Story as Archaeology

Dan Whitehead has an article over at Eurogamer (via RPS) on that old ‘play versus story’ bugbear. While I disagree with the argument — that games are an unsuitable medium for the sort of story written by Proper Writers, who should let players create their own, emergent stories — I do agree with some of the conclusions:

Artists create art, and it’s difficult to delegate such an important part of your process to the player’s own imagination. It’s more reassuring to lay it all out, to say “here’s the story, right here, come and see” than to willingly vanish and step back into the role of facilitator rather than narrator. Yet that’s where gaming’s strength lies, not as storyteller but as story generator. That’s our point of difference, the one thing that Hollywood, with its celebrities, glamour and cultural cachet, can’t begin to replicate.

Only when games accept that unique strength, take pride in it, and stop borrowing the clothes of others, will they truly achieve their potential as the only truly new creative medium of the last 100 years.

My concise answer to the ‘games should just be games’ argument is: go play Morrowind and Dark Souls.

The slightly longer version is this: the problem is form, not whose fingerprints are on the story. Morrowind is my absolute favourite game, ever, and its ‘official’, pre-written story is one of the main reasons for this. This isn’t to say that there aren’t a lot of opportunities for the game’s player to author his or her own stories, as well: in fact, Morrowind actively encourages all sorts of imaginative roleplay. The thing that makes Morrowind‘s story a success, though, is the way it is presented.

To explain the distinction, I’m going to have to defile the much-bothered corpse of Russian Formalism. In short: a narrative can be regarded as having two parts, the story itself (the fabula) and the way it is told (the syuzhet). The core of Morrowind‘s fabula — it’s history, quests, NPCs, geography, art, religion and social conflicts — is all pre-written, though with room for interpretation. In this, Morrowind is just like all those dreadful cinematic games, albeit much richer in content.

The game’s syuzhet is anything but cinematic, though. Morrowind is extremely (perhaps excessively) coy about its narrative. Instead, the player must unearth it in pieces by performing quests, exploring and dungeon-delving — which happen to be the game’s core activities. In other words: play drives the story, and the story encourages play. Morrowind turns its players into active tellers of its story: they become archaeologists.

There are no insurmountable obstacles to telling a good story with a game. What is needed is a bit of inventiveness, and some sensitivity to the form. That, and a healthy disdain for the wretched, zombie corpse of cinema.

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