I remember the time when gaming journalists started their reviews by summarizing the background story, and yet, being aware to some extent of the ludicrous nature of such concept as stories in video games. Perhaps people knew back then better (or just were intellectually more honest) that it really didn’t make a whole lot a difference what the motivation supposed to be behind given sprite to travel left or right killing everything.
But then someone had an idea that video games as a medium must be taken more “seriously”, just like movies do, and apparently investing on the story and the characters is seen as the ticket for that. In effect, there emerged a pressure for developers to incorporate more thought out characters, compelling stories, and engaging plots into their games with variable success.
The problem, however, was and still is that developer simply can’t force the player to choose according developer’s will, and because stories consist of usually characters making decisions about their lives, interactive (scripted) story is nothing but an oxymoron. And because video games’ very core has everything to do with interactivity, there really is no way around it.
Gonzalo Frasca lays down a compelling argument that video games are based on a semiotic structure known as simulation,
which is a way of portraying reality that essentially differs from narrative. […] Simulation does not simply represents objects and systems, but it also models their behaviors.
I believe Frasca’s stance is the key in understanding why scripted story and pre-designed characters are in conflict with the very nature of video games. The thing is, video games don’t just show you stuff, they let you do stuff, and video games should therefore first and foremost provide best possible means and environments for doing so through simulation. And what’s cool about simulation is that it allows people to do and experiment things safely without ethical, economical or any other kind of repercussions whatsoever, which ultimately makes video games unique among the visual mediums.
Indeed, I happily admit playing Grand Theft Auto IV from start to finish by having only a vague concept of the overall storyline, but still enjoying the gaming experience nevertheless. GTA IV is a game with highly simulated environment, which enables it to generate thousands of micro-stories on the fly when one is playing the game outside of the written storyline. It’s almost needless to say that those unique “happy accidents” that take place when wandering off the designated trail are usually the most exciting and hilarious events of the whole game, and the situations where the medium manifests itself most genuinely – at least in my mind.
I really can’t help but feel uneasy when someone speaks video games as a platform for telling stories. Playing a video game for its story is like watching a movie for its editing: both of them are mere structural devices for something more profound, and in themselves quite meaningless. In movies, editing serves the story, but in video games, it’s the simulations (shooting, driving, fighting, flying, whatever) that in the end of the day count, not the story that excuses them.
Okay, Heavy Rain was a great piece of entertainment that had an emphasis on compelling scripted story, but was Heavy Rain more like a glorified “choose your own adventure” –book than an actual video game? Were there any non-scripted events to be found in the game at all? No?
This may seem harsh but in my mind all this story-character -nonsense is basically conducted in order to impress the outsiders who don’t and won’t get the real-time medium in the first place.
So, who are those people whose expectance we seek so desperately?