Games as Art: Why do Video Game Stories Underwhelm?

There is a constant battle waged across the hellscape that is the internet over whether video games will ever achieve classification as capital A, Art.  I personally don’t think any game yet has achieved that distinction; games are on the whole so much more better than art.  Games have something art as we know it lacks: interactivity.  Games create experiences involving the player whereas art is mostly a passive thing.  You wander around an art gallery trying to be mature in the face of so many naked women or you pop in a movie and maybe discuss it a little bit afterwards.  However, humans are self-centered creatures so creating stories centered around them is orders of magnitude more engaging.  Get a gamer talking about an old favorite and they can conjure a dozen stories and make sure you hear every one of them.

So the real question is, when is someone going to really take storytelling to the next level by using the experience creating power of games?  I think this is why we see a push to open world game.  Instead of trying to craft a story around the player, developers are giving up and saying “here, make your own.”  Of course, this only works if the open worlds are dynamic and interesting enough and they aren’t there yet.  On the other side you have Rockstar which is increasingly making movies with gameplay sequences shoved in.  Rather than leveraging the power of games they are retreating to the familiar forms of the past.  Yet it says something about the poor state of storytelling in the industry that Rockstar is heralded as one of the best storytellers.

Games have it hard when it comes to storylines.  Take even the most long-winded fantasy series and try to isolate the action oriented bits ripe for a game.  They are rather sparse because at least at the moment games are limited in the situations they can cover and what makes engaging gameplay.  Take any First Person Shooter and you realize the main character is no different than a super hero, mowing legions of nameless soldiers with ease.  But how do you fit such a character into a reasonable plot?  There is always a disconnect between the gameplay and the reality of the story.  For instance, Aerith dying in FF7 seems ridiculous since you can just cast magic or use items to revive characters any other time from deaths much more horrific than a stab wound.

The other problem is length and monotony.  Games usually only have one gameplay system and they stretch it over hours.  Try to write a plot where you have to constantly interject sequences where the main character kills a bunch of people in a variety of locales.  Again verisimilitude breaks down but more importantly you usually have to pad the game.  It almost always becomes a series of Macguffins to keep you occupied until you have put in enough time to face the final opponent.  This is why the plot twist is so overused in video games because it allows you to basically reboot a game’s plot and dangle the player on longer.  Now games are getting shorter and this is mostly decried by the gaming public and I agree somewhat.  Who wants to pay the same amount for less content, but shorter games might lead the way to better stories if we don’t rebel.  For instance Gemini Rue was only a few hours long but managed a plot and characters equal to your typical sci-fi movie.

Lastly, the gaming audience doesn’t seem to care.  They gobble up games that seem to be written by 12 year olds for other 12 year olds.  Game developers respond by putting only a thin veneer of coherency to their games.  Even voice acting has only progressed to the point of not awful and that doesn’t even require any creativity, just money and effort.  Sometimes I wonder if I am the same, constantly skipping dialogue in games to get to the “good bits,” the actual gameplay.  I justify it by saying that it sucked, but it’s hard to say if that is true or I am just impatient.

I personally think Rockstar’s method of linear storytelling is a dead end and that open world games will eventually evolve to the point that they can create novel and exciting experiences for the players.  Right now they just kind of bore me.


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