On Videogame Criticism

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From: Tom Bissell

To: Simon Ferrari

Dear Simon,

Agreement! The idea of a writer being a creative lead on a video game project is just about the most misguided thing I can imagine. Video games are even less of a writer’s medium than film.  Anyone intent on telling a story as a writer first and foremost should not turn to the video-game medium as the cart in which to place their cargo. There’s simply too much in the way, too many other people of equal or greater implementational importance. I am wracking my brain, here, trying to think of a medium more ill-suited to the writer-auteur model than video games. Interpretive dance, possibly, or skiffle-band balladry. And that’s about it.

The little game stuff I’ve done, I’ve done in 100-percent mercenary mode, my lone goal being fulfilling the vision of the game’s creative director and doing the best I can with what I’ve been given or asked to do. I think most people who write for video games would agree with me on all this—and had I been at that lecture, I would have angry right along with you.

Anyone of the belief that games will better establish themselves artistically primarily through “better” storytelling is, I have no doubt, absolutely wrong. It’s not going to work that way, because it can’t work that way. My god is storytelling, but within this medium it’s a false idol before the Yahweh of rule systems. We agree there too. That doesn’t mean video-game stories have to be insultingly awful, or that accepting their awfulness is some kind of enlightenment.

Yet I’m not looking for games that are more, let us say, “literary.” I honestly hope, in other words, I’m not embodying any of these “Storytelling: fuck yeah!” conditioned responses you—quite accurately, I think—diagnosed. In fact, many of the narrative games I’ve most enjoyed have largely suppressed their storytelling or relegated it to primarily mechanical or environmental expression. However, if you’re going to create a game with with the plot-driven, character-enriched narrative trappings of a novel or film, you should aim for a storytelling experience that does not embody the worst failures of the worst genre fiction.

There is such a thing as good video-game storytelling. Yes, we’ve seen it infrequently, but we’ve definitely seen it. Most video game stories are junk—I agree there, too—and I love a whole bunch of games with junk stories, especially those that bring to the table some other element with which to engage. Two recent examples would be Vanquish and Just Cause 2. But a few games have figured out how to helixically entwine gameplay and storytelling (Portal, Left 4 Dead, Far Cry 2) to create first-rate fictional experiences that feel more like stories to me than games, even though they are manifestly games. Those games are my personal hope and ambition, but I don’t blame anyone for locating their hope and ambition elsewhere, in other kinds of games.

In the hopes of getting everyone drooling, I can say I’m involved in a game project that will incorporate storytelling elements in a way few have tried before, and, maybe, it will bring into a video game a kind of storytelling weight we typically associate with film or fiction but without any sacrifice in mechanics or rule systems. I think it’s going to be astounding. You’ll probably hear more about it at GDC. You’ll know what I’m talking about, I suspect, the moment you hear about it. I can’t decide if it’s a game you’ll love or hate, but I can promise that it might well prove to one of the defining—and possibly divisive—games of this generation.

Ludically,

TCB

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