On Narrative Stagnation In Games, And How To Combat It
The last word of this introductory paragraph will prove very naughty. For some of you, it will conjure up images of your most despised English professors; for others, it will neatly summarize everything that went wrong in twentieth-century thought. And I'm sure that for at least half of you, it has already entered your lexicon as a dark and terrible curse -- the sort of base profanity that would make a serial killer interrupt his meal of human flesh to defend his own moral integrity. But I think it is a term that holds some promise for the gaming industry, which has long suffered from an inadequacy of fresh plot ideas; and if there is even a slight chance that it could help us in that regard, then I'm afraid we are obligated to consider its implications, if only for a little while. I'm talking about that bane of scientists, moralists, and right-headed folks everywhere: post-modernism.
For a long time I was unsure what the term "post-modern" meant in any context. My longstanding confusion was not due to a lack of trying. The simple truth of the matter is that most of the people and sources that attempt to explain just what it is that constitutes the post-modernist movement do a terrible job at it. Often this is because they've already decided that they hate post-modernism, and so their explications are tainted by a highly pejorative construal. Sometimes, as in the case of this dictionary definition, the failure may be chalked up to sheer incompetence. (Whoever wrote that entry should be shot.) Given the fact that I sought to understand post-modernism for a long time without much success, I imagine that many of the people who talk about post-modernism do so without really knowing what they mean. If true, this would lower the signal-to-noise ratio even further, thereby rendering any sane discourse on the matter quite difficult.
Post-modernism is a symptom of the "linguistic turn" which came to dominate nearly every facet of intellectual thought in the mid-to-late twentieth century. The foundation of the linguistic turn is often thought to be Ludwig Wittgenstein, and for this reason Wittgenstein is reckoned to be the most important philosopher in the last hundred years. The gist of it is: anything that we might call a "fact" depends upon our language, and there is no such thing as a reality outside of that which is wrapped in language. Post-modernism mixes in a few notions from such movements as Marxism, frequently arguing that the "reality" we perceive is determined, at least in part, by socio-historical factors. Post-modernists therefore claim that we owe responsibility for our thoughts to nothing other than ourselves, since nothing in the world may ever puncture our own interpretive framework.
As it happens, post-modernism is basically a very ancient phenomenon. It differs only slightly from such long-abandoned philosophical movements as skepticism and radical relativism, and so it is open to the same refutations. In his Theaetetus, Plato's character Socrates exposes Protagoras as a self-contradictory sophist for the claim that "Man is the measure of all things; of what it is that it is, and of what is not that it is not." This doctrine of "true for me" is self-refuting; if all beliefs are true, then the belief that no beliefs are true is itself true. The relativist may respond that the claim of self-refutation is no threat to one who views truth as relative. The non-relativist may in turn point out that, if the relativist claims as a subjective truth that there is no objective truth, then the relativist has asserted nothing at all, since to assert a subjective truth is (by the relativist's own lights) to assert nothing. So, if the theory does not refute itself, then it is cognitively meaningless; it is either impossible or gibberish. Post-modernism and similar movements may therefore be seen as a regurgitation of gristle that most philosophers had thought well chewed thousands of years ago.
There is an exception, however: post-modernism is most at home in the fields of artistic and literary criticism. Post-modernist critics maintain that there can be no privileged interpretations of a painting or sculpture, of a book or film -- or even, of a game. Post-modernism has been shown to be untenable with respect to epistemology in general, but in matters of aesthetic judgment, claims to objectivity simply cannot be sustained.
As a result of this fact, there are now subsections of literature, film, and art that are called post-modernist. Post-modernist works of art tend to defy many of the conventions and traditions common to their respective media. A post-modernist narrative might present events in non-chronological order, for example, or it might refrain from explicitly connecting those events in a straightforward manner. One popular technique is to combine seemingly disparate characters into an absurd, upside-down spectacle; imagine a story about how much Julius Caesar hates Charlie Brown, or something along similar lines. In essence, post-modernist art is just art that is deliberately fashioned so as to be very hard to interpret using traditional methods. Any of you who saw the film Pulp Fiction and weren't quite sure what to make of it afterward know what I mean. This is not to say that Pulp Fiction defies meaning or interpretation; it is only to say that the film itself will provide scant evidence in support of any single interpretation. Consider the diner conversation between Jules and Vincent near the end of the film, in which "walking the earth" is contrasted with being a bum. Which of them is right? The film doesn't say -- and if it had bothered to do so, it would have been a very different sort of film (worse off, in my opinion).
Some games don't really have a plot at all. But some games do, and of these, nearly all of them cling to a nineteenth-century style of plot, in which it is assumed from the outset that certain agents and their actions are "good" and others are "bad," with no wiggle room in-between. Planescape: Torment is a noteworthy exception; in the end, it demands that the player decide for herself whether there is an overall message, and if so, what that message might be. But every other plot-heavy game I've played seeks to make that determination in advance, and then ram it down the player's throat. (Note that the "good versus evil" theme is but one of many examples along these lines.)
Games should no longer tenaciously cling to this tired old method of aggressive and rigid narrative proselytizing. The post-modernists have shown us that there's little point to it. Other artistic media have learned to use the post-modernist insight to craft works far outside of what could be done in the past. Games would be more fresh and compelling if they, too, learned to move with the times. More traditional forms of narrative will always deserve their place, but we should be wary of their stifling effect when we rely upon them too heavily.