Yanked from my Live-Journal:
Alas, poor Mario! I knew him, Bowser...

...A plumber of infinite jumps, of most excellent platformer: he hath borne me on Yoshi's back a thousand times; and now, how abhorred in my N64 it is! My gorge power-slides at it. Here hung those floating coins and fleeing Mushrooms that I have kissed I know not how oft. Where be your "It's a'me… Mario" now? Your barrel-jumping? Your repetitive jingles? Your flashes of Mario Party merriment, that were wont to set the table on Donkey Kong's roar? Not one now, to mock your own mustached grinning? Quite chap-fallen… no lives left? Now get you to my Princess Peach Toadstool's chamber, and tell her, let her Mario Paint an inch thick, to this favour she must wall-jump; make her laugh at that. Prithee, Bowser, tell me one thing… where are the masterpieces of videogame storytelling; the stories that resonate with the human condition?

Where is the meaning?

Pardon the silliness, but I was thinking about narrative in video games. The existing narrative mediums, be they movies, novels, poetry, television, plays or comics, have their classics their art pieces. Now, these works aren't simply classics because of the writing. In Mike Mignola's "Hellboy," the art is as much the storytelling medium as the words. In "Apocalypse Now," Francis Ford Coppola crafts a mood that transcends the script. Movies have directors and conductors, television has the writers, plays have the actors… in short everyone is a part of the narrative process as much as video games rely on writers, artists, programmers and animators to each fill in one color of the mosaic.

Taking that a step further, existing classics may also carry a message or serve as social commentary. In Alan Moore's "Watchmen," the message is: Who watches the Watchmen. Ingmar Bergman makes films about the dignity of people and their relationships to one another. Choose your medium and you'll find a relevant message that affects and changes people.

But can games make the same claim? Where are the morality plays? The reflections of the human condition? The rage against the dying of the light? Many mediums have their measure of expressing and evoking the human consciousness, but why haven't games developed a deeper meaning or significance? Is "Metal Gear Solid" our closest benchmark to a thoughtful warning?

I'm not saying games are crap or insignificant. In matters of gameplay, or storytelling, or graphics, or technology, there are some truly innovative games out there, be they "Civilization" or "Half-Life 2" (more complete lists of the "greatest games" can be found here: http://www.gamespot.com/gamespot/features/all/greatestgames/ and http://pc.ign.com/articles/082/082403p1.html). What I am saying is that writers have been so focused on searching for the medium's voice, that I think they've overlooked the capacity for the medium's message.

Now admittedly, some games do try. As my friend Amy said, the Japanese have tried placing deeper meaning in some of their games. Villains may not be truly evil, but may operate from a skewed sense of good. They discuss themes of heroes and villains fighting their fate, either to be destroyed by it or embracing it to survive. But again… there are few parables and morality plays in games. "Fable" and "Knights of the Old Republic" may allow you to choose your destiny as either good or evil, but there isn't any real consequence for that choice. There is no wrong or right in that choice.

Amusingly, Rockstar's "Grand Theft Auto" series has some of the best potential to explore drama and human relationships, responsibility and repercussions. Do they do that? No. But could you imagine Rockstar making "The Godfather," not as excuse to deify violence or embrace slaughter, but as an exploration of family and obligation? Unfortunately, Rockstar does the exact opposite, not only ignoring the true potential behind the communities whose skin it glorifies (and often misrepresents)… but they actually draw more scorn against the game industry for their gratuitous portrayal of violence and sexual content. Then again, it isn't their responsibility to push the envelope.

Unfortunately (and admittedly), videogames suffer from several limitations that hamper their ability to create a critically-acclaimed work of art, one that transcends the mediums. No "War & Peace" or "Romeo & Juliet" or "Lord of the Rings." Oh certainly, we will borrow and steal from true genius, but quash any attempts to truly push our own boundaries. But still, it's a daunting task to create something with meaning. The problems, as I can see them, are:

1) We are a young industry. To paraphrase J.T. Petty (script writer for "Prince of Persia" and "Splinter Cell 1 & 2") and to quote the MTV.com article, "Petty …considers game development to still be in its silent-film stage."

But is that entirely true? I'm not sure. Silent films gave us classics like "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" and "The Ten Commandments." Do we have equivalents in videogames that went beyond just redefining game play or technology? We are young, yes, but we're still so enraptured by the technology that the narrative itself remains largely unexplored.

2) Action is not Conflict. Yet action is the bread and butter of videogames, and it seems to be our principle tool for portraying conflict. Understandably, the same conflict that fuels something like "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" is not what constitutes good videogame action. Conflict in videogames remains external; we rarely explore the character's head in games because the exterior world is visceral, immediate, more interesting and more satisfying; the world of the mind as portrayed in games is, at best, a terrifying, twisting landscape (cue the final level with twin bosses Basal Ganglia and Cerebellum). Until then, everything about the character's internal workings and struggles either becomes heavy-handed exposition or non-existent or a part of the action. Take "Max Payne." Good game that carried off the characters emotional turmoil relatively well because:
a) The first-person narrative
b) The character wanted revenge, and revenge is supported by game-play through killing.

3) In making goal-oriented action games, do you rob the resolution… the message of its impact? Face it, to deliver a message, you may sometimes need to rob the player of a satisfying resolution the way a story's protagonist must suffer to bring the moral across. Not everything ends happily, ask Willy Loman from "Death of a Salesman." But videogames are about empowerment, which means you must either steer the player to the unhappy ending - in which case the resolution feels wholly unsatisfying to the player who made an investment of time and cash - or you rob the player of their control to enact the final moment in a cut-scene, which can be a game-killing colossal sin.

4) The Play for the Casual Gamer. Face it, the Holy Grail of videogames is attracting the interest of the casual gamer… that untapped motherload of promised success and fame beyond the dreams of avarice. Unfortunately, casual automatically limits the ability to craft a narrative masterpiece. Casual implies something that is quick and fast, capable of rewarding the player after a minute of play. I'm talking about narratives as full course meals when casual is all about the fast food of gaming (immediate gratification, no waiting). Tack on to that the fact that around 10% of gamers finish games, which means close to 90% will never see the ending of a game, and companies are resistant to the idea of putting too much effort into crafting a game beyond reusing their resources. That's not to say companies don't care about story or the ending… simply that it's difficult convincing them that the effort is worth the investment.

5) Speaking of companies… another major problem is that games pass through so many layers of criticism that what emerges at the end is a story that appeals to the lowest common denominator. Essentially, any significance that the story might have possessed is often stripped away through attrition. A word removed here because it's too politically charged; an idea changed because it might offend the wrong group. At first, each change seems innocuous enough that it doesn't merit attention. Eventually, though, the sum of changes is somehow greater than the whole.

I guess that while I do understand the quest of storytellers to create a new narrative framework for games, I think some have lost sight of the fact that HOW we say something is not as important as WHAT we have to say.


Writer's Block
Roleplaying Games
Video Games and Misc.
Writer's Corner
Light-Hearted Nonsense