Debate Club: Why Narrative IS Important In Games

If you haven’t yet, be sure to read Steve’s original post on this topic.

Also, major spoilers for BioShock and BioShock Infinite in this article. You have been warned.

While I have always found the complaints about BioShock Infinite‘s gameplay to be a tad nitpicky and feel that many of the people who weren’t impressed by it simply weren’t using the tonics and the zip lines to their full intended effect, I still get the overall gist of where Steve is coming from. And of course, I am not going to pretend like the story wasn’t the star of the show and the primary reason why the game has gotten the accolades that it has, nor am I proclaiming that the gameplay reinvented the wheel. However, to suggest that none of what made Infinite‘s story and characters so compelling took place during the playable portions makes me wonder if we played the same game. The same goes for the original BioShock. What made the “Would you kindly?” twist so powerful was realization that YOU had basically been acting against your will for the entire length of the game. If you had just been watching a movie, and it was just the movie’s main character that you had only been WATCHING for 2 hours who is suddenly told he’s been brainwashed into doing this guy’s bidding, it would still be a neat twist to be sure, but it wouldn’t have nearly the same impact as it does when it is you who was being manipulated into doing all those things.

Bringing us back to Infinite, the reason the ending punches you in the gut is because you find out YOU are Comstock. Not the character in the movie you’ve been passively watching, but YOU. On the same token, everything you eventually learn about who Elizabeth really is has more of an impact because YOU spent the game building a relationship with her, and much of that took place during actual gameplay. She felt like a real person, reacting to you and your direct actions and movements in a realistic way, even when she’d just be leaning on a wall chatting with you while you looked around a room. Like in real life, the real intimacy was in those little throwaway moments, and that didn’t all happen during cutscenes. And again, if it had been a movie, you would’ve been watching Booker develop that relationship with her, instead of being Booker and developing your own relationship with her. It just wouldn’t have carried the same emotional resonance. That is exactly what makes games such a different and, in some ways, better storytelling medium than movies.

I certainly don’t feel that all games need to have a deep, compelling story. Or any story at all. Some of my favorite games of the last several years have been ones that either have a completely disposable story or no story to speak of. But I also count among my recent favorites the games that ARE noteworthy for telling great stories with interesting and complex characters: BioShock and Infinite, the Uncharted trilogy, Heavy Rain, Assassin’s Creed 2, Metal Gear Solid 4, Tomb Raider, Mass Effect, Red Dead Redemption, et al. And as a matter of fact, with the possible exception of Heavy Rain which I will get to shortly, all of those games have also been praised for having excellent gameplay outside of the story segments. They are all examples that the two can co-exist, without one propping up the shortcomings of the other. Uncharted for example has some of the best written, best acted, and best directed cutscenes of any game in history. But it also has fantastic gameplay as well, with the exception of gun battles that go on a little too long (but are still functionally sound). Sure it would make a terrific movie, but I had a BLAST actually playing it as well and for me, getting to be the one to actually scale mountains and leap over chasms and solve the riddles to open the ancient tombs was way more exciting than just watching an actor do those things.

Lastly, there are games that do attempt to combine the narrative and the gameplay and keep the two largely intertwined for the entire experience rather than just being a movie that you watch until it’s time to play an action scene. One such game is Heavy Rain. I happen to know Steve hasn’t played it and would still like to, so this being a direct debate with him I will avoid spoilers even though they would make it much easier to sell my point. Suffice it to say that the game is a murder mystery and it isn’t giving away anything to say that you spend a fair amount of the game believing that one of the characters you play as may be the game’s main killer. To play AS a character who might be a killer but neither you nor he know it for sure is an experience completely unique to video games. It’s easy enough to construct a movie that way, having a cast of characters and dropping clues about them and misdirecting you and not revealing the truth until the end, but to do that in a game, and one of those possible killers is “you” gives it a whole other dimension. On top of this, at various points in the game you are asked to do some unspeakable things, and again it’s a completely different experience to have to DO those things rather than just watching someone do them, especially circumstances where it was a choice you actually made that led to it. Minor spoiler, but watching a woman in a film having to force herself to seduce a disgusting, despicable man is one thing. Having to be the one to seduce him, and having to actually be good at it (or face the consequences if you aren’t) is again something that would be lost if it was just a movie. None of that is even getting into the entire nature of that game and it’s choices and consequences, where there are a multitude of paths the story can take and characters can actually die and STAY dead for the remainder of the game, or none can die, or EVERYONE can die, and all of that is within YOUR power.

Given all that I’ve said, I feel it’s hard to argue that there’s no good reason why any great story worth telling should be saved for movies and not be wasted in games. If anything, I feel the gameplay needs to just catch up to how far storytelling has come. That should be what we strive for as an industry. Better gameplay to match the better stories, better integration of the gameplay and the story, and not having the gameplay be inconsistent with the feel and tone of the story (using Uncharted as an example again, not having this charming, slippery con-artist who is still ultimately a good-hearted person murder literally hundreds of people – seemingly without hesitation or remorse – throughout his adventures). If anything, it’s the gameplay that is “harming” these games, not the stories, and that is where things need to improve. BioShock Infinite shouldn’t just be a movie instead – it should’ve just had better gameplay. Taking all the good stories and making them into movies, leaving games to be all style and atmosphere and no actual substance, is the last thing I want. Besides, if we do that, all we’d be doing is proving the skeptics right, that games can never be as good at storytelling as movies. What I’d rather do is improve the storytelling in games and get to a point where game stories are SO good and are told in such a way that would be impossible in a passive medium, and make the doubters have no choice but to play those games lest they miss out on some generation-defining piece of narrative fiction. Because I do believe there will come a day when the best “movie” that comes out in a year is a game, but that isn’t going to happen if we abandon narrative in games and start regressing. We need to keep evolving, not giving up because we haven’t quite worked out all the kinks yet.