The Mezunian

Die Positivität ist das Opium des Volkes, aber der Spott ist das Opium der Verrückten

The Problem with Storytelling in Video Games

You can’t completely break an artwork from the media it’s made in any mo’ than you can completely break the abstraction o’ anything from its concrete basis. Artwork literally can’t exist without a medium.

A corollary o’ this is that if you change a work’s medium, then you change the work itself. This is why adaptations are so controversial. For instance, ¿why is The Shining movie with Jack Nicholson that’s inaccurate to King’s original book popularly viewed as superior to the mo’ faithful miniseries? ’Cause movies are different from books: what makes good literature doesn’t necessarily make good film, & reverse.

This applies equally to video games. The problem is, many game developers still haven’t figured this out yet, probably ’cause it’s still a young medium & new media oft stumbled while trying to ape older media as it tries to figure out how to be its own thing. Much o’ video game storytelling is still done through cutscenes &, e’en worse, dialogue boxes, which are just inferior versions o’ movies & literature, respectively.

Cutscenes aren’t nearly as bad. Theoretically, it’s possible nowadays to make cutscenes that are just as good as real movies if one uses live action or pre-rendered footage. However, in reality, the economics o’ game development has ne’er led to the existence o’ video game cutscenes that look as good as a Pixar film or have the acting & directing quality o’, say, The Godfather1. &, ’course, video games are much pricier than movies, so if the video game doesn’t offer useful gameplay, — if the game’s claim to quality is based entirely on its story — then buyers are still ripping themselves off. Video games don’t just compete with each other; they must also compete with movies & literature, which are just as hungry for time & money. ¿Why waste my scarce money & scarcer time on a game whose claim to fame is cutscenes cluttered in chunky polygons & trite writing when I could better serve my time on earth watching Breaking Bad? ¿Why read the 1000th medieval RPG with hokey, inaccurate “ye olde English” when I could just read Shakespeare & get the authentic thing, which sounds 1000 times better?

But I would rather focus on dialogue boxes, since they’re worse, & worse in ways many have probably not noticed, but as someone who reads literature a’least round 2 hours per day, I have noticed quite blaringly.

The easiest thing would be to point out that many games highly acclaimed for their story don’t compare much with highly acclaimed literature. People who praise the story o’ games like Ocarina of Time or the average Final Fantasy game would probably be shocked if they were to learn that, if these games’ stories were put in book form, they would be laughed out o’ any serious fantasy or science fiction guild. ( You’d think anyone who has watched The Game of Thrones, based on the Song of Ice & Fire series would realize this, since the stark difference in nuance, character, & world-building ’tween that series & the average Zelda or Final Fantasy game is glaring ).

This is likely ’cause, unlike music or art assets, the average game’s written not by professional writers, but whoever they have standing round — usually the narcissistic director ( I’m looking @ you, Other M ) — based on the delusion that anyone can write well. This is on the level o’ logic that any guy with the generic title “game designer” you have lying round can compose Beatles-quality music. Interestingly, 1 o’ the few video games I consider to have literature-level quality writing, Mother 3, was written by an actual published writer.

But e’en if the words written are good, dialogue boxes are still an absolutely terrible way to tell story. It’s striking to me, ’cause e’en I hadn’t noticed it consciously till recently: I’ve always had this inexplicable preference for reading books o’er reading in video games, but couldn’t quite tell why till recently.

The answer is that dialogue boxes suck. They’re tiny windows wherein you can only read a few lines o’ text @ a time, whose movement speed is oft highly constricted, & wherein trying to go back & read text that’s already gone by is either a pain or impossible.

Contrast this with books: what I like ’bout books is that they give you complete control o’er the speed & flow o’ story progression. This is why I still prefer reading to watching TV or movies or e’en watching tutorial videos online. Not only that, but I can read in whatever sequence I want. Most people think o’ reading as just a purely linear, uninterrupted path. This is why so much contemporary literature is terrible — ’cause people don’t know how to read well anymo’. No, the true way to read is to go back & reread sections for clarification or just to comprehend other layers o’ the writing ( which are nonexistent in most modern literature, since, as we’ve established, they’re incompetent ). Just imagine trying to read, for example, a Shakespearean play & understand the plot, the references, the meter, the rhyme, the imagery, the tone, the theme, the use o’ consonants & vowels, & all that when you can only read a few lines @ a time & can only read them once.

This is what makes the medium an important aspect o’ a work’s quality: different mediums are inherently better & worse @ different things than other media. Literature is inherently superior @ giving textual info than video games or movies. E’en if one wanted dynamic, interactive textual content, web pages using JavaScript could do a better job than cumbersome text boxes, if people had the creativity to realize this untapped potential2. This is not to say that video games are inherently inferior to literature. Something that literature absolutely cannot do is offer the kind o’ interactive physics or level design that a classic Mario game has. In fact, “level design” is impossible in literature. Understanding this, it should be no wonder why I have mo’ artistic respect for Mario games that use the medium o’ video games for its strengths gainst the average RPG or Zelda game that just throw together generic puzzles, level design, & the most basic movement you could program just to service bootleg Tolkien told through those gimped dialogue boxes.

Unfortunately, many self-described video game critics still don’t respect video games as a medium for what it does best. ¿How oft do these critics praise games based on shoddy story & hardly talk ’bout level design, control, physics, the general coherence o’ gameplay mechanics, &, least o’ all, the quality o’ the game’s programming beyond noticing flagrant bugs? This is probably ’cause the average game critic is probably a failed creative writer — & it’s here where the ol’ acorn, “A li’l knowledge is mo’ dangerous than no knowledge” returns too true.

This is troublesome, as it’s a bad influence on video games. When you consider how li’l attention the hardworking, brilliant programmers who were able to squeeze games like Super Mario Bros. 3 onto such primitive technology as the NES compared to some jackoff who scribbled out some tripe ’bout a goody-goody hero fighting gainst a grrrr evil villain in a couple minutes & puked it onto Unity, I can’t be surprised game developers nowadays just hack their games together in some bloated engine & demand their customers have o’erpowered computers on a certain operating system with a certain brand o’ controller to run their bloated code with every shortcut taken. Gamers can’t complain ’bout getting shit if they can’t tell what shit is. That video games are, @ their core, code, makes this sentiment ridiculous — but it is true. Just as how ridiculous it is that so much modern literature tries to ape film in the vain hopes o’ getting a movie adaptation, ignoring that tiny li’l problem that literature sucks @ being film just as much as video games suck @ being literature.

Posted in Programming, Video Games