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.
The first half of my “Frames, Claims, and Videogames” course is devoted to five major debates that have hovered around games over the past couple of decades. Some of these are legal, some have occurred in the art world, some have occurred in the sphere of popular discourse, and others are academic. For the first academic debate, I pitted Janet Murray‘s ideas about the storytelling potentials of new media agains the hard-core ludologists.
When prepping for this lesson, I found re-reading the ludologists in 2017 to be an unpleasant experience. Looking back at the early-2000s era writing of folks like Espen Aarseth and Markku Eskelinen, it’s pretty clear that they were the academic precursors of the game police. And not the snarky, tongue-in-cheek Game Police parody twitter account that arose in 2013. I mean the angry young men, who would later become Gamergate, but who already, in 2012–2013, were barking back at “corrupt” journalists praising games they didn’t see as games: games that told stories, rather than let you shoot things. These young men took it upon themselves to politicize the term game, to define its boundaries and beef up its border security. A “videogame” became a medium you couldn’t freely pass into until you showed your papers, and proved that everything was in order. The most vigilant among these enforcement agents, the Joe Arpaios of gamer culture, enjoyed a wide jurisdiction and acted at their own discretion, with great impunity. (Is it really any wonder that this burgeoning culture of alt-right gamer trolls would evolve into one of Donald Trump’s key blocks of support?)
As I said, it is tough re-reading, let alone teaching, the ludologists in 2017. As a consolation, though, it is a delight teaching Janet Murray. Time has proved her to be an exceptionally good predictor of the future, meaning that reading her twenty-year old Hamlet on the Holodeck is a surprisingly exciting experience.
It is 2016. Sam Barlow is widely appreciated today for revitalizing the full-motion video adventure game with HER STORY (2015). Why, then, return to Silent Hill: Shattered Memories (Climax Studios, 2009), which Barlow served as writer and lead designer of, which released seven years ago today? Am I prepared to claim that it is a lost masterpiece, a testament to Barlow’s skill at expanding the narrative possibilities of the videogame medium? No, I am not. Shattered Memories is certainly interesting. But it’s also flawed in too many ways to be considered a masterpiece.
Why these critical musings, then? Well, a bit of biographical detail: Silent Hill: Shattered Memories is the reason I bought a Wii. I had no prior interest in the console until word of this title started leaking out in mid-2009. I had played the first three Silent Hill games (all earlier that year, in fact) and loved them, but skipped the most recent iterations due to a seeming consensus that the series had subsequently lagged, especially following the departure of the original Team Silent. But here was something new: a game that actually seemed as if the designers were using the Wii remote in interesting ways, a game that seemed like it had a shot at leveraging the bodily engagement of the Wii platform in the service of horror, a game that was promising to rescue the survival horror genre from its seemingly inexorable slide into the action genre. In 2009, all three of these things seemed like breaths of fresh air.
So I have a personal attachment to this game, even if my feelings on it are complicated. What follows, as the title of this post suggests, are somewhat messy thoughts—although I’m planning to post a more organized follow-up soon.