Toys, Simulations and Stories III: Stories

It is 2011. We’re a stone’s throw from a hypothetical apocalypse, video games are virtually everywhere and most of them attempt to tell us stories. This approach has progressed much further than digital toys and has much broader appeal than simulations. Story-based games can be described as something new entirely as they combine the elements of both active and passive media. Google is telling me only sociologists use these terms so it seems I should explain. Passive media are things like films, novels and television in which the audience observes but takes no part and has no control over events as they unfold. Active media are video games, urban legends, the internet and maybe those choose-your-own-adventure books only old people seem to remember in which the audience or user has the ability to affect the content being presented to them at various points. This active aspect of games instills an emotional investment in the events taking place within and due to this gives them an incredible potential for storytelling.

We often judge games by the stories they tell. Most reviewers and players do this without realizing it. Some critics even go so far as to demand thought-provoking narratives of a depth and complexity as those seen in film, television and literature. As a barely successful fiction writer, this type of game speaks to me in particular. I’ve spent uncounted hours debating with myself on how to create a story of merit, depth and perfect narrative. I would not yet call most of my efforts a success. Most content creators simply do not succeed early on; many do not succeed at all and that doesn’t stop people from trying.

But what is the point of interactive storytelling? A simple answer is that stories exist to “educate, entertain or influence;” in speculative fiction circles it is said stories exist to “examine the consequences of human achievement, fantastic or horrific;” in literature circles the purpose of stories is defined differently. What may be the most pervasive problem with video games and the criticism and development thereof is the perception that games are to be viewed in a singular form. This notion is just as ridiculous as saying Earnest Saves Christmas and Pan’s Labyrinth should be judged by the same criteria. These two films are geared towards different audiences, serve different purposes and no one in the history of cinema would dare call Earnest Saves Christmas a masterpiece which is perfectly fine. It was not meant to be a masterpiece. It was meant to be comedic, silly and fun and it succeeded healthily in that effort. Does that make it worth less than Pan’s Labyrinth as a cultural artifact? Maybe but you would also have to consider that they are artifacts from different cultures.

Will our descendants look at Earnest Saves Christmas as the crowning achievement of American cinema? Probably not. Have you ever heard of the film Heaven With A Barbed Wire Fence? Probably not; I certainly hadn’t before researching into films from 1939 for this article. All the reviews I can find view the film positively and it’s subject matter seems interesting, if not bland. It also came out the same year as The Wizard of Oz and Gone With The Wind. Heaven With A Barbed Wire Fence even fared better at the box office than The Wizard Of Oz — but I doubt many modern Americans have seen it. I also doubt many modern Americans are unaware of The Wizard of Oz. The reason for this is not a matter of the buying public either. The Wizard of Oz was a both office failure and scored a net profit of less than $250,000 for MGM at the time. It did not see success until its re-release in 1949. The story was (and is) still accessible and despite the great advances in special effects in that decade. It is simply a well-made film. When the film is compared to recent techniques it held its ground and even more incredible it continues to be believable and enjoyable in the age of digital effects and high-definition images.

The video game industry is not new. Not at all. In fact, it is about where film was in 1939. Sure, SpaceWar! had all the allure of Fred Ott’s Sneeze but as I’ve previously mentioned, this is 2011. Shouldn’t at least one of our games have the ever-lasting appeal of The Wizard of Oz or Gone With The Wind? Well, maybe some of them do. One example from personal experience is the game Silent Hill. I replayed it on an emulator (as the PlayStation I had in 1998 no longer exists though some of the discs do) and despite the blocky-headed heroes, poor voice acting, cheap fog and unconvincing CGI there were still points where I “forgot” I was playing a game. I remember vividly rounding a corner to find a nightmare child waiting patiently. Harry Mason virtually tripped over the little monstrosity. It did not move quickly; it did not jump out at me (well, Harry). It barely did anything at all and the experience still made me jump just enough to nearly fall out of my chair; Silent Hill isn’t even the best possible example. There are plenty of games out there that are still loved and still sell despite their age. There are plenty of games that have greater cultural appeal and devotion than Silent Hill ever will. The Smithsonian Institute’s exhibit on “The Art Of Video Games” provides ample evidence such cultural artifacts have been produced by the video game industry.

Surprisingly, this means our mistakes are not in the games themselves. It is important to note that video games present interesting challenges and like film or television, a good story can fall apart due to issues that had little to do with the writer or his quality of work. Anyone can name plenty of instances of publisher’s meddling, technical limitations and/or insufficient advertising that have ruined otherwise good games; laterally most of us can name instances where poor writing, uncreative design or bad ideas rendered a game with great advertising, sufficient or innovative technology and a decent publisher simply terrible. It is unfortunate that such bad games exist but they need to. Terrible movies existed in 1939 for very much the same reasons. It is vital that they did as we need something to measure the good against.

In the previous two articles, it was said that simulations exist to make accurate predictions and toys exist to inspire creativity. The point of stories in games (much like the point of stories in everything else) must be the aspiration of becoming a cultural artifact. Some cynics will say this is no longer the case, that publishers and many developers are only in it for profit. Well, yes. They are but that is not necessarily a flaw in the system. MGM surely considered The Wizard of Oz a profitable venture when they published the film and it wasn’t. The difference is that MGM did not give up at the first sign of box office failure. If publishers and developers of modern games have any problem, it is not that they’re seeking profit. The problem is that they’re seeking short-term profit and often exhibit a lack of long-range planning (or persistence). Yes, it is easy to think of EA or Microsoft washing their hands of a poorly performing game rather than giving it a second chance as MGM did with The Wizard of Oz.

Laterally, developers and gamers alike don’t always seem to realize that treating video games as an   would change the rules governing how we look at them. New forms of art do not make old ones obsolete. No one would dare say there’s no need for the works of Mark Twain now that we have Cormac McCarthy and yet there are gamers who repeatedly say things just like that. If you’ve ever heard something similar to “Dude, no one’s playing Modern Warfare anymore. You need to get Black Ops.” This example is also significant as it seems to be a generally accepted opinion among several critics and gamers that Black Ops as a single-player experience was not as thought-provoking, socially relevant or even as plausible as the original Modern Warfare was.

We shouldn’t think that way; fortunately, it looks like most don’t. It may be nostalgia that keeps old games alive but it is equally reasonable to assume people recognize the value many older video games continue to have. Emulation is serious business on the internet (I used an emulator to play my old Silent Hill disc after all). Maybe this is because people still enjoy the artistic and narrative elements found in games and on consoles which are simply no longer available in any other way. Emulation thrives despite crackdowns, lawsuits and corporate disapproval yet many games haven’t been made obtainable by means other than piracy and emulation. One would think the owners of these repeatedly ‘stolen’ Intellectual properties would make them available if they did not want people playing them without buying them. Well, that is exactly what they should be doing.

For the sake of this thought experiment, do you remember Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem on the Nintendo GameCube? I know a lot of people who loved that game. It is a game that could – and should – still be making money for Silicon Knights. Most gamers and video game companies seem to think that a profitable game is a new game but it does not need to be this way. We didn’t need to remake The Wizard of Oz every ten years. No they simply released the exact same film in theaters ten years later. It did outstanding the second time around. MGM released it on VHS, Laserdisc, DVD followed by Blu-Ray and direct download. Over the course of the last seventy years the film has been available in every format mankind has created and they did not once consider remaking the film because of a petty misconception such as “old doesn’t sell.” What if games were treated the same way? Sure, you could play Eternal Darkness on a Wii if it wasn’t so difficult to locate. It is not usually on the shelves at the GameStop. Fortunately it does not need to be. It could be on Xbox LIVE Arcade, the Wii’s Virtual Console or the Playstation Network. It doesn’t need to be remade to continue to generate a profit for Silicon Knights.

This is largely conjecture but some companies seem to agree with my statements. Dozens of Sega Genesis/Megadrive titles litter the Xbox LIVE Marketplace because these companies know old games can generate profit with little work. As proof of concept, Perfect Dark sold 161,000 units in March of 2010 at an even price of 10USD. This means a port with mostly minor changes provided a revenue of approximately $1,610,000 the month it was released (which was one the 17th, meaning these sales figures represent less than two weeks).

So why aren’t smaller companies doing this? Surely retooling Eternal Darkness is less costly than developing another Too Human game from scratch. It probably wouldn’t have the smashing success Perfect Dark’s re-release did on its opening week but is that really necessary? Ask yourself, would you buy it for $10? I would and so would others. Even if the revenue generated is small and spread out over time, sooner or later it would pay for the work that went into the re-release. Microsoft doesn’t look like it is planning on making any major changes to their programming language or hardware soon. So ask yourself why more developers aren’t doing this? Maybe you’ll find the answer because I unfortunately do not have one for you (other than blaming Microsoft which isn’t fair).

As for critics, they also need to learn that video games (like film, television and books) cannot be viewed with any singular criterion. I already mentioned this. Sooner or later, we will have no choice but to realize that story-driven games need additional genres and descriptors to represent both style of play and narrative in the way films can be described by both stylistic choices and central plot. Anyone who has ever had Netflix suggest a list of “Visually Striking Foreign Quirky Romantic Comedies” knows this over-specialization, while not necessarily a bad thing, can get confusing.

The game Deus Ex could accurately described as a “Dystopian Cyberpunk First Person Shooter With RPG Elements.” If we wrote that out as what it was, it would make finding similar titles easier and give us a number of smaller, individual measuring sticks to judge the work by. This would enable us to create a comprehensive view of a game’s subject and objective work, easily looking at it comparison to other First Person Shooters with RPG Elements or against other Dystopian or Cyberpunk games. The latter is currently difficult because we simply don’t categorize things that way (yet?). The ability to cross-reference titles in this way would allow us to judge games more effectively and it would allow retailers to provide better recommendations to customers. This concept may be difficult to implement; it may seem far-fetched but it is not. The algorithms and sorting criteria already exist. We would not be inventing new concepts; we’d simply be putting them to use.

These flaws are largely minor and can repair themselves over time. It very well may just be a natural progression of the way we view games just as it was with all other avenue of narrative. Modern interactive media cannot be uninvented nor can it be successfully marginalized for an indefinite period of time. Video games have grown in popularity at rates which seem to indicate they are, or will become, part of the fabric of society in a very permanent way. As such, our games have the ability to say quite a lot about is. They already contribute to the ethical, social and artistic framework of society just as much as film, television and books do. It’s up to us; it has always been up to us to shape the future of games because these games will shape our culture.