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With every new and emerging dimension in any medium there will always be critical voices. Parents were concerned that the lure of radio broadcasts would distract their children from reading. Film critics accuse three-dimensional movies as lazy filmmaking by not doing the extra work of communicating visual depth through the limitations of two-dimensional films.

A scene from “Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture”. Source: kirkhammy

And now ‘stories hold back video games from their full potential.’ Let’s take a look at a recent essay arguing against video game storytelling.

Are stories bad for game design?

In game designer Ian Bogost’s polarizing op-ed “Video Games are Better Without Stories”, he claims that narrative is a distraction from better game design.

The title and the general use of “narrative” or “story” here is misleading: though it sounds like he would be against any story element in a video game, the subject of Bogost’s criticism is environmental storytelling—also pejoratively known as “walking simulators”—where the player has limited agency in unfolding a linear story. Notable examples from his article include Gone Home and What Remains of Edith Finch, to only name a few in the expanding genre.

Clutter on the floor in
Clutter on the floor in “Gone Home”.

Bogost believes video games should leave storytelling to traditional media such as books, movies, and television. “The best interactive stories are still worse than even middling books and films. That’s a problem to be ignored rather than solved. Games’ obsession with story obscures more ambitious goals anyway,” Bogost writes. That ‘ambitious goal’? “To show the delightful curiosity that can be made when stories, games, comics, game engines, virtual environments—and anything else, for that matter—can be taken apart and put back together again unexpectedly.”

Should stories be left to traditional media?

If I understand Bogost correctly, I think he’s saying that video games have a unique capability over static media like literature, film, and television that should be harnessed and not ignored in favor of telling a linear story. That capability is in presenting different viewpoints and threads of a game in explorable and exciting ways, perhaps giving the player more agency than a linear story-game. He gives an example: in Edith Finch, angles of the story can be explored through different objects and characters—a feat of agency that’s inaccessible through traditional media.

Strange angles in
Strange angles in “What Remains of Edith Finch”

My takeaway from Bogost’s op-ed: Environmental storytelling video games should aspire to give ultimate player agency in order to change the narrative through their choices. Otherwise, they should stick to the traditional model of video game design (e.g. first-person shooters) and leave stories to traditional media.

Video games as storytelling connect in uniquely visceral ways

This takeaway overlooks the fact that environmental storytelling, no matter how limited the player’s agency, connects with the human experience in a visceral way that traditional media can’t always emulate.

For example, game reviewer and former queer movie critic Danielle Riendeau found deeply-resonating representation in Gone Home that she could not find in any other game or even queer film. “None of these experiences, as ‘emotional’ as they are meant to be, could match the weight of playing through an experience that was so heart-wrenchingly real and painfully close to my own,” Riendeau recounts. “Gone Home is, at its heart, the story of a young queer couple, and more specifically, the coming of age of Samantha, the creative, riot grrrl-obsessed sister of the main protagonist. No queer movies have moved me half as much as Gone Home did.”

Furthermore, Bogost dismisses Gone Home as “young-adult fiction” that threatens to keep storytelling games stuck in “perpetual adolescence”. His statement could come from a place of genuine interest in pushing the boundaries of narrative in video games and how they’re presented. It also lacks acknowledgement that the envelope-pushing of Gone Home‘s narrative is a feat in itself and is by no means the defined limit of environmental storytelling.

A girl's bedroom in
“Gone Home” reminds us what it was like to be a kid in the 1990′s.

Representation matters. Having untraditional game protagonists such as queer girls in an engaging, well-told story that resonates with women as well as men helps players see themselves reflected in media. It also helps the player empathize with the life experience of the person represented.

By all means, yes, let’s push the envelope on how we can engage and interact with these stories. But let’s not throw out a good narrative game idea by virtue that it is not savvy enough in its design.

Interacting with the environment is part of the fun of narrative games

Bogost finds unnecessary frustrations in environmental storytelling: “[Edith Finch's] story is entirely linear, and interacting with the environment only gets in the way, such as when a particularly dark hallway makes it unclear that the next scene is right around the corner.”

Though agency is somewhat limited, the player still can enjoy choosing where to walk and what details to observe that will help piece together the story. It puts the player in the middle of an explorational environment, whereas movies and books render the observer passive. The player still has choice, and in that choice, is embedded in a world.

Some of the most beautiful, detailed environmental storytelling games I’ve experienced haunt me to this day. In Dear Esther, exploring the eerie windswept hills of a Hebridean island and following the mysterious path of a lost love gives me goosebumps five years since last playing it. Did the fact that gameplay was relatively linear diminish from my experience? No. That is not what interested me. I was interested in exploring the details of a mystery, taking my time as I traversed a beautifully resonant landscape and learned more about the obfuscated characters inhabiting it.

The haunting cliffsides of
The haunting Hebridean cliffsides of “Dear Esther” with a beacon in the distance.

The same could be said about my earliest environmental storytelling experience in MYST. The seminal environment-rich puzzle-adventure game offered more agency and more engagement than Dear Esther through cleverly integrated puzzles and a more complex narrative. Yet still, there were only a few paths to follow for different outcomes. This did not diminish the emotional connection I made to the game nor the enjoyment I derived from it.

Stop imposing rules—let interactive narratives breathe

Listen, I’m not a game designer (though I fancy myself an armchair student of game design) but I am a gamer whose passion is for narrative-driven games. Video game narrative—whether designed for limited player agency like in Gone Home or massive player agency like in Zelda: Breath of the Wild—is what keeps me emotionally invested. I see parts of myself in that character through the human experience. I explore new landscapes. It leaves an impression on me that a combat-driven game does not.

People play video games for different reasons and find enjoyment in different modes of play. Some prefer competitive combat. Others enjoy role-playing games. Still others prefer to be lost in a story or playing a casual mobile game. Diversity of play experience only makes the world of gaming richer and adds new experiences for all. There are many ways to enjoy gaming, and no single genre detracts from the enjoyment of another. Let narrative games evolve instead of imposing rules that limit them to a specific dimension.

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