In my first post I linked to a recent opinion piece authored by Taylor Clark and posted to Kotaku.com. The article’s title, “Most Popular Video Games Are Dumb. Can We Stop Apologizing for Them Now?” has generated a lot of controversy, and comments on the article are generally negative. A lot of people rightly point out that Mr. Clark’s rhetoric is unnecessarily inflammatory, especially since he seems to genuinely care about the future of video games. I offered a few of my own comments on the article at Kotaku, but I wanted to post a longer version of my response here.
The primary issue that Clark identifies in his article is that the stories and characters of video games have remained unnecessarily juvenile and rooted in a kind of absurdity that would be unacceptable in any other entertainment medium. He uses what he calls the “girlfriend test,” which involves the reaction of non-gamers to the realization that an adult would actually play what Clark sees as stereotypical and insipid content. In other words, if a non-gamer finds the content of a particular game to be juvenile, this should serve as warning to gamers. Of course, this line of thinking is fraught with all sorts of problems, not the least of which is the fact that no artistic or entertainment medium’s merit is primarily judged by those who have absolutely no familiarity with its development, history, or intricacies. The same kind of argument Clark makes against video games has also been made against abstract art by those who know nothing about painting.
At the same time, many of the comments on Kotaku tried to evade Clark’s critique by claiming that narrative is not (nor should be) a primary concern for video games. Certainly when we look at the earliest video games, narrative was in short supply. (ET anyone?) But that early lack of narrative was due to technological limitations more than anything. The claim that narrative isn’t important to video games should be avoided as much as saying that narrative must be part of every good game. Video games are not, as some seem to think, a “narrative-less” form of entertainment, and the great narrative moments in video games are not just “movies” or “books” wedged in between moments of gameplay. While it is true that video games are distinctly different from other narrative forms, they are definitely part of a continuum that includes drama, novels, radio, and film.
Roger Ebert, who doesn’t have a great reputation among gamers after arguing that video games couldn’t really be art, does know a thing or two about movies. He has said that his approach to reviewing movies involves assessing what the movie attempts to do and whether or not it accomplishes that goal. As such, Ebert must take into account the movie’s genre, relationship with similar films in that genre, as well as its technical and artistic execution. What Taylor Clark seems to ignore is the question of genre in his critique. He seems to suggest that all video games should be held to the same narrative standards, which is obviously absurd. Even his examples of good games (Bioshock and Portal) have wildly different kinds and degrees of narrative. As such, Clark’s critique of video games could be vastly improved if he accounted for genre.
So what does accounting for genre do when we think about the role that narrative plays in video games? First and foremost, it allows for the possibility that some games will have more (or less) narrative components than others. However, Clark does have something to offer in his critique that those video games that do purport to emphasize narrative could raise the bar a bit. My own background is in English literature, and for a while I wondered how I might get into the video game business purely by being a storyteller. Of course, it didn’t take me long to realize that this was impossible, because the video game industry is (necessarily) a very technical industry. However, maybe there needs to be a greater marriage between professional storytellers (screenwriters, authors, and others) and video game developers. This isn’t to suggest that many developers (Bioware and Bethesda, for example) don’t already put a lot of effort into storytelling, and often they do a great job, but that the narrative developments in video games have typically lagged behind other narrative forms. I’m not sure if Clark is right about this as a general critique of all video games, but I am sure that his rhetoric in this case isn’t going to help his cause. If anything, the adverse reaction might suggest to developers that Clark’s assessment is inaccurate, and that gamers are perfectly happy with current narrative offerings.
So what about it–are current video games giving us good narratives or juvenile soap opera? How important is narrative to your opinion of a game?