Video Games Are Better Without Stories

In this hypothetical future, players could interact with computerized characters as round as those in novels or films, making choices that would influence an ever-evolving plot. It would be like living in a novel, where the player’s actions would have as much of an influence on the story as they might in the real world.

It’s an almost impossible bar to reach, for cultural reasons as much as technical ones. One shortcut is an approach called environmental storytelling. Environmental stories invite players to discover and reconstruct a fixed story from the environment itself. Think of it as the novel wresting the real-time, first-person, 3-D graphics engine from the hands of the shooter game. In Disneyland’s Peter Pan’s Flight, for example, dioramas summarize the plot and setting of the film. In the 2007 game BioShock, recorded messages in an elaborate, Art Deco environment provide context for a story of a utopia’s fall. And in What Remains of Edith Finch, a new game about a girl piecing together a family curse, narration is accomplished through artifacts discovered in an old house.

 The approach raises many questions. Are the resulting interactive stories really interactive, when all the player does is assemble something from parts? Are they really stories, when they are really environments? And most of all, are they better stories than the more popular and proven ones in the cinema, on television, and in books?
On this measure, alas, the best interactive stories are still worse than even middling books and films. That’s a problem to be ignored rather than solved. Games’ obsession with story obscures more ambitious goals anyway.

In retrospect, it’s easy easy to blame old games like Doom and Duke Nukem for stimulating the fantasy of male adolescent power. But that choice was made less deliberately at the time. Real-time 3-D worlds are harder to create than it seems, especially on the relatively low-powered computers that first ran games like Doom in the early 1990s. It helped to empty them out as much as possible, with surfaces detailed by simple textures and objects kept to a minimum. In other words, the first 3-D games were designed to be empty so that they would run.

An empty space is most easily interpreted as one in which something went terribly wrong. Add a few monsters that a powerful player-dude can vanquish, and the first-person shooter is born. The lone, soldier-hero against the Nazis, or the hell spawn, or the aliens.

Those early assumptions vanished quickly into infrastructure, forgotten. As 3-D first-person games evolved, along with the engines that run them, visual verisimilitude improved more than other features. Entire hardware industries developed around the specialized co-processors used to render 3-D scenes.

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