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.