By Isaac Butler
IN THE BEGINNING
In the beginning, things were simple.
That capital letter H is trying to kill you.
Bowser has kidnapped the Princess. You go to a variety of castles until you find the one she’s in, jumping on, over or under things all the way.
Princess Zelda is in trouble. You must navigate some mazes to save her.
You want to be the greatest Boxer on Earth. You must fight your way up (and then through) Mike Tyson to accomplish this.
The space pirate Mother Brain is trying to use terrifying life-sucking amoeba creatures to take over the galaxy. You must stop her.
In the beginning, Narrative existed to justify the mashing of B and A, the cursing and gnashing of teeth, the subscribing to magazines filled with tricks and tips. Up up down down left right left right b a start. You said I just died and your mom corrected you. She said don’t ever say you just died. You didn’t die. You lost. It’s not death And to be fair, the overidentification with the character was something acted upon you by the game itself. You didn’t really believe you were dying, it was just a convenient way to vent your frustration at her interrupting you and asking if you’d like a glass of water right before an alien missile hit your Marine.
UP UP DOWN DOWN
There is a tech triumphalist theory that goes a little something like this.:
As new technologies unlock new mediums for storytelling, the appropriate stories for those mechanisms gravitate to them.
Do not mourn, dear theater artist, the creation of the multiplex! Yes, 90% of theaters closed when the movies came to town, but this is because film captures a certain kind of story that theater was doing poorly and does it better! You are free to explore other kinds of stories and other ways of telling them now, the way that photography reconfigured painting!
Do not mourn, film producer, the creation of television! For now you have a new container for serialized and shorter work and can concentrate on the grand visions that cinema unlocks!
Do not mourn, cineaste, the creation of digital videos, for we have now sown the seeds of a creative boom as filmmaking becomes cheaper!
Do not mourn, television writer, for YouTube enables the telling of five minute stories! Do not view it as intellectual property diluting or the end of the American attention span! Instead write your webisode with conform and pride and for less money!
I like this theory. I find it comforting. True, it ignores culture and cultural construction and the gatekeepers who decide what can and cannot be made and by whom. Still, it’s a nice theory and for us creatives, it holds open the possibility that we could think up a story, decide what medium it best works in and then go make it there.
Still, if this theory holds true, than the next step is almost certainly:
Do not mourn, blockbuster filmmakers, for video games will allow people to explore your fighting robots, your sexy lady detectives, your wild west zombies and magic wielding knights over far greater amounts of time forming deeper bonds, having more fun and (most importantly) unlike any of the above revolutions, it will cost them more to do it.
But before we get there, video games and their audience have to figure out what the point of telling a story in a video game is and what the value of narrative is going to be.
WORLD WITHOUT END
Googling around one day, I found a website dedicated to writing a novelization of the video game Heavy Rain. It’s a crowdsourced project in which various denizens of the website try to write the prose narrative equivalent of what happens as you play through Quantic Dream’s neo-Gothic serial killer thriller.
This novelization quest is loveably quixotic and difficult not to condescend to. Heavy Rain is a work of interactive fiction that is unadaptable. It is one of the few video games to fully take advantage of its medium as a vehicle for telling stories. Heavy Rain is not sui generis, we can see its roots in everything from old Sierra games and Space Ace to recent titles like Bioshock and Fallout 3 and (especially) Uncharted. But the particular ways that it creates story are worth exploring as we exist in this liminal moment for video games.
In Heavy Rain, you play a chorus of characters all affected by The Origami Killer, a murderer who kidnaps young boys and allows them to drown in rainwater before lovingly burying them. As a PI investigating the crimes, an FBI profiler brought in to solve the latest disappearance, a (sexy female) reporter working on the story and a father trying to save his son, you gradually put the pieces together and use your characters (who are often unaware of each other’s existence) to solve the killings.
Or not. Throughout each chapter, the various characters are presented with a number of options for dialogue, interior thoughts and actions and none of them are guaranteed success. I am unsure how many endings Heavy Rain has, as all four of your characters can die over the course of the game. You can solve the murders or not. You can rescue your son, or not. You can start a love affair between two of your characters or not. You can turn one of your characters into a drug addict or not. You can even solve the murders and rescue your son and the killer can still get away with it.
Here’s the kicker: These are simply endings to the story. They aren’t “Game Over,” they’re just options. You’re always free to reboot a chapter and try a different path and unlike many games where you have essentially binary choices to navigate with fairly obvious pathways visible from miles away, with Heavy Rain it’s not always clear what will happen with what you do.
Let’s interrupt the cheerleading for a moment. One of the reasons why Heavy Rain could only work as a video game is that the premise so preposterous in its High Gothic style and so corny and trope-laden throughout its plot that if you read it or saw it as a film, you’d probably laugh at it. Yet playing it is a profound emotional experience. You may even find yourself worried about the child you are trying to save, or upset about what happens to the characters. When you are given the choice to kill an innocent man to get a clue to save your son, you may hesitate wondering what it says about you, not the character Ethan Marks but you sitting there in the chair and whether you’re okay living as the person who choice to make one character kill another.
The insertion of choice is the insertion of you the player into the world of the game. That is Heavy Rain’s real genius. As a result, you’ll not question why Ethan Marks’ mental illness vanishes halfway through and is basically never mentioned again, or how the killer knows in advance that a rainstorm with six inch accumulation is coming so he can find his next victim, or why the game gives you the hilarious option to see one of the male leads and one of the female leads naked as you click on their thoughts and hear about how much they want to take a shower.
Heavy Rain is not the only game to do this. The games from Bethesda Softworks (Fallout 3, Fallout: New Vegas, Elder Scrolls etc.) and BioWare (Mass Effect, Dragon Age etc.) create games based on choice as well. But in those games, choice and narrative are serving the game. This is why the choices are frequently binary. Paragon or Renegade. Blow up Megaton or don’t. In Heavy Rain, the choices serve a narrative experience.
The only other game I’ve played that places narrative first as successfully is Uncharted 2. The odd thing about Uncharted 2 is that the game is totally linear. There is no choice. But it is one of the few games I’ve played where cut scenes were not only not-a-burden but the entire reason I was playing. I wanted to shoot those guards and climb to that platform so that I could get to the next moment in the narrative, and I wasn’t the only one. Uncharted 2 remains the one game that Anne has watched me play, and she watched my play it from start to finish, annoyed when I couldn’t solve some climb and fetch puzzle so we could get to the next chapter of the story.
Uncharted 2 is a pastiche of Indiana Jones adventure tropes, right down to the grizzled sidekick and the British accented renegade grade robbing rival. It shouldn’t work as a work of narrative, it should be another action-puzzle-platformer. However, it is a better made and more fully realized adventure narrative than the latest Indiana Jones film, or any of the National Treasure or Mummy films.
WEAPON OF CHOICE
Not everyone is good at using video games to tell story or to create choice. And of the malefactors, Rockstar Games should be singled out for particular opprobrium, as they are held up as a paragon of complexity in games. No less an authority than novelist John Lanchester—who has forgotten more about narrative than most people know—called Red Dead Redemption one of the greatest video games of all time.
Lanchester is deeply mistaken about the quality of RDR, as most critics are mistaken about the vaunted levels of complexity and choice in Rockstar’s groundbreaking sandbox games. Rockstar games have at their core neither complexity nor choice, instead they have the illusion of both choice. There is no complexity in having a variety of simple, easy to accomplish tasks at your disposa and in RDR, no matter what choices you make, the story will continue along a linear path. You can gun down innocents in the street for no reason, and John Marston will still protest—genuinely!— that he left his bandit days behind him in the next cut scene.
The only choice you are given in RDR is whether or not to continue following the shaggy dog story of its plot down its next twist or turn. You can either do that or waste time with any number of irrelevant tasks. You can catalogue flowers, play Texas Hold ‘Em or horseshoes, you can hunt buck. You can probably even move a pile of hay using tweezers or a well with an eye dropper. But none of it matters, because the game play is so easy that the bonuses you yield from these tasks don’t really help.
Were all of this because the game was serving some kind of narrative purpose, it might be excusable, but Rockstar makes an endless hash out of the story of the game. In order to justify the size of the sandbox they’ve built, RDR takes roughly two seasons of an hour-long network drama to play through and— as in the Grand Theft Auto series—they simply don’t have the writing chops to pull this off. Instead, they have a series of missions in which John Marston complains that things are taking too long and that people are jerking him around while people jerk him around. And the story the game has to tell is a pastiche of various moments from big name Western films, just as Vice City is a series of tropes from mob movies and San Andreas offensively staples together the ghetto tragedies of the 1990s.
B A START
Which leads us to a question: do video games really want to be known as a narrative art form?
I find this question far more interesting than Ebert’s question about whether they’re art or not. (Simple answer: some are, some aren’t!)
Right now, video games are in a sweet spot. Games like Heavy Rain and Mass Effect 2 can come out and gain a certain amount of cachet and sales because of their sophisticated deployment of game mechanics to complexly explore genre. At the same time, when people question the racial politics of Resident Evil 5 or look at the truly execrable pro-torture narrative of Black Ops, gamers (and game critics) can retreat behind “Hey, it’s only a game!”
I find myself reaching a precipice with narrative in games. I can’t in good conscience play games like the Call of Duty series. It’s too traumatic to play a level that realistically recreates blowing up a town via a gunship. Similarly, I find myself incapable of choosing to do evil in Fallout 3.
And as narrative and immersion and choice and world development and genre become more and more sophisticated, what becomes of the other kind of narrative, the one that’s been lurking in the background all along, degraded, castaway, unrecognized as a kind of storytelling? For once upon a time, back in the beginning when things were simple and continuing up to today as we duel to the death online, there is another kind of story, another kind of narrative:
Holy shit, you shoulda seen it. Spencer tried to hit me with Grasshopper’s special jumping death move, but right when he was about to land on me and finish me off, I activated Twister’s whirlwind power and took him out!
They’re not great stories, these stories we tell ourselves and others about our video game playing. This is because objectively, while we play video games nothing much happens. We’d rarely tell a story about sitting on the couch and reading a book. They’re dull stories and, let’s face it, for an adult to tell them is kind of pathetic. Yet for decades, this kind of narrative—the kind of narrative that will be supplanted more and more as writer-constructed narrative becomes dominant—was part of the fuel of the video game industry’s success.