The Sophistication and Stupidity of Video Game Storytelling

In Digital by Edward Nawotka

Tom Bissell

By Edward Nawotka

There’s been plenty of news coming out of this week’s E3 video game convention, not the least of which is that game designers will now be moving into 3D. Unfortunately, not matter how stunning and innovative a video game’s visuals get, much less effort seems to be going into the actual stories in the games themselves.

“Other people look at games and think it must be easy to make a game that is both involving and fun to play. But it’s not. It’s an unbelievably complicated craft,” says Tom Bissell, the author of several works of acclaimed fiction and nonfiction, whose latest book, Extra Lives, is a critical meditation on the culture and compulsion of video games. “That said, for way too long game designers thought that the way to handle storytelling was to do a bad movie. I’m so sick to death of video game people saying, ‘I don’t play them for the stories, so of course the stories aren’t good.’ My point is that people on my side of things aren’t asking for stories that are as good as movies, so why not figure out a way that video game stories, which are great and sophisticated, don’t also constantly remind you the ways that they are stupid.”

By way of an example, Bissell cites the recently released Microsoft game Alan Wake about a mystery/thriller writer looking for his lost wife who seems to get caught up in his own latest work: “Some of his writing is in the game and he’s got to be the worst novelist who ever lived,” says Bissell. “I’m absolutely fascinated by how bad it is.”

Games are, in many ways, inherently antagonistic to good storytelling. On the most basic level, games require nearly constant action and there’s not much time to dwell on particularities like exposition, scene setting, character development or emotional backstory. As a result, you get bits of leaden dialog strung together between rounds of fighting, racing or puzzle solving, mortared together with a few “cut scenes” intended more to ratchet up anxiety before for the next stage than to further the story.

Players often have to endure a “training” session of some type, one that teaches the player how to move in the game, which buttons to press, etc., but contributes little or nothing to the story itself.

In short, most games offer the intellectual equivalent of walking into a boxing ring, having gloves strapped on and being told to “fight,” without quite knowing why. It can be thrilling, but your brain is going to take a beating.

But, Bissell points out, it doesn’t have to be that way. “Game designers are developing ways to do things that are more interactive and guided, and when it works well, it works in a way that doesn’t feel like any other way of storytelling,” he says, adding, “It’s a new medium. We should welcome that, proclaim it.”

And there are exceptions to the rule that the stories have to be bad: Bioshock, Far Cry 2 and Dead Space are examples that Bissell cites as having exemplary narratives.

Portal is as seamless a story as I’ve ever seen,” says Bissell. “As far as I can tell it doesn’t make a single mistake. It’s a riveting experience from beginning to end. It has a training session where you’re a woman who wakes up in a lab. You don’t know your name and are subject to a series of tests. You’re holding a ‘portal gun’ and you shoot out a hole in the wall, which takes you to another part of the room. Suddenly, it becomes an interesting, weird puzzle and you have to figure out how to get to different parts of the game using this gun. That’s a story only a video game could tell. It wouldn’t work in fiction and it wouldn’t work in film. It could only work as a game.”

Another example he offers is the “open world” games, which allow the player to wander and interact with a larger environment and game universe, something that offers a much larger array of options for the player than a typical point-and-shoot game, for example. (Bissell himself became so obsessed with playing one such game, Fallout 3, he missed Barack Obama’s acceptance speech for the presidential nomination, opting instead to wander into the far corner of its apocalyptic landscape, only to eventually be rewarded by stumbling on a rock with profanity spray painted on it.)

Constructing the story in an “open world” game is especially “tricky” and the “challenge is a strange one,” says Bissell. “You want to give people decisions so they feel part of the story, you want to create the sense of those decisions having impact and then you need to contain a world without the decisions going haywire. Basically, you have to make a story that is separate enough so that one changing strand doesn’t mess up the others, one where gamers feel like they are doing these amazing things, but it’s essentially an illusion. If you give them too much agency that has an impact, the games won’t work. It’s a balancing act and it’s artful when done well.”

Asked if the video game industry would benefit from more crossover of literary writers contributing to video games, Bissell expresses doubt that either world is much interested in other.

“The guys who make these things are nerds who have way too much money. In video games the ideal top flight writer is a comic book guy or a B-list screenwriter,” says Bissell. “Frankly, I think most writers on my side of things wouldn’t be interested in writing for games. It’s really collaborative — you’re not really writing, you’re trying to figure out a way to express narrative in that world. Most writers like me wouldn’t be equipped to do it. They are different literary skills.”

Going forward, Bissell says he would like to see more games that are willing to abandon the Hollywood model of ‘lets go kill guys’ shoot em’ up models and games with black-and-white Manichean morals where you’re 100% guaranteed to be on the right side of any decision.

“Being that Modern Warfare 2 is among the fastest selling games of all time, I don’t hold out too much hope,” says Bissell. “After all, it’s technically sophisticated, but has one of the most disgusting, wrongheaded video game scenes ever conceived and in a storytelling sense, its just satanically bad.”

Bissells’ recommendation: “Try Red Dead Redemption instead. I love it.”

DISCUSS: Video Game Storytelling — High Art or Artless?

About the Author

Edward Nawotka

A widely published critic and essayist, Edward Nawotka serves as a speaker, educator and consultant for institutions and businesses involved in the global publishing and content industries. He was also editor-in-chief of Publishing Perspectives since the launch of the publication in 2009 until January 2016.