Better the World Think You a Fool than to Open Your Mouth and Prove It Right

Tadhg Kelly is a very good marketer and a pretty good essayist when it comes to that field, but every time he ventures forth out of marketing or the cold world of numbers I cringe. A recent opinion piece on Edge is one of the bigger offenders in cringe worthiness and laughably contradicts itself so spectacularly that it almost doesn’t need a response. But I am going to respond anyway, because 1 I don’t like people constructing untruths from my former field of study and 2 as a jumping off point to clear up some misconceptions I see perpetuated mostly by accident.

It all starts with L.A. Noire. I haven’t played L.A. Noire, but I know enough to comment on what it is doing, just not on how well it is doing it. Now his beginning few paragraphs talk about how L.A. Noire is supposed to have “crossed a gulf, that the grand synergy of elements had created something transformational.” Yes if you listened to the marketing that is what you’d come to think. However, even knowing anything about the game beforehand, you will know that is not true. The game was in development for near a decade with multiple staff turnovers and wildly over budget. Given the game’s circumstances I think we were lucky to have gotten anything at all. So build up your reader to drop the shocking revelation that it isn’t. Let’s just get to the quotes.

Quite clearly it’s a Grand Theft Auto dirking simulator without the cop chases.

So, a driving simulator then. Kelly added the Grand Theft Auto because it happens to share the same publisher, who probably insisted in the adding of Action genre elements in what is clearly an Adventure game. This is one of those time that confusing conventions for direction causes confusion, not only in game creation, but in analyzing and critiquing said game. We think of Adventure games as point and click affairs with moon logic puzzles, so when one that doesn’t fit that description is staring us in the face we don’t recognize it and scramble around for any other way to explain it. L.A. Noire is an Adventure game that tosses in needless and rightfully lambasted Action sequences in for no reason.

It has a conversation engine that closely mimics the movements of real TV actors (which begs the question: why not use the actual footage and save a ton of time and money?).

Because it’s creator had the crazy idea to do this in a virtual world in an effort to waste as much of the parent companies money and in the process perhaps push the technological boundary a little forward. Incidentally, that marketing of that technology and the way it was shown off probably sold more copies of the game than anything else. It’s our equivalent of flashy special effects in Blockbuster movies.

You ‘investigate’ crime scenes by walking back and forth over the floor in the hope that the controller will vibrate.
In short, it’s a very expensive nudging engine. It’s actually about the story that Team Bondi wants to tell, and which occasionally pauses to, you know, let the player do some stuff to nudge the story along.

Egh, I think this might be more of an execution problem than anything else. Team Bondi went in a certain direction and to you it didn’t work out. That doesn’t mean you proclaim in your title “Games Can’t Tell Stories” that means this game is shit at it.

Is there really anything to ‘get’? Is it my fault that I find myself driving around LA causing crash after crash (with no consequence), hoping that side missions that involve doing stuff will appear? That I use Intuition as frequently as possible to skip the vacuuming? That interviewing is a giant version of Guess Who, and is very easily mastered (Press ‘Lie’, ‘Back’ and then ‘Doubt’ over and over.) That the supposed ‘noir’ of the game seems at odds with the very brightly lit game environment and the CSI levels of gore?

In order: yes, no, yes, no, and no, but then that doesn’t mean it’s strictly at odds. L.A. Confidential proved that. Though that is a qualitative question so I’ll move on.

Or is it like the moment from Sex And The City when Miranda realises the secret to understanding men: he’s just not that into to you? It’s not your fault. LA Noire is just not that interesting.

If he had ended there, fair enough. He didn’t like L.A. Noire. It seems to be a very polarizing game. But…

What is that interesting is Portal 2. Why? What games like Portal 2 [realize] that LA Noire (and many a cutscene-laden game also) doesn’t is that games are not a storytelling medium. Portal 2 is all about the player.

(Edited for spelling.) Here we get into the meat of it and remember I said he contradicts himself so massively. It’s here. Within the same sentence he says something so ludicrous I don’t know how to quantify it. Portal 2 apparently realizes games cannot tell stories. Portal 2, one of the best story games this year and part of a franchise with some of the best storytelling in all of video games ever. Portal-fucking-2. Were you handed a different game stuck in Portal 2′s box? You must have, because I don’t think we played the same game. The two Portal games have more story packed into them than most games have even attempted. They may not have a lot of plot, but then plot and story isn’t the same thing. You can have a game with thousands of plot point and barely any story. Conversely it is possibly to have barely any plot with layers upon layers of tightly packed story.

Games don’t do storytelling well because they can’t deliver the four key components of story.

Go on.

There is no hero.

You are making this too easy. Partially because I have no idea what specifically you mean by “hero” and partially because it doesn’t matter, they’re all wrong. If by hero you mean stalwart figure of virtue, then yes games do have that and no a story does not need that. I could give you a laundry list of books, movies, plays and poetry and does not have a hero at all. If by “hero” you mean person who does things, again games have that it’s called the player and no, you don’t need that for a story. If by “hero” and given the context of the subject matter what you should mean, protagonist again the player controlled avatar fulfills this role. (Also you technically don’t need a protagonist to have a story either. It’s a wide and wondrous world out there.)

Time is in the control of the player, not the creator.

This is the money quote. This is why I wanted to write this response in the first place. Because it’s true and also doesn’t matter. We compare games to other mediums all the time, but it’s not because the different mediums are an exact match, it’s because we are taking some aspect to clarify some aspect about games. In most artistic mediums, it is true that time (I assume he means pacing by this) is in control of the creator and that it isn’t in games, but so what. Every medium follows different rules regarding the formal constraints and advantages to telling stories. Which is another way of saying, different mediums tell stories in different ways. While we may initially take techniques from other mediums to facilitate our work and progress in a new medium it is more about giving ourselves a starting point and not how things are done.

So the pacing in games is different than it is in more passive mediums. No shit Sherlock. Guess what, that means the stories are going to be paced to match. We use comparisons to other mediums to facilitate discussions and arguments about the fundamental building blocks of understanding games, but I see this from time to time that confuses what has always been with what will always be. Because storytelling for the last 300 years or so has been a certain way means that it will always be that way is ludicrous. We have a new medium with which to work in, so we are going to need new techniques and new ways of telling stories.

There is no inevitability or sense of being powerless.

Have you played Missile Command. The whole point of that game’s story is based around the fact of inevitability. Now getting my contrarian example out of the way, what does either of these things have to do with the ability to tell a story. If you were writing classical tragedy I’d agree with you, but stories are a wide range and variety of ideas and concepts, I’d say most of which have nothing to do with inevitability. Most present day stories around about what happens next because we don’t know, but want to find out. It’s a sense of discovery not inevitability. As for powerless, we have games that have occasionally accomplished this, some within their game mechanics. Also, not necessary for telling a story, because sometimes you need a “hero” to overcome the odds, which means they have some agency and ability to do so.

And the story cannot have the player’s full attention.

Ambiguous sentence, which I believe means that in a game the story cannot have the player’s full attention because of the game aspect of a video game. This is just a guess, but if I’m right then this is also bull. It’s all in how the game is put together. In Bastion I am never not reminded of the story, because the act of walking about and having the blocks fly up and create new ground is part of it. In Portal the story is about being in a series of test chambers solving puzzles, while I’m stuck in a series of test chambers solving puzzles. Silent Hill 2 is about scaring the crap out of me with an oppressive atmosphere and I slowly self destruct in an environment filled with psudo-Freudian, psycho-somatic paranoia nightmares and I leave it up to you to figure out if I’m talking about me or James Sunderland.

So a videogame Hamlet is just a guy running around a castle flipping switches and collecting items to kill his uncle, the big boss at the end. All those speeches just get in the way.

Or you could, you know, not adapt Hamlet into a video game. Yes, Hamlet would not work as a video game; it barely works as a book. Do you know why? Because it’s a damn play. I read Hamlet and couldn’t make it work for me. It was a slog with very little investment or payoff. Which is doubly telling, because Hamlet’s material is right up my alley; political intrigue, art meta self-criticism, philosophic drama. Then I went to a stage production at my University and was absolutely blown away by it. All the stuff I knew was in there came alive in a performance of the material when it didn’t in the dry reading of it. So making it into a game is doubly weird.

The player is not treading the boards at the Old Vic. He’s solving problems, taking action, creating and winning. Sometimes designers think this is just a matter of technique or technology. But it’s not, it’s a fundamental constraint borne of the psychology of play. It will always be so, and is why in 40 years there have never been any good game stories.

BULL. FUCKING. SHIT. How is any of that stuff in the second sentence now malleable into a story? And yes it is a matter of technique, that’s all it comes down to: the skill of the designers to integrate and facilitate a story. Technology doesn’t matter, because gamers have been doing it with pencils and paper for decades now and with pieces of wood and clay for millennia. And finally we get to the one legitimate concern towards games having stories. I say concern and not fact, because it doesn’t disprove it is just an obstacle that has to either be overcome or assimilated: the psychology of play. The most notorious of this behavior is the instinct of min/maxing. Will it always be so? Really? There can’t be a paradigm shift or design subtle enough to encourage other behavior? And I repeat the first sentiment of this paragraph for that last sentence.

But there are many great games that give the sense of a story. Games like Portal 2, Ico and Uncharted 2 give the impression that stuff’s going on, that you’re a part of it, and that it’s urgent. They have great storysense. Characters may talk while you’re doing stuff; things may happen; but the details, the structure, the drama?

They don’t matter. Not really.

What the hell is Storysense? I’ve read other posts where you use that term, but I have no idea what it is. By your usage of it and the examples you chose I think you mean story. You chose three games with excellent narratives and two with excellent stories.

Portal 2 doesn’t imply a story, it has a story, one of mystery and discovery and human woman battling a pair of indeterminate computer AIs. It’s a story of ability and gender politics and the fall of a company that gave birth to the situation. Things are happening and you are apart of it because you are hearing the voices and personally reacting to it, while you are trying to make your way through the test chambers.

Ico, good lord, Ico is minimalist. Just because there aren’t dialogue heavy cutscenes that exposit every little thing, does not mean it doesn’t have a story. It is a simple story with complex and multilayered meanings in the relationship of a boy and a girl as they try to escape a castle. It implies a lot, but then so does The Wire. One of the best scenes of which, by the way, contains the use of only one word. I watched an episode of it last night that had a scene with no dialogue and used the camera and characters to convey a conversation and realization that answered the final question of the case.

Uncharted 2 doesn’t have a story. The text says no. This is the most blatant of the three in having a story. It conveys it very differently than the other two examples and for very different purposes, but it has one. It is an adventure story of love, betrayal and the question of what you want in life. If fact, this is the example that makes me think you have no idea what you are talking about and so made up a term to cover your ass so you didn’t have to admit you were wrong. And you are wrong because – to paraphrase myself – if you can provide on example of a game that has a story, than games can have stories.

The act of playing a game is like astral projection. You go somewhere else where the rules are different and things are afoot. You push a doll around to act as your agent in the world and this empowers little old you to do stuff.

Whether simulation, abstract, real or fantastical, that’s the basis of the art of games. It’s a visual, animated and pressure-oriented art. Players get to be a part of a world in motion. So it is the world that is artistic. Game designers are worldmakers.

This is all true and also has nothing to do with your thesis of “games can’t tell stories.”

Interactive stories, by contrast, are bombastic and ridiculous. Are we really at that point where we have to blame our customers for not being the right sort? Is it the players that are inadequate? Or is it our [internalized] sense of inferiority in the face of Hollywood?

Again, in order, yes they are, not yet, sometimes, and absolutely. Interactive stories right now are bombastic and ridiculous for the most part, because programmers for the most part can’t write worth shit and most writers don’t know how to write for video games, yet.

I wont quote his concluding paragraph because it’s full of more bullshit that doesn’t mean anything and only thinks it’s related to the thesis above. It brings up the psychology bit, but he only mentions it in the entire text and never exactly explains why the psychology of play could or would inhibit a game’s ability to tell a story in absolutist terms. It’s writing that’s expecting the reader to fill in the blanks either because he’s too lazy to or couldn’t if he tried. Yes we shouldn’t shoehorn games to be something else that they aren’t and should focus on what they are; I want to add to that. We shouldn’t inhibit games with what they should be. Games are amazing thing able to put you into other worlds and experience things as people other than ourselves. They can teach us, entertain us and convey to us so much in so many different ways. Why get in the way of that?

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