Every so often I read someone trying to argue that video games are a groundbreaking narrative medium that is sadly underrated and maligned by the general public who don’t get it. Such arguments achieve nothing and, contrary to popular belief, don’t strengthen anyone’s case. It’s time to defend games from their defenders.
I genuinely enjoy playing video games. I’ve talked in other articles about what makes them good, and bad, and why it’s difficult to talk about them in the ways you’d talk about passively consumed media. I even get irritated when people start going on about games without ever having played them and parroting tabloid stereotypes and misinformation, not because they’re slighting my precious hobby but because it’s damned rude to start talking nonsense about something other people like without knowing what the hell you’re even talking about, and then refusing to accept that you might be in fact ill-informed. It would be like me wandering into a football club and accusing everyone there of being a diving, ref-harassing thug who calls people words only usable in Uruguay, and that tennis is the sport of gentlemen. It achieves nothing except showing how little I know about football, or indeed good manners.
The problem is, many of the most vocal defenders of gaming aren’t happy to leave it there, with the undeniable argument that it’s one hobby among many which is the victim of stereotypes; instead, buoyed by statistics showing that big-name games are outselling films along some metric or other, they make grand arguments that not only are games a great hobby they’re a serious medium whose day has come. I don’t disagree with this at all. One only has to look at Journey, or Bastion, or even something like Spacechem or Dwarf Fortress to see that gaming nowadays is striving to do something interesting, and become a well-developed and interesting medium for entertainment and even high art. The problem is that this isn’t good enough in the eyes of some. Gaming should not just be one medium among many, with its own strengths and weaknesses, but it needs to be respectable and to stand alongside other media on their own merits. This often encompasses narrative, and it’s this I think is a sad state of affairs.
I’ll say this plainly; arguing that games are, or are becoming, equivalent in narrative strength to books, and citing titles like Mass Effect or LA Noire to substantiate this, is an argument that shows that the person who makes it has not read enough books. Arguing that games should become a form of narrative entertainment to directly compete with literature or even film is reductive and actively harms any defence of games you might be making. Assuming for one moment you’re not talking about literary high culture, forgive me for not being spectacularly impressed if the future of narrative entertainment is still striving to compete with popular fiction. When the very best examples of a medium are actively competing with the most populist examples of another then stop trying to compete. Embrace the differences between media.
Trying to argue that games can stand up in narrative terms to literature simply sounds to me like trying to justify playing games instead of reading books; attempting to talk up something as directly comparable to something else cannot but sound like trying to argue that the former is a suitable replacement for the latter to some degree. Narrative is not everything, and indeed some of the best and most challenging games are increasingly eschewing fixed narratives in favour of focusing on gamist elements; Journey is all about forming a story based on interactions with another entirely unpredictable human being; almost improvised theatre. Trying to argue, as I have seen some “defenders” of games do, that a police procedural (LA Noire) or a space opera (Mass Effect) is evidence of how games are a truly narrative medium would be like hyping up Midsomer Murders or Star Trek as examples of how TV is like books.
To argue that game stories are weak because of the constraints of the game form, and that the closer games try to ape other media, the weaker they often are as games, is not discrediting games; it’s simply avoiding false equivalence. Game developers and fans of games should accept that what gives games the potential to stand out is not simply trying to pull off “serious stories” but instead that for the first time, there is an accessible and easily understood medium of interactive art. That is the strength of games. Leave Mass Effect as what it is; predictable emotional blackmail in a SF dressing. It doesn’t become any less enjoyable to admit that that is what it is. Don’t try and argue that because it successfully manages to hold a cohesive pulp narrative, it is in some way evidence of how games can compete with books or even films.
In short, defending games should not rely on seeking to justify them as valid through comparisons to books or films; defenders of games should celebrate what games can do that films or books cannot. Trying to hype up the modern trend for “deep and mature narratives” in games as a sign of intent to be high culture is often harmful to any defence because it can be perceived as an ignorance of literature and a desire to see playing games taken as a suitable substitute for wide reading.
And indeed, most of all, defences of a medium that solely comprise comparisons with other media show a lack of confidence in that medium’s capacity to strike its own ground. Claiming that the best games are now roughly equivalent to the most populist books simply places games in the shadow of books.