Ranting about Ian Bogost’s “Video Games Are Better Without Stories”

You can read the original article from Ian Bogost here. What follows are four different rants in response.

I. Horror Games

Horror films allow us to look away from the screen when things become too intense. Horror novels allow us to determine how disturbing our interpretation is going to get (limited by our own imagination). Horror games, on the other hand, force you to engage with what’s happening.

Take, for example “Until Dawn.” Movies are capable of showing different narratives, that’s true. And books might have better written dialogue, I’ll grant that–even if this isn’t exactly what Stephen King is known for. But “Until Dawn” is the only one that allows the story to evolve based on your own participation with it; characters live or die based on your choices. The frightening situation is exacerbated by the pace that you yourself create (or fail to maintain). In what way is “Until Dawn” a better game without having a story, with, say, simply being a game in which you run away from things?

“Outlast 2,” which recently released, is being praised for the fact that it allows the story to naturally evolve through environmental cues. I’ll grant that the story of “Resident Evil VII” gets downright ridiculous at points (although rarely any more than that of the films that it is appropriating), but would the Baker family be nearly as terrifying if you stripped them of motivations, if you turned them into nothing more than shambling monsters?

II. Why Hyperbole Is Terrible

Bogost’s issue seems to be one of extremes: a game is either so hyper-ambitious that it cannot help but fail (an entire world so scripted that it can accommodate any sort of player action), or it compromises down a linear path (no matter how Choose Your Own Adventure-y it hides itself) for which each individual path cannot rise above the feats of a novel, even though you need look no further than “The Witcher III” to see how patently false that is. For Bogost, story gets in the way of what he *wants* a game to do, which is to show the stuff of what the world is made of, the cool ways in which we interact with bits and pieces. But it’s not clear why we can’t have it both ways, or why games–still an early art form–can’t have it all.

“Games are not a new, interactive medium for stories.” Tell that to anyone who grew up playing interactive fiction games. Or, better yet, tell that to authors. Douglas Adams wrote “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” in 1979 (after first releasing it as a radio drama in 1978–imagine that, that a word could conceivably and successfully exist in two different mediums!) but he also wrote the game in 1984. Instead of seeing these as unnecessary rivals, why not embrace the differing perspectives that each brought to the table?

One wonders what Adams may have thought about the question of “Why does this story need to be told as a video game?” Cynical financial reasons aside, I think it’s just as easy to turn the tables on Bogost: “Why shouldn’t this story be told as a video game?” That’s a question with a much simpler answer–because you don’t want anyone else to mess with your work. You don’t want them roaming off the path. And that’s fair! Of course, it’s a bit naive, considering that most scholars of art, film, and fiction are all about nonetheless thrusting their own interpretations upon a “set” perspective. We all want to “play” a work in our own way–a video game is just more honest about it, and for that, Bogost, like Ebert before him, lambasts the entire genre, unable to take it on its own terms, terrified that he might not be able to offer his own perspective as authoritatively if every player were able to create their own.

III. There’s More to a Medium

What’s weird is that Bogost concedes that the only difference between mediums is their form:

Poetry aestheticizes language. Painting aestheticizes flatness and pigment. Photography does so for time. Film, for time and space. Architecture, for mass and void. Television, for economic leisure and domestic habit. Sure, yes, those media can and do tell stories. But the stories come later, built atop the medium’s foundations.

Why, then, is it a problem for games, too, to place stories atop the foundations? Could you not tell a story through soccer? Has Robert Coover not attempted to create fiction on the backs of playing cards? You can’t point to the generic, lazy writing of a game like “Tumblestone” (which is primarily a puzzle game, like “Tetris” before it) as an example of how all games are flawed, any more than you could point to “Transformers” as, like, a sign, you guys, that cinema is SO over. There are going to be games with bad stories, trite ones. Cliche is going to be relied on, heavily. But that’s true of film, literature, and television, too.

IV. Common Sense

Just ask yourself if it’s really true that the original “Doom” is a “better” game because it isn’t weighed down by the plot of the new “Doom”? Would “Superhot” be better if it were just a series of action-packed vignettes with no interstitial tissue? How would “Pony Island” even exist without a plot? Now, I know that Bogost is attempting to differentiate (poorly) between an acceptable story–in-game objectives that move the player from point to point–and an artistic narrative, which is a holier-than-thou thing to be preserved for other titles. I just don’t see why.

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