The question of whether videogames should attempt to tell stories was all the vogue in game studies in the late 90s and early 2000s. You’re less likely to encounter the issue in academia today (unless said academics are writing think pieces at The Atlantic.) But it is still very much an ongoing debate in game development: it isn’t too difficult to still find opinionated developers launching screeds against linearity, against the single-player campaign, and against games’ subservience to the logic of cinematic storytelling.
As is so often the case in such conversations, there is a temptation to jump directly to a categorical assessment, leaping over qualitative assessment entirely. The categorical question “should games tell stories?” is a good way to start a rousing bar fight of a debate. Alternately, the qualitative question “do games, as we know them, have a history of telling stories well?” will most likely lead to the reasoned response, “no.” This, in turn, will possibly lead to further avenues of polite and potentially incisive inquiry, such as “why do you suppose that is?” and “are there any ways that we could chart new types of storytelling that might be more compatible with games’ basic features?”
I’m going take the polite and careful qualitative route, not really because I prefer it (I enjoy a rousing debate as much as anyone else), but because I actually think it’s necessary to set the groundwork before making any larger qualitative claims.
When teaching writing classes, I repeat the mantra: the most convincing way to put forward an argument is to argue against the strongest, most persuasive version of your opponent’s argument, rather than its weakest manifestation. This is Rhetoric 101, and it is something that has consistently hobbled the discussion about the possibilities of stories in games.
Simply put: if your argument against games’ potential for storytelling relies on trash-talking games with blatant technical problems, it is not going to be very convincing. It will always leave open the possibility that more resourceful writers could have greater success with the medium. The catch here is that, for a depressingly long period of time, stories riddled with blatant technical problems were all games gave us. Baseline competency in storytelling seemed like an unachievable goal. The medium had left us bereft of examples to point to when crafting strong arguments for or against. Everything seemed hypothetical.
Even developers that had a keen ear for character dialogue and a taste for ambitious themes—BioWare and Black Isle among them—stumbled when it comes to one central element: pacing.
For decades, it seemed like no one really knew how to pace a videogame properly. We got exposition-heavy plot dumps, alternated with long combat sections or “fix the thing” puzzles that served as transparent stairstep-construction delaying techniques. We got plots that only made sense if paused your game, went to a menu, and read a series of diary entries for minutes on end. We got attempts to pack so many revelations into a game’s ending that they became thoroughly incomprehensible. Players have become accustomed to it being distressingly rare for a game to flow well, for it to have a nice interplay between tension and release, for it to deploy every capability at its disposal to avoid boring and hurried plot dumps.
Thankfully, this has begun to change over the past decade. Here are some happy exceptions to the rule that games don’t know how to pace themselves. They provide reasons to be optimistic about the next decade of game development.
Developer: Sam Barlow
Platforms: Windows, Mac, iOS, Android
Imagine, if you will, that you are setting out to do some good old-fashioned new media storytelling. You are attempting—in 2015, no less!—to create what Lev Manovich once termed “database cinema.” The story itself is a mystery, in which players investigate the fate of a missing man, and a woman whose story doesn’t quite add up.
You have authored a script, broken into 271 video files, each of which corresponds to the woman’s response to a question asked of her during several interrogation sessions. (The questions being asked of her are never audible, though we can ascertain their basic shape.) Users can peruse this vast database of clips by searching, one word at a time, for words spoken during each clip. Each word typed gets players one step closer to the reveal of the story’s major twists.
Questions present themselves. How do you go about writing this script? How do reverse-engineer players’ possible paths through the material? The answer to all of the game’s central mystery is always just a few keystrokes away. It is as if you are authoring a mystery novel in which the reader could turn to the last page and read the name of the killer at any time, quite accidentally, and in good faith. So how do you hide away the most revealing words, guiding players through various misdirections before they happen upon your most well-hidden thread, and start tugging? How can you police your language, keeping your deepest secrets secure until players have been completely engrossed?
I don’t have the slightest clue what the answer is to any of the above questions. But I’ll be damned if Sam Barlow didn’t somehow figure it out.
Everyone’s path through HER STORY will be different. No two players will put the pieces of its mystery together at the exact same time. It may click for some players with one video file, for other players with another. But that moment of dawning realization, no matter how it is prompted, is delicious: delicious in the same way a good scavenger hunt is, leaving you grinning at both your own cleverness, and the cleverness of the person who designed this contraption.
I haven’t surveyed everyone who ever played the game, so I don’t know: maybe it is possible to hit this realization too soon, for HER STORY to sputter toward and anticlimax in just a few minutes. But I haven’t personally met anyone this has happened to. No matter the path taken through the video clips, the players I have encountered (including my students) report a gradual build-up to the eventual reveal, one riddled with second-guessing and suspense. And this is just black magic. I haven’t the faintest clue how to hide a revelation in plain sight so well. But HER STORY delivers.
And the best thing about the game? Even after you have watched all 271 video files, there is still guesswork to be done. The game remains cagey and ambiguous to the bitter end. It has inspired genuinely insightful comment threads, filled with gamers unafraid to turn a sharp eye toward videogame storytelling craft, particularly around issues of mise-en-scène. On the INTERNET, no less! Truly, there is nothing this game cannot do.
Play it. Take notes. Debate it. Perhaps roll your eyes at some of the more outré things the plot asks us to believe. Whether you are transfixed or annoyed by its revelations, there is no denying that its package is a technical marvel.
Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective
Platforms: Nintendo DS, iOS
So, let’s get this out of the way first: the story of Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective will never be mistaken for great literature. It is pure pulp. You are a ghost investigating your own murder. Over the course of this investigation, you become a sort of guardian angel, using your ghostly superpowers to undo deadly Rube Goldberg accidents that other characters fall prey to. There is time travel involved. There is international political intrigue involved. There is a meteorite. And a talking ghost dog. It is pure, joyous nonsense.
That said, it is pure, joyous nonsense that is delivered with supreme competence. And that’s something worthy of taking notice of. Sheer mastery of craft, regardless of the “seriousness” of story content, is something that’s always worth championing, in my book.
What’s striking about the plot of Ghost Trick are not its details (which, to be honest, I would be hard-pressed to relate in full), but rather what a fantastic fit it is to the game’s length. Far too often, games take their storytelling cues from cinema, and stretch a story that should reasonably be told in two hours into a sluggish 8-20 hour ordeal. Ghost Trick, by contrast, borrows much more from television. (Pulpy nonsense television, yes, but who cares: Twin Peaks is pulpy nonsense television, trading in soap opera tropes and outlandish occult mythologies, but it is also fantastic.) It understands that one central mystery can be used as a frame to hook other smaller mysteries onto. It understands the importance of a good chapter-ending cliffhanger, of adhering to what Noël Carroll would call erotetic narration—generating a question, withholding its answer, then delivering the answer alongside a new question. It understands that stakes can be ever-shifting, as long as they are kept clear. Its roughly 11-hour runtime is chock full of hooks, teases, satisfyingly delayed answers to questions, and gradually-emerging character allegiances. It is everything we binge watch television for, with puzzles intertwined.
And, oh, how the puzzles are intertwined! I guess, if you really squinted, you could see the “plotdump-puzzle-plotdump-puzzle” framework in there. But, while playing, the impression is far more elegant. Mid-puzzle plot discoveries are not uncommon, sometimes just taking the form of visually noticing something odd in the mise-en-scène while one is zipping around, trying to avert a disaster. The puzzles rarely feel like a distraction from the plot, or the plot from the puzzles. Across both arenas, there is a constant feeling of tickling discovery.
And that’s really all I have to say. Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective is silly, but its silliness is expertly delivered. Its plot is well-paced and intriguing, and it is enhanced by some truly excellent “game feel” in its puzzle design, and some dazzling character animations (rotoscoped, as I understand). You should play it.
Platforms: PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4
Since I began this post by talking about stories in videogames, I think it’s important to note: Flower doesn’t have a story. At least, not in any meaningful sense of the world.
So often the discussion about games becoming a more respectable medium, about inching closer toward “art” (whatever that might mean), is framed in terms of their development as a narrative form. As any practitioner or scholar of experimental filmmaking will gladly tell you, this frame is limiting.
Flower has a distinct beginning, middle, and end. It guides players linearly through them. But it doesn’t have a “story,” so much as it has an emotional arc. If it borrows from cinema, it borrows not from mainstream narrative cinema, but rather from experiments in animation that attempt to adapt musical works into visual form. Flower is a tone poem. It has a theme: humankind’s environmental impact on the natural world. It has an emotional through-line, broken down in the form of six distinct movements. The first four are pastoral and pleasant, distinguished primarily by color scheme and tempo. The penultimate movement is mournful and stressful; the finale triumphant. The end result of all of this is not a sequence of causally-related events. It is, instead, a thematically guided visual tour of a musical structure, concluding with an emotional payoff.
Flower is lovely. It is exactly as long as it needs to be, and no longer. It strips the form of the videogame down to its basics. It is content to be a piece of interactive digital animation: plotless, but with emotional ups and downs, a stirring score, and some gorgeous visuals. No more, no less.
If I am being perfectly honest, I must say that Flower hasn’t aged particularly well. Furthermore, I suspect that it will continue to age poorly. Its simulation of the movement of grass is still a visual marvel, but one less likely to hold our attention now that we can play The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Nintendo EDP, 2017) and see similarly breathtaking grass, now serving as just one small detain in a massive open-world adventure game. Now that its tech-demo prettiness has lost its sheen, we are left staring at its distinctly Thomas Kinkade-y pleasures. Is there any depth there? I am not entirely sure I can answer this in the affirmative.
And yet, it was what the moment needed. In my opening volley, I noted that this list will privilege games that “aspire to middlebrow acceptability.” And that is precisely what Flower does. It is fastidiously unoffensive. It gives us the Grand Theme of environmentalism, without burdening us with considering the realities of global climate change. It gives us a well-paced 90-minute serving of visual music, enabled by exquisitely-rendered digital animation. It is the perfect game to use to introduce your mom to videogames. She’ll be able to play it in an afternoon or two. I used it to introduce my mom to games! She loved it! It’s virtually impossible not to love it, even if that love turns out to not be particularly deep.
And, here’s the thing: it is important not to undervalue these qualities. In few more years, perhaps no one will remember Flower. Perhaps we will have newer and better games to use when introducing our novice friends and family members to videogames. But, during the decade I am surveying, Flower served that purpose exquisitely. It had its place in the national conversation about games. People waved it at Roger Ebert as evidence that games were art. It was included in the Smithsonian’s Art of Video Games exhibition. Flower has a legacy. Whatever the future holds, you can’t take that away from it.
The Sailor’s Dream
There are plenty of reasons to dislike the term avant-garde, as applied to art. For one, it frames experimental, risk-taking artists as “clearing the way” for safer, more mainstream, more commercialized forms of expression. We’ve seen enough generations of underground aesthetics being co-opted by commercial culture to know that this happens. But it’s rarely the desired end goal for underground and experimental artists.
The term avant-garde also celebrates newness per se, which is a bit misleading. Adventurous art isn’t always “new.” Sometimes it is made from familiar components, things that we’ve become accustomed to in everyday commercial culture, made strange (see: Pop Art). My teacher Peter Hutton used to characterize his filmmaking not as “avant-garde,” but instead as “rear guard”: carrying the torch for a filmmaking style that had been discarded by commercial cinema a century ago.
I offer this up as a roundabout introduction to real-time game mechanics. Real time found its way into single-player videogames via the mercenary innovations of free-to-play casual games. In FarmVille (Zynga, 2009), players have to wait a set amount of real time for their crops to grow. In Candy Crush Saga (King, 2012), players have to wait a set amount of real time before they can re-try a puzzle. The “cooldown timer” is a central psychological trick of exploitative free-to-play design. It forces players to adopt the game into their daily routine, which increases investment. It also serves as a cruel sales pitch for impatient players, offering them the chance to buy their way out of waiting.
In the case of real-time game mechanics, it was commercial designers that acted as the avant-garde, pioneering the bleeding edge of exploitation. The independent and art game scene arrived later, surveyed the wreckage, and plotted out less nefarious ends for the technique. And so we got Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP (Capybara Games / Superbrothers, 2011), which asks players to pay attention to the real-life phases of the moon. VESPER.5 (Michael Brough, 2012) requires players to take one in-game step per real day. Hate Plus (Love Conquers All Games, 2013) includes mandatory intermissions, in which players must exit the game for at least 12 hours. Rinse and Repeat (Robert Yang’s, 2015) holds out the promise of silly sexytimes, but only if the player boots up the game at very specific times on specific days of the week. All of these titles experiment with downtime. They negotiate with their players’ schedules. They are deliberately inconvenient, so as to roughen game form (rather than extract money from users).
And then there is Simogo’s The Sailor’s Dream (2014). Like these other games, it requires you to boot up the game at specific times and specific days of the weeks to fill out all of the details of its story, to see (or, more accurately, to hear) all of its content. It also goes one step further: it is an iOS game that requests that you have a printer nearby. The Sailor’s Dream is a perverse inversion of the promise of mobile gaming. Rather than being something that can fill up your spare minutes, it requires you to adopt your schedule to its rhythms. Rather than being playable on-the-go, on a train or in a line, it asks that you stay within the radius of a printer’s wireless connectivity.
For this perverse entry fee, your reward is a game that envelops you, that suffuses itself into your life in unusual ways. Above, I denigrated games that make you sit around reading diary entries as a way of experiencing their story. I suppose that The Sailor’s Dream could be categorized as such a game. But in this particular case, I don’t mind it at all. There is just something so novel and intriguing about scrutinizing a drawing that was just spat out of your printer as you sit with your phone beside you, waiting for the clock to strike the hour, and the next radio transmission to start. I can’t fault the pacing of a game that is so bold in its demands. I can’t help but be intrigued by it.
Simogo have established themselves as the resident auteurs of the mobile space. Their games Bumpy Road (2011), Year Walk (2013), and DEViCE6 (2013) have enjoyed ample buzz and accolades—more so, it must be said, than The Sailor’s Dream. But while I definitely wouldn’t want to discourage anyone from playing those other games, none of them present as utterly unique an experience as The Sailor’s Dream. It might not be their “best” game. But its uncommon (and oddly unsung) ambition leaves it ripe for a recommendation.
Thirty Flights of Loving
Developer: Blendo Games
Platforms: Windows, Mac
A review of Thirty Flights of Loving, as a haiku:
Games need not be long,
in the absence of purpose.
We can do better.
(For more extended thoughts, see here.)
Naughty Dog shows an expert’s touch with the pacing of Uncharted 2: Among Thieves (2009). As others have noted, its “Where Am I?” chapter is a brilliant maneuver, showing that they know just when to pause and let the player catch their breath (without simply resorting to a cutscene). Still, though … the fact that it knows how to break up its cover-based shooting sections can’t quite excuse the fact that there are quite a lot of cover-based shooting sections. Too many, in fact: series protagonist Nathan Drake’s tendencies toward mass murder have long since become a punchline in certain circles. There is impeccable craft on display here, but I am giving Naughty Dog a demerit in this case for failing to more fully explore and stretch the possibilities of their medium.
The Last Story (Mistwalker / AQ Interactive, 2011) is one of the few great JRPGs from the last decade—a decade that, it must be said, has not been particularly kind to the JRPG genre, on the whole. I imagine that development of the game began with Hironobu Sakaguchi addressing a room, saying, “Hey, remember back in 1995, when Chrono Trigger wove its story over the course of a generous, but never grindy, 35 hours? Let’s do that again.” The result is the least time-wasting JRPG to come out in decades. What’s more, The Last Story is one of the few games in the history of the medium to have a proper denouement, allowing the player to relax, resolve loose ends, and give the characters a properly extended happy ending told through play, rather than wrapping everything up in a rushed post-boss cutscene. Still, though, the game is not entirely grind-free (I clocked it: out of the 34 hours it took me to complete, 2 were spent killing endlessly re-spawning monsters, right before the final boss—a mild sin by the standards of the genre, but still a waste of time). And its story, while perfectly adequate, doesn’t try too hard to break out of comfortable generic norms.