Let me tell you a story
Video games are a troublesome medium. Rogert Ebert, famously, isn’t convinced that they’re art. Even those of us who love video games are often apologetic. Yes, many video games are just terrible. Yes, it’s true that no video game can stand up to the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, or Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, or Ulysses. (Or maybe War & Peace, if you’re the sort of person who doesn’t like Ulysses. I happen to like Ulysses.)
Personally, I’m primarily interested in video games as a medium for narrative and story, not despite but because I think it’s an open question whether video games are particularly well-suited to narrative.
In fact, depending on what and how you read, the idea of video games as a venue for narrative is in trouble right now. This week, IGN ran a piece on the end of the $60 single-disc big-budget video game in favor of less-expensive segmented downloads. (This business model is actually not all that far from a lot of “single-disc” games, which offer players the opportunity to purchase and download additional content — “DLC” — after the initial purchase of the physical disc. It just eliminates the requirement that the player buy the disc first.) Tom Bissell’s piece in Grantland makes explicit the implied stakes of the low-cost, low-budget gaming world to come:
A few months ago, a producer at a major video-game company startled me by admitting that the economic viability of the triple-A video-game production cycle — the expensive development process, in other words, by which games like Halo, Grand Theft Auto, Uncharted, and BioShock are unleashed upon the world — is in all likelihood doomed. Shortly after that, a developer told me he has a hard time imagining how single-player narrative video games are going to survive in the long run; such games, he believes, will eventually be seen as a historical anomaly. Neither man was particularly thrilled to imagine a future largely absent of the kinds of games he makes and most cares about, but current trends could not be ignored.
I told the developer that he sounded a bit like my fiction-writer friends going on about the inevitable death of the novel. “It takes one person to write a novel,” he told me. “To make the kinds of games we’re talking about, you need several dozen people — probably more like a hundred — with training across several fields. If the money’s not there, which is increasingly the case, the games can’t be made.”
I believe that Bissell’s skepticism of the developer’s assertion is well-founded. The sky may well be falling, but that doesn’t mean that everything is coming to an end. Much like the death of the studio system that controlled prewar American filmmaking, the end of a particular business model will not mean the end of a medium.
While Bissell’s piece focuses on iPad games, including a number that tell stories surprisingly well, I’d like to try to shift the terms of the conversation a bit. (An ambitious goal, I know, but I’m going to take for granted that Idler readers will know from Andrew Simone’s writing that indie/web browser games can tell outstanding and challenging stories with incredibly limited resources.)
First, there is a central mistake in considering whether video games as a medium are well-suited for narrative. The implied analogy is between video games and a genre like the novel or the fiction film, where narrative tools are built into the conceptual framework of the work itself. Video games, however, are a medium and not a genre. The more appropriate analogy would be between the video game and the book. Video games, like books, can be a productive venue for narrative, but like books, video games can be successful entirely independent of whether narrative exists within the individual work, and the success, failure, or indifference of the individual work is immaterial to the larger question as to whether narrative can work within a video game. A book of poetry may entirely ignore narrative, but it would be foolish to conclude from the fact that many great books exist which contain no narrative all that books are ill-suited to telling stories.
Similarly, cross-media comparisons can be occasionally illuminating, but to judge video games by the narrative standards and conventions of the novel, opera, drama, or the fiction film is ultimately a mistake. Will video games ever produce a Ulysses? Clearly not. Ulysses already exists. Video games would (and do) do better to measure by and build on its own benchmarks.
And video games do tell some compelling stories, using their own tools, and with their own unique strengths and flaws. Rather than figuring out whether Heavy Rain is as good as your favorite novelist, however, let’s talk about what makes its story work, and try to imagine what stories video games could (and should) be telling, especially if the big-budget, risk-averse, “let’s-make-another-sequel” business model comes crashing down.
That’s my challenge to video game critics, players, and creators. I’ll do what I can to live up to it.
Gavin Craig is co-editor of The Idler. You can follow him on Twitter at @craiggav.