The headline this past week was: nobody cares about your stupid story. When Ken Levine wrote down these words for his GDC discussion on telling stories in video game, I wonder if he was already picturing the headlines and aftermath. Certainly we can expect that he knew such a statement would be, for those with short attention spans, the penny on the rails that causes the trainwreck, and any attempt at justifying and clarifying the position would be the background noise after the bump that nobody ever actually gets around to reading. After all, you have the name behind Bioshock, arguably the most literary infused action game with its Objectivist overtones – and how many of us actually even know what the hell that means? – telling us all apparently that story telling in video games is an exercise in futility, which is, of course, a dramatic over-simplification on what proved to be a more complicated talk. But, Levine Describes Complicated Layered Approach to In-Game Storytelling, doesn't exactly make for good headline material.
It is interesting that in the roiling wake of 2007, which offered up some of the best video game storytelling done since the hey-days of Sierra and Infocom, that I so strongly believe that the story in games is secondary or even tertiary to the mechanics of the game itself. It was not Levine's "nobody cares about your stupid story" statement that got my head nodding like a Brett Favre bobblehead in an earthquake, but rather when he talked about a development style that allowed the evolving game to inform the story rather than trying to force a square peg into another square peg. Don't start with the story, start with a framework, then a game and find a story that works into it. Simple. Revolutionary.
And, at the end of the day, he's right. It is always story that should be sacrificed for the sake of gameplay.
There are a lot of ways that I'm not necessarily like other graduates sporting a fancy English degree from a state university. I've never served coffee professionally. I've never smoked clove cigarettes. I don't like The Great Gatsby or anything by Hemingway. I'm not a voracious reader, and I am far more likely to be playing video games than absorbing James Joyce or even Stephen King. I don't even particularly care for deep reading and literary analysis, even though it's the sort of thing that I can do in my sleep. And now, of course, I espouse a not-necessarily-popular point of view that storytelling in video games is the sort of thing that is disposable.
Don't get me wrong, I loved the story and endless interpretation available in a game like Bioshock or Portal. I think they are both ground breaking games establishing in very firm ways that good storytelling is possible even in action games, but on the flip side the fact that Halo 3's story was obtuse, confusing and clumsy didn't really come up as much of a strike against Bungie's epic in my book. I am perfectly happy swimming in the warm surface water of my games rather than plumbing the depths of the Mariana Trench that is the subtext and complicated backstory, particularly when we have to face the fact that most people who make games don't make good stories. Maybe this is why I was able to like Max Payne so much.
It's reassuring to see Levine get it so right, particularly while being revered at the same time for his storytelling accomplishments. The truth is, even if I was just stuck in Rapture and told nothing more than, "hey, there's a bad guy here and you should kill him" the fact of the matter is that the gameplay stands on its own while the story is really just some nice window dressing. I like the fabric and patterns well enough, but having the curtains up or down isn't going to make a difference for the view through the window. Bioshock isn't a worse game if you never listen to a single one of the tape recordings left from its dead citizens, in the same way the Mass Effect is just as good if you never explore its Encyclopedia Galactica.
It's easy enough to say that these elements enhance the game, give it depth and texture, and for some people that will be true. But Ken's big idea seems to be that the world itself should tell the story, that being a participant in the elements of the story and playing them out is far more powerful a method for our unique medium than being any kind of passive observer. It's not that he's saying there's no room for storytelling, but that we need to think of it in a different way. In fact, at times, I am taken out of Bioshock because I feel compelled to listen to too many tapes, and while they are elegantly written, what I really want to do is load up some ammo and shoot some splicers. Even the largely praised short stories in the recent Xbox 360 hit, Lost Odyssey, while translating fairly well into English and occasionally moving, also tend to drive me out of the actual game, like suddenly hitting the pause button and flipping through the chapter of a vaguely related book. It's one of the better implementations of the annoying trend in these games of too often subjecting me to ten minutes of overt info dumping.
This brings us to the standard argument; that storytelling may not be particularly critical to action games, but in a genre like role playing games they are crucial. Well, that's somewhat true, though I can't remember for the life of me what the actual details of the story were in Baldur's Gate or even Ultima VII was to any meaninglful degree. What I remember is the set pieces, the game, the combat, the artwork, the visuals and the sense of place. I don't remember being moved by the story, which is most often a fairly short framework counter-pointed by a lot of fighting between the occasional story chunk and side quests. I don't remember being compelled forward so much because of the awesomeness of the narrative, which in most cases is just the standard fantasy fare, but by the gameplay.
That's to say nothing of games like Diablo or even Mass Effect where the game mechanics take even more of a center stage. While it's nice to have some purpose, and I'm not suggesting that there need to RPGs with no storytelling elements, if the story is good but the game isn't fun I'm not going to play. I'm not so sure the reverse is true.
The truth is that if I'm looking for complicated narratives with strong plotting and character development I have far better places to turn. It's just not what drives me to play video games. That some people take the care to add a story to an already excellent game is a gift that I can certainly appreciate, but it is almost academic to do so. Ostensibly I suppose World of WarCraft has a deep and rich backstory that elevates play for some people, but I think I'm firmly in the class of players that just likes shooting fireballs at dragons. Like I need a reason to do that!