Please donate to help save PopMatters. We are moving to WordPress in February out of necessity and need your help.
Featured: Top of Home Page

Play for Today

Colin Harvey

The question as to whether games are stories or stories are games is important, because it goes to the root of what video games have been, are, and are going to be . . .

"It should be noted that children at play are not playing about; their games should be seen as their most serious-minded activity." � Montaigne, 1580

The admission that I still play with myself at the age of 31 is often greeted with no small alarm by acquaintances. My own professional concerns not withstanding, family and friends view a continued interest in video games as adolescent at best and childish at worst, at a point when I should presumably be spawning my own video game players, or better still, future British tennis stars. Interestingly the same value judgement does not apply to older, pre-digital games such as cards, chess or backgammon. Somehow the cultural capital of certain games allows grown-ups to forget that what they're doing is, put simply, playing.

Chess, that most serious of the serious games, represents at some level a titanic battle between two opposing armies. Yet the meaning of the iconography is only residually present when two grown-ups face each other across the chequered board, since on the whole adult games are more concerned with strategy than story, with form rather than content. The design of chess is so elegant and the metaphor suitably abstract, that it's easy to hide from the "let's pretend" subtext. By contrast video games literalize � boasting technology that enables the death of a pawn to be realised in vivid, full-blooded "reality" � and in so doing make apparent that this is a game, and that what you're engaged in is fun. As Montaigne observed, play is a serious business, it's how we learn to deal with the world. Perhaps our aversion to games resides in the fact that we don't like to be reminded that we're still learning.

Video games have been around, surprisingly, for over forty years now, with most informed opinion agreeing on 1961's Spacewar! as the first recognisable example of the form. In terms of the hugely lucrative console and computer market, though abstract games still occasionally appear, the days of the Mondrian-style simplicity exemplified by early classics like the bouncing ball of Pong or the Borgesian maze of Pacman are largely gone. These days, realism is the key. Aside from a couple of recent notable exceptions, even science-fiction, a once dominant genre which still feeds many of the stereotypes associated with games and gamers, seems to have retreated from the public gaze. Intriguingly it would seem an aging game-playing populace prefer to act out the role of gangsters or World War Two soldiers, than to blast layer upon layer of descending Space Invaders.

David Kushner's fascinating and suitably breathless account of the production of a video game classic, Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Created An Empire and Transformed Pop Culture (Random House, May 2003), provides a snapshot of the video game industry at a point in its history previously largely ignored. John Carmack and John Romero were a couple of video game programmers who, in true American Fantasy fashion, heralded from poor backgrounds but ended up vastly rich pioneers � albeit vastly rich, squabbling pioneers. The very successful and notoriously violent game they produced in the mists of 1993 � Doom � was revolutionary not just in terms of the medium but with regards to the wider culture.

The preproduction process of Doom as recounted in Kushner's book is instructive when it comes to a continuing area of contention both among those working inside the video game industry and those seeking to critique it from the outside. One of Carmack and Romero's collaborators, lead designer Tom Hall, worked extensively on a backstory to provide a context for their science-fiction idea, to be met with short-shrift from one-half of the Simon and Garfunkelesque duo. "Story in a game," retorted Carmack, "is like a story in a porn movie; it's expected to be there, but it's not that important." Hall was subsequently sacked, and the resulting "first person shooter" relied on a combination of kinetic gameplay and groundbreaking three-dimensional graphics. Whether more of a story element would have framed an otherwise relentlessly nihilistic but hugely enjoyable experience, and helped indemnify the game when it was cited as a major influence on the teenage architects of the Columbine massacre, is doubtful. Ironically video games, as the latest example of "low" culture, are an uncharacteristically slow-moving target when the moral minority goes a-hunting.

The question as to whether games are stories or stories are games is important, because it goes to the root of what video games have been, are, and are going to be, and whether they might indeed be capable of communicating "serious" ideas. In the 1980s, during the heyday of Britain's cottage video game industry, kids around the country would busily author their own games, often extraordinarily imaginative, expertly executed affairs, which were immediately bought by other kids around the country, and indeed, further afield. Luminaries like Matthew Smith, Jeff Minter, Andrew Braybrook and Steve Turner would ensconce themselves in their bedrooms, forcing themselves to learn the intricacies of programming the warhorses of the era � the Sinclair Spectrum, Commodore 64 and Atari 800 � from scratch. The resulting games � Smith's Manic Miner, Minter's Attack of the Mutant Camels, Braybrook and Turner's Uridium � are now legendary among older gamers. For these auteurs telling a good story was often not a major consideration; in some cases the scenario was invented after the video game was produced and subsequently tagged on. These days story is widely regarded as being more and more important.

Contemporary video games often consist of two elements: that which you play and that which you watch. The latter are referred to as "cut-sequences", linear non-interactive segments designed to fill in details about character, plot, setting and objectives. By contrast the play elements, sometimes termed "missions" by producers and designers, are the properly interactive sections. Often the play elements of games involve the user controlling a character and having to explore a virtual environment as a means of accomplishing certain given tasks.

The nature of these missions is the prime factor affecting the construction of video game plots. Unfortunately, because the narrative is being dictated by a constant need for playable action sequences rather than the story's internal logic, game plots can often prove to be fragmentary, desultory affairs. Progressive game developers are increasingly recognising the need to involve writers from the off in the creative process to help alleviate this sort of problem, rather than bringing them in at the last moment to fix dialogue or eschewing the need for writers altogether, as has been commonplace in the past.

For a scriptwriter, planning one of these plots is similar to the process involved in creating a musical: basically you design a structure with holes in it. For very good technical and aesthetic reasons video game plots are often reasonably linear affairs, or at least no less linear than the majority of novels or films. This is why video game producers will look for writers versed in the classical plot mechanics beloved of Hollywood, partly because that's what we're all used to as consumers of narratives. If a game does feel very non-linear then it's often because the producers are exercising some extremely deft sleight of hand.

Grand Theft Auto: Vice City is a cartoonish, violent and utterly engrossing video game which melds together bits of every gangster movie you ever saw with frequent mordant wit, and which enables players to steal cars and career around the urban environment in suitably perilous fashion, or to interact in a generally aggressive manner with the burghers of the virtual city. In the jargon, the play experience feels utterly "immersive". When the predestined cut sequences arrive, you therefore feel like you've had a hand in their creation, rather than simply achieving a certain task or series of tasks, which instrumentally lead into your reward of some more plot and characterisation. Like a good musical the play elements of video games should be tuneful, they should make you want to play again, they should stand alone as well as part of the whole; and they should advance the story.

Just as musicals can be ruined by lame plotting or poor characterisation, ineptly handled cut scenes can be a nightmarish distraction. In the past cut scenes have often been excruciating affairs, which would have disgraced the pages of the pulpiest hack fiction. Even when they were relatively well-executed in terms of writing, acting, direction and technical production, design flaws would mean, for instance, that it was impossible to "navigate", that is click a button, past them. The thriller Max Payne featured enjoyable, cinematic gameplay and some well-wrought cut scenes containing suitably hard-boiled dialogue, but the design of the game meant that if you failed in a particular mission you were forced to watch long, non-interactive sequences over again until you proved successful.

By contrast Halo, one of the few recent examples of a massively successful science-fiction game and a direct descendant of Doom, features a narrative structure which allows absolute smooth continuity between the play and non-play elements. As you rush through the Robert Heinlein-style spaceships, lush greenery or snowy wastes of expertly realised alien vistas, cut sequences come at you with the same ferocity as the Wellesian monsters you're tasked with slaying. The cut scenes are rapid, beautiful and engaging, and on the whole if you happen to stumble across one again you have the ability to jump past it straight back into the action.

A key factor in enabling this smooth continuity is the role played by the character you control, otherwise known as your avatar. Herein lies a main element of difficulty for the video game in trying to convey "serious" ideas: Pacman, Sonic the Hedgehog and even Tomb Raider's Lara Croft are not exactly what you would term "substantial" characters. As the journalist Steven Poole has discussed in what will come to be seen as an early seminal text on the subject, Trigger Happy: The Inner Life of Videogames, the element of irreversibility which characterises great narratives does not apply to the video game medium. Part of the reason Vice City is notorious is that life on its grim streets is very cheap indeed and, crucially, not just other people's: a central component of the game is the ability to behave extremely recklessly, either on foot or in one of the many and varied vehicles on offer to you, knowing that upon death your avatar will be immediately resurrected. Imagine being able to restart Anna Karenina's narrative so that she jumps lithely out of the way of that train carriage, or recommencing Romeo and Juliet so that, come the finale, the star-crossed lovers are able to slope off and set up a B and B boasting impressive views of leafy Verona.

At the present time, characterisation, such as it is, tends to be achieved through the cut scenes of the video game. As a result the ability of interactive media to achieve a form of viewpoint both the novel and the film have always struggled with, that of second person perspective, that of the "you", tends only to be exploited in terms of enabling plot progression. The video game medium unusually, if not quite uniquely, offers a framework both for essentialist certainty (via cut scenes) and existentialist exploration (through the play elements). It's possible that the market imperative plays a large part in the game industry's reluctance to experiment with such notions. With some notable exceptions this is an ultra-conservative behemoth unwilling to risk money investigating notions of character empathy, even if it might lead to more empathetic experiences, more engaging narratives and ultimately more revenue. Alternatively, or maybe additionally, perhaps there's an inherent problem in that word, "narrative".

The pre-eminence of action-based genres as exemplified by the current vogue for gritty thrillers, and in the past science-fiction, underlies a perspective championed both within and outside the video game industry, both in the press and in the journalistic and academic fields seeking to critique the medium. On the one side we have the ludologists; a bunch of writers, academics and critics who believe, reductively expressed, that applying narrative based methods of analysis to video games � derived from literary or film studies � is of limited help in the study of the medium. Instead, the ludologists suggest the creation of a new theory, or at least the rediscovery of an older, "lost" theory of play, which would prove more adept at the analysis -- and we might speculate, production -- of the whole diverse pantheon of games. The ludological approach would enable analysis of the heavily narratological-based variety of video game in which scriptwriters are involved, right across to those which we might term "pure play", like the classic Tetris, the utterly addictive shape-sorting game boasting no obvious narrative traits. The ludologists might point to the "playful", exploratory-style genres that dominate the market, rather than gritty social realism or romances, as evidence that games are more game than narrative.

In terms of academia, for a while it looked like the play-story dichotomy would tear asunder the vibrant, nascent field of video game studies. The narratologists can point to the many contemporary video games featuring protagonists who look like they've wandered in from the latest Mario Puzo or Martina Cole novel. The Getaway for instance, places you in the role of a former gangland thug trying to track down the gangsters who killed your wife and kidnapped your young son. But, as the ludologists would be quick to point out, it's actually in spite of the occasionally wince-inducing Cockernee dialogue, and more the chance to drive at speed through a minutely recreated version of central London that makes The Getaway enjoyable to play; the fairly formulaic story would not in of itself make for an engaging experience.

In fact, recognising the exploratory nature of video games might provide a way through the ludological-narratological impasse. The British writer and academic Jon Dovey has identified the need for a mode of analysis which is spatially as well as temporally organised as a method of approaching new media artefacts generally. Maybe a reinterpretation of the term "narrative" to account for the ludological arguments, and which allowed for the fact that these are stories which move both through time and space might provide both an appropriate method of analysis and production. Alternatively, maybe another approach entirely is demanded, not in fact based on spatiotemporal notions at all, but on a key commonality between all games: the notion of movement. From the industry's viewpoint this approach might help enable the much sought after cohesion between the play and non-play elements of video games.

However, neither ludological nor narratological perspectives would necessarily argue that play as a process is somehow unable to deal with difficult themes or subjects. Montaigne recognised that children in their role-playing are effectively trying on outfits, experimenting with identities, which they may adopt or reject later, and that often they might be dealing with subjects which wouldn't appear as obvious fodder for the trivial pursuit of play. Sometimes they seem apparently frivolous activities, like performing a trip to the post office, at other times they might be very serious, like recreating a parental argument. The Sims, a hugely popular role-playing game, which, reductively expressed, equates happiness in relation to the acquisition of material goods, nonetheless indicates a possible template for what a game genuinely exploring issues of social realism might look like.

On this basis a properly engaging video game seeking to confront contemporary issues like racism or homophobia but which doesn't transform into the dread "edutainment", sounds plausible. A video game set in a concentration camp would be a different matter altogether, but Art Spieglman's "low art" comic book masterpiece Maus proved that the apparent limitations of a form can become virtues (see Gonzalo Frasca's thoughtful essay on these issues at Hopefully there will always be games like the aggressive and intoxicating Doom, but the challenge is to see what else the form can achieve. After all, gamers grow up eventually; games should too.

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

We are moving to WordPress in February out of necessity and need your help to fund the move and further development.





© 1999-2021 PopMatters Media, Inc. All rights reserved. PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.

Collapse Expand Features

Collapse Expand Reviews

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2021 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.