When it comes to the traditional narrative arc that consists of the exposition, the complication, the climax and the resolution, it really bears no relation to the reality whatsoever. The reason why we love that structure, though, is that it feeds the belief system that in the end all the random occurrences in our lives make sense, as in an “everything happens for a reason” way. The yearning for reason and meaning is so profoundly built into us that billion-dollar industries are based on those premises, the most prominently the mainstream cinema, literature and drama television.
In reality, this structure of narrative can only be found in fiction, and every piece of supposedly non-fiction that adheres perfectly to that logic should be viewed with extreme suspicion. The history has shown time after time that the truth and a really good story tend to be mutually exclusive concepts, and the controversial cases of fabulists presented as truth tellers like James Fry or Mike Daisey are telling of how upset people get when that exceptionally compelling non-fiction ends up being more or less fabricated.
As I have noted before, the medium that is video games isn’t at its core a vehicle for traditional story telling, but rather, ideally speaking, a framework in which people can come up with their own little strings of events. Like kids do with their toys. This should be pretty evident by now for even the most hardcore narrative apologists who keep on hoping for a Citizen Kane (1941) of video games to come up someday and legitimize the medium once and for all.
There is, of course, tremendous value beyond structured narrative, and, I would argue, the apparent inability to convey traditional stories is not the video game’s weakness as a medium but an inevitable outcome of its core strength and substance. The thing is, in video games, especially in ones like Grand Theft Auto IV (2008), the total and complete absurdity of life simply becomes more tangible than through any mainstream prewritten narrative.
Indeed, when for instance driving accidentally over people in GTA IV, it is an empty, cold, meaningless occurrence without any redeeming factor or impact on the larger picture. It just happens. And this kind of representation of such an event resonates so much more with the reality than, say, a mainstream movie where every little detail has to bear meaning and make sense. The movie Signs (2002), for instance, paints a picture that all life’s occurrences, even the most unfortunate ones, form one big jigsaw puzzle that only makes sense once the pieces come together. GTA IV shows us, however, that one wrong turn can result as most nonsensical and meaningless (but sometimes hilarious) casualties, without any reason or redemption.
What makes video games less truthful is the fact that one can always start the game over if one fails by, say, dying. Heavy Rain (2010) acknowledged that and was an attempt in making a narrative-based game without fail states and the need for saving. In fact, the game’s director David Cage explicitly advised everyone not to load a previous state even if the events didn’t go as the player would’ve wanted to. Still, Heavy Rain was more like a glorified choose-your-own-adventure book than the messianic, Oscar winning interactive narrative some of us are still waiting to arrive.
It’s weird that when it comes to representations, the strongest emotions are evoked not by truth but by fabrications. Movies, even so called documentaries, are excellent at that, while games not so much. But, like I said, games can be more truth to the real than movies or any other form of representation will ever be, and that’s what makes video games such a subversive medium.