There seems to be a couple of conversations that just won’t die. At any given moment in the discussion on how we are to consider games, someone is choosing their position on whether the rules of the game matter or the narrative in a game, while another decides if a particular video game is even a game or not. While there is value in any critical thinking, it’s curious writers still feel they have something to add to conversations that always dissolve into some sort of nihilism.
We have smart pieces like Leigh Alexander’s “Tale Spin” that continue to tiptoe towards the edge away from these questions, taking sure but frustratingly small steps (“Opinion: Tale Spin”, Edge, 19 March 2012). In the essay, she moves past the allure of equating everything noble about games to their capability to tell stories, batting away shadows that still linger of the “but other mediums…” attitude.
Her article ends with a shrug, considering an alternative way to look at games, but it also offers an insight that she might have not seen coming: storytelling in games has never followed the methodology of other mediums. The moments that Alexander mentions are especially poignant to players, and we’ll never get past this conversation if we continue to see storytelling in games as being like the traditional story elements that we recognize in other mediums and not as the moments of experience that games often engender.
A recent victim of the “legitimacy police” is Dear Esther, unable to catch a break from one armchair opinion to the next. It’s also a game that fails to produce much when assessed by its story and not its narrative design. The narration is one of many elements that the game offers, but players rarely move past it to analyzing its storytelling methods. In actuality, Dear Esther is about encountering many poetic moments while simply walking through a space. Listening to a speaker is only part of some of those moments. It is the change in visual details on a second run through that causes the player to doubt themselves and others.
These moments when the player questions their memory and realizes that this isn’t the same walk that they took before is how Dear Esther tells its story. For some reason, we’re quick to throw out the interactive element of in much of storytelling that existed long before video games. From bards weaving epic tales for an audience to a child in our own century interjecting their thoughts and questions into a tale told at bedtime, stories have been mutable and dependent on those involved in telling and listening to them. Video games reinvent this idea by using game mechanics as a method for the player to internalize the narrative, a method in which their personal disposition interacts with and changes the story. In essence, Dear Esther is provocative because the interaction takes place within the player and not superficially within the game.
In a sense, Dear Esther puts most games that feature walking as an activity to shame. It critiques games that use innumerable amounts of game mechanics to communicate experience. It achieves much with just one. It is the next game in the line of great level design in which the Half Life series resides. Dear Esther implies that every game with walking in them can achieve the moments that it does, and that there is something to aspire to. This is because we commonly see the narrative experience as merely story, stock plot, characters, and setting used as a vague excuse to explain why the player is hitting monsters and mixing items. While Dear Esther has a narrator, he only creates a sense of linearity to subvert it on a second playthrough, which ties into how the game gives the player moments to experience. That’s the purpose of all of the game’s elements: the visual design, heavily limited actions, and changing details. There is no fat in Dear Esther because everything in it aims at doing one thing and that is allowing the player to internalize these moments.
Alexander is right. Games like Mass Effect 3 and Tales of Graces f will not be the highest form of video games as stories. They rely too much on story to provide an experience and rarely allow the player to internalize moments. Video games are still in a position in which storytelling remains a spectacle and is regarded only in a superficial manner. If the medium’s storytelling is assessed through the narrative structure that allows players to feel these moments, then narrative in games isn’t something that you take or leave but is integral to a game’s experience. Dear Esther’s public recognition allows us to make a paradigm shift towards recognizing how video games do it differently and to build upon the first steps of exploring the medium’s capabilities even further. So let’s do it.