The games in my “ambition” category all “aimed big.” They tried to simulate the daily lives of an entire community, or put the entire history of videogame storytelling in their satirical sights. This category can be seen as the reverse of that. If my “ambition” games were large in scope, these games are small. They are cozier, more intimate, content to make sharp observations on a small scale, or to experiment within a tighter and more focused domain.
You can also think of this category as an extension of sorts to my “stakes” category, from two days ago. Much like Gravitation or That Dragon, Cancer, many of these are about interpersonal relationships. They are about acting ethically as a parent, or a sibling, or a lover, or … an interstellar salvager who has rescued a couple of AIs.
Okay, so, the connection might not be obvious at first. But, much like the games in my “stakes” sub-list, these are games that give you stranger, more precise goals than saving the princess or saving the world. They give you goals that are deeply intertwined with the hopes and fears of characters you get to know … well, intimately.
I will shock no one by saying that videogames, like architecture, sculpture, or gardening, have the potential to be a richly spatial art form. It has been twenty years now since Janet Murray, after playing DOOM (id Software, 1993), reported that “the fluid navigation through the enormous three-dimensional spaces was rapturous in itself.”[i] It has been nearly as long since Espen Aarseth characterized games as being, above all else, “essentially concerned with spatial representation and negotiation.”[ii]
And so, while my last three categories (“pacing,” “characters,” “stakes”) have been elements of storytelling common to any form of narrative, I wanted to call this category something other than simply “setting.” Videogames don’t have “settings” in the same way that literary works do. They offer up spaces, places, worlds: opportunities for virtual exploration that exceed the possibilities of non-interactive media in their richness.
And so the games on this list don’t just just represent my favorite “settings.” They offer up some of my favorite places to visit, to spend time in, to explore, to discover.
It has become a set of dual clichés: in videogames, you either save the princess, or you save the world. Those are the only sets of storytelling stakes offered. The only things that can imbue our actions with importance is to tie our success or failure to the fate of humankind, or the fate of a particular monarchic lineage.
Which is, frankly, alarmingly dumb. By way of contrast, here are some of the resolutions of the great works of cinema: A boy loses respect for his father after the father resorts to thievery. A group of reporters trying to decipher a newspaper tycoon’s last words ponder whether it’s truly possible to know and understand another person. A man and his dying wife are struck by the kindness of their widowed daughter-in-law. The fate of the world does not hang in the balance in any of these scenarios. The stakes in play are emotional, familial, and cultural.
So, whenever a game comes along that gives you a different motivation for caring about its central conflict, that is something to be savored and celebrated. The games listed here all roundly reject tired “save the princess/save the world” narrative stakes. Instead, they offer up goals, character motivations, and resoultions that are more personal, more intimate, or more philosophical. There is, if it can be said, much more at stake in these games than the fate of the world.
Falstaff. Miss Havisham. Anton Chigurh.
Much like yesterday’s category, today’s sub-list is partially a lament that baseline competency in storytelling seemed so long unachievable in games. Defending games as a potential storytelling medium seemed like a silly project, as the games stories had opted to tell just simply weren’t very good. Good stories need good characters. Creating characters as good as the ones listed above, in any medium, is probably an unrealistic goal. But it’s not unrealistic to ask for characters with interesting personalities and motivations.
If I am being perfectly fair, games have historically struggled less with characters than they have with pacing. The 1990s and early 2000s are filled with RPGs and adventure games with memorable characters, even as they might struggle to recount their stories efficiently. In the wake of GLaDOS, though, the ante has been upped. I am happy to report that developers have risen to the challenge. The past decade has been awash in sharply-penned dialogue, superb voice acting, and richly emotional character beats. Here are a few of my highest recommendations.
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.
It was important for me to immediately follow up my elegance sub-list with one on ambition. There’s a simple reason for this: these two are often incompatible.
The games on here are among the most rough-hewn of all the games I’m listing. In terms of visuals and audio, I would have to admit that two of them are outright ugly and grating. In terms of features, there are parts of these games that just don’t quite work. They don’t always succeed in doing what they set out to do.
But what they set out to do is something utterly fantastic, and their failures are, at the very least, interesting.
Even those who would reject the idea that videogames are an “art form” could agree that games can exhibit certain traditional aesthetic values. One prominent one is elegance. If we look toward traditional, analogue games, it seems inarguable to me that Go is elegant, and that Chess is elegant. Over the course of centuries, the tumbler of human culture has worn them down to their most perfect, least messy forms. (And they often come in supremely visually pleasing packages, to boot.) Looking to the history of videogames, it seems uncontroversial to propose that Tetris (Alexey Pajitnov, 1984) and Breakout (Atari, 1972) also exhibit this serene mixture of simplicity and grace.
Of course, videogames can also be bloated and unrefined. On the audiovisual level, the public imagination has long associated the medium all that is cacophonous and retina-searing: a ceaseless stream of crude stimulation optimized for goldfish-like attention spans. A peek at the output of PlatinumGames or Treasure over the past decade demonstrates that this conception is not entirely unearned. On the design side of things, games often come packaged with an inordinate amount of mechanical cruft. To boot up a contemporary Ubisoft game is to be assaulted by map icons, as the core activities of the game are augmented with collectibles and minigames and side-challenges and online player “invasions” and microtransactions and and and and and and and and and….
Sometimes, though, you can point to a game and say, “this is exactly what it needs to be, and no more.” Sometime a game stands as a perfectly-cut gem of craft, with every element contributing to an overall sense of balance. Its user interface is a triumph of usability, compact and graceful. Its color scheme is tamped-down and meaningful. Its sound design is minimal and expertly-deployed. It is thematically tight: if there is a narrative involved, it is a lean and coherent one. It is, overall, soothing in its form, even if it might simultaneously be stressful in its challenge.
The first five games of this list all chase this sort of technical perfection. Some are small, and some are large, but they all are careful not to hit one unnecessary note.