Story Mode Is a Smart, Essential Study of the Relationship Between Games and Their Audience

Games Reviews
Story Mode Is a Smart, Essential Study of the Relationship Between Games and Their Audience

The book I anticipated second-most after my sister’s debut novel last year was Trevor Strunk’s Story Mode: Video Games and the Interplay Between Consoles and Culture, and it turned out to be worth the wait. Strunk is an English Ph.D. and the host of No Cartridge Audio, one of the best videogame—and movie and anime and book—podcasts. On his show Strunk has interviewed writers, podcasters, and other thinkers and journalists from across left and progressive media, from ESPN contributor and Shutdown Fullcast host Spencer Hall to Chapo Trap House host Felix Biederman, with recurring cohosts and guests like Olivia Broussard, Goonhammer’s Jon Bernhardt, Live at the Death Factory’s Sean McTiernan, RetroXP’s Marc Normandin and Dia Lacina, many of whom are referenced in the book. By engaging with the work of writers from across gaming media and cultural criticism, including some who, like the above, have been on his podcast, Story Mode comes across almost as a collaborative effort. Strunk pulls from primary and secondary sources (games and the writing about them) to argue that videogames’ artistic and political value comes from ongoing conversations between developers and audiences in the processes of design, play, and purchase while shaped by and interacting with external, material conditions.

In the intro, Strunk uses the changing cultural attitude around shooter videogames from the time of DOOM to the time of Fortnite to demonstrate the book’s thesis: that “the history of games […]is one of creative tension between players and creators,” and that that relationship—extending a previous analogy about novels—is an “issue of authorial intention and what happens to that intention when it meets readers or, in this case, players.” He lays out the plan of the book as taking a 30 year “wide-ranging journey through genre and series, stopping to discuss high and low points, optimistic shifts in gaming consciousness, and pessimistic moments of failure. I discuss the creators and the games themselves, putting them in context with what came before, during, and after their development, and, of course, what people had to say about and demand from these games.”

Each chapter begins with a one-paragraph summary of Strunk’s argument about the historical development of the series or genre. This is followed by laying out background about the genre or series roots or preconceived cultural context, before complicating those preconceptions by explaining how the series has changed through its relationship with its audience. And each chapter concludes by summarizing wider implications or cautiously speculating, but not quite prognosticating, where things might go.

The chapter on the evolution of the first-person-shooter genre is especially captivating because it forces readers to examine how changes in real-life political circumstances can change how audiences view violence, enabling games to have government-directed political aims (as with America’s Army) or to have acts of violence stripped of real world legibility for its primary audience (Fortnite). Meanwhile, the chapter on Hideo Kojima impressively synthesizes the argument about how audience fascination with and expectations of a game director can stifle his creativity and that of his team. The book is full of effective comparisons. Strunk, like all good analysts, is aware of the ways his sources limit his scope, but I think he could go even further. I wonder how the inclusion of sports games, for example, might complicate or contribute to the argument of the designer-audience conversation because of the ways they have become broadly averse to new ideas while developing exploitative money-making tools in annual iterations.

Nonetheless, the book reflects diverse and eclectic taste and Story Mode is an unqualified success. It’s rich with detail without ever feeling dense, and it sets a stage for further scholarship on videogames in the field of cultural studies. It’s formatted excellently for a monograph, with section breaks that keep things clear and allow easy refamiliarization on return readings. The prose is elegant—bigger words are for specificity and context, never needlessly obtuse, and it’s conversational and humorous while drawing references from literary canon to The Simpsons. Similarly, I love when a title tells you exactly what you’re getting: 808s and Heartbreak, Death on the Nile, and here …the Interplay Between Consoles and Culture.

My main criticism of Story Mode is that I wish there was a more thorough literary review in the beginning that lets you know what work within the field the given text is building from, though Strunk draws on the concept of the novel and its rise in prominence as a medium as a point of comparison. It helps to provide a literary/theoretical context so audiences know who else’s work to engage with. At the same time, Story Mode is focused on generating more cultural theory around games than responding to any that currently exists. Moreover, it engages with critical discourse around each series and genre through each chapter, building off of many prominent voices in videogame criticism, so you can certainly develop your own reading list. The conversation is motivated by articles and essays rather than existing monographs.

I also prefer footnotes to endnotes because I think putting them on the bottom of the page rather than in the back of a chapter or book makes them accessible, but I realize that that can also look intimidating or break up prose. This book doesn’t need to be longer, but I’m ready for a follow-up. There are games and concepts that were beyond the scope of Strunk’s work here, but I’d love for him to take a crack at some of them. In every work, however long or short, something gets cut in brainstorming or editing, and as with many monographs aware of their own limitations, it ends noting there is still work to be done.

Story Mode has clear left-progressive politics but only the most cynical could call it a polemic screed. The arguments about games and politics are laid out in a way that doesn’t invoke the words “rhetoric” or “ideology” in their most cynical annotations, though at the same time Strunk isn’t afraid to invoke Marx or Fredric Jameson.

Frankly—and as the quotes on the dust jacket will tell you—Story Mode is a seminal work. Critical writing about videogames has improved greatly in the past two decades, but we’re still short of a canon of founding theoretical texts. Games studies is an increasingly prominent and accessible field, and hopefully more work like Strunk’s will follow. Cameron Kunzelman’s upcoming works—The World is Built from Zero, on the relationship between videogames and science fiction through the philosophy of speculation, and Everything Is Permitted: On Assassin’s Creed—will be personal points of comparison for myself. As writing on the game industry goes, some, like Jason Schreier’s work at Bloomberg and in his books Blood, Sweat & Pixels and Press Reset: Ruin and Recovery in the Games Industry, focus on labor conditions and the development process. Story Mode takes those into account while focusing on the conversation of meaning-making that happens out of those circumstances. It belongs on the bookshelf of anyone interested in why videogames matter. It would be a fun read even if it wasn’t important, but I truly believe it is. Conversations around the aesthetic features and cultural importance of videogames will benefit from Strunk’s thoughts—and, hopefully, another book.

Story Mode is available now.

Kevin Fox, Jr. is a freelance writer, editor, and critic. He is a former Paste intern with an MA in history, who loves videogames, film, TV, and sports, and dreams of liberation. He can be found on Twitter @kevinfoxjr.

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