The Lack of Global Recognition of Video Game Narrative

March 27th, 2008

video game narative vagrant story

Last Sunday was Easter Sunday which for me meant a day with the family that consisted of a stereotypical Australian BBQ lunch followed by watching the preceeding game of (Australian Rules) footy on TV. Over lunch my family conversed over a series of topics such as religon, multiculturalism, television etc. One of the topics that really caught me was cinema and movies.

Our conversation on this topic essentially consisted of family members suggesting movies that truely had a significant impact on them, so much so to warrant the expression “you have to see this movie”. I’ve been thinking about this phrase a lot over the past few days and what it genuinely means.

What I realized was that it takes something really quite extraordinary to warrant such a phrase from anybody. People don’t use this term unless they really mean it. So there I was thinking of how I could contribute to the conversation, I was running through a list of movies which in recent years had moved me considerably. What I discovered was that I could not think of any movies to suggest, all that I could collectively gather were names of video games.

This is where the flood gates started to open I think. The family were throwing around names of movies left, right and centre and despite the thematic being set around movies I realized that the real conversational theme was narrative. We were sharing ideas of stories which had captured our imaginations. Movies in this case were only the medium for which narrative could operate.

This is where I actually started to feel greatly offended because even though narrative in movies was the focus of our discussion there was no way that my family would ever talk the same about narrative in video games. Never would they talk of games like Abe’s Oddssey, Shadow of the Colossus, Silent Hill 2 or Metal Gear Solid.

For me, in the past 10 years of my life nothing has captured my attention and danced with my emotions quite like video games. Video games allow the potential for much more engrossing experiences through interaction. Yet despite all of this, normal, average people such as my family remain clueless on such essential experiences. I heard a fact that even if a video game is a huge success, it still only reaches less than 3% of the global population. This is the sad truth.

So this typical family exchange had drilled home the point of where video games stand amongst ordinary consumers. It will be quite possibly decades (I predict) until video game narrative is garnered with the same respect of movie narrative. You think about the production of blockbuster video games in comparison to blockbuster movies. In both cases an incredible amount of effort is poured into each and yet movies receive worldwide acclaim where as video games acclaimed on a comparatively minute scale. Just something to think about.

  • I sort of disagree with you on this one Dan. Generally speaking the stories and more importantly the way they are presented in games isn’t done very well. Wheras in movies there are lots of poor stories but they are presented very well. Movies have really come into thier own though unlike games. Many game makers are incorperating elements of movies into thier games while this is alright I think that they should be focusing on what a game offers that other mediums don’t. Movies where very much like this when they were new since a lot of the initial silent films tried to copy elements from photographs and pictures.

    Part of the problem is also the generation gap. In the next generation of children discussion about games amongst families will surely increase as the medium continues to gain mass market acceptance.

    One final thought. Do games really need good narrative and stories? While many people try to push the boundaries of the medium which is awesome it’s always wise to remember that the challenge and great gameplay will always be more important than story. I’d much rather be talking about how fun and awesome a game is to play than how good it’s story is.

  • I agree and disagree with Chris Johnson. For the most part, stories in console games are thinly-veiled excuses to get from one location to another. There’s no societal commentary, rarely any morals and the emotional range goes from anger to vengeance to relief.

    There are, of course, exceptions and this is where I differ from Chris. Games dont NEED good narrative, but it tends to be the thing that can make an otherwise mediocre game stand out from the pack. Look at all the buzz about Bioshock – there were no particularly deep ideas in there and it was basically a first-person shooter with powers instead of heavy weapons and some environmental “puzzles” thrown in. Still, the internet is plastered with people going omg, Bioshock is teh awesome! because it had great atmosphere (difficult to do without narrative) and a bit of morality choice.

    Corvus Elrod of Man Bytes Blog has a great post about how much better Assassins Creed could have been, had the beggars been treated more like people and less like loud, annoying scenery. I agree – as it stands, AC is technically nice but only good if you want to switch your brain off and kill things for a while. Add some proper characters and more player options to the world (and ditch the unfinished sci-fi bit) and it could have been one of the best games ever made.

  • I also agree and disagree.

    The crux of movies and novels is the story where as the crux of video games is the gameplay. Hence narrative is not an essential component of video games. This is why the majority of video game stories are just glue holding together various chunks of gameplay. The secondary position of narrative(to gameplay) is one of the core reasons why video game narrative has a lack of recognition.

    I totally agree with Weefz about the impact of narrative in games. Bioshock is a brilliant example. Another example is of course the Metal Gear Solid series. The storyline of this series is what is driving me to purchase a Playstation 3 early and is what has already made me buy a HD monitor. Of course, the MGS games have fantastic gameplay too but the narrative can drive the game just so much further. Chris, how can you deny both the Bioshock and Metal Gear examples?

    Story generates emotions which provides a reason, an added motivation to play.

    I agree that the current style of cutscenes and FMVs to tell story is not the future of video game narrative. Although it is often appropriate and will always have it’s place. Narrative through gameplay is the future I think. Focusing on what makes video games a unique platform and utilizing that.

  • I’ve personally been very moved and engaged by certain game narratives, and I frequently find them more interesting that the typical Hollywood fare. Obviously, interactivity is part of this, but I think games like Starcraft (whose narrative is highly underrated in my view) and Abe’s Odyssey (thanks for including that one, Danlel) more than hold their own in terms of pure storytelling. When you add gameplay elements into the experience, I think you have the possibility of a kind of engagement films simply can’t achieve. I’m not saying one is better or worse than the other, but narrative games can engage us in deep ways unique to the medium.

    Narrative through gameplay, as you say, is the future, but I also think that for many games (I’ll thrown in the requisite Planescape: Torment reference), it has been there for some time.

  • I agree with you dan. While many quickly-thrown together games may not have the best plots, there are a lot of quality storylines out there, and in some instances the plot becomes more enthralling than the game itself (Final Fantasy for example, and the new Solo mode on Smash Bros.). However, unless your family and friends are gamers, it never really gets talked about. It is kind of sad how such great writing goes unnoticed by the majority of people, while some of the really horrible films get tons of attention.

  • Micheal, I feel the same way. An example of what you said is definetly: character development. Video games allow for stronger character development through interactions and also numerous sequels and installments. I want to explore this a little further later on.

    Seth, with video games expanding out to the masses I wonder if some of the great game narratives of the past will recieve some more attention. Thanks for your contribution.