Story and Fun in Videogames (A discussion on games as art and literature)

In response to a small section of Totalbiscuit’s video essay on multiplayer only games

In reality a competitive multiplayer game can have indeterminate value. Some of the more narrow minded are dismissive of multiplayer games, claiming that they don’t have any story, it’s impossible to care about the lore, where is the narrative? And my response to that is of course, the players are creating it every time they enter a match. And every story is just that little bit different. I think deep down, most people know that. I think deep down, they understand just how much you can get out of a multiplayer game. They understand that having essentially infinite content can be very beneficial.

“I will now talk about multiplayer only games for just under 40 mins.”- John “Totalbiscuit” Bane

This quote is taken out of context, and is a small part of a larger discussion of both the good and bad parts of multiplayer-only games, and particularly those of full price. While I don’t disagree with the overall point Totalbiscuit makes in his video essay, I see an issue with the treatment of narrative in particular as it is referred to in this quote, as well as his treatment of video game story in other contexts. As discussed in my previous essay on nonlinear story, there is a fallacy some people have that claims that simply because a video game is inherently interactive and based on choice, the best video game stories are also those that are chosen by the player.

While I am not certain of Totalbiscuit’s reasoning for believing this, what I can speak on is the reasoning that some other people have given me. What they claim is that videogames are by their nature about choice, and hence the best videogames exploit this element of their nature. While this may sound correct, it uses faulty logic. Having more freedom to make choices -can- improve gameplay, but it does not necessarily improve a game’s story. The premise of the statement is that the nature of something is good, and having more of that nature is better. This is analogous to the fallacy of appealing to nature:

Some people use the phrase “naturalistic fallacy” or “appeal to nature” to characterize inferences of the form “Something is natural; therefore, it is morally acceptable” or “This property is unnatural; therefore, this property is undesireable.” Such inferences are common in discussions of homosexuality, environmentalism, and veganism.

– Naturalistic fallacy, Wikipedia,

As my other essay already discussed the benefits and weaknesses of non-linear stories, here I will discuss what Totalbiscuit claimed in the above quote: that a response to multiplayer only games having no story is that the players create a story while playing.

While games such as Brink and Titanfall offer brief bits of story at the start and end of matches, I do not think this is what he is talking about in his quote, as that would be the game giving you story, not the “players… creating  it”. Rather, i think what he is referring to are games such as Eve Online, or even to a lesser extent DotA, DotA2, League of Legends, Heroes of the Storm, and other similar games. These games do have lore, but as is stated as a premise to his response “its impossible to care about the lore”. What is perhaps more important than the lore, is what “the players [create]… every time they [play]”, meaning the series of events that occur during a match, or even during their experience playing the game over a longer time period. What I believe this comes down to are memorable experiences: the time when you single handedly eliminated the entire enemy team through a series of lucky choices, or the time when you accidentally warped your entire fleet into a war between two factions of players and started an accidental war, or some other crazy, impressive, or otherwise fun and memorable event. Much like life, these unforeseen events create a sort of story of your experience within the game.

This story though, is not what the people who want single player modes want. Yes it is a story, and yes it is fun, however as non-linearity also has difficulty with, the players want an interesting and well made narrative, not just a story of circumstance. While the crazy player interactions are fun, traditional linear stories can be something more than fun. Stories have been used since ancient times as a medium to deliver not just a single theme or message, but a wealth of information that should make the reader grow as a person, if the story is written well. Part of the reason that the upper class has given importance to literacy throughout history is not just so they can gather utilitarian information, but also for the more humanistic purpose of self improvement and growth as a human being. For the same reason that you don’t read Animal Farm for mere entertainment, you don’t watch Michael Bay’s Transformers for extremely deep social analysis and commentary.

As Totalbiscuit has said before, videogames need to evolve how they treat narrative if they are to mature as a medium. In its infancy, video games still use non-linear stories as a basis even when making choice based stories, only being non-linear at specific points in the story. And while a completely deterministic game would be very fun, it would also be not only left to chance as to whether or not the resulting story would be well written or interesting, but it would be extremely hard for the developers to tell a story. A fun story that you choose yourself does not need to be well written, if a game respects your choices then what matters is that you enjoyed the choices you made. However, there is a clear discrepancy between the ideal many people are promoting as a better game that is non-linear, and the ideal of a deep story driven game that you can call literature.

As he has made clear before, videogames are an inherently different medium than painting, theatre, film, and books. Videogames’ player choice must be taken into account when discussing them as a literature and as an art form, but this does not change the issue caused by the discrepancy between a player’s chosen narrative, and a story being told to the player. The fact remains that a player’s choices might generate a story with no depth, no consistency, no meaning to grasp and no lessons to learn, or perhaps even worse, it might promote immoral or unvirtuous themes. And the fact still remains that such player choices are completely valid and should be allowed, otherwise they would not really be choices at all, but the illusion of choice. But these two facts contradict each other; more player choice means that the developer has less opportunity and control to offer thematic depth and philosophy, and more scripted events means less player choice.

More player control also means less cinematography, less intrigue (on the part of the protagonist and anyone else who will not contradict the player’s choices), and issues with the protagonist. A protagonist with a partially or fully pre-determined character, such as Shepard in Mass Effect becomes a puppet who is hard to take seriously, as it is clear that this is less of a character and more of a machine that does your bidding. Shepard isn’t mean or nice, he’s simply a loudspeaker for the player. When instead the protagonist is the player, with no intermediary puppet, then there is no opportunity for the developer to tell a story about the protagonist, rather the protagonist simply sets up a world for the player to roleplay in. While that does result in a story, it is far more of a player fantasy instead of something you would call deep. I’m not saying every game needs to be a philosophy lecture, but if we want to have a serious discussion of games as a medium, we cannot use the nature of games being about choice as an excuse to make them (in the extreme) shallow, hedonistic simulations. Instead, we need to find a resolution that both is fun and respects player choice, and can tell a compelling and deep story.

Video games are fun because amongst other things, you can make your own choices and see how they affect the game. Fun and mechanical depth should however not be confused with thematic depth. There is nothing wrong with enjoying yourself, but if we are going to talk about what makes a game better, we cannot simply focus on mechanics, because that ultimately makes for a mechanical experience. There is some human depth in the multiplayer experiences that I spoke of before, particularly because they are interactions between humans and the results of the choices they made. There is also some depth in simply being able to make choices in a mechanical environment, and exerting your agency over the system. None of these however compare to the great works of prose literature. The memorable personal experiences are different from such works and so the comparison may be a bit unfair, but ultimately I do not believe most of these experiences can offer as much depth.

We should not underestimate or forget that great books and great stories form us as people and change our lives. We would be ignorant, limited, and perhaps arrogant to think that we can live freely without consulting the knowledge of others and of past generations. Newton’s quote of standing on the shoulders of giants is not an isolated case; it is the truth for everyone from birth who has to learn things, and subsequently has to question whether or not those things are true. Literature is philosophy, and if we want games to advance and prove to others that it is indeed an art form like many others, then we have to make games philosophy as well.

Perhaps my interpretation of the single line “The players [create the story] every time they enter a match.” is too literal or pedantic on a point that he did not mean to give much emphasis. Even if I did misinterpret this or take it too far, the comparison between videogames and novels is still appropriate.

Games need to resolve non-linearity with story telling in order to make the medium progress.

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