Thursday, April 7, 2011

Gaming As The New Storytelling Medium

When I was in the fourth grade there was this ... incident.  We got a new kid in class named Chris.  He didn't last the day.

Chris was a nail wrong side up from the start.  He was unruly, to be polite.  He called the teacher a pig.  She tried to reason with him.  When that didn't work, she tried to send him to the corner.  His response to this was to overturn his chair, jump on his desk and run around the room all while reminding the teacher she was a pig.

We all sat there watching in silent amusement/shock/horror.

Eventually another teacher was called in and they removed Chris from the classroom by cornering him and literally lifting him off his kicking feet.  We never saw him again.  Kent State was probably still in the teachers' minds, so no police were called, unlike today when pepper spray is used by cops to subdue unruly kids.

The video game industry is a lot like Chris.  It makes a lot of noise, is often seen as out of control and rather pointless by those around it.  You see, the video game industry likes to think it is the next wave in storytelling, the go-to-guys for our entertainment and, dare I say it, art.  Society isn't having it, though,  and the industry isn't responding well to the demands of such a task.  We video game consumers can only sit back and watch it all play out as society tries to control a beast it doesn't understand (and one that doesn't understand itself).

I don't know many people who play video games because of the story they tell or even the art they supposedly represent (I covered that in a post quite some time ago in a post that caused some debate).  Most people play them because they are fun.  There are some fans and many in the industry, though, who insist, like the industry does, that the stories are worthy of comment and mention, and many will even claim they have reached a place where they can be considered "classic" and art.  They will talk about shedding tears at the ending of their favorite games, and others will talk about how these games will eventually replace movies and books as the storytelling medium of choice.

Quite frankly, those people need to set their standards a lot higher, as what I've seen doesn't come close to meeting those goals.

Books, movies and television are arguably the media of choice in culture for delivering a story.  They are agreed upon by critics and consumers to be proven storytelling mediums.  They have done so within the constraints of whatever medium they work in, too.  They don't try to be something they are not, and because of that, when a a film, for example, is made to deliver an experience that is a visual masterpiece and a new direction in storytelling (much like Enter the Void), we give the artistic or entertainment venture a benefit of a doubt because we know from past experience that the medium can deliver.  Video games haven't reached that point yet, and if people don't start getting realistic about it, they never will.

Video games are great entertainment.  They can connect with players in ways that board games or card games cannot.  They are still games, however, and as much as a story might be linked to them, the story will always be secondary to the game play.  Books tell stories.  They are a simple medium that has the ability to deliver a powerful message.  When the Choose Your Own Adventure series came out, it was books trying to become a game, and while it was amusing, it diluted the message the book could deliver.  Had 1984 been written as a Choose Your Own Adventure, it would have never withstood the test of time.

This is not to say video games cannot deliver an amazing experience within the confines of a game.  They can.  I don't think they've done that on a consistent scale yet, though, and until that happens, the general public isn't going to accept them as a viable storytelling medium.  In order for the video games to grow, the public has to accept them on some level.  That will result in mediocre games and definite mishaps (as is standard with books, movies and television), but it will also result in some great games that resonate with people.  Right now more people understand, accept and appreciate Bejeweled than Red Dead Redemption.  One may tell a better story (an easy feat when the other has no story behind it), but until society grabs onto that game like it does a simpler game, that story will have no serious lasting power.

The video game industry has to get its priorities straight.  Does it want to make games that appeal to hardcore gamers, non-gamers and casual gamers alike, or does it want to create stories and art?  Until it focuses on the games, it has no hope of effectively reaching the artistic stage and becoming a serious contender in the storytelling medium.  One easy, surefire test?  Think of how odd it is to hear someone say they don't like or watch movies.  Now think of how common it is to hear people say they don't play video games.  When that changes, video games will be in a position to become a new medium worthy of its boasts.  That day isn't here yet, though, and I don't think we'll be seeing it any time soon.

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