Telling Your Story Despite the Gamers

The most fascinating article of last week was journalist Tom Bissell’s piece on L.A. Noire for The Sports Guy Bill Simmons’ new sports slash pop culture venture Grantland. It’s a site I’ve been following independent of games due to my appreciation of Mr. Simmons’ work, so I was shocked to see the work of a respected writer like Mr. Bissell making one of the site’s first features an article on games. Not just a schlocky review, either: a serious, thought out piece of games journalism.

The article on L.A. Noire is top notch: it reminds you of what the world might be like if games writers were given serious, no bullshit editors and spent as much time honing their craft as they did thinking big thoughts about games. Bissell’s L.A. Noire review is big thoughts coupled with good writing–the kind of article where you remember specific sections, not just the general gist. It feels professional and not at all out of place on a popular culture website.

Games, at recent, have been undergoing a cultural renaissance. Before, games were like comics: sales came for all but the absolute biggest of titles from a core collection of hobbyists, and publishers were competing for their monthly quota of titles. The difference between the two media is that while comics have remained insular and in crisis mode, games have spiraled out, attempting to appeal to other markets. It’s left the core feeling hurt and alienated, but it’s been better for business: more people are playing games right now, and unlike in the comics world where major shakeups are required to stay in business, the games industry seems comparatively healthy in these economic times*.

And thus a major feature about games is published on a mainstream pop culture website.

As good as Bissell’s piece is, and as well thought out as it is, I have a quibble. A major one. In general, his ideas mirror my own quite closely: L.A. Noire is a seriously flawed game that is redeemed by its story, but only to the extent that you don’t pay attention to the fact that it is, by and large, homage, with its best scenes stripped from popular culture. Despite this, it’s a brilliant game, one of the best in ages. My problem is with the final paragraph, where Bissell states:

Interactivity sabotages storytelling. There is no longer any use arguing to the contrary. Thus, the story of L.A. Noire can never be good — at least, not in the way it is trying to be. As a story, then, L.A. Noire is not successful. As a game, too, L.A. Noire fails. In a lot of ways, it is a terrible game: frustratingly arbitrary, puzzlingly noncommunicative, and not very fun. But I love L.A. Noire. I think it’s fantastic. What this suggests is that we need a new name for whatever it is that L.A. Noire does.

Those first three sentences are killer, the kind of work that keeps an audience reading. The problem is Grantland’s chosen audience. I wrote a week and a half back about how critics need to be cautious, because they are influential in more negative ways than they can anticipate, but for Mr. Bissell these words ring especially true.

The fact of the matter is, audience is everything. I can write whatever manifesto I want on Nightmare Mode because, quite frankly, the only people reading it are the core gamers, the ones who’ve read a lot about games. You probably came here from N4G, a games-specific site, or from having heard of us before, which makes you someone who reads a lot of words about game design. Sites like Critical Distance, Rock Paper Shotgun, even more mainstream sites like Destructoid and Kotaku, these are core sites. Their readership are people who care about games, who think deep thoughts about games or who just come for the tits**. A critic can write something about how games can’t be art like Jim Sterling on Destructoid has done and his readers will have an informed, intelligent discussion about it with him***. He’s the smartest guy in the proverbial room, but there’s a lot of room for argument. Dtoid readers have read about the issue before, and they can draw their own conclusions.

Mr. Bissell, on the other hand, is in a position of more absolute authority on Grantland. While some gamers read Grantland, most of its readership is Mr. Simmons’ and probably come straight from ESPN. They are peripheral gamers, people who watch HBO’s limited series and play games like Red Dead Redemption and L.A. Noire, serious narrative titles, along with Madden and Call of Duty. For many of them, this is the first piece of games journalism they’ve ever encountered. At best, they’ve seen Game Informer and Gamespot, hardly paragons of journalism. At worst, they are games journalism virgins.

So that’s why it’s so disheartening to read, Interactivity sabotages storytelling. There is no longer any use arguing to the contrary. It’s discouraging that thousands of people will read their first article about games, and it will tell them that games can never tell a competent story. I understand that Mr. Bissell is a talented writer, and I doubt he believes that games cannot tell a good story; the next line, in fact, says that L.A. Noire can’t give us a story at least, not in the way it is trying to be. It’s obvious he doesn’t believe video games can’t tell a good story, but he is telling that to his readers for the sake of that Bill Simmons’ punch: that air of fan-infused infallibility. And that’s the difference. Readers take Mr. Simmons’ words with a grain of salt because he’s The Sports Guy, a larger-than-life fan persona that says what people are thinking, not facts backed by evidence. Mr. Bissell is talking as an expert, someone who’s written a book on video games. His audience will accept what he says at face value, and there are now thousands of people who do not believe games can tell good stories because an expert, Tom Bissell, wrote an article that said so.

Is it impossible for games to have successful narratives? Hardly. The trouble stems from narrative dissonance; that is, the player controlled action deviating from the narrative. Rockstar’s titles are overloaded with this, to the point where they are a master’s class in what not to do unto themselves. Mr. Bissell raises a brilliant point in this piece about how the game was perhaps tarnished by publisher intervention, to force the insertion of more action segments, and I doubt anyone would disagree that these action-packed side missions are the worst elements of the game. Are they unnecessary, could they have been better implemented? Totally. They are the dissonance in the title.

The trouble, of course, is presenting one flawed game as a nail in the coffin for narrative, especially given Rockstar’s history. L.A. Noire, Uncharted 2 (another paragon of dissonance), and enjoying 50 Cent: Blood on the Sand do not automatically mean that Interactivity sabotages gameplay, or that narrative is impossible to do well in a video game. In fact, his last example presents a good argument in favor of games being able to offer narrative. Blood on the Sand might have a questionable story, but it integrates the player quite well because digital 50 Cent’s goals are the same as the players: cause as much mayhem as possible. There is no narrative dissonance, and while the narrative is not interesting or compelling, it is properly presented.

It is a case of interactivity not undermining narrative. Just because there isn’t a lot of narrative does not mean it cannot be undermined. If anything, interactivity in games like Blood on the Sand reinforce that narrative is possible in video games: developers just have to either position their games as providing what the players want, or they need to manipulate the player into wanting what they should. With so many new gamers entering the fold thanks to the ever-decreasing stigma against gaming into your adult years, we’ve reached a point where this advancement is critical. Fun experiences hook the non-gamer, but it’s through more in-depth gaming experiences better presented by games journalists that the medium will reach its full potential.

And that’s what’s both so heartening and disheartening about Mr. Bissell’s piece. On the one hand, it is quality games journalism on a major non-games affiliated site, the kind of breakthrough that can help involve more people in the conversation around games. On the other, he damns games to a world where they can only be fun entertainment that tickles the dead zone of the brain instead of serious, narrative experiences, in what comes off as an effort to sound brash and confident in the Simmons style.

It’s a sad reality, and one that we need to help games escape if we’re ever to reach the outside world.

*Of course, the games industry is going to shit in its own way. We’ll get to that another day.

**E3 has shown us that many of these sites, Destructoid in particular, is games first but tits a close second.

***Or bring up the fact that he’s shoved an action figure up his ass on camera and that he’s fat. Destructoid readers are a complicated lot. Not to pick on them: Dtoid is where I get most of my news, and the readers there are pretty great, by and large.


  1. It was an interesting piece but there was a certain weariness piercing the conversation – like it was all so hopeless after spending so much time immersed in this media. A bit like how Brian Moriarty sees the world of games bereft of art, having spent decades in the industry: is it just becoming tired with seeing the “same old things” and then turning around and wondering if something is just wrong with the whole concept of interactivity?

    I see this hitting the notes of my Amateur Dramatics piece a few weeks back, where I wonder why some people deliberately sabotage the world that’s put before them and refuse to act out their part. Bissell spends some time talking about players acting like assholes- and I thought if you wanted to enjoy the experience, why play in a way which *isn’t* a detective caught in film noir?

    I wouldn’t worry too much about T.B. being a “figure of authority” for his readers. There’s little we can do to control what gets written and who reads what. It’s kind of a bottomless rabbit hole you can fall down as there’s no end of worry there.

    • Tom Auxier

      First: great article you linked to/wrote; never heard of Electron Dance, but if your goal was to run a very small, targeted marketing campaign at me specifically you succeeded. xD

      I don’t know if it’s a growing out of interactivity thing. I think the problem might be representational. If I think about games that succeed in terms of narrative, I’m generally thinking of older games where things are very abstract, where my mind is filling in holes. L.A. Noire gives you everything; you feel like you can see inside the dead hookers you investigate. In Chrono Trigger, my mind fills in gaps, and it fills them in in an artistic fashion. In Passage, I am imagining activities not on screen. One cannot do that with L.A. Noire.

      You raise a good question in your piece. Games can be art, but only if acting can be art. Do actors think they’re artists? I don’t know. I don’t know many actors, and the ones I do would say no, direction is art. Games are direction. The players are not artful, the direction is. Direction cannot be impactful unless the actors carry out the commands, and that’s why we have so many cutscenes, moments outside of the players hands: better to have film art than try to work with your tempermental, Brando with rage issues actors.

      • He’s FROM ED, dear Thomas. 😛

      • Grant French

        As a former actor I can tell you that actors do believe themselves to be artists and what they do to be art. There is a reason why Theatre is called performance art.

        Everyone who is involved in a production has a small role, a small brush stroke they paint to help make the completed picture. The Director oversees and manages, The actors create and portray the physicality of the characters, the writers create the dialogue and personality of the characters, scene designers build the world, etc. Saying that just the directors or the actors is a fallacy that comes from only being in on the observational side of things. It takes a LOT of people to make a single actor look good. It takes even more people to make a director look good.

        As for video games, it is much much easier to make an impactful scene when you remove the aspect of player choice. You don’t have to try and account for all of the possible action a player could attempt, and you dont have to deal with possible story breaking outcomes.

      • I read Bissell’s piece the other day and I had some extended thoughts on it, following on from Amateur Dramatics… but nowhere to write them. Your article gave my thoughts a home!

        I’m PC only, so haven’t played L.A. Noire. But it’s the suggestion of play-as-asshole thing I find so distancing. It’s like buying a game about SPACE MARINES and then bitching about why you can’t negotiate with hostile aliens. I WANT INTERACTIVITY. Dude, why buy a space marine game? It pretty much says on the tin DIPLOMACY IS FOR FOOLS, FOOL. Bissell complains that the game can’t maintain it’s immersion factor when he goes out, deliberately, to try to break the story.

        If you wanted to enjoy L.A. Noire for its theme and noir story, why would you want to break its back like that? I’m not saying his entire article speaks of this single issue, but it is only proves how a player can ruin their own experience rather than work to strengthen it.

        And thus it comes down to a question of why some actors don’t want to bother acting any more. Maybe they’ve been acting too long and the mask has started to slip.

        I’m not sure I’m 100% with you on the direction/acting art dichotomy. So much of the art value of a film or play is attributed to the director, but the root of that art could just as easily be pulled from the script – that is, from the writer [and it can get messy]. The situation in games is a little more freaky, as we have a more complex relationship between director, writer and actor – and they don’t often work well together in this medium.

        There’s also some who believe that the art in games is performance art – the action of play itself and not the standalone software artefact – as touched on by Grant.

      • Ramunas Jakimavicius

        You know, I never would have thought I would have the opportunity to use this, but the most recent Extra Credits episode ( differs in opinion and states the case that all players are artists regardless of what they do, because they all create their own stories based off of their experiences with a game, no matter what those experiences are.

        • Yep, there you go, example of the “player as artists” thinking in game theory.

          But it’s a close cousin of moral relativism: my game is my personal game and we can’t argue about it. By and large I’m fine with individual experiences but when something is implied as wrong in an absolutist sense using a particular vandal style of play, then that’s not so easy to agree with. No game will support every player impulse, and we are make art within the constraints afforded by the game design. (I thought Leigh Alexander’s comments on LA Noire were more forgiving.)

          Tom Bissell tried to break the canvas and succeeded: does that make him an player-artist?

          I wonder if I’ve gone as far as I can with this.