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Video Games and Literature 78

Posted by Soulskill
from the it-was-the-best-of-frags-it-was-the-worst-of-frags dept.
An anonymous reader writes "Have the storytelling capabilities of the two already met? A New Yorker interview with Gears of War 4 writer Tom Bissell explores the question. Bissell says, 'More and more, I’m seeing that games are mining good, old-fashioned human anxieties for their drama, and that’s really promising. Games, more and more, are not just about shooting and fighting, and for that reason I’m optimistic and heartened about where the medium is heading, because I think game designers are getting more interested in making games that explore what it means to be alive. ... At the same time, though, pure storytelling is never going to be the thing that games do better than anything. Games are primarily about a connection between the player, the game world, and the central mechanic of the game. They’re about creating a space for the player to engage with that mechanic and have the world react in a way that feels interesting and absorbing but also creates a sense of agency. So writing, in games, is about creating mood and establishing a basic sense of intent. The player has some vague notion of what the intent of the so-called author is, but the power of authorship is ultimately for the player to seize for him or herself.'"
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Video Games and Literature

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  • by Anonymous Coward

    I mean, Bioshock mined Ayn Rand pretty well.

  • Sad. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by girlintraining (1395911) on Wednesday March 20, 2013 @01:23AM (#43221015)

    More and more, Iâ(TM)m seeing that games are mining good, old-fashioned human anxieties for their drama,

    One of the most popular games right now is Minecraft. Is the most compelling aspect of the game the idea that a scary creeper could break into your house while you're asleep? Another recent high-profile release was SimCity. The only anxiety that game produced was a nearly limitless supply of frustration and anger because nobody could login to it. As I understand it, the CEO recently was forced to resign, and afterwords will drive to the nearest unoccupied house. (shrugs) One of the most popular Facebook games is Farmville... Anxiety over not getting back online to harvest in time? Or how about Angry Birds... Does the thought of an oversized cardinal levelling the building you're working in keep you up at night?

    I think the problem here is the author's choice of games, not the variety of games.

    Games, more and more, are not just about shooting and fighting, and for that reason Iâ(TM)m optimistic and heartened about where the medium is heading,

    Yet, what's the example you quoted? Gears of War 4. I wonder what it's about...

    At the same time, though, pure storytelling is never going to be the thing that games do better than anything.

    Clearly you've never played D&D. I've had gaming sessions that had more plot, depth, and character development than anything you're going to read in a book or see on the big screen. There are a lot of immersive games based on the idea of a lone adventurer, or a party, saving the world. Look at Skyrim for example. Find me a geek that hasn't uttered "... but then I took an arrow to the knee." I doubt they exist.

    If anything, games are moving away from what you're describing. And why wouldn't they? Games are a form of escapism. Who wants to confront their anxieties as a form of relaxation? Nobody. IRS Auditors 2013: Paperworks Of War? Not a best seller. Oh My God, I Might Be Pregnant II: Condoms Of Injustice? The opening scene was great, but after that, the plot went really downhill. Turn Left And Cough? Would probably sell better than the next EA game... but you get the idea.

    • Re:Sad. (Score:4, Funny)

      by Stormwatch (703920) <rodrigogirao@h[ ]ail.com ['otm' in gap]> on Wednesday March 20, 2013 @02:24AM (#43221217) Homepage

      Find me a geek that hasn't uttered "... but then I took an arrow to the knee." I doubt they exist.

      Oh, I used to know one. But then he took an arrow to the knee.

    • Re:Sad. (Score:4, Interesting)

      by eennaarbrak (1089393) on Wednesday March 20, 2013 @05:06AM (#43221745)

      Who wants to confront their anxieties as a form of relaxation?

      I think you have an interesting interpretation of what he meant by human anxieties. I think he simply meant story lines based on human situations. Like say Alan Wake, or Deus Ex, both of which are driven by a man's desperate search for his lost wife/girlfriend. Not so much about the IRS, or being pregnant.

      But hey, who does not enjoy seeing a straw man go up in flames once in a while?

      • by kamapuaa (555446)

        Never played Alan Wake, but Deus Ex is driven by shooting lots of people and hiding behind crates and upgrading your ability to shoot lots of people.

        Sure there's a backstory, just the same way maybe you watch a porn and there's a back story about the schoolgirl really needing an A to get into college. But really you aren't intended to give two shits about it.

    • I don't think the author realizes that first person shooters are not about plot, but about killing shit. I don't play Borderlands because I care about finding the Vault, I play Borderlands, cause I get a machine gun that will light people on fire and burn up their bodies. I play Borderlands because I can shoot people with a sniper rifle and watch their heads explode.

      It's the same thing about action movies. I don't watch Die Hard 4 or 5 because I think it's going to be about in-depth character development

    • by X0563511 (793323)

      Yes, we have stupid games lately.

      But we also have things that are not stupid at all. [kickstarter.com]

    • One of the most popular Facebook games is"Farmville"... Anxiety over not getting back online to harvest in time?

      Oh god, the rotting eggplants. THE ROTTING EGGPLANTS!

    • by MrHanky (141717)

      Clearly you've never played D&D. I've had gaming sessions that had more plot, depth, and character development than anything you're going to read in a book or see on the big screen. There are a lot of immersive games based on the idea of a lone adventurer, or a party, saving the world. Look at Skyrim for example.

      Skyrim is an excellent example of a trite, derivative, unimaginative pile of genre clichés (beginning with the "lone adventurer ... saving the world"), just liike D&D. Getting to lvl 30 isn't character development, it's just game mechanics. There's not much depth to it, just complexity, and a vast open world to explore.

      Tom Bissell writes about the video game as an artistic medium for storytelling. What you're talking about is something else entirely. Clearly, you have never experienced art.

  • by Nyder (754090) on Wednesday March 20, 2013 @01:30AM (#43221033) Journal

    Video games haven't ever just been about fighting and shooting. Sure, Arcade games are mostly, but computer games and home consoles systems have had a wide range of games for over 3 decades.

    For example, Text adventures rarely were about shooting or fighting anything.

    Puzzle games aren't about fighting or shooting shit. And they have been very popular since the dawn of video games.

    I could go on, but I'm catching up on the Jericho TV series, and I figure most of you aren't as stupid as the author.

    • by drinkypoo (153816)

      For example, Text adventures rarely were about shooting or fighting anything.

      > KILL THE TROLL WITH THE NASTY KNIFE

    • by dywolf (2673597) on Wednesday March 20, 2013 @08:37AM (#43222603)

      This quote right here proved the author was dumb beyond belief: "At the same time, though, pure storytelling is never going to be the thing that games do better than anything."

      Similar was said about movies, about TV shows. hell, I'll bet if we go back far enough they even said it about books when storytelling still meant sitting around the fireplace listening to Grandfather.

      Some games tell very weak stories. So do many books and films.
      Some games tell very powerful stories. Also like many books and films.

      The medium itself neither imparts nor removes any special storytelling ability. It never has.

      The ability to tell a story has always been strictly in the hands of the storyteller himself, and his ability to use the medium to effectively communicate the story and impart emotions and perceptions to the listener/viewer.

      • by dywolf (2673597)

        Course, what do we expect...this is the guy writing for Gears of War, one of the most unimpressive stories (and game franchises) I've yet encountered.
        Oh ya. I went there.

    • by Macgrrl (762836)

      I could go on, but I'm catching up on the Jericho TV series

      Nuts!

  • Plot vs Story (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Cinder6 (894572) on Wednesday March 20, 2013 @01:49AM (#43221101)

    Something a lot of people don't seem to get is that there's a difference between plot and story. Plot is what happens in a narrative; story is how it happens. Put another way, story is the combination of the raw plot and the characters' interactions with it.

    Video games are pretty good, sometimes great, at the plot bit. Most games, however, utterly fail at the character--story--side. You can find any number of examples of this in so-called RPGs, especially JRPGs. While these games are often a lot of fun, they typically have the character development and depth of a rock. Some exceptions certainly exist, such as the Witcher series, which give the character much more say in the narrative than most games. Heavy Rain also tried with some degree of success to instill greater character into the narrative (interestingly, it did a pretty good job with character development at the expense of plot).

    In the end, though, games have an inherently difficult time portraying character weakness, flaw, or depth. They try to cheat it through cutscenes, but that's only half successful. Take Metal Gear Solid 4. In cutscenes, Snake is pretty weak, even enfeebled. During actual gameplay, though, he controls even better than his younger self did in the first Metal Gear Solid. And can you blame the developers? Would you really want to play the game as an actual geriatric spy? Would such a game sell enough to recoup the millions of dollars it cost to make?

    Games, books, and movies each have strengths and weaknesses on the story-telling front. Games are good at immersion, plot, A/V elements, and immediacy. Movies are good for broad character character development and showing subtle nuances, such as a slight twitch or motion that a careless viewer might miss (this is something games are able to fake by way of cutscenes). Books are the best for really getting inside a character's head, but lack the immediacy or auditory/visual feedback of a movie or game.

    As games mature, I don't doubt we'll see something of a convergence of elements happening. I don't think we're there yet, and I don't think games will ever be on par, in this particular area, with books. Also note I'm talking about commercial games with the assumption that the producers are attempting to maximize profit. I don't doubt an indie developer could pull off an amazing story with enough dedication and talent (sadly, I have yet to see this; any suggestions?).

  • Seems like Roger Ebert's piece on video games as art [suntimes.com] should be included in this discussion. (Yes, I'm too lazy to RTFA and see if it is already referenced).

    • by Toonol (1057698)
      Note: He's basically retracted that piece. He later admitted he shouldn't have made that judgement because he doesn't know enough about videogames.
  • On /., I see a large misunderstanding of what literature and art is.

    "More—oh, so much more—is needed than the mere saying, 'I like honey and milk better than meat and wine' or 'I like girls who are plump and fair better than those who are slim and dark.' That is why so much of modern autobiographical and confessional writing is dull beyond words. Even impertinence will not save our essays upon ourselves from being tedious—nor will shamelessness in the flaunting of our vices. Something else

  • by Solozerk (1003785) on Wednesday March 20, 2013 @03:33AM (#43221457)
    Planescape torment is an amazing example of character development and profound plot. So are both baldur's gates, as well as Arcanum, for example.

    The "storytelling capabilities of the two" have already met, lots of time. It's just that the games that are "profound" and have complex and far-reaching plots are a small minority of the games being released (I guess because that's not what most people want).
    • by dywolf (2673597)

      I would also through into the "Great Story" list:

      Zork (all of them)
      Planescape Tormet
      Baldurs Gate 1/2
      Diablo 1/2Warcraft
      Starcraft
      Xenogears
      Anachronox
      Most of the Zeldas
      Ultima 3/4
      Full Throttle

      actually man, theres so many as i keep digging in my memory.

  • I could have guess this would some how involve people who make unimaginative games. It makes sense it's Epic given their status of king of the poor story and space marine society. If they'd quit making the same old games then they wouldn't have to preach about games not being the same old game.
  • Right now the pinnacle of story-driven game achievement seems to be: a decent prewritten linear plot with depth that is supported well by the gameplay mechanics, with maybe a few branches here and there. That's still very cool, and if done right with the proper characterizations you hardly even notice (or care) that you're being railroaded. You, as the protagonist, feel that the choices made by the writer are the correct ones for the character.
    However, I'm hoping that at some point in the near future t
  • by RogueyWon (735973) * on Wednesday March 20, 2013 @06:02AM (#43221907) Journal

    I think the question "do video games contain good writing?" is probably not the right one to be asking. Or at least, not the relevant one for this discussion.

    Of course there are games which contain good - even great - writing. Star Control 2, Planescape Torment, Baldur's Gate 2, Final Fantasies 6, 7 and 10, the entire Shin Megami Tensei: Persona series, most of the Mass Effect series - to list just a few.

    However, the common factor surrounding these games is that they all fall into the category of what would be described (usually with a heavy smearing of condescension) as "genre" fiction in other media.

    Does this matter? To most people, no. I'm perfectly happy to walk out of a bookstore with a sci-fi or fantasy novel, or to sit down and watch a Western on the TV. I don't think I'm alone (or even in a particular minority) in that. But there is a prominent cultural clique that is consistently unwilling to recognise "genre" fiction as inferior and not quite "art".

    You can see it in the film world at the Oscars - sci-fi and fantasy find it very, very difficult to get a fair shot at the "big" awards. Occasionally something from the "genre" stable becomes big enough that it can't be ignored (Lord of the Rings), but by and large, the winners come from a very narrow pool. You can see every year that you get a group of films which are going Oscar-fishing. The trends have changed a bit over time (a few decades ago, you'd have needed to be a musical, but these days gloomy biopics are the way to go), but the existence of a fairly narrow category that is seen as intrinsically worthier has been consistent over time.

    It's the same with the big mainstream literary awards - if anything, it's even harder for "genre" fiction to break through there (and a very, very small pool of authors tend to clean up year after year). A part of me thinks that the Hugo awards and the like should retaliate by having a "best mundane fiction" category, to recognise "the work which best overcomes its limitations of a serious lack of imagination to nevertheless be tolerably readable". I bet Martin Amis would be really proud of one of those.

    I don't really see how video-games can break out of the genre box. It's a medium that's based around player-interaction, which is always going to push it towards a heavy focus on plot (generally one of the defining traits of much genre fiction). The question isn't whether video-games need to break out of that niche; it's whether we actually care if they do so.

    • by dywolf (2673597)

      there is also a conception that somehow if you're merely genre and not groundbreaking, not totally and utterly unique, you are worthless. (or else write something relly depressing, portaying humanity as a waste of space... that works too)

      but to use examples from the game world, there are many RTS's...but there is only one Starcraft. there are many shooters (daikatana, COD, etc), but only one Halflife. its not just about what the story is, but how its presented. or should be.

      but somehow people look at the th

  • More games that accurately simulate historical events. Wars, certainly, but something that helps experience, say, trading in the ancient Mediterranean could be both educational and immersive.
    Keep those history profs off the streets.
  • and it was one of the more interesting classes I've been in, despite not being a hardcore gamer. We only focused on the games that tried to tell a story or ones that had created a well-defined universe, it was more a study about the medium of video games than anything else.

    I got to do my final paper about RTS games and how they (at least in my opinion) evolved from tabletop wargames and how they have in some ways returned to their roots. It was also the only time I've been able to insert Kane [wikipedia.org] into a r
    • by babywhiz (781786)

      Talk to any of the current players in WoW and a majority of them will tell you that going from Wrath to Cataclysm was a huge let down in the storytelling. Wrath was about this big, bad Lich King, and every one working together to take him down. The storytelling was amazing, the questing kept the story moving for the whole expansion, up until the very end when the Lich King died.

      Veteran of the Wrathgate [wowhead.com] cinematic [youtube.com] was (still is, on my alts), goosebump inducing. The Battle for Undercity [wowhead.com] (the follow up quest th

  • by Hentes (2461350) on Wednesday March 20, 2013 @07:01AM (#43222135)

    The better story a game has, the more linear it is. It's a basic truth of game design. And while it's in no way bad that we have games with a decent plot, that's not the only way to entertain.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    "the power of authorship is ultimately for the player to seize for him or herself"

    FTFY: himself.

  • by MaWeiTao (908546) on Wednesday March 20, 2013 @09:49AM (#43223185)

    I fully believe that games are capable of conveying a complex, thought-provoking story. I'd argue that games offer better ability to do this than film. Of course, the flip side here is that we're still talking about a game, and not an interactive movie. That means a lot repetitive activity. There are a tiny handful of games that offer very compelling stories but most don't even come close.

    In fact, I'd argue that most big budget games are barely on par with the weaker Hollywood blockbusters. For all the positive talk I see about a certain game's story, whenever I play it I'm incredibly disappointed by the contrived story, the generic characters and the excessive emphasis on the spectacle. And the obnoxious thing is when people talk about mature themes in games, they're not talking about complex ideas, they're talking about swearing, nudity and gratuitous violence.

    Story-driven indie games tend to touch on more sophisticated themes. But then they tend to be heavy-handed at times. Everything ends up being dreary and brooding. But in terms of story, they're absolutely pushing the envelope. The big budget, mainstream games are pushing spectacle under the pretense of being story-driven.

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