Do Video Games “Tell” Stories? – Control

Editor’s Note: Think of these as preliminary thoughts. I wouldn’t call them “fully formed” yet, just a thought experiment of sorts about stories in video games.

I had thought, for a long time, that I was the player character. I controlled his/her/its thoughts, movements, and actions within the game world. Zachery Oliver fundamentally determine what happens onscreen in a narrative of his own making. While thinking this, I did not realize how many loaded assumptions play into the process of that thought, consciously or not.

No one denies, of course, that people create stories. That plays into human personality and actions for generations. People pass tales, myths, and narrative about communities, individuals, and gods throughout time and space. Part of our design shapes our life, psychologically speaking, in the form of a story with each particular instance turning into its own dramatic arc. We use this example from pop culture and sports (just watch Sportscenter, and see them recast every games as a narrative of some sort) to religious devotion (i.e., “God has a plan for my life”). In all cases it shows our brains turning a series of happenings into some intelligible.

Without broader perspective, of course, who is to say that disparate events in our lives form a narrative, or even if God thinks that way in particular? That He sent revelation in the form of a library doesn’t necessitate that story also extends to the very structure of the universe. Some Biblical books do tell us a story to make a great point, of course – Job has an obvious structure that functions partly like a philosophical dialogue and partly like the story of a righteous man who feels wronged by God. Yet, in the end, God tells Job that He does what He does, and how should Job know how this works or feel qualified to complain? Job 38 is a particular favorite:

Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind and said,

2 “Who is this that darkens counsel
By words without knowledge?
3 “Now gird up your loins like a man,
And I will ask you, and you instruct Me!

“Hey Job, do you know this?”, God asks, and Job cannot respond except by showing his human insufficiency to the question of suffering. The character of God, as an omnipotent and omniscient Creator, remains an essential part of the tale, as is the rest. It allows us to relate and see events even as we cannot affect or control them. In other words, it has a dramatic arc and flow.

One could add that this isn’t a necessity, though; many of the books in the Bible provide no narrative at all except what can be found through historical context. Religion grasps at the ineffable, and our means do not arise to the task in all situations. I often think of Thomas Aquinas in this sense. At the end of his life, three months before his death, he simply stopped writing. The Summa Theologica, the “sum of theology” which Thomas wrote for decades, just suddenly comes to an end. In Alban Butler’s Lives of the Saints, it says thus:

On the feast of St. Nicholas [in 1273, Aquinas] was celebrating Mass when he received a revelation that so affected him that he wrote and dictated no more, leaving his great work the Summa Theologiae unfinished. To Brother Reginald’s (his secretary and friend) expostulations he replied, “The end of my labors has come. All that I have written appears to be as so much straw after the things that have been revealed to me.” When later asked by Reginald to return to writing, Aquinas said, “I can write no more. I have seen things that make my writings like straw.”

Thomas Aquinas Straw

Not a great meme, apparently.

No one saw this as a refutation of Thomas’ work, of course, still heavily influencing the Catholic Church to this day. Thomas moved from a view of the world where a certain theological formation, an intellectual story, brought structure to reality. His spiritual experience could not emerge through human faculties, and so he decided to stop. What else can you do when human categories do not fit what you know or what you have see?

That’s what makes me trepidatious about video games as a “storytelling” medium. Are they? And is that factor even necessary for good art to emerge, or simply for Western art to emerge? I do not consider them a primarily “story-telling” medium, nor can I consider them as such unless we sacrifice pure games at the altar of cultural relevance. Video games involve worldbuilding, sure, and some involve a narrative of sorts, absolutely, but do those aesthetic elements define video games, or did we just extrapolate this from the whole?

Rather, the story of games is really the interpretation of my brain regarding my interaction with a game and its systems. Much of this takes place post hoc, after the fact. I recast myself into the role of the actor in the play, and not the man controlling the doll/action figure in a digital world. In a way, this allows us to relate to the events on screen. On the other hand, it also muddies our perception of systems versus aesthetics. We make a false equivocation, turning one into another, and further assuming that they all “work together” or some such ideal. Games aren’t suited for narratives as a primary element. Why?

The power of control holds too much of a sway. Players do not control the game’s rules, and may willingly assent (or unconsciously accept, as the case may be) them in order to play. However, that never means that we need to play. If, for example, I find a game boring or lacking fun, then I can stop the game at any point. You can get a gist of whether you’ll like a game or not through a few hours of play, in most cases. The paucity of most game systems do not engender a dramatic arc.  However, completion’s not necessary, nor are most games designed for completion.

And that sounds strange: a dramatic arc requires distinct steps, a loss of empowerment, fate, and the story controlling your destiny either through character action or otherwise. But video games, unlike their artistic counterparts, can never force the player into circumstances they don’t like. I can merely stop playing; I am in control, not the story. If I want to stop playing a JRPG right before the last boss, I can do so; if I don’t want to save the world, I don’t need to do it. If it isn’t engaging me on a mechanical level, then why not take the game out entirely?

Control needs proper expression. It cannot come from a mere collusion of dialogue trees, no matter how well assembled. A good narrative arc relies on the static, the planned-in-advance, not the total assemblage of one’s decisions. An author of a video game story simply cannot control a player’s actions. You cannot recreate literary tropes in a video game when a player “plays”. If you force the hypothetical player into a state of participation merely through empathy, it’s just not going to work. Something else needs to happen…

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.