On Videogame Criticism

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From: Simon Ferrari

To: Tom Bissell

Tom,

The short answer is, “No, I do not care about videogame storytelling.”

The longer answer begins with an anecdote (I’m aware that I’m telling a story to explain why I don’t like stories… bear with me). Charles Pratt, a game designer and lecturer at NYU, begins his courses by asking his students why they want to study game design. A solid majority reply that they’re interested in videogames’ “storytelling potential.” But when they later begin writing and talking in class about the games that they obsess over, that factor heavily into their daily lives, it turns out that they mostly play (for lack of a better word) “gamey” games: Halo, Madden, or Texas Hold’em. What causes this discrepancy?

One answer could be that for some reason they’re truly, deeply dissatisfied with their play experiences, and they think that better storytelling might be the way out. Another answer, the one favored by Charles and myself, is that this invoking of storytelling potential may be nothing more than a conditioned response. Throughout the course of our compulsory education, we’re taught that the study of storytelling is a worthy pursuit of scholars and artists. So when these students have to tell their friends, family members, or partners that they’re studying games, they drop this word that they know everyone can relate to and respect: “storytelling.”

Some prominent games designers, including Eric Zimmerman, argue that we’re now entering into a “ludic century.” By this they simply mean that game play and design will be the foremost cultural and artistic practices of the coming years—they don’t exclude narrative-heavy games from this zeitgeist. But it’s my contention that games are systems of rules and artificial spaces before they’re stories. And if we want to foster creativity, depth, and breadth in the design of future games, then we need to begin by teaching the reading, writing, and critique of rule systems at an early age. Ian Bogost calls this “procedural literacy,”7 which is distinct from but related to computational literacy (the ability to program).

This doesn’t mean that I think we should stop teaching literature classes in early education, but I, for one, am more than a little disgruntled that I was required to take so many without any opportunity to study film, television, or games instead. One of the reasons that many of us are so enthralled by visual and procedural (game-based) rhetorics is that few have been taught how to analyze them.

A more subjective answer to your question is that I tend to ignore videogame stories in order to maintain my sanity—I find almost all of them terrible in every conceivable way. Then there’s the simple fact that, in any given week, I get to see a lot more “game” if I skip through cutscenes and text bubbles. I’ll admit that I still count Chrono Trigger and Earthbound, two obviously story-heavy JRPGs from the SNES era, among my favorite videogames. But I haven’t played those two videogames in a long time, because I know that returning to them now would only replace my nostalgic idealization of their stories with a number of depressing realities about their narrative shortcomings.

Since you shared your recent experience in narrative design for a videogame studio, I feel compelled to tell you what scares me about some videogame writers (while hoping you will tell me that you’re different).

A couple of years ago I attended a small game development conference in Georgia. One of the keynote speakers was a prominent member of the IGDA Writer’s SIG. This guy stands in front of a crowd of BFA game development students (focusing on level design, game design, 3D modeling, texturing, and sound design) and tells them that, when they enter the industry sometime soon, he’d like them to push for the recognition of a game’s writer as its creative lead. He told them that the best way for good games to get made would be for them to accept that they were all crafting a tiny part of a writer’s vision. In his ideal studio, the writer would oversee each department to make sure every aspect of his storyworld was being built according to his specifications.

I don’t know if I’ve ever been more full of anger than I was that day. It marked a decisive moment for me. I realized that, no matter how much I wanted storytelling in games to improve, I was going to have to fight against writers who think that their authorial dictatorship is the only way to create a compelling, cohesive play experience.

Do I think that writers should be treated as equals in a game studio, not to be brought in near the end of a development cycle to apply a thin veneer of story as best they can? Certainly. But doing this at the cost of relinquishing or minimizing the medium’s unique ability to create meaning, emotion, and ideas through interaction and rules alone? Never.

How do we get around a problem as large as this one?

Yours,

Simon

7Ian Bogost, “Procedural Literacy

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