“Video Games are Better without Stories”: A Reply

Jane Austen wrote her first novel, Northanger Abbey, at a time when novels were a young medium, not taken seriously as a form of art of storytelling. Acutely aware of this stigma, Austen had occasion to criticize this dismissal of novels. I quote from Chapter 5.

“Although our productions [i.e., novels] have afforded more extensive and unaffected pleasure than those of any other literary corporation in the world, no species of composition has been so much decried. From pride, ignorance, or fashion, our foes are almost as many as our readers… there seems almost a general wish of decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labour of the novelist, and of slighting the performances which have only genius, wit, and taste to recommend them. “I am no novel reader–I seldom look into novels–Do not imagine that I often read novels–It is really very well for a novel.” Such is the common cant.–“And what are you reading, Miss–?” “Oh! It is only a novel!” replies the young lady; while she lays down her books with affected indifference, or momentary shame.–“It is only Cecelia, or Camilla, or Belinda;” or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language.”

I think the best way to read Austen here is this: she’s suggesting that novel’s were dismissed primarily because they were a young art form, and as such, some people were apt to dismiss its value out-of-hand. Something similar, I want to suggest, is going on in Ian Bogost’s article, “Video Games are Better without Stories.”

No doubt, Bogost isn’t suggesting—as others like Roger Ebert suggested before him—that video games aren’t art. He suggests that they are well suited for artistically “taking the tidy, ordinary world apart and putting it back together again in surprising, ghastly new ways.” But his insistence that video game aren’t narrative media strikes me as somewhat antiquated in the same way that Austen’s imagined opponents of the novel are antiquated: they voice a doubt about the medium of video games that has long since been disproven. It’s telling, in this regard, that Bogost frames his article with the theme of video games achieving what Star Trek’s Holodeck achieved: even if he didn’t intend this, the framing can’t help but evoke Hamlet on the Holodeck, an influential book that Janet Murray wrote about interactive storytelling twenty years ago. Video games have evolved radically as a medium since then, and it’s evident that, contra Bogost, there are robust stories that “need to be told as a video game.”

To be fair, Bogost isn’t alone in his view: there is a whole tradition of video-game theorists who call themselves ludologists and claim that video games are fundamentally games, not stories. Ludologists, in the tradition of Espen Aarseth and Jesper Juul, tend to think that the stories present in video games are just facades pasted over the gameplay, and that trying to understand video games using the tools of narrative theory is a category mistake. Bogost puts himself in the ludologist camp when, near the end of his article, he slides from talk about video games to talk about games simply: “[to] use games to tell stories is a fine goal, I suppose,” he concedes, “but it’s also an unambitious one. Games are not a new, interactive medium for stories. Instead, games are the aesthetic form of everyday objects.”

I think the ludologists’ position is only attractive when you attempt to analyze “video games” as the huge category of every possible sort of electronic game, from Tetris to PAC-MAN to BioShock to online chess. When you ask what unifies all of these different things, it’s easy to suppose like Bogost that video games are just in the business of “[showing] players the unseen uses of ordinary materials.” And similarly, when people like Murray insist that all such video games are storytelling objects because even Tetris tells a story as “a perfect enactment of the overtasked lives of Americans in the 1990s,” the case for video games telling stories can seem a little silly (Hamlet on the Holodeck, p. 144).

But there’s no reason to suppose that this is the right approach to analyzing the storytelling capabilities of video games. Why should we suppose, after all, that there’s anything especially interesting in common between online chess and BioShock? Instead, we should focus on just those video games that clearly tell stories, and ask ourselves whether Bogost’s claims about all video games holds true for these particular, storytelling video games. Is it true that those video games that clearly tell stories accomplish no “feats of storytelling”? Is it true that the stories these video games tell are “stuck in perpetual adolescence”? Perhaps most crucially, is it true that the stories of these video games could be better told through the medium of the novel, or the medium of a film? I want to look at three such video games—Spec Ops: The Line, Bloodborne, and BioShock—and show why Bogost’s arguments against video games as a storytelling medium don’t hold up.

Spec Ops is something like a video-game reimagining of Heart of Darkness or Apocalypse Now. The avatar is Captain Martin Walker, the leader of a Delta Force team sent to evacuate hostages and find a stranded Colonel John Konrad in post-disaster Dubai. As the player guides Walker and his team through Dubai, they are repeatedly confronted with the horrors of war: brutally disfigured people, insurgent fighting, collapsed neighborhoods, and so on. Although the player doesn’t realize it at first, Walker is slowly driven insane by these horrors. And, as Walker loses his mind, he commits unspeakable atrocities: murdering civilians, fellow American soldiers, and so on. Eventually he reaches the location of Konrad’s distress signal, only to find that Konrad was long dead, and Walker was hallucinating Konrad’s voice over his radio. When Walker reaches Konrad’s dead body, a hallucinated Konrad appears before Walker and confronts him about his war crimes. Walker tries to defend himself by saying that he “had no choice,” and Konrad counters that he always had a choice: he could have stopped, given up the mission, and gone home, but instead he chose to keep going.

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What’s crucial about this story is that Konrad’s criticism of Walker is even more appropriate when conceived as a criticism of the player. Spec Ops has a storyline that’s largely (but not entirely) linear, which is to say that there are many events in the story that the player is unable to avoid as she plays through the game. Because of this linearity, the player has no option to make Walker (for example) spare all of the American soldiers as he progresses through Dubai: if she wants to play through the story, then she has to make her avatar, Walker, commit the horrible actions that he does. But just as Konrad said to Walker, the player could have at any point stopped playing the game: she knew that her avatar, Walker, was committing morally repugnant acts, and yet she chose to keep playing the game. Ultimately, the player ends up being morally blameworthy in a way that even Walker isn’t: whereas Walker was insane while he was committing war crimes, the player was perfectly sane, yet chose to continue to allow Walker to commit war crimes in virtue of continuing to play the game.

Spec Ops does something that traditional storytelling media like novels and film can’t: it makes the player responsible and blameworthy for the content of the narrative. A novel like Apocalypse Now might make you feel guilty about war generally, but it won’t make you blameworthy or responsible for the actions of Walter E. Kurtz. Moreover, this special feature of video game storytelling—that is, making the consumer of the narrative responsible for the content of the narrative—is possible in video games precisely because, contra Bogost, the player really is “able to exert agency upon the dramatic arc of the plot.” There are more obvious examples of this—e.g., the player being able to actually determine which of multiple narrative endings obtain in a game like Dishonored—but the Spec Ops example is instructive because it shows that the player is able to exert agency over the narrative simply by playing the game. To play a video game is to actualize various possible events within that game; without the player’s input, these events would never be actualized, and so it follows that the player is responsible for those events obtaining. (I’ve argued for this further elsewhere.)

Bloodborne is an altogether different beast of a video game, trading in war story for Lovecraftian horror-fantasy. The story follows a “hunter of beasts,” the player’s avatar, who arrives in a land called Yharnam seeking “Paleblood.” Over the course of the game, the player faces countless varieties of monsters before ultimately encountering “Great Ones”: god-like, tentacled creatures existing beyond the pale of human ken, much like Lovecraft’s Cthulhu and other Great Old Ones. At the game’s climax, the player can either have her avatar submit to ritual execution by the beast hunt’s leader in order to be freed from the nightmare world to which she is bound, or her avatar can kill the hunt’s leader and become the new leader of the hunt, or the avatar can kill one final Great One (a being living in the moon) and be reborn as an infant Great One. Immediately after finishing the game, the hunt begins again: the player and her avatar are returned to the beginning of the story to play again.

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There’s a vast wealth of further lore driving Bloodborne’s story, but the point I want to make is just this: Bloodborne’s narrative, which is structured in myriad ways like a dream, builds on Lovecraftian horror in a way that only a video game could. The game exploits an unusual shift in perspective: when it first opens, the player sees the world in a first-person perspective (i.e. seeing through the eyes of the avatar), and a Blood Minister applies a blood transfusion to them, telling the player not to worry: “Whatever happens, you may think it all a mere bad dream. The player then hears a voice (later identified as that of an animate doll) say “Ah, you’ve found yourself a hunter,” at which point the player’s avatar—now seen from a third-person perspective (i.e. the player sees the avatar from a perspective external to the avatar)—rises from the blood transfusion table, the story beginning in earnest; the player has a third-person perspective on her avatar and the world for the rest of the game. Elsewhere I’ve argued that this opening sequence and other aspects of the game’s narrative suggest that the game begins with the player—addressed directly by the Blood Minister and Doll in the first-person portion of the game—being put to sleep; the rest of the game is thus a mere dream that the player is having, with the avatar acting as the player’s representation within the dream. This explains why, regardless of which narrative ending the player chooses, she is always thrust back to the story’s beginning immediately afterwards, trapped in a cyclical dream with no real means of waking up.

What does this dream structure have to do with Lovecraft? Lovecraft was quoted as saying that “[the] oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” His horror is grounded in this fear of the unknown: not the “unknown” of not knowing that a jump scare is about to happen, but rather the “unknown” of that which exists beyond all human understanding. Cthulhu is horrifying because it poses a question to readers: what reason do you have to believe that there aren’t superintelligent beings existing right alongside us, so advanced that we could never be aware of their existence unless they decided to reveal themselves to you (at which point you would immediately go insane)? Bloodborne develops this idea even further. Consider the position of the avatar: to the avatar within the world of Bloodborne’s fiction, the world seems real, and it presumably seems to the avatar as if she has control over her own actions. Yet the player knows that neither of these things is true: the avatar is a mere dream representation of the player, and the player is the one dictating the avatar’s actions. In this way, Bloodborne takes skepticism about an external world (“How can I know that I’m not dreaming right now?”) and combines it with skepticism about free will (“How can I know I have control over my own actions?”) to pose a new and philosophically challenging question: How can I know that I’m not like Bloodborne’s avatar, trapped in an illusory world and controlled by someone external to that illusion? This epistemic puzzle and the horror that it lends to Bloodborne’s narrative scarcely strike me as symptoms of a story “stuck in perpetual adolescence”; and, like Spec Ops, they rely on the relation between player and avatar—a relation that can’t be replicated in other narrative media.

Let’s turn lastly to BioShock. Bogost is not impressed with BioShock’s story: “The payoff [for gathering information on the story],” he says, “if that’s the right word for it, is a tepid reprimand against blind compliance, the very conceit the BioShock player would have to embrace to play the game in the first place.” This, I take it, is in reference to the revelation midway through the game that, although the player thought she was freely deciding the actions of Jack (her avatar), Jack was actually being mind-controlled by another character, Frank Fontaine (a.k.a. “Altas”). This revelation comes at a pivotal moment when Jack is confronting Andrew Ryan, the mastermind of the underwater world, Rapture, in which the game takes place. At that point, Ryan orders Jack to kill him, and the player is unable to make Jack do otherwise: Ryan exclaims that “a man chooses; a slave obeys,” as Jack bludgeons him to death.

Andrew Ryan Statue

At this point, the reader shouldn’t be surprised in my reply to Bogost. In the first place, to call this sequence “a tepid reprimand against blind compliance” is tendentious at best: it’s certainly neither a neutral nor an intuitive way to characterize the story. But more to the point, we’ve seen that “blind compliance” just isn’t something that players accept or need accept to play video games. Players have real agency in determining events within the fictions of video games, whether the games are linear or non-linear; thus, it’s a fair assumption to make in most games that the player is the most fundamental answer to the question of why the avatar does what he does. To discover instead that (completely unbeknownst to the player) the avatar was a victim of mind-control is to discover that within BioShock’s story the player (at least up to that point) was causally impotent in a way that players usually aren’t. In this way, BioShock is almost antithetical to Spec Ops: in the latter, the player is morally blameworthy for the game’s events, whereas in the former, the player is robbed of any and all responsibility she typically has.

Maybe Bogost would still deny that Spec Ops, Bloodborne, BioShock, and the myriad video games like them tell robust stories, but I don’t see how such a denial could be compelling. I think the key to the special narrative significance of video games, which Bogost overlooks, is the special narrative status of the player as an agent that makes events possible in the story and manipulates the actions of a particular character (the avatar). The three examples we’ve considered all tell potent, rigorous stories that centrally depend on that central status. Video games needn’t “abandon the dream of becoming narrative media” because (unlike Bloodborne!) that isn’t a dream at all: it’s a well-established feature of reality.