The Basic Argument
There’s a reasonably common set of arguments that starts with the assertions that different forms of media are intrinsically better suited to conveying specific things and as a result of that, certain stories are best told using specific media. I currently agree with this assertion. I think that Asterios Polyp for instance is best told as a comic book and that Tommy works best as an album. Similarly, I don’t see how Mario or Zelda work as anything but a game.
The second argument in this set is that the medium of video games is particularly well suited to interactive stories. I agree with this as well as it feels self-evident. While I don’t believe interaction is exclusive to video games, it is the medium that has done the most to explore them and the only mass medium in which interactivity is fully integrated. This argument is much of what informs my upcoming game The Quiet Sleep.
The problem arises in an argument that I often see spun off from the above two. The reasoning goes that if games are better at communicating interactive stories then more linear media, such as books, movies or television, are better at communicating non-interactive stories, and so games with a low degree of interactivity would be better done in a different medium. The problem however is that the inversion of the statement requires its own, separate proof. This is to say that the idea that games are better at interactive stories doesn’t imply that they are worse at non-interactive stories. It is also possible for them to be equal to or better than other media at these stories. An additional argument is necessary if one is to make a comparison.
An example where this comes up is with games like Gone Home. Walking simulators as a class tend to see this argument lobbed against them, but linear IF like Photopia, see it as well.
An obvious attempt at this argument would be to say that there are many examples of exceptional linear narratives told through linear media and not a single indisputable example from video games. This absence does not imply anything about the suitability of the medium as a whole however, especially given how many factors are involved in the creation of any form of art. Essentially, a large number of missed shots doesn’t mean that the target cannot be hit, it just means that a lot of shots have missed. The argument needs to be on the nature of the target itself.
Another attempt at the argument would be to state that media like books and movies are more formalized than games and have a long history of great work to draw from and so it is easier for someone to fully realize their story in one of those media, but that’s not a problem intrinsic to the medium, just to the amount of work that we’ve done on it. Every new game makes diminishes this problem a little further.
I think the stories that are best suited to be games are highly interactive and systems-driven. This however does not preclude the existence of stories that are far less interactive, but still most suited to video games. The real point to make is the same that I have stated throughout this article, which is that I have yet to see a compelling argument against their existence and so cannot state definitively that they do not exist. I do also want to point out how well something like Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons uses its mechanics to represent one brother channeling the other in what is a very linear narrative.
Identifying These Games
Ancillary to this argument, but still interesting, is what exactly are these low-interactivity games that people criticize? I think that to avoid the epithet, a game needs to satisfy at least one of the following conditions:
- It needs to have an underlying system. This system doesn’t have to be the most important part of the game, or be deep enough to cover the entire game, but it does need to exist. This is what makes something like the Final Fantasy series immune from this criticism and also what makes Tetris or Canabalt safe. This even works for puzzles, and so encompasses games like The Witness and Machinarium.
- It needs to have major narrative branches. I think that one of the main arguments against these games is that they don’t afford the level of self-expression and autonomy that players desire and proper narrative branches greatly helps ameliorate that issue. Additionally, it makes the idea of translating the game to a more traditional media form non-trivial.
This may be an attempt to rationalize something that really boils down to “This game doesn’t look like other things that I’ve played that I know are games.” However, not all new games face this criticism, and so I think the above litmus test, where a game manages to satisfy either of the above conditions, might be reasonable.
While the label of the medium, and such things as the tools you use to experience it, does change the act of experiencing any work, I feel that the labels themselves are somewhat artificial. By discarding these labels, we can restate the central criticism as “there exists a range of interactivity for which every story would be better if remade so as to lie outside of this range.” This is highly reminiscent of the uncanny valley and is in itself plausible, but when postulated like this feels arbitrary. Again, while it is entirely possible that it is true, it requires proof. Divorcing the statement from the labels of different media makes it clear how arbitrary this valley would be if it were to exist.
A possible explanation for this valley though would be that there is a minimum amount of interactivity required without which the player will question why they are not able to exercise a greater degree of autonomy. For instance, in Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, I did not want to go into the tunnel, but the game did not give me the option to avoid doing so and that lack was frustrating at the moment and made worse by the consequences of going into that tunnel. However, I think that in this case the issue was less the lack of autonomy overall and more that the moment did not play well.
Assorted Further Thoughts
There are some interesting side-notes that come up as a result of this article.
- As every game designer knows, it is not the amount of interactivity that matters as much as the amount of interactivity that they player feels they have.
- A textbook seems like it counts as an interactive book. The reader has problems to solve at the end of every chapter. It’s basically a puzzle game with extended text-only cutscenes.
- Another theoretical case that falls in this space is a movie that asks the player a question at the beginning and wants an answer at the end, like a recording of a court case which asks you if you think the defendant is guilty or a Sophie’s Choice-style piece. Asking the player the question does fundamentally change how the player experiences the piece, especially if you record the answer and check against the solution or what other people chose. In a movie or novel, you can get away with losing track of the pieces or just passively waiting for the answer, but this would pressure the player into focusing more on what is going on.
I do not believe that there is any strong proof for the idea that traditional linear media like books and movies are better suited to stories with a low degree of interactivity than games.