I consider myself to be an open-minded person. No matter how unlikely or far-fetched a scenario may seem, I like to at least acknowledge that it is theoretically possible. In the realm of interactive storytelling, this means that I want to believe that any video game at least has the potential to tell a compelling story, regardless of its type or genre, even if this means acknowledging the narrative potential of things like sports games, fighting games, and flight simulators.
However, the most difficult pill for me to swallow has been that arcade games could somehow tell compelling stories.
Yes, I am required to begrudgingly admit that arcade games, those impersonal frustration generators, do at least have the potential to tell a great story, even though the vast majority of them seem to focus entirely on mechanics, visual style, and music, with most of them barely even having a narrative premise, let alone a full-fledged, meaningful plot. Tetris, Pac-Man, Frogger, Donkey Kong, Dance Dance Revolution, and whatever umpteenth take on the racing game your local arcade happens to have: these aren’t exactly the first games that come to mind when you think of your favorite video game stories. However, just because many arcade games don’t particularly focus on storytelling, it doesn’t mean they can’t.
I maintained this position for a long time without a concrete example to point to, but now I believe I’ve found one, even if it was never actually released in arcades: Tokyo Jungle. It’s an odd game, indeed, and one that could easily have been released in arcades, despite having been released long after the arcade ceased to be a sustainable business model. While it may seem that arcade games are inherently less narrative-focused than PC or console games, Tokyo Jungle’s clever pairing of gameplay and narrative premise demonstrates that they actually possess untold amounts of narrative potential; most interestingly of all, this is done not in spite of Tokyo Jungle being an arcade game, but as a direct result of it.
Arcade Games: An Introduction
Before we examine how Tokyo Jungle so cleverly used the trappings of arcade games to engage in storytelling and make an interesting philosophical point, we need to ask ourselves one thing: what exactly is an “arcade game”? The name would suggest that it’s just any game that was playable in an arcade, but I would argue that there’s more to the term that just that. For the purposes of this article, we will define an arcade game as one that, at its core, prompts players to focus on the competitive aspects of playing it, sometimes by fostering direct competition with other players, and often by challenging players to get as far into the game experience as their skills allowed, with the experience ending definitively as soon as the player “lost.” (You may have noticed that at no point in the foregoing did I mention that they had to have been playable in arcades. This is done deliberately. Even as arcades themselves slowly went extinct, the spirit of the entertainment within has lived on; it’s just on consoles, PCs, tablets, and smartphones now, rather than on big, bulky machines that can only play a single game.)
On the surface, it seems there isn’t anything inherently counter to good storytelling in that definition, but the implicit dichotomy persists nonetheless. Why, then, do we seem to believe that arcade games can’t tell meaningful stories?
I believe we can find the answer to this question by considering arcade games’ heritage. The roots of video games as a creative medium can be traced back to a variety of different things. While video game storytelling seems to derive primarily from other visual storytelling mediums, like theatre or cinema, the competitive aspect of video games is likely descended from the similarly competitive nature of board games and sports. We as a culture seem to have this expectation that a video game can take inspiration from one or the other, but not both. Perhaps this is because cinema and theatre are so different from board games and sports: the former are predominantly artistic pursuits, while the latter are typically thought of as a hobby or pastime.
Another reason we think arcade games can’t tell stories relates to something crucial in story structure that arcade games, by definition, lack: a clear ending. How can you tell a full story, with a beginning, middle, and end, if the end is unpredictable to the person telling the story? Since the ending of an arcade game simply occurs when the game’s challenges have become too much for the player to handle, it seems writers are at a considerable disadvantage when creating a story for an arcade game. The ending needs to be applicable and “meaningful” regardless of whether it happens immediately or whether the player is so skilled the ending doesn’t come for several hours. It seems that story structure and scale are incompatible with the format of an arcade game.
Those two phenomena—competition for the sake of competition, and an ending that is flexible and uncontrollable for the writer—seem to nix the ability of most stories to unfold in the setting of an arcade game. This brings up an interesting question: if we can’t get away from the competition and the variable endings of arcade games, might it be possible, then, to tell a meaningful story in an arcade game by not just finding ways to contend with these qualities, but rather by embracing them outright? As it turns out, the answer is yes, and there is a video game out there that manages to make a clear philosophical argument by doing precisely that.
Tokyo Jungle and the Pointlessness of Life
Tokyo Jungle is a PS3-exclusive game released in 2012. It’s set in Tokyo, after a mysterious event that has caused all humans in the city to suddenly vanish. Now, the animals have taken over the city: pets roam the streets, exotic animals have escaped from the zoo, and for the most part, the only things that indicate there were ever humans there are all are the increasingly overgrown buildings and city streets. The player takes control of an animal trying to survive in the wilds of post-humanity Tokyo, eating food, marking territory, and finding a mate, in order to reproduce and begin the process anew, playing as members of the next generation.
Tokyo Jungle is absolutely an arcade game, with a global leaderboard spurring competition between players, and a gaming experience that ends definitively when a player’s skill level is exceeded by the ever-increasing challenge level of the game, which in this case means increasingly powerful predators are more common and food is harder to find. However, it does manage to tell a meaningful story.
What exactly do I mean by a “meaningful story”? I define a meaningful story as a sequence of events that collectively communicate an important idea. Exactly what constitutes an important idea will vary from person to person, of course, but somehow, I doubt that the idea that a frog can only cross a road if it avoids being run over by vehicles or the idea that blocks won’t disappear unless they fit together perfectly will be considered important by many people. (I fully acknowledge that I could be mistaken, though… open-mindedness, remember?) This is what sets Tokyo Jungle apart from other arcade games. While a player’s drive to master the game’s challenges is just as pointless as any other arcade game, its narrative premise allows for its pointlessness, ironically, to be its point.
With the humans gone, the animals in the city of Tokyo do just what animals have done in the wild for millennia: they compete to find food, avoid being eaten by larger animals, and reproduce, for no reason at all other than that this will allow the individuals and the species to continue existing, so that the new members can do exactly the same thing, with the same goal of reproducing, with the same motivation that it will allow yet another generation to do this all over again.
Experiencing Darwinian survival for no reason than simply doing as well as you can provokes players to question the setup of the game, and wonder what the point of it all is. When they realize the setup they’re questioning is life itself, they’ll realize just how brilliant Tokyo Jungle is. The point of Tokyo Jungle is to demonstrate that life is, at its core, pointless, and that the only important goals are to prolong it as much as one can for the simple reason that it’s the only alternative to death, which is undesirable for the simple reason that it’s not life.
It doesn’t take long for one to connect the game’s central idea of animals competing for resources to one’s own life. On the surface, it may seem that the human race is different from the other animals. (It would appear that the makers of Tokyo Jungle disagree; two of the DLC species you can play as are Homo erectus and the modern-day office worker, hilariously.) After all, most of us do have goals that we work toward aside from procreation. The ultimate goal there is to increase our level of happiness.
After playing Tokyo Jungle, however, one is impelled to think about human goals as being unsettlingly similar to those of the animals. While humans work to further the happiness of themselves or of those around them, it is only temporary. As soon as we die, our happiness ceases to mean anything to anyone or have any impact on reality whatsoever. Even if, in pursuing your own happiness, you left a lasting impact on the world that remained after your own death, if you founded a charity that changed the lives of impoverished children or discovered the cure for a deadly disease, that only means you were able to increase the happiness of other people, which is similarly temporary. The most you can hope for is that the happiness you create in others provokes them to do something that is similarly tangible, so the process can begin again. The purpose of making others happy beyond your own life is so they will use that to make others happy in a similar way, in an endless cycle of avoiding sadness because it’s not happiness, which is good simply because it’s not sadness.
Does that sound familiar?
The ultimate pointlessness of life itself is the grand point that Tokyo Jungle makes, and its format, an arcade game that spurs competition for seemingly no reason, is integral in making its point and getting players to agree with it, by putting them in the shoes (paws?) of those whose lives are more obviously pointless and prompting players to draw connections between the events of the game and their own lives.
Arcade games have something of a reputation as being just about as narratively bankrupt as video games can get, probably because they feel more like similarly aimless competitive pastimes like playing sports than they do any artistic medium, and because their point of conclusion is variable.
They don’t have to be so resistant to narrative significance, however: Tokyo Jungle has shown just how the arcade game format can be used to make a deep philosophical point, demonstrating that arcade games hold more potential than most people give them credit for, and hinting at what might be done with the format in the right hands. I hope to see more games in the future as important as Tokyo Jungle.
 That’s not to say this is inherently true: this is simply the commonly accepted perspective on these activities. People can indeed think of cinema and theatre as mere pastimes or think of board games and sports as telling stories, but I think most would reject this view. Even though you could retroactively frame any sequence of events as a story, sports matches included, this does not mean the story of one team running faster and carrying an egg-shaped ball more skillfully than another is “meaningful” in the sense that I define below. Similarly, one could argue that Monopoly or Candy Land tells a story, but as stories go, they’re about as detailed and meaningful as, well, a frog crossing the street and avoiding vehicles, or blocks falling into place so as to leave as little empty space as possible.
 A.k.a. devoid of meaning, specifically narrative meaning.