On Uneven Comparisons

Yesterday, Ian Bogost published a piece on The Atlantic suggesting that games should drop storytelling altogether. It’s a baffling argument that talks down to the medium and its audience, suggesting that targeting teenage audiences precludes depth and excellence can only be achieved through repackaging classic ideas in novel ways. I could ask why he thinks Star Trek’s Holodeck is the pinnacle we’re hoping to reach, or highlight the absurdity of insisting that form always comes before story, but those observations have already been made on Twitter and elsewhere. I’m more interested in the belief that brought us here, the same dogma that has nipped at gaming’s heels for years: “the best interactive stories are still worse than even middling books and films.

One look at the games released these days (Night in the Woods, Nier: Automata, VA-11 HALL-A) could easily challenge such an assertion, but limiting our scope to the obvious present would diminish the work folks have put into interactive storytelling for decades. Even if these experiments rarely panned out, the amount of love and care that went into each one laid the groundwork for future refinement. Through well-placed confidence and execution, games are more than capable of engrossing stories: it just takes some personal prodding before we’re ready to admit that to ourselves.

Even after “Are games art?” was discarded for more sensible questions, it never felt like we had successfully advanced past the childish stigma associated with creation and play. This unspoken humiliation unconsciously clouds the way we talk about a field we love: for years, I felt compelled to add “games are written terribly, but…” whenever I wanted to talk about a story or moment that captured my attention. It’s true that television once sat in the same boat, but recent years have led to a “golden age” where fans can gush about recent episodes without needing to pepper their discussions with qualifiers.

We need to stop comparing games to books and films for the same reasons that TV fans stopped comparing their shows to movies: they’re inherently different mediums, and using the quality of one art form to judge another’s worth is using a subjective opinion as objective measurement. Even if we definitively proved that games have worse stories than films, considering how far we’ve come, our inability to reach an arbitrary benchmark set by an entirely different form isn’t a sufficient reason to stop trying. If we’re only ever concerned with how we match up to other fields, we’ll never truly understand the depth of our own successes.

How would you compare a linear conversation from a movie or novel with the back-and-forth between a character and the player? Wouldn’t you view a tower’s height differently if you were climbing it yourself, rather than reading about it? Your participation doesn’t necessarily make for a better experience, but it absolutely affects the work in ways no other format can replicate. It makes little sense to tie one’s worth to the others when they’re all meant to fulfill different needs.

If Ian wants a better feel for storytelling in games, he’d be better served comparing What Remains of Edith Finch with its contemporaries. It may not be a Holodeck, but understanding the field on its own terms might lead to a more positive impression than suggesting a total abandonment of a core part of its charm.