Hey Video Games: Your story…it sucks.

Something has changed in gaming. It seems what players wanted in the 90’s and early 2000’s has morphed into something foreign to me and it’s called “interactive cinematic experiences”. Reading what the gaming press, bloggers, and message forum posters talk about it seems what a lot of the chattering class is longing for are interactive film pieces. With games like Heavy Rain, Shadow of the Colossus, and even God of War we are moving away from emergent video games of yore to products that would really rather be movies. One of my favourite podcast, the Gamers With Jobs conference call the casters all seem to be really excited about games that I could give two hoots about. Uncharted 2 which was held as the pinnacle of gaming in 2009 for its great production value, set pieces, graphics, and yes even its story is not a good video game.

I do not think video games should be tightly controlled and choreographed experiences for the players. Those are what movies are. I think what games should be about is creating this world and rules that govern the world in which the players play. Now, I am not arguing that all games should be narrative free but I think the narrative should be there to enhance the setting and world. When travelling around the wasteland in Fall Out 3, the world has a story and the story that my lone traveler creates is far more compelling than anything Bethesda can or should produce. When players participate in Left 4 Dead, every game has its own story and the story is created by the players. I’m far more interested in hearing about how Team A bested Team B in Team Fortress 2 because one of the players from Team A was able to get on a hot streak and win the day. To me, that story is compelling and an experience completely unique to video games. Role-playing games also to me are compelling not because of the heavy handed stories but because of the game systems that create these stories. Dragon Age Origins released last year is the most recent epic RPG that I have played. I have played through the game to completion twice. After the first completion I started to skip the cut scenes and dialog scenarios because it’s boring. What makes Dragon Age fun to me is the tactical combat, the character creation and advancement and how these two pieces affect the game I’m playing. Reading players write about their experiences and talking with my friends about how we approached the same scenario but succeeding by employing completely different tactics. I get excited about how players built their characters and which party they used. This is where gaming should grow and move to.

However, the gaming intelligentsia seems to be in an uproar of excitement over games that more tightly controlled and are interactive movie experiences. Games like Uncharted 2, Heavy Rain, God of War 3, and others treat the player to a thrilling experience on the level of a film. We hear games like Grand Theft Auto 4 boasting about “Oscar worthy” storylines and I being to question: Really? Compared to other video games, a game may or may not offer a better story but compared to fiction, comics, and movies I don’t think games can compare on the narrative level. For a game to succeed it must have good game systems, be well engineered and tested, and be fun. For a book to succeed it must be well written and tell a compelling story. The goals of the two products are completely different. Video games also lose the ability to internalize and have the thought bubbles that make comics and reading so much more compelling as a story-telling vehicle. By having games that are more tightly controlled and well produced, while the experience may be fun it’s the same experience no matter who plays the game. Heavy Rain which employees quick-time events which are the antitheist of gaming to differentiate the story from peer to peer still ends up with the same outcome. Readers will continue to reread Agatha Christie because of the strength of the writing. Heavy Rain features an overwrought story, with poor dialog and horrendous voice acting. The game sacrificed game systems for narrative presence and instead of getting a compelling video game we got a really poorly written and acted 3D drama. We also are coming to that uncanny valley of 3D graphics that are realistic but the character being rendered is still soulless. One reason why I believe that stylized 3D films have outperformed more realistic 3D films (such as Polar Express) is the uncanny valley. It’s just weird to look at 3D rendering of the human eyes and not sense a soul behind those eyes. When we watch a live-action film, the eyes can show emotion and carry a scene. With a video game that currently isn’t possible and I doubt will be possible in the future.

So why are interactive cinematic experiences in vogue? Because as gamers age they want to feel more mature and have their toys grow with them. Films, novels, and comics are accepted by the mainstream. Video games are toys. But, we want people to think our games are serious business! I’m not playing just any old video game but a game about a father and his child! See, we’re just as mature as you are….Mr. Movie watcher. But, games are toys! Where gamers need to make a stand is by telling their stories about how they and their friends were able to achieve ultimate victory in a round of Battlefield Bad Company 2, or how their character they created in World of Warcraft was able to output so much damage that they were able to do something amazing! When we fight the battle of acceptance on grounds that films, novels and comics cannot compete we win every time.