‘Are videogames art?’
This is all you need to say to stir the pot in the gaming community. Ask them; are videogames on the same level as film, novels, or television? Some vehemently say yes. ‘Of course they are’. But the rest?
‘No, they’re just for entertainment.’
‘It doesn’t matter. Videogames are a waste of time.’
‘You don’t play games for the story.’
But I do. As a child I was obsessed with The Sims 2, an infamous sim game where you take control of the lives of virtual people (or Sims). It’s a game entirely without plot, but full of story. You can’t play without first creating your Sims. Do you want a family? A young couple with children they are struggling to support? Should they live in the city or the countryside? Who do you marry, or divorce? What do you name the little baby Sims? The act of playing itself tells a story.
This is true for all games. Story is the rendering of human experiences in a way that can be shared – in a way that canvasses a journey. Maybe we don’t all fight monsters or shoot heavy duty guns in war torn countries. But we all face challenges and we all make choices, which are fundamental aspects of modern gaming. Games all tell a story, and by being interactive, they let us engage with the story in ways unavailable to other mediums.
Every game has a story because every game has an objective. Hit that thing. Score those points. Find something. Kill something. Don’t get seen. Escape this room. And so, the story goes something like this: you are given a task. Through skill, smarts or luck you achieve it. And now you receive a reward. It’s a description that encompasses a clear majority of not only videogames, but film, literature and other traditional forms of storytelling. So maybe you don’t play a game for the story, but by playing you act it out whether you want to or not. Perhaps it’s a bit of a stretch to say Pong has a story, but my point stands. Games are almost always quest narratives; and playing, and winning, makes you the protagonist.
Interactivity is the key here. Even in games where the plot is not the focus, story finds other ways to come through. Take the most recent instalment of the Hitman series. It is arguably a simple game where you play as an assassin dropped into different environments with the singular goal of offing people. But the ways you murder people are virtually endless. Do you want to be the super calculated assassin, staking out your target to discover that they like a bit of golf, before planting a golf ball rigged with explosives in their kit bag? Or do you want to go the more guns-blazing route and murder almost everyone you find on a trail of death to your target?
Even in games when the who and why of the story isn’t the focus (your target’s identity is never terribly important), the how shines through. Games tell stories through the way we play them – the hitman always kills the target, but who he is as an assassin comes through in the player’s approach to the game – and the interactivity lets us tell the same story in ways unique to each player.
Close friends all the way down to incidental acquaintances will tell you that I love Dragon Age, a series of dark fantasy games. Dragon Age, alongside many role-playing games, sets out to make story one of the focuses of the game. Because while most games have story content – such as cut-scenes to progress the plot, readable books to flesh out the world, and character backstories – Dragon Age makes telling the story part of the game. The player starts off by creating a character – I made a scrappy elf who liked to make bad jokes and was deadly with a bow – and then, at key points in the game, my character was given choices. Which warring faction to support, whether or not to exile a group of rogue warriors, which monarch to endorse and so on. And what I chose affected not only the world my character lived in, but future plot points in the game. Recent landmark games like Skyrim, Until Dawn, The Walking Dead, Life is Strange and The Witcher series all take a similar approach, making choice and story not just window dressing, but core mechanics of the game.
Games are essentially the same each time they’re played. In Dragon Age, the setting, backstory, and motivation for the plot doesn’t change. But characters can be one of four races and three classes, with a multitude of backgrounds and combat styles. One friend of mine chose to make his Dragon Age character a sarcastic dwarf with a penchant for cleavers, while another made a straight-laced human with a shiny heroic personality and a shinier golden sword. We all played essentially the same story (plot twist: your character saves the world), but with permutations and combinations that made it ours. So unlike a film or a book which are unchanging, games can tell stories from multiple perspectives.
And some games push this further. Her Story has the player sort through 4hrs of police interviews with one woman by searching for individual snippets using keywords, with the game suggesting you start with ‘murder’. Depending entirely on the words the player choses, the story can unfold in literally endless ways as you discover more and more of the woman’s testimony. One might never get the full story, or they might stumble upon the key plot twist fifteen minutes in. Gone Home gives the player an empty house to explore at their leisure, finding notes, books, letters and pictures all telling the story the player’s little sister and her eventual disappearance – again unfolding according to the player’s decisions. In the detective thriller La Noire, how ‘good’ you do has subtle effects on the story. Miss some key evidence or ask a suspect the wrong questions? The story shifts and changes, as accomplices escape and leads go cold. Videogames unlock the shackles of linear and standardised storytelling, making worlds feel more organic, and the stories more real. Life isn’t a three-act drama; it’s a world to explore and discover at the pace we choose. Life is a game.
‘But for fuck’s sake,’ people shriek. ‘Are videogames art?’
Of course they are. They take time to create and are made to say something, even if all there is to say is ‘Have fun’ or ‘Doesn’t this look pretty?’ Storytelling is an art. Games tell stories. How can there even be a debate?
Perhaps the good news is that, outside of my waxing lyrical about them, videogames are being legitimised as an art form. The Annual BAFTA Game Awards ceremony is in its twelfth year, with nomination categories such as Best Story and Best Artistic Achievement. Game Design is now a Bachelor’s degree; a family friend teaches the second-year unit at Swinburne on storytelling in games. I’ve seen reviews that call a game’s cut-scenes ‘cinematic’ and watched as Fifa 17 (a game about goddamn literally just playing football) was given an 8-hour long story mode with choices and dialogue options. A game about playing football!
But I am confident that as gaming continues to age, and as gaming communities grow larger and more diverse, the medium will continue to change and challenge the way we approach telling stories and be recognised for its efforts in doing so.
At least then maybe the film industry will stop feeling the need to make those awful videogame movies (here’s looking at you, Assassin’s Creed).