Crispy Gamer

Why games are more like tricycles

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For the record, if I had to choose between living on the bleeding edge of gaming in 2010 and staring at this picture of a tricycle the whole year, I would probably choose the tricycle.

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WARNING: Stuck-up rant ahead! I like a good story. Who doesn't? But I'm incredibly bored by this idea that a medium is "mature" when it can "tell a great story." I like a good character, and a provacative scenario, and an interesting past, and choices and consequences and choose your own adventure. Who doesn't? But when these subjects come up in interviews with creators, they usually come off like design problems just waiting to be solved, rather than artistic questions to be explored. It really, really bugs me when a rationalist designer's mentality stands in for creative inspiration as if they are one and the same. The darker implication is that the latter doesn't really need to exist in such a commercial medium as gaming.

For whatever reason, "story" (or its indie inverse, "meta-narrative") has achieved this Holy Grail status in your average gaming discourse simply by default. Let's all conveniently ignore all cases to the contrary -- Space Invaders, Tetris, Civilization -- because they're so much harder to talk about. Gaming is part of that postindustrial culture where "characters" are attached to "franchises" that are bought and sold so that endless iterations of our favorite "narratives" can be monetized. "Story" itself is some kind of valuable unit. I realize this may come across as very naive to the brutal realities of how cultural capital works in the 21st century. I would argue that the oft-repeated concept-catchphrase "when games can tell a truly great story that's when we'll know gaming has finally arrived & established its place in culture etc." seems (purposely) naive to much more important aspects of creativity. For example, a sense of pace, a sense of form, a sense of color, a sense of texture, a sense of atmosphere, a sense of timbre, you know, the senses.

Maybe "great storytelling" is just the new suit-approved shorthand for "the transcendent and/or uncanny experience of being confronted by a piece of art whose pieces all seem to align perfectly and seemingly incidentally like the spines on a lionfish." But I doubt it. If something is being sold, then it's necessary to filter out all those complex, basically irrational machinations beneath creativity. Consumers will need something to hang onto, some quantifiable-on-a-scale-of-1-to-10 reason that ultimately isn't there.

So I think this easy notion of "great storytelling" is actually quite cynical in nature. In any case, it's completely incapable of providing any insight as to why this William Eggleston photograph of a tricycle is considered a masterpiece and why its corresponding body of work was instrumental in allowing photography to "mature" into the color era.

But this isn't an argument for fine art. Galleries are for selling stuff too. It's just that, instead of "great storytelling," they use phrases like "the artist has produced a multifaceted account which challenges acquired knowledge and truths, interrogating geo-political, art historical and gender issues related to given cultural contexts using a range of different media." You know, important-sounding B.S. that doesn't have anything to do with the actual work before you. I guess I am just saying that "great storytelling" is just a red herring; and that the things in games that affect me most, the things I remember most clearly, are the much smaller, seemingly incidental moments that might be accredited to an anonymous sound or texture artist or level designer. Like this room in Half-Life, a donutlike space where you play cat-and-mouse with a couple zombies that, for me, contains something of the whole queasy adventure that followed:

 
I'll never forget this room.