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Games and Cross-Media Storytelling

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Tuesday, Aug 2, 2011
More games are expanding their stories into traditional media. But expanding game universes to other media can be an attempt to excuse shoddy storytelling in gaming.

At this point, it would be redundant to mention that video games are more influential than ever. Even without the unprecedented sales and number of players, games are everywhere, even when they aren’t games. Once upon a time a successful franchise was lucky if it could get a kids cartoon or maybe a background shot in a movie. But now even modestly received games are spreading into novels, comic series, anime, table top games, and films. Blizzard even holds an annual writing contest for fans that want to contribute to their favourite game’s lore. But a byproduct of these “extended universes” is games that are contracted and simplified. The original work of art—the game—is left shallower because the deeper layers are reserved for other, more established media.


It should be said that a work of art that migrates across media is not a bad thing; it wouldn’t make much sense to complain about the multiplicity of media in a multimedia column. There are a number of reasons to expand a game into other art forms. It makes obvious business sense and no medium ought to restrict its content just because other media explored a concept first. But games face a danger in dealing strictly with action and leaving all the characterization and drama up to novels, comics, or other means of storytelling. Game developers ought to have enough faith in their games to tell a complete and self-contained story without having to fall back on novels to tell the story for them.
  
By way of example, there are eight Halo novels, compared to eight games (of those games, one is not yet released and another is a remake). More than half of the Halo universe is exposed outside of the medium that introduced it, not even including the graphic novels and film shorts. The actual game that introduced the world and circumstances of Halo have been brushed aside, most of the game’s story is told outside gaming.


The usual counter argument to the absence of story in gaming is that players may not want or care about the narrative context of the game, but if the narrative is delivered correctly—that is, it it’s integrated with the gameplay and motivates the character forward with more than flashing lights and Skinnarian rewards/punishments—then it will affect players regardless of what they expected coming into the game. If games are supposed to be art, then they have to stop being ashamed of their stories. Art isn’t shy; it doesn’t reserve its complexities for niches that might better appreciate it. If the story of a game is really worth telling, then most of it should be told in the game.


The profitability of Halo may make it a moot example, but even Bioware’s franchises have been adapted into other forms. It seems strange that the developer with a reputation for making narrative heavy games has relied on other media for building worlds and characters. Again, there’s nothing inherently wrong with retelling a story through a different genre or narrative mode, but when game franchises migrate away from gaming, the medium is cheapened and players become isolated from the story.


Gaming is the only medium where the audience’s experience is a major driving force in the plot’s progression. Turning to a traditional form, where audience and story are estranged, reinforces the belief that interactivity cannot tell a complicated story. When a game’s context has to be established through a novel, then the underlying assumption is that games can only translate action and can’t properly build a setting or characters. Furthermore, when players pick up a game without having read the twelve part comic prequel, their experiences and their avatar’s are disconnected. Players can’t interact or relate to a game when the characters in the game have experience or knowledge of the plot that the player doesn’t.


There are plenty of games that tell their story within the game world, conversely there are plenty of artistically valid reasons for a game to cross into other media. However, developers must sometimes limit a story to gaming, if for no other reason than to prove that games can be legitimate narrative vehicles and not advertisements for a story that would be better told elsewhere. Certain stories are best told through games, just as certain stories are best told through film, graphic novel, or whatever other mode might be most appropriate. Before game developers try to deepen their games with external media, they have to ensure that the original game is strong enough to stand on its own and that they’re not expanding into other media for the sake of filingl in holes that the game created.


 

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