Talking about talking about video games

I’ve read some interesting writing about games over the past month. A sort of theme circulates around some of them. Not whether games are worth analyzing, not whether games are valuable, but maybe the question posed is how should/can/will games be analyzed?

First up is an interview of Tony Tulathimutte by Graham Oliver, published as “The Field of Dreams Approach: On Writing About Video Games.” The interview as a whole is worth reading, as it’s a great conversation, but I’d like to highlight the following insights of Tulathimutte:

If writers keep doing this, eventually there will be a readership equipped to deal with it. For the longest time there have been really smart people playing video games and wondering where all the good criticism was. It’s a discoverability issue, to a certain extent. There’s so much good writing out there about games, but most games-writing outlets cater to fairly niche perspectives . . . . What I want is long-form literary criticism. But writers should just write what they want to read. The body of work will be there and the audience will follow it.

This idea of literary criticism of video games, and of encouraging increased writing about games, reminds me a bit of the Ian Bogost interview in David S. Heineman’s Thinking About Video Games. In that interview, Bogost said:

We spend a lot less time looking at and talking about specific titles than you would see in literary studies or film studies or so forth. So that’s one area that I think we’re seeing more of that attention developing.

If we imagine a future in which we mattered as a field, then presumably there’d be all sorts of just ordinary work to do. It’s just that nobody likes to think about doing ordinary work, modest work, or work that is not as gratifying.

Those sorts of first-order observations are not valueless, but they’re not going to be enough anymore. They shouldn’t be enough for us anymore. We should move on to great detail.

When I read the Tulathimutte interview, I immediately thought of Bogost’s interview. I sense a similar call to action.

Interestingly, Ian Bogost is one of the other voices catching my eye in games discussion over the past month. His essay in The Atlantic, “Video Games Are Better Without Stories,” seemed to kick up something of a hornet’s nest on Twitter last week.

Bogost opens the essay by briefly discussing environmental storytelling, then asks:

Are the resulting interactive stories really interactive, when all the player does is assemble something from parts? Are they really stories, when they are really environments? And most of all, are they better stories than the more popular and proven ones in the cinema, on television, and in books?

On this measure, alas, the best interactive stories are still worse than even middling books and films. That’s a problem to be ignored rather than solved. Games’ obsession with story obscures more ambitious goals anyway.

Already, I find this premise a little weirdly flawed, too narrow. Sure, environmental storytelling is a type of storytelling in games–but not the only kind. What about stories that come out of player interactions with game systems, dynamic stories, stories unique to individual players? These types of events remind me of the best moments in tabletop roleplaying, and sometimes even surpass those moments in terms of sheer spectacle. The random string of variable interactions that can produce:

  • a theft gone wrong that turns into a battle with guards that becomes a battle with a dragon and ends with an escape swimming across a lake in a game like Skyrim; or
  • following a pedestrian who starts a fist fight that sprawls into the streets and draws in more brawlers only to be interrupted by a car wreck that then leads to emergency personnel careening onto the scene, which in turn leads to a pile-up collision while attempting to reach the wounded only to have a vehicle somehow explode in yet another wreck amidst the chaos in a game like Grand Theft Auto V; or
  • having Sims go out on a date night only to have one Sim wander off to spend the night chatting up another Sim and gradually flirting and leaving his date to stand isolated or enraged in one of The Sims games

can take things in such wild directions so quickly that it would be tough for a human dungeon master to keep up. This is quite the opposite of the “scripted action” in environmental storytelling that Bogost sees as a weakness.

But also, just because most games do not surpass the best storytelling in other media should not condemn storytelling in games altogether. Even flawed stories can offer some unique value, and the interactive nature of video games, placing the audience as active participant, can supercharge an otherwise stale or hackneyed narrative into something vital and fresh.

Nonetheless, I do agree with his assertion that games “are not a new, interactive medium for stories. Instead, games are the aesthetic form of everyday objects.” But that almost seems beside the point, given that he also broke down other art forms, including ones that use and benefit from narrative, in similarly simplified ways. To suggest that games can exist without a story is obvious–they often do. But Bogost’s assertion that games simply cannot compete with other media in terms of telling story, or that they should bypass story entirely, seems…incorrect. If his point was that games should not be limited to story, should not simply ape the narratives of books or movies or television shows, I would agree, but his point is not so limited.

And so I reject Bogost’s final statement:

If there is a future of games, let alone a future in which they discover their potential as a defining medium of an era, it will be one in which games abandon the dream of becoming narrative media and pursue the one they are already so good at: taking the tidy, ordinary world apart and putting it back together again in surprising, ghastly new ways.

The argument is so extreme that I have to wonder if it is satire. If not, then I think Tulathimutte’s interview, which predates this essay, actually manages to predictively respond to it:

You get people going on about the Ludologists versus the Narratologists, about ludonarrative dissonance, copping these quasi-academic terms. I can see the point of systematizing things, but my favorite criticism helps you not to just describe and understand, but to enjoy stuff more.

Bogost appears to be falling into the sort of categorical thinking discussed there when he draws a hard divide between games (as a form of play and experimentation) and narratives, apparently believing it is best not to cross the streams.

Of course, Ian Bogost is a smart, highly educated guy, an expert in the field of game studies. Given that he’s previously written “Video Games Are Better Without Characters,” I do somewhat suspect that he’s proposing an exaggerated and controversial argument to generate discussion about the role of story, or characters, or whatever else is on his mind, in video games. And if so, he certainly seems to be succeeding at that goal.

5 thoughts on “Talking about talking about video games

  1. I need to bookmark all of these for a closer read later because they are relative to my interests (which I briefly outline below because I’m an asshole who cannot avoid talking about all the things I like). I actually liked the Character article more than I thought I would although I think he’s ultimately wrong in his conclusion. I think part of what makes his argument weak is that he comes to part of his conclusion by way of a rather thin understanding of identity politics and the role it plays in player motivation. I think he is correct to suggest that character driven narratives might do well to consider larger questions of political philosophy and sociology, and that diversity and justice are better served than in simply making game populations more varied.

    I think where he loses me is that I have a hard time approaching the question at all without any consideration of the points you brought up: RPGs, table-top-gaming, and literature, but I’d go further and suggest games that produce immense amount of fan fiction (for better or worse) or that are increasingly relying on in-game and out-of-game codices, all of which incorporate not simply individual characters to love and hate, but broad political/familial system, alliances and conflicts, etc. The latter might be seen as a flaw of game design or a cheap way to sell more things, but the former speaks directly to the immense amount of love that people have for characters and the desire for more elaborate interaction (even if it just amounts to banging their favorite NPCs). I’m not trying to elevate fan fiction’s literary status, but it has immense sociological and psychological value in terms of critical analysis.

    I am simplifying, but I have a freelance article to finish and a fan fiction chapter to write.

    [I have an on-again-off-again project that attempts to isolate the parameters of the political individual in games like Elder Scrolls and Dragon Age, an attempt to deconstruct a kind of heroic-choice-driven individualism (individualism here as game mechanism, not political philosophy (at least not yet), but I use that term deliberately) and understand their position vis-a-vis the political/social/cultural context of the game’s setting and plot, how it reflects/undermines contemporary political philosophy as well as literary tropes. It begins with the question of how “citizenship” in all of these games are established. The unnamed prisoner/You all Meet in a Cell trope for the last three Elder Scrolls provides the perfect jumping point for exactly this kind of conversation.]

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      1. I greatly appreciate the thoughts; I think they definitely contribute to the broader discussion I was attempting to respond to in my own writing! I think I largely agree with the points you raise; however, I think that perhaps your comments about fan fiction regarding games raise the most interesting areas of potential further discussion. I think I agree with you, but I’d also suggest that fan fiction maybe reflects more the attachment that fans have to a property rather than the narrative successes of the property itself. As iconic as Sonic the Hedgehog and his friends may be, they only have the broadest of personalities and no clearly defined, consistent narrative (outside of the comics, maybe?), and yet Sonic continues to inspire a considerable volume of fan creations. Plus, without any background in studying fan fiction and based only on my own anecdotal experiences, I’d wager that a good deal of fan fiction is generated as a sort of reaction to irritants in the source material–fans attempting to address weaknesses or areas that they see were overlooked or underdeveloped in the original IP. I think maybe that’s also why there can be so much fan fiction about narrative- and character-light properties: fans are filling the voids left there. I say all that to point out that fan fiction fundamentally consists of visual arts and/or literature (typically), and the strengths and flaws of the genre don’t necessarily reflect any underlying virtues or failings of the source games.

        As to codices (and, with out-of-game content, companion novels and source books and comics and game guides), I think that’s another topic that could easily transform itself into a full essay. I think they maybe more directly show the strengths of games: stories are not confined to an isolated, linear experience but rather can embody the entirety of a world/system.

        If you have any further thoughts to the above, I’d be happy to hear them!

        Is there any way that I would be able to read some of what you’ve written on individualism in Elder Scrolls and Dragon Age? If already published somewhere, please send a link my way if you have the time. Sounds quite interesting and in line with some of my own interests, though not from an angle I’ve previously considered.

        I don’t know if you’ve read much about the previous Elder Scrolls games, but I can confirm from my early moments playing Arena now that this game also opens in a prison. Interestingly, this might be the only game in the Elder Scrolls series (to my mind) that defines the reason for imprisonment/detainment: you are a character who had a peripheral role in the Imperial Court, and Jagar Tharn imprisons you to get you out of the way but doesn’t see you as a big enough threat to outright kill you.

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  2. At this point I don’t have anything on that topic published anywhere. It exists mostly in outlines and notes and fits and starts, but nothing completed.

    “I’d wager that a good deal of fan fiction is generated as a sort of reaction to irritants in the source material–fans attempting to address weaknesses or areas that they see were overlooked or underdeveloped in the original IP.”

    I know for me, it’s because as I play, my mind generates 10,000 different responses to even the most mundane dialogue. But I think this is absolutely true.

    I definitely have a lot of thoughts on this, which I’ll collect and post at some point.

    Liked by 1 person

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