Genre and storytelling in video games

This month in Blasphemous Geometries, Jonathan McCalmont takes a look at the roles of genre narratives and storytelling in the still-young media of computer and video games, questioning the received wisdom that that the form has matured noticeably from is simple puzzle-solving and goal-reaching roots.

Blasphemous Geometries by Jonathan McCalmont


We exist in a world of brands. These days you can watch a film, read a book or comic, play a game, drink a cup of coffee and even have sex without ever leaving the vice-like economic grip of your favourite brand. As the darling of the monstrous cultural artefacts that are summer blockbusters, science fiction is at the cutting edge of what Media Studies theorists call Remediation.

Remediation is the idea that, rather than existing along a fixed technological time-line with new forms emerging fully-formed from new technology, new forms of media are produced via a process of back-and-forth between new technology and older mediums. As video game designers draw more and more hungrily upon literary and cinematic works of science fiction, it is important to think about what the process of remediation does to these works and how the process might be improved.

In his review of Karen Traviss’ latest wookiebook Gears of War: Aspho Fields (2009), Nader Elhefnawy states that :

“It is certainly true that on the level of storytelling, games have become much more sophisticated during the last three decades.”

This seems to be the received opinion on the matter and it is easy to see why that would be the case. Back in the 1970s, early games such as Space Invaders (1978) or Breakout (1976) lacked anything approaching a story. They provided a simple game-play mechanic, skill with which was rewarded with points that gave you extra ‘lives’ that allowed you to play for even longer and thereby earn more points. In the case of Pac-man (1980) – a terrifying game involving someone’s jaundiced and disembodied head floating around an infinite maze furiously gobbling pills in an attempt to ward off the ghosts that dog him at every turn – this lack of story was probably for the best.

Since then, games have progressed from introductory text giving the game some kind of context to the use of increasingly sophisticated cut-scenes; lavish pre-rendered cinematic vignettes that fill in the story with the help of named characters, settings, themes and plot-lines all told through the miracle of cutting-edge graphical wizardy and the best actors you can find for bus fare and a cup of coffee. The unassailable king of cut-scenes is Hideo Kojima, the creator of the hugely successful Metal Gear series. While the Metal Gear series is mostly an action game with stealth elements, its elaborate back-story includes SF tropes drawn from both western film and Japanese manga.

However, one thing that struck me when I was last playing a Metal Gear game is that the back-story has really very little impact upon play. So while interminable cut scenes might well drone on about government conspiracies, clones and giant robots, the game is really about sneaking around killing people. Sometimes you sneak around killing people inside. Sometimes you do it outside. Occasionally a boss appears and he has to be killed by sneaking around in a slightly different way. Once you boil Metal Gear right down, it is still remarkably similar to Space Invaders. In fact, imagine a game of Lode Runner (1983) or Green Beret (1985) with half-hour cut scenes in between the levels and you pretty much have the Metal Gear experience in a nut shell.

The truth is that while video games have acquired more and more elaborate cut-scenes telling stories around the game, these are no different in narrative terms to a Last Starfighter machine permanently barking its mournful nonsense about Star Leagues and the Ko-Dan armada to anyone that will listen. What Elhefnawy and most gamers refer to as “storytelling” is really nothing more than aesthetic framing. An example of what happens when this realisation hits home can be found in Penny Arcade’s reaction to Electronic Arts’ Army of Two (2008). Holkins and Krahulik’s realisation that Army of Two is all about mass-murder and conspicuous consumption rather than the tiresome conspiracy plot conveyed through the game’s cut scenes is what William S. Burroughs referred to as a ‘Naked Lunch’ moment; an instant frozen in time when you realise “what is on the end of every fork”.

The process of remediation involving video games is a simple one. Films and books are stripped of their characters, plot-lines and genre tropes, these elements are then rendered in CGI and used to frame an emergent action-based story that frequently has little or nothing to do with any of these things. For example, consider Electronic Arts’ 2006 adaptation of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972). The film is a story about the betrayal, scheming and violence that lies beneath the genteel exterior of Italian-American organised crime and the ways in which the bond of family can turn an honest man into a murderous criminal.

The game of The Godfather includes much of the film as backdrop, but chooses to focus instead upon the bit about becoming a merderous criminal. In the film there are only a handful of murders and each of these is treated as genuinely horrifying. In the game, dozens of business owners are tortured into paying protection money while in the back of their shops lurk men armed with machine guns who need to be murdered by the hundreds in order to progress through the game. In this case, the process of remediation reduced an epic family melodrama to the pornography of relentless carnage and brutality.

The same can be said of non-video games such as Dungeons and Dragons. A 1970s attempt to bring traditional war game mechanics down to an individual scale and combine it with fantasy trappings, D&D‘s narratives transcended the epic sagas of Tolkien in order to become what can only be described as a right-wing wet dream in which a bunch of thugs set out into the middle of nowhere where they murder and kill everything they come across in order to stockpile gold and elaborate magical bling. There are no taxes, no state, no government and any poor people that get in the way of the heroes are likely to get their village burned to the ground. Look behind the aesthetic framing borrowed from Tolkien, Vance, Lieber or Moorcock and you have a game that is effectively Ayn Rand on PCP.

The problem is that ultimately, playing games is not about narrative. It is about an interactive experience that is supposed to be fun and challenging. In order to enable the gaming experience to be fun and challenging, designers have to focus upon not only the means rather than the ends of stories, but upon the continual process of optimisation that makes up a game’s difficulty curve. Whether it is working out how to cross the ball accurately in FIFA 2009 (2008), finding the best approach to a mission given your skill-set in Deus Ex (2000), or coming up with the best combination of armours, weapons and buffs in World of Warcraft (2004) optimisation and efficiency are what are at the centre of game-play. Not drama. Not characterisation. Not narrative. This means that the lives of video game characters are comparable to those of only the most demented of psychopaths as even the most mundane of choices becomes an opportunity not to express your individuality but to gain an advantage over the outside world.

Even games that allow you to chose between good and evil such as, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (2003), Fable (2004) or BioShock (2007) present you with moral choices that are on a par with choice of haircut or colour of hat; make one choice and you look one way, make another choice and you look another. Neither have a really meaningful impact upon your character’s story or in any way interrupt the unending quest for power and money that is the life of your average character.

However, far from being a criticism of video games as a medium or of individual games as works of art, my point is that rather than pasting old works of media into games, designers should instead focus on the kinds of stories that might well work natively inside the medium of games without the need for artificial aesthetic framing.

Aside from sports games and narrative-less games that accept the fact that they are simply kinaesthetic playthings (the Guitar Hero series and many of the native games for the Nintendo Wii) or elaborate puzzles (all versions of Tetris), some games do seem to understand their medium better than some of the others I have mentioned

Two notable examples are Fallout 3 (2008) and Assassin’s Creed (2007). Assassin’s Creed is a blend of different types of medium in a way that seems to embody the concept of Remediation. The aesthetic framing of the game is SFnal and deals with some future plot involving the Knights Templar but for much of the game it is kept entirely separate from the game itself. This is presented as a game-within-a-game in which an assassin moves around medieval Palestine killing people, climbing buildings and performing various tasks for reasons that have no more value, emotional content or meaning than the movements of the pieces in a game of snakes and ladders. The film then places these episodes of play (but not really their content) in a wider narrative that you can follow if you choose to.

By contrast, Fallout 3 is a much more traditional narrative. The game contains cut-scenes and wider attempts at aesthetic narrative framing but by the standards of most games, this framing is minimal. Play is similar to that of your average D&D game in that it is mostly made up of your character wandering around killing things and taking their stuff but rather than being anomalous or unbelievable, the behaviour is entirely appropriate to the genre. From Mad Max (1979) to Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz (1960) and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006), the Post-apocalyptic genre is all about picking over the bones of an old civilisation and reacting to it as though its institutions and values are somehow alien to you. Indeed, the similarities between Fallout 3 and Bethesda Game Studios’ previous RPG Oblivion (2006) wonderfully demonstrates the extent to which D&D arguably owes as much to the Post-apocalyptic genre as it does to Fantasy.

The best way for existing works of science fiction to coexist with the new media of video games is not by providing aesthetic framing in the manner of Karen Traviss’ tie-in novels or through old media cut-scenes designed to make games look like traditional forms of story-telling. The only way forward is by developing themes that mesh flawlessly with the play experience. Most games are about de-humanised protagonists trying to make their way through a fiendish maze in which they die over and over again as they try to work out the best path to the exit. Funnily enough, that’s almost the exact plot of Algis Budrys’ Rogue Moon (1960).


Jonathan McCalmontJonathan McCalmont is a recovering academic with a background in philosophy and political science. He lives in London, UK where he teaches and writes about books and films for a number of different venues. Like Howard Beale in Network, he is as mad as hell and he’s not going to take this any more.

Jonathan recently launched Fruitless Recursion – “an online journal devoted to discussing works of criticism and non-fiction relating to the SF, Fantasy and Horror genres.” If you liked the column above, you’ll love it.

[ The fractal in the Blasphemous Geometries header image is a public domain image lifted from Zyzstar. ]

4 thoughts on “Genre and storytelling in video games”

  1. Interesting thought that, once you strip all the cutscenes and fluff away, all videogames are basically the same. I don’t think it is always a matter of “kill kill kill” or “kill people, take their stuff.”

    The gameplay of “Silent Hill”, for example, involves exploring a hostile environment, looking for weapons and clues. However, instead of a sense of mastery, the experience is one of fear and dread, knowing that there are ugly, disturbing things out there in the dark, stalking you, and as the game progresses, you remain an ordinary schmoe with a gun and a crackling radio.

    The mental state of “Silent Hill” is paranoia rather than psychotic egomania, but it does suggest that gameplay can produce different feelings and emotions.

  2. Actually what I’d say about Silent Hill is that it’s not really that different to your average shooter/action game other than in level or difficulty and in art direction. I recently started playing BioShock and was impressed by the art direction at the beginning of the game and the sense of tangible dread when you step out into this ruined and creaky underwater city. However, within 10 minutes I was back in my comfort zone and realised that the game is really no different to any other shooter… it just doesn’t have manly space marines fighting aliens.

    Silent Hill is a game with very very good art direction (the first one I mean, never played the others) but beyond that, it’s essentially telling the same story as Resident Evil (kill monsters, run from monsters, solve puzzles).

  3. Have you actually played through BioShock? Because judging from your comments, I would say not. I’m not criticizing you like an angry fanboy, merely suggesting that you actually play through the entire thing and THEN say what you will about it. The reason is because the game deals with a lot of what you are talking about, and despite a lot of conventions common to many shooters, such as lots and lots of killing, ultimately the gameplay of BioShock is intrinsically tied into its theme and there is no separation of the two. This seems to be exactly what you are looking for and is in fact why I personally consider BioShock the most pure form of a video game as a work of art because it exploits conventions that are relative to the medium of video games alone.

  4. Also see: Eternal Darkness. Though not as radical or revolutionary as BioShock, this game’s gameplay is also directly affected by the theme of insanity that the story and game both center around.

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