Crutches

There's a part of me that thinks narratives in video games are crutches more often than they are assets. That's not to say that video game narratives are universally crutches, but it is to say that they are increasingly used as such. How many times have you forgiven bland, repetitive, unoriginal gameplay because of a "good story?" How many times have you given a developer a free pass because they injected a level of drama into the proceedings? Part of this goes back to the industry's obsession with being taken seriously as "art," and to the people in charge, "art" means "like a movie." And in the pursuit of being "artistic," developers are focusing more on cut scenes, on emotional connections, on dialogue and voice acting and narrative to entice people to endure a game than ever before. Look at a series like Uncharted or Mass Effect. Why do you play them? Because you want to see what happens next. Is that an invalid reason to play them? No. But I would argue that if the gameplay were great, you wouldn't care what happened next, because you'd be too busy enjoying what's happening now.

I won't confine this to a "you" thing either. I'm as guilty as anyone. I love the Batman "Arkham" games. Arkham City is a brilliant piece of work. But there are times I wonder if it deserves all the love I give it. There is a strong narrative that moves the piece forward, and that's what keeps me playing. I don't play for the gameplay, because the gameplay boils down to "press X now and Batman does something incredible." That's exciting, it's thrilling, but it's not fun, and it isn't enough to keep me hooked (which may be why I've barely touched the challenge maps).

Developers focus on story over gameplay because it's easy. It's not difficult to create a passable story for a video game if originality isn't a high priority (and as most games hitting the market prove, originality isn't a high priority). It's much harder to create a novel gameplay innovation that hooks you long enough to play from start to finish. It's also much harder to convince the literati that gameplay innovations are "art," and it's made worse by the fact that the industry has never really felt comfortable defending them as such. But what else can we call Tetris but a work of art? Or Pong? Or Pac-Man? Did you play these games just to "see what happens next?" No! You played them because they were fun. No, scratch that: they are fun.

Does that mean there's no place for narrative in games? Of course not. Braid is a game with a compelling narrative. Portal is a game with a compelling narrative. But you play those games because the gameplay mechanics make you want to play them. You're not really worried that Mario may not rescue Princess Peach. You're more concerned with how the heck you're going to climb that giant town as gravity changes every five seconds.

I think that's the purer approach to gaming, because it defines a game by the characteristics that make it an art form unto itself, rather than by co-opting ideas from another medium. It's the action, the gameplay that keeps you coming back, that makes you pour hours into a game, and the games that do that well are the ones that have that special timeless quality to them, the ones to which we keep returning. Super Mario Bros. is as great today as it was twenty-five years ago. How many games today are going to endure that long? Very few. And the ones that do won't be the Mass Effects or the Uncharteds, these interactive movies that are almost embarrassed by the fact that you have to press a button now and then to move them forward. They'll games like Braid, like Portal, games that have innovated where it matters - in the gameplay. Maybe you come for the story. You stay for the gameplay.

So let's stop apologizing for games that don't have fully-realized cut scenes, or a forty-hour plot, or branching decision-dependant stories. Let's stand up for the games that have the guts to go one step further, to build a fundamentally new paradigm of how a game can and should be played. Let's define video games as art on their own terms.