This is the second part of a series of blogs that aim to contribute yet more internet detritus to everybody’s favorite age-old argument: Seriously, are computer games an art form?
Part 2: “Games as Art” = “Games as Storytelling Medium”
In Part 1, I proposed that computer/videogames are not yet a true art form, but are capable of being one. To do so a game will need to come along that has a substantial impact on its players because of its beauty, insight, or emotional power, in the same manner as some of the successful works from other forms of traditional media like film, theater, or literature. Without a form-defining piece, the medium will likely continue to make some advances and convince some individuals, but fail to achieve widespread acceptance by the public as a true art form.
For a game to have this kind of impact on its players, the experience of playing the game must be compelling, and that experience is embodied in the communication that takes place between the game (and its designers, writers, artists, etc) and the player. Unlike most traditional media, however, in games this communication is inherently bidirectional, which is perhaps gaming’s most unique characteristic. To me, the two most important components of that communication, and thus the experience of playing, are storytelling and gameplay. Both must be compelling for a game to succeed in impacting players, and both should be outstanding for a game to achieve recognition as a true form-defining piece. Too often we see games that seem to focus on one preferentially, resulting in experiences that are fun or entertaining, but still leave something to be desired.
Much of the conversation about “games as art” has focused on the consideration of games as storytelling devices, in much the same way that theater, film, and literature are storytelling devices. Part of the ongoing debate is that it’s not generally accepted that games are, or at least can be, effective storytelling devices, and this has led to the profusion of blogs, esssays, opinion pieces, and lectures on such topics as can games tell stories, how games should tell stories, and how games can tell better stories. Nevertheless, if games aspire to the level of a new art form, my sense (as that of others) is that we first need to fully embrace the premise that games are storytelling devices, and then to understand and explore that domain in considerable depth, until we begin to see games that affect us in powerful ways.
Storytelling in games has been covered at length by a number of people with far more expertise than me in writing, storytelling, and game development. Some of the more provocative work, in my mind, has been from people like Corvus Elrod (and his white paper on the story-plot-narrative model); Mark Reidl (who, with others like Andrew Stern, has written pieces on character-focused narrative generation); Ivo Swartjes (and his published works on virtual storytelling and emergent narrative); and, of course, Chris Crawford (for better or for worse). Most of my thoughts here are essentially a synthesis of the information derived from these writings and others.
Elrod, Riedl, and Swartjes have spent a good deal of time individually discussing their conceptions of the structure and components of storytelling, which I think are relevant here. Elrod, for instance, defines the three elements of storytelling as narrative (the physical components of the storytelling process, the medium presented to the audience — including, in games, the user interface and art assets, for example), plot (the planned events of the narrative and the order in which they ought to occur), and story (the emotional experience of the narrative, the intended emotional experience which the storyteller hopes to convey). According to Elrod, “whereas Plot is concerned with the literal unfolding of events, Story addresses the emotional progression of events throughout the narrative.”
This is interesting when juxtaposed with the work by Riedl (and later Swartjes), who both refer to the schema of Mieke Bal which seeks to define the components of narrative, which here is “the recounting of one or more real or fictitious events, usually oriented around a single goal, that are related to each other temporally and causally” (which I have always considered similar to my own definition of story). In this model, narrative is decomposed into the three components of fabula (the sequence of events that take place in the story world — some of which are exposed, and some of which are hidden), story (the expression or exposure of the fabula through a particular viewpoint), and text (the specific wording and phraseology chosen to tell the story). Swartjes takes an additional step by reassigning these components as fabula, plot, and presentation, where plot is now a selection of the fabula that forms a consistent and coherent whole (where many plots can exist within the fabula), and presentation is the information needed for the actual delivery of the plot in the chosen medium.
The parallels and overlaps between Elrod’s model and those used by Riedl and Swartjes are not altogether straightforward, but the purpose here is not necessarily to contrast these models, but rather to (trudgingly) point out the fact that it is sometimes difficult to discuss the concepts of storytelling because of the many ways in which individuals refer to the terms and components. A discussion of narrative from one viewpoint, for instance, might be about something distinctly different than from another; likewise, even using the term storytelling can be confusing because of differing views (including my own) of the term story. In attempting to distill these various schemata into what I think are the important concepts (rather than the terms), I found these four essential elements:
- all factual events that take place, both exposed to and hidden from the audience, and the order in which they (ought to) occur;
- a subset of #1 which forms a coherent whole, often as seen from a particular viewpoint;
- the medium and physical components used in the presentation to the audience; and
- the intended emotional experience to be conveyed.
Putting specific labels on these concepts will certainly only confuse more than clarify, but nevertheless (for this discussion, at least) I visualize #1 as the omniscience; #2 as the plot; #3 as the medium, and #4 as the impact. To me, when a plot becomes expressed through a particular medium and with an intended impact, it becomes a story. This process of expression is what I think of as storytelling. (As for narrative, I find it curiously difficult to find a unique place for it. I guess I have always considered it to be equivalent to story, and that has not yet changed.)
Right. I’m sure that’s all crystal clear now, so we might as well return to the actual discussion at hand.
As above, in my mind, for computer gaming to achieve widespread acceptance as an art form, the experience of playing games has to deliver beauty, insight, or emotional power to its audience, and that experience is embodied in the communication that takes place between game and player. Storytelling and gameplay constitute that communication. The communication is the key — it is, as I’ve argued in part one, one of the primary elements of art. Currently, games don’t accomplish this communication well enough. But they can — it just will take a concentrated effort to explore, understand, and refine storytelling and gameplay, and particularly how the two can and should synergize.
With respect to storytelling, if the presumption is made that games are storytelling devices (and the impression I have is that many are already on board with this idea), where might the failure thus far be? You can argue that games already do tell stories; the concepts above of omniscience, plot, medium, and impact are all, to varying degrees, represented in the body of computer games. It seems to me, however, that it is in the impact — the emotional experience, Elrod’s concept of story, the answer to the question, “What is the game actually about?” — where most games fail. The reasons for this are varied; in some cases, there is underdevelopment or little emphasis placed on the emotional experience, or the intended impact is somehow never realized (often because of other components such as medium or gameplay). But to me the real problem with impact, the intended emotional experience, is that it just isn’t profound enough. Too simple, too shallow, too trivial. Developers just haven’t figured out how to set the bar high enough.
Why not? This is where, to me, the writing of Chris Crawford is most relevant. Crawford has a lot of opinions on games and storytelling, but if you pick through the chaff you’ll find what I consider his most worthwhile observation, the simple, basic truth that stories are about the most fascinating thing in the universe: people. It’s the first of his nine breakthroughs (related to his Storytron), the focus of his book on interactive storytelling. And I think it’s a critical concept, the one thing which games have not quite figured out.
As Crawford states, “This simple truth…explains the utter failure of games to incorporate storytelling in any but the most mechanical and forced manner.” In games, people are, generally speaking, an afterthought — a cardboard representation. Games, he argues, concern themselves primarily with objects rather than people. But if you look at other forms of media — theater, film, and literature — and the works that have truly powerful impact, these are predominantly about people, their emotions, and their relationships, not objects. “Casablanca”, “Romeo & Juliet”, “To Kill a Mockingbird” — when you ask, “What are these works about?” the answer is almost universally an exploration of people, their feelings, and their relationships. There are works that focus on or incorporate objects, for certain — the conch in “Lord of the Flies”, or the One Ring in “Lord of the Rings” — but for the most part these objects do not play central roles; they are metaphors, devices used to assist the larger story about the people and their experiences.
This is not a new thought, of course — people have been criticizing the shallowness of NPCs and clamoring for more realistic and interactive characters for some time. But people are hard. Modeling people well is difficult; implementing satisfying interaction with people is even more difficult. Creating a game that includes strong models of people, satisfying interaction with people, and which is primarily about people — that is apparently still out of reach. Yet, this to me remains the one concept that games must embrace and explore in order to achieve the same kind of impact, or emotional experience, that is possible in other forms of media. That will raise the bar, and will get people to stand up and take notice.
Of course, this is not to say that games have not yet begun to explore this area. Mateas and Stern’s Facade received a great deal of attention and recognition for being just this: a game about people, where the goal is to interact with them to explore and influence their relationship. This is where I think the game can and should have its greatest influence on the games industry, and in that respect I think it is truly avant-garde. But it is only a step in the right direction; the impact is still fairly shallow, and there are a number of issues with gameplay that limit its effectiveness.
Other recent games that are getting attention around the web are Jason Rohrer’s The Passage and Harvey and Samyn’s The Graveyard. Both focus on an exploration of people and their relationships, and as with Facade, these are remarkable steps in the right direction. But also as with Facade, limitations with their gameplay essentially restrict the overall experience, and the result is two enjoyable but not quite powerful games.
A number of works of interactive fiction have, for some time, explored the idea of focusing on people and their relationships. Probably the most recognized is Emily Short’s Galatea, which she describes as “a conversation with a work of art”: a single conversation with a single character, which can end many different ways based on the actions of the player. What I find interesting about it is that the conversation centers around the character’s relationship with her creator, and because of that the game provides the sense of considerable depth. It is a short game, however, and as such the depth of it is not as extensive as one might hope in order to achieve a powerful impact. Still, this is a piece that was released some eight years ago now; it is interesting to note that, in the years since, few game authors and designers have picked up on the ideas and techniques offered by this game in terms of its ability to tell a good story about people.
Numerous other works of IF have ventured into this area as well, and perhaps because of this the games industry as a whole might benefit from looking more closely at what IF can do and how it does it. People like Crawford, in my opinion, dismiss interactive fiction too quickly; Crawford devotes less than two pages in his book on interactive storytelling to IF, disregarding it without any insightful explanation or discussion:
“Interactive fiction is certainly interactive, and it’s fictional in the sense of being made up, but it’s certainly not storytelling…the actual creations remain elaborate puzzles.”
It is a relatively shallow evaluation of the medium, using only one or two examples to draw generalizations and conclusions about the medium as a whole. An excellent and thorough review of Crawford’s book was done by Emily Short on her blog about a year ago, and as she summarized well: “Crawford has strong opinions about what type of thing interactive storytelling is, how it might be achieved, and why most of the current efforts are sad failures. They are sometimes aggravatingly unsubstantiated.”
Nevertheless, the point remains that games just haven’t done a good enough job at storytelling, and storytelling is the key pathway to a new art form. The “games as art” discussion has to be about “games as storytelling devices”, which means we need to see more games that focus on people, their emotions, and their relationships. And that, in turn, means we need to find better ways of designing games to be about people, better ways of modeling those people, and better ways of creating satisfying interactions with those people. Small steps are being taken, and some games do some of these things well, but we have yet to see a game that does all of these things well enough to produce a truly powerful experience.
As we’ll explore later, there is also the other element of the communication between game and player that has an equally vital role: gameplay.
Next: Part 3: The Synergy of Storytelling and Gameplay
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