We Need to Stop Saying That Games Tell Bad Stories

It has become a kind of self deprecatory mantra of the games criticism community: video games generally don’t tell very good stories. Which is true. And we need to stop saying it.

Heard of that medium called the movies? Yeah, most of them are terrible.

Heard of film critics? Those guys know that movies are generally pretty lousy, but they don’t talk about it all the time, nor do they apologize for it.

Frankly, it’s a cross that both media have to bear and that some media can remain more or less free from. Here’s the thing: professionally made movies and video games are affairs that are created at the cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars, and the ability to determine just how good or bad a movie or game is is not especially an easy one until a lot of those dollars have been spent and a lot of effort has already gone into them. Editing and tweaking can help, but once a lot of this material is in the can and a goodly chunk of the budget has been spent, the movie or game is going to come out. Money has to be made up, even if the resulting catastrophe is horrendous and embarrassing to all involved.

Compare this to, say, something like book publishing, in which the product can be evaluated before a lot of marketing outlay and the like, and you’ll realize the advantage that having fewer people and less money involved in production has on the potential for overall quality. Yes, there are some bad books out there too, but there is also probably a far greater margin of goodness to crap in any given bookstore than there is at your local theater, video store, or game shelf.

It’s obvious. Let’s move on.

Look, for every Psycho, there is 20 or 25 more Dr. Giggles made, for every Memento there’s a kajillion Adam Sandler movies (what’s that new one with Brooklyn Decker and Jennifer Aniston in it that I knew the whole script of having seen 30 seconds of the trailer? — it’s a little harder to see the plot twist coming in a Christopher Nolan film). Which is terrible, but not what admiring the medium, as a medium also capable of telling great stories, is all about.

I’m not saying that we should stop evaluating particular games’ efforts at telling stories and calling out the bad ones. I’m just saying that Portal tells a helluva story. It’s smart, it’s funny, it has a great villain, and it has rich themes. So, does Bioshock, Shadow of the Colossus, Full Throttle, Freedom Force, The Longest Journey, Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, and a bunch of other titles that I have enjoyed over the years. You may not think that everything that I just listed is a masterpiece (is a “Citizen Kane” of gaming), but so what? You know that these are all better than average games with better than average stories or (at the very least) that they possess better thought out plots and ideas than most other games have. But the same is true of Psycho and Memento and countless other good films by comparison to the even more numerous very lousy films that share theater space with their betters. Even if the aforementioned games don’t make your top five or ten of all time, you know that they’re pretty damned good. You don’t have to love musicals to know that Singing in the Rain is pretty darn charming and irresistible.

That’s why I actually care about stories in games and why I will call out weak stories in games for being weak — because I know that games still can frequently be good, funny, dramatic, tragic. But observing that good ones are outside the norm for the most part is something as obvious as rain being wet. The experience of current and recent media (again, especially of the sort where the end product is often beyond a simple revisionary process once a lot of the money has been spent) is always a matter of sifting through dross to find a treasure.

Hell, this is always an issue within any medium in the arts in any culture at any given time or place. How come movies 40 years ago or 30 years ago or 50 years ago were so much better (asks anyone in this decade or the last one or even ten decades ago)? Why were books written so much better in the nineteenth century or the early twentieth century or during the time of Shakespeare? Because the dross has been sifted and because garbage doesn’t survive well over the ages. Games themselves as a non-virtual medium might be old, but using games in mass media (as video games have) to tell stories has lead to pretty much an infant storytelling medium, so don’t expect it all to come out roses each and every time, or ever actually. “Matured” media suffers the same problem of finding the good amongst the bad. (You know how many bad painters, bad musicians, and bad writers there are out there, right? These media are thousands of years old and each generation only produces so many Michelangelos or Louis Primas or Hemingways. Luckily, we get to skip over a bunch of bad painters, bad musicians, and bad writers because they never made the immortality “cut”.). There’s a reason some titles will remain in gaming for a long time and some won’t, and it’s because storytelling in games is generally bad. What art form isn’t generally bad, though? In the meantime, if you are a critic, there’s a reason you want to look at, study, or enjoy video games, so do it and stop worrying about the overall state of the medium at any given time.

Treat the medium as if it is something that has potential and celebrate the successes thus far. Don’t worry. Developers see the ones that get praised and will learn from the ones that they enjoy too. They know what crap is — just like the rest of us. Oh, and they’ll still manage to create some real stinkers, too. Que sera.

Stop worrying about when games will become “great.” Some of them already are. They are, and they always will be in general. Call out the bad games, but, please, stop calling out the whole medium.