects of comic books which address "the human element" but which are still, I think we both agree, decidely not literature.

      The point of that was to draw out a distinction between high and low that wasn't reliant on how humanly focused or emotive a peice of media was.

      Just as a side note, how can something rely on suspension of logic AND the conventions of realism?

    3. Fair enough. But I still think there's a difference to address, which is that comics don't actually address "the human element", they just make reference to it. Comics are not stories ABOUT humans; their format prevents them from being such. When I say comics rely on suspension of logic I mean they're power fantasies in an intentionally unrealistic way.

      Watchmen is "valuable" because it takes these inherently unrealistic concepts, puts them into motion, and then turns the realism back on and lets it fall apart. Okay, we have a Superman. Now let's crank the realism up and he's going insane and everyone's afraid of him. There we go. Now it's commentary.

      Sci-fi and fantasy can be valuable in terms of teaching us about life, but it has to be something applicable. Watchmen isn't quite a useful lesson on real life, but it teaches us something about ourselves by the way we look at super-powered vigilantes and their effects on society. We glorify them. We make heroes of them. Even though they'd all basically be crazy in real life, we treat them like people to emulate.

    4. I'm dizzy with trying to keep track of the things @JShea has gotten wrong in this article and the comments. I'm picking this one essentially at random.

      Comics aren't stories about humans because they rely on suspension of logic? Ignoring the likelihood that 'logic' isn't the word you want there, I'm baffled as to how you think there's an intrinsic relationship between these two things.

      The mistake you're making is assuming (I say assume because it's obvious you don't do any deep reading of the medium) that these books are ABOUT the unrealistic elements. But they're not. In the bulk of the format, these elements are set dressing. I don't have to live in a world with modified physics to empathize with the characters in these stories anymore than I have to be a prince at Elsinore to empathize with Hamlet.

      You seem to think Watchman is unique in its approach to the realism of the world. It's not. It's not even a particularly good exploration of these topics. Over-wrought and self-indulgent, it implodes on itself before it gets to make any points. But for political and social reasons, it's the book that people who know nothing about comics hold up as an example of the potential of comics.

      Maybe that was true for a year or two.

      In 1988.

    5. M.Scott.

      "Ignoring the likelihood that 'logic' isn't the word you want there"
      It is precisely the word I want. Do you know why I chose Watchmen - and, after later examination, would choose Red Son - as exemptions from the standard comic book world?

      It's because comic books are a world where Superman and Batman exist side by side as part of a larger ongoing conflict between Supergood and Superevil that simultaneously attempts to ensure that the world doesn't radically change or alter from our own.

      It's because Dr. Doom cried over 9/11. It's because Reed Richards hasn't advanced society by a trillion years. It's because the Punisher exists in a setting with superpowered individuals and at the same time exists in a setting where it's just him fighting criminals. It's because comic books continuity is FUCKED, Veach.

      Do you know what Watchmen does to escape this?

      1) It has a single superhuman. And he is the most important human being in the entire goddamn world. Not "the defender of Metropolis". He is the game-changer in a way that other comics don't dare address except in single-shot stories like the (quite excellent) Red Son.

      2) It addresses the fact that there is a huge difference in scale between costumed vigilantes and an actual superhuman. Not just power, but scale. "It doesn't take an idiot to see there's problems with the world" "But it takes a room full of morons to think they're small enough for you."

      3) It ends. It has a beginning, it has a middle, it has an end. It does not spin off into a supercontinuity. It does not, at any point, retcon itself. It does not later reverse Rorschach's death or the "alien attack". It begins. It ends. It is a story.

      And if you think Watchmen is "over-wrought" you clearly don't even read the comics you're defending.

  5. I think one of the best games I've ever played that integrated the gameplay with the storytelling was Amnesia: The Dark Descent. There's no partition between "gameplay" and "story" - the gameplay essentially is the story, as the character uncovers his past. One of the primary themes of the story - your vulnerability - is created from the game mechanics.

  6. I agree with your comments about Bioshock. I always felt that the perceived "depth" in the game was more of an injection created by fans and players to justify it rather than to support it. If Bioshock had begun in a scenario prior to the collapse of Rapture, with the player getting to know individuals as human beings and then slowly seeing them sink into their respective roles because of the conditions that the suggested philosophies created, it would have made harvesting Little Sisters much more difficult and harrowing - imagine being presented with a specific memory of a child that you the player was a part of every time you took a life; now are you so keen to take a life next time?

    Many games drop you into the action straight away and supply context along the way, but because of the inherent nature of game-combat, it is easy to forget about the story and the reasons why you are fighting. All you end up focusing on is fighting and not dying.

  7. As Behemoth said upthread, games probably aren't art like literature is art and probably shouldn't be viewed the same way. There's already games like Deep Sea that are pretty obviously made as "art" rather than "fun pastime"; the artistic qualities in Deep Sea have nothing to do with the rather fragmentary story ("you're trapped at the bottom of the sea, there are monsters chasing you down and you can't see them").

    People assume games are literature-style-art because modern games have a story to them.

    Compare it to a painting like Starry Night or a piece of music like Toccata And Fugue In D Minor. Both are art and both fail as art if you judge them by literature.

    If anything games might be closer to music than literature.

  8. Would The World Ends With You and Persona 4 come any closer to art? Persona at least builds it into the story, and if your not aware of whats really happening, good luck getting the good or best ending.

    How about Phoenix Wright? The gameplay and story are COMPLETELY interwoven and the game was design to satire the Japense justice system and its bias on prosecutiors.

  9. I'd request that you read this J. Shea, if you have the time:

  10. I think it's incorrect to state that "saying something about the human condition" is the ultimate goal of art. That's just a slightly more advanced understanding of art than the people who think that a game's ultimate ambition should be to "evoke emotion" (and what they mean by that is "make you cry", therefore Last Guardian will be the greatest game ever because we could see its emotionally manipulative ending coming 5 years away).

    As other commenters have alluded to, the premise you're going with doesn't help to explain Mozart or architecture or "Starry Night" or Buster Keaton. What makes those things sublime? I don't know (and in some cases it might be impossible to translate the "meaning" of the art to a written text explanation), but I know that whatever it is can definitely translate to games without as much difficulty as you're suggesting.

    1. Perhaps you have to ask yourself if the things you listed are truly worth supporting. If "aesthetics" is all that mattered then games were art all along and there's no reason that they shouldn't be taken seriously. But they aren't.

    2. You're giving your proposed framework a little too much credence here. Would you really reject Beethoven or Picasso as "not art?" Paintings and music are literally defined as "art." Their relative worth might arguably vary, but it would be pretty hard to argue, as the above poster pointed out, that Starry Night (pretty widely recognized as genius-level art) says much about social interaction.

      Perhaps what you are defining as "art" could better be described as "realistic representation of emotion and social interaction."

  11. This is why movies based on videogames and videogames based on movies almost always suck; either they have to tack on a plot to a dumb videogame concept or put a lot of gameplay filler on an action movie plot. By the way, have you tried the total war games series?

    1. Yep, I'm a big fan of Total War (though I prefer Crusader Kings for the family-management aspects). In general tactics games seem to break free of things like "forced invincibility" more easily than shooters and that kind of game.

  12. This is interesting! I enjoyed reading your great post.Thanks for the valuable information and insights you have shared here.Shane Latham

  13. Surprised that this hasn't been mentioned yet,

    I think the MOTHER series is an example of video game fiction that is actually about something - It's about growing up, leaving home, and coming to grips with the strange darkness of our world, which is something that more or less everyone goes through at some point. Sure, they are stylized and whimsical in the way that a cartoon would be, but those elements end up serving the thematic and narrative thrust of the work.

    You mention Final Fantasy 8 as being about something, but hamstrung by tropey bullshit - I think Earthbound in particular avoids that problem pretty gracefully. I wonder what you'd have to say about it?

    1., I'd probably say Earthbound isn't really representing any sort of actual reality. It doesn't feel like kids on an adventure, it feels like a JRPG with some sprite-swaps.

    2. He probably means that the game took so many things from real life... that its uncomfortable close to it.

      OFF TOPIC: Someone made a blog about this article of yours, specifically on the part of "Games Should Be Fun". Here is it:

  14. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. What an outright presumptuous, pretentious, thoughtless, needlessly insulting, mean-spirited comment.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. I'm not sure why you asked him to elaborate when you're the one claiming that his article is somehow presumptuous, pretentious, thoughtless, needlessly insulting and mean-spirited without elaborating yourself. So why should he have to elaborate? The claims being made against you seem to be spot on however. It appears as if you're only interested in inflating your own ego as opposed to engaging in any thoughtful discussion.

      Instead of attacking him for writing this article, why not attack his arguments? Baring your disagreement with his assessment of BioShock, all you've done was make list of points that you believe are fallacious (and I agree with most them) without actually explaining why.

      I'm also interested in knowing which of his other articles you think are lacking in quality or what about them makes you believe that the author is clueless and why you think his writing is condescending while yours isn't.

    4. This comment has been removed by the author.

    5. Oh my God, Al, I didn't even see that you'd commented on this article. You really just have this huge vendetta about Bioshock, and that's what it was about all along. My God, man.

  15. Hi J.Shea,

    Thanks for checking out my response to your post on my blog (, and for offering a reply to my comments. That was genuinely very admirable, so thank you. I have in turn offered a reply (reprinted below).

    All the best, and again, although we differ in our opinions both in the potential of Art and videogames, I respect your willingness to engage in the debate.


    Thank you for the reply, and indeed, for reading my post – but while I am heartened to hear that you at least allow for the possibility of games to be considered Art, your dismissal of their validity because they fail to meet the standard of narrative one might apply to film, or novels, remains arbitrarily impossible to satisfy. As I said in my blog, if your argument is that games don’t operate like films, then fine – but saying that is as unhelpful as observing that it is similarly difficult to dance a painting or photograph a song. They operate through completely different mechanics and structures, and use an entirely different tool set to elicit an audience response.

    Consequentially, I do think that we are rather speaking from positions too disparate to reach a point of common ground. Indeed, if you read my points and reduced it to an accusation that I somehow think 'you hate fun', then I have obviously failed to make my meaning.

    My issue was with the choking limitations that you have chosen to draw between the potentiality for games to make meaning – to be considered legitimate forms of artistic expression – and finding fault in the narratives of a selected handful of big budget games, as if this were somehow the knockout blow to such debates about validity of games as a medium. To point at Far Cry 3 and Call of Duty: Black Ops, and thereby dismiss the entirety of gaming as incapable of being Art is like referencing Transformers 2 and The Room and extrapolating that all movies are incapable of producing coherent plots with believable character interactions.

    Indeed, I would (and tried to) point out that even your own examples seem to undermine such a position. You cited Spec Ops: The Line, a game that I would argue gradually and intentionally allows the shooter mechanics that you cite as pleasurable to become grinding and laborious – to make them a noxious chore through which the player must grind in order to divest themself of the desire to gleefully embrace such violent abandon. (It is no accident that players have ended Spec Ops: The Line questioning their very inclinations to play shooters ever again.)


  16. (drayfish post continued...)

    Also, arguing that games have not been recognised by the wider culture as a valid form of Art, if I'm honest, means very little to me – and I'm surprised to see you invest so much weight in that premise. Games are still in their relative infancy as a medium, and at the comparable point in their history, films (despite crafting exquisite works like Metropolis and Citizen Kane) was still being dismissed by many as a crass diversion from 'real' art, like theatre; photography was disregarded as not being worthy compared to a 'real' Art form, like painting; graphic novels weren't enough like novels; novels were dismissed for being too unlike poetry. It's the same tedious, reactionary argument that has stretched all the way back through history to land on Plato scoffing at Ion for winning a poetry prize.

    I've made this point elsewhere, but I may as well repeat it here:

    Any new medium gets attacked for being ‘beneath’ serious consideration, merely trivial ‘entertainment’ that is a silly waste of time. Consequentially its earliest years are maligned and ignored by voices such as yourself until the mass culture realises that it is not going away. But in truth that’s what all art has always been: a beautiful, magnificent waste of time that thereby reflects something profound about we human beings back to ourselves.

    If violent shooters cannot provide anything valid to you (and I agree that for me they do not, either) I would encourage you to broaden your horizons. There are innumerable other gaming experiences that might better provide narrative and intellectual sustenance – should you bother to seek them out. As I said in my original post, blaming a medium because you as audience member have needlessly limited your experience (whether because you have subscribed to some notion that all Art must be about human negotiations of socialisation; or because you have sought for complex characterisation in the boundaries of a corridor FPS) seems a highly unhelpful and reductive response.

    Personally, I'd encourage you to seek out works like Enslaved, Red Dead Redemption, Beyond Good and Evil, works that speak to a breadth of genre and storytelling, and that offer more to their player than the momentary justification to pull a trigger. Just as, were I suggesting someone become a student of cinema, I would encourage them to watch The Godfather, The Big Lebowski, or Casablanca rather than the collected works of Michael Bay.

  17. [In response to your post on]

    Once again, J.Shea, thanks for your comments – but I must say, they do rather confirm what I had feared about your position…

    Your comment makes me openly wonder whether or not – in spite of your dismissing them out of hand – you have actually played any of the three games that I mentioned (which were of course meant only to be illustrative of a wider range of gaming potentiality than your original post and follow up responses allowed for). The fact that you simplistically dismissed them all out of hand as stories told solely through cut screens and ‘randomly placed voice files’ rather proves that you are deriding something without even familiarising yourself with what it is that you are attacking…

    (Indeed – you said that all three games are defined by ‘violence’? You have clearly never seen, nor played, Beyond Good and Evil. Despite the suggestive name, Beyond is about evasion. It’s about sneaking and uncovering truths. Its hero is a photographer, who tries to use journalism to rescue a group of colourful orphans from harm.)

    And these games do not use their mechanics to make their meaning? That is so overtly untrue that I wonder whether you have even seen these games in action…

    As I described in a recent article ( Enslaved uses one of the most rote conventions of videogaming – the escort mission – and building out from this fundamental mechanic, offers a profoundly moving mediation on the nature of human communion and protection, exploring the way in which characters require each other for purpose, for meaning. There is, arguably, no better way to tell that story than through the structure of a videogame in which you are centrally responsible for the protection and guidance of an NPC across the span of the narrative. Meaning is literally made by the momentary progression that game asks of you. Not though some ‘audio file’.

    Beyond Good and Evil tells a story of political and social intrigue, in which ‘truth’ is a commodity that can only be exposed by a tenacious reported willing to uncover (through sequences of sneaking and photography through a stylised parable of a war-torn world saturated by the voice of an indoctrinating media. The action of searching this world, photographing these truths yourself as the player character, invest the audience directly in the action, and make them a participatory agent in this revelation in a far more profound manner than sitting as a slack sponge for a movie to regurgitate its story at you. And again, the fact that the very control scheme you have employed throughout the tale shifts in the final moments (those who have played the game will know what I mean) is itself emblematic of that flip in belief structures that the game builds into it central conceit. Suddenly, in this concluding, revelatory moment, everything that you have come to depend upon throughout the course of the game is subverted by the realisation that you have encountered in your journey. Again: this is a central mechanic of the game structure, not some detached cut-scene.

    Red Dead Redemption remains one of the most expansive and deliberative mediations upon the entire Western mythos in any medium. The frontiersman, a relic of a bygone age, facing the encroachment of a new industrialised age of civility that presses in upon, and redefines a lawless land. Again, even if you wilfully choose to ignore all of the rather overt references to Greek mythology and the retroactive historical redrafting of cultural narratives, the game’s mechanics themselves call these processes out to you. NPCs shout salutations based upon your behaviour in game – the ‘legend’ of John Marsten that your behaviour in the mechanics of the text have indicated: you can be feared as a ruthless monster, or revered as a defender of lost souls.


  18. (drayfish comment cont.)

    Every mission that you undertake across three narrative arcs draws upon a rich tradition of Western film and fiction: from Spaghetti Westerns, to Hollywood heroism, to the epilogue age of weary chivalric knights trying to hang up their guns and make a life of peace. The game’s meditations upon identity, upon the weight of one’s past, and the debate between nature and nurture, play out in every encounter – and playing as a gun-toting Western hero yourself, taming the landscape and facing down foes, is an integral part of that myth-making; again, one that heightens the audience investment in that they themselves literalise the journey. It is, at its core, about humanity – the ties that define us, the often contradictory histories behind the ‘legends’ we use to define ourselves. That you would ignore this and relegate the work to being an empty shooter speaks more of you than it does the text…

    Once again, you rather confirm my worst fears of your opinionated rejection of videogames as valid potential works of Art. You have decided to balloon your own extremely limited vision of what a videogame in fact is (based upon a number of wrongheaded presumptions about pre-rendered cut scenes and smatterings of world-building colour).

    I’m afraid simply listing a bunch of avant garde indie games to ‘prove’ that you aren’t simply swimming in the shallow end of gaming in order to validate your willing dismissal of the form doesn’t really cut it.

    Again, if you want to claim that Call of Duty has nothing to say about the subtleties of human interaction, you will hear no argument from me, but writing off the whole medium because you cannot be bothered to expand your playing experience beyond big-budget corridor shooters, and a mistaken catch-cry that all Art must be about ‘human socialisation’ is ludicrously suspect for someone who claims to be an open-minded critic.

  19. [In response to your latest post on

    I suspect from your tone that we are reaching the end of our discussion, J.Shea – but as I said in my earlier comment, if your intent is to deride and dismiss texts without having any knowledge of them at all (as you revealed with your attack on Red Dead Redemption, Beyond Good and Evil, and Enslaved), then perhaps that is for the best.

    You asked me what possible themes (beside simply 'violence') big budget games can explore, and how they can be said to specifically use their game mechanics to make meaning; I gave you three random examples (there are innumerable more) and unpacked their possible interpretations. I am not sure what standard videogames have to live up to in order to satisfy you, but if you choose to limit yourself to shooters and funnelled violent experiences, and wilfully ignore the vast potentiality of this medium, you rather erode your own argument, and alienate yourself from the debate. Sure, in your opinion everything that you've seen is violent, illogical mush; but that is because you have chosen to seek out and play violent illogical mush. The failure there is in your engagement with the medium, not the medium itself.

    I'm legitimately not trying to 'lecture' you – indeed, it is you who is dictating the categories into which all Art 'must fall' in order to be considered 'true' Art (that was why I responded to your blog in the first place). The point that I have been trying to express here is that videogames – and all Art – cannot be arbitrarily judged by objective, inapplicable standards such as those that you have submitted, and must be approached as a form of human expression on their own terms. You are attempting to castigate videogames for not being enough like movies, or literature, which makes absolutely no sense. That's like saying Beethoven's Symphony #5 is a terrible painting.

    Sadly, what you are exhibiting is the same prejudice that Roger Ebert famously expressed toward gaming. He held them to the specific dictates of film, and declared them wanting. Ebert (as he came to admit himself) simply did not have enough familiarity with the medium, and so was clumsily misapplying the 'rules' of one Art form onto another. What is peculiar about your stance is that you (unlike Ebert) clearly do play videogames, but are making the same mistake. As I would have presumed you would be no doubt aware, videogame do not operate like film, or literary fiction, or music, or visual art, or dance – they contain elements of each, and fluctuate these aspects in innumerable, immutable ways.

  20. (drayfish comment cont.)

    I've used this analogy elsewhere, but any artistic engagement involves some suspension of disbelief. It's why we can allow Faulkner's uneducated characters to narrate their lives like Shakespearean kings; it's why when we watch a movie we give allowances to naff details like 555-I-AM-A-FAKE-PHONE-NUMBER, and internal monologues and impossible beautiful people like Natalie Portman and George Clooney pretend they are just Plain-Jane nobodies. We, as audience, become accustomed to these conventions, and so accept them freely. If your issue is that videogames require an extra level of dramatic suspension to justify some of their mechanics, perhaps it would help you to instead think of playing games in the manner that you would watch theatre. Watching theatre is foremost about forgetting that there should be a fourth wall blocking your view, or wondering why doorframes and backdrops look so shaky; and video games likewise operate under comparable structural parameters, where the demands of the game design sometimes necessitate some funnelling of the fiction.

    Beyond that, I'm really not sure what else I can offer you. And seeing as how you are willing to admit that videogames have the potential to make meaning in short, downloadable titles, or experimental interactive experiences, I truly have no idea why you then deny that longer games must logically fail to do so. It seems an utterly (almost farcically) churlish line in the sand to draw. Is short fiction Art, but long fiction is just trying to fill up pages? Are only short films Art, while longer films are just trying to justify their ticket price?

    I wish you luck in expanding your playing experience, and hopefully realising the rich bounty of other sensations and thematic expressions that gaming can provide, but it will require sloughing off some of the needlessly restricting demands that you are imposing upon both games and Art, and allowing yourself to appreciate what it is that they themselves have to say.

  21. J.Shea:

    Although I've left a more expansive reply to your comment above, I would also invite you to read an accompanying post of mine in which I talk at a little more length about the shifting parameters of Art that videogames present (

    Much as I point out in my comments, you perhaps don't realise just how arbitrary trying to judge games by the rules of movie and literature is, but I wish you luck in hopefully expanding this needlessly reductive definition.

  22. [once again, this post is in response to your most recent comments on]

    Thank you for the more courteous and participatory response, J. Shea, but we still clearly have some points of fundamental disconnect.


    Well, yes, exactly as I previously explained at length, I perceive Red Dead Redemption to have a great deal to say about myth-making, historical redefinitions, cycles of destructive vengeance, and the profound shifting of a culture shedding its ‘frontiersman’ identity and embracing a more ‘civilised’ social order (with all of the hypocrisies and contradictions that such a shift entails). Yes, all of these elements play out in the fiction, but each of these aspects (as I earlier described) are all intimately tied to the gameplay also – how you as the player choose to interact with the text, and how the text enables and engages you the player on your passage through it.

    In numerous and profoundly resonant ways, the game reacts to your participation. There is a reputation meter that determines how people engage with you as you walk the land. There are choices that you can make in game about how ruthless or otherwise you want to be (do you kill the bounties or bring them in alive? do you help out the elderly Sister asking for money or tell her to move along? do you bother doing side missions to help out every wayward lost soul or blaze through the game on your mission of revenge?) Indeed, you cited the revenge that John Marsten’s son takes upon the man who betrayed his father – but this final act need not even be taken. You as player character can choose to avoid that showdown, and let the man live on, fulfilling your father’s wish that you not tumble down that path of criminality.

    (I would also point out – as I did in a previous comment – that no matter how many times you claim that Spec Ops: The Line glorifies or celebrates warfare and action, I would counter that actually playing the game itself rather undermines such a presumptive perspective. Over the course of the game the player character becomes entirely unhinged – crazed, afraid, and broken. This is not some power-fantasy bloodbath generator – it is a psychological account of a soldier’s complete deterioration in wartime, through the projected, expansive metaphor of a city brought to ruin. The janky controls make the game almost unplayable at times, leaving the experience necessarily laborious and repetitive to grind the player down; the story whips and pans into a self-assessment of the compulsion, both in player and text, to play through this nightmare… In comparison, I would argue that Saving Private Ryan, beside cornering the market on hyperbolic gore and chaos, degenerates into a rather generic hero quest that could honestly be swapped out with any ‘tragi-feel good’ war film.)


    Disappointingly, at this point you again appear to be fundamentally shifting your argument. You were criticising game narratives for being incapable of matching the cohesiveness of film, but are now saying that games fail because they lack sufficient choices and player input?

    But why? And how so? Does this mean that the only ‘valid’ form of gaming is when the player can do whatever they like at all times (like in real life) no matter what? That game systems and narrative structure must be breakable at every instance and allow for all possibilities, or else the medium itself is forfeit? Forgive me for saying, but that is completely fantastical. Games offer their audience opportunities for engagement and interaction on a scale unseen by arguably any other expressive form, but to declare that this therefore means that the only way that they can be considered ‘true’ Art is if they allow the player to do anything at any time is completely illogical – indeed, almost petulant.

  23. (drayfish comment continued)

    Nitpicking moments of ludonarrative dissonance (how come I can’t shoot that guy at the exact moment I want to? How come I can’t walk through this door until the game specifically wants me to?), although a valid discussion to have about notions of immersion in gaming, seems highly disingenuous to cite as a reason for why the game cannot be classified ‘Art’. That would be like claiming that Space Odyssey 2001 isn’t ‘Art’ because the monkeys look so fake at the beginning; or that Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar can’t be ‘Art’ because in its action a clock strikes the hour, and ancient Greece wasn’t so big on the clock-having.

    You seem to be once again imposing impossible standards so that you can declare games to have ‘failed’ to live up to a completely arbitrary, subjective rulebook. Saying that games must in every instance mirror the realities of life accurately or else they have failed to craft empathy is a nonsensical hypocrisy – particularly when films, literature, plays, visual Art, etc., all perform comparable creative allowances that require similar suspension of disbelief, and are able to create moving drama just fine.

    And gesturing toward the vagaries of a notion like ‘Art for a larger purpose’ to validate the wholesale disregard of texts that you subjectively feel have no purpose is woefully misguided. I mean, we are back in Plato’s Republic territory there: anything that might be harmful to the development of the ideal human soul should be discarded as worthless or banned.

    Who exactly is to say what truth a specific piece of Art speaks, and what is therefore ‘worthy’ of discussion? You?

    This is the kind of rote, pompous catch-cry that people have used for countless generations to simplistically dismiss all Art that they see as ‘frivolous’ in the face of ‘genuine’ established mediums and subject matter. It’s why novels were once seen as unworthy, a distraction for the idle. Or why all graphic novels were dismissed as gratuitous nonsense. Or why jazz and rock and rap and on and on, have all at one time been maligned for being vacuous drivel. It is – again – precisely what so irked me about your original post: the arrogant presumption that one person can dictate what Art ‘is’, what it should purport to ‘be’, and why it is possible to systematically dismiss certain works, mediums, or themes into the trash can of mindless entertainment.

    Sadly, such a sentiment, and all of the narrow, generalised presumption that it encapsulates, says far more about you as a critic and audience, than it does about either Art or videogames.

  24. (Apologies, because thought that I had already included this somewhere in my previous comments, but reading through again realised I was mistaken...)

    For anyone who is in fact interested in considering arguments for the potential of videogames to be considered Art that extends beyond arbitrary, wholly subjective personal preference, I would encourage you to explore some of these discussions:

    'Game Design as Narrative Architecture' by Henry Jenkins (

    Extra Lives by Tom Bissell, and his infrequent articles at Grantland (

    Also, one might like to consider the exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) that engages this question directly.

    A quote from Paola Antonelli, a Senior Curator at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), discussing their recent exhibition on the videogame medium:

    'Are video games art? They sure are, but they are also design, and a design approach is what we chose for this new foray into this universe. The games are selected as outstanding examples of interaction design—a field that MoMA has already explored and collected extensively, and one of the most important and oft-discussed expressions of contemporary design creativity. Our criteria, therefore, emphasize not only the visual quality and aesthetic experience of each game, but also the many other aspects—from the elegance of the code to the design of the player’s behavior—that pertain to interaction design. In order to develop an even stronger curatorial stance, over the past year and a half we have sought the advice of scholars, digital conservation and legal experts, historians, and critics, all of whom helped us refine not only the criteria and the wish list, but also the issues of acquisition, display, and conservation of digital artifacts that are made even more complex by the games’ interactive nature. This acquisition allows the Museum to study, preserve, and exhibit video games as part of its Architecture and Design collection.'


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