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by Benjamin Hill on 09/11/11 03:47:00 pm

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


[This post has been taken from my personal blog, HEY! LET'S MAKE A GAME, and is an opinion piece. Other works by Benjamin Hill can be found here and on his studios home page, White Paper Games ]

I have talked a lot in previous writings about narrative and its insistent dance with games and gaming culture, how there seems to be a constant war between designers and writers about whether they do or do not work at all.

I currently am building a title with my studio White Paper Games that is fundamentally based upon the synthesis of both narrative and game play, and how that can increase the players experience through purpose, emotion and story-telling, so as you can see I do believe that narrative works in the gaming medium and it is quite close to home.

I bring this topic up today as I recently read an article on Creative Review that discusses the recent release of L.A. Noire and how they feel that games cannot be melded together with an intricate and well-crafted story. Now my main problem with this well written article is that there is an insistent comparison between film and video games and if I am not mistaken they are two completely different mediums within the entertainment sector. Let me clarify with a piece from the article where the writer discusses why L.A Noire doesn’t work, and in many respect I agree with this statement.

LA Noire doesn't work. It doesn't work as a film, period. It almost works as a game - but it's trying so hard to look like a film it forgets how to be a decent game. LA Noire is another chimera in a long line of chimeras, a hybrid she-monster with the head of a lion, the body of a goat and the tail of a snake.” [Cameron, Andy, Crit. The Future of Gaming? I am Still Waiting, Creative Review, 2011]

Why do I agree with this you may ask as a games designer? Well lets not be hasty, I actually quite enjoyed L.A. Noire and I think that it is a great attempt from Team Bondi to create a title that captures the film noir feeling. Yet as a piece of film-like entertainment I do believe it fails and yes, this is primarily to do with its gaming elements. An example of this would be the difficulty in reading certain emotions when interrogating suspects, it can be difficult to see which direction to head in with your dialogue which breaks that immersion, making you realise that you are playing a game. If this was a film you would have been immersed in an interrogation scene, sucked into the outcome, are they guilty or not? But this isn’t the problem with this article, the writer quite easily distinguishes the fact that L.A. Noire doesn’t meld film and games together, but this wasn’t his original point.

At the start of the article the writer exclaims that:

“It seemed to me then, and it still seems to me now, that every time we try and combine games and stories to make something new - an adventure game or interactive cinema or whatever we decide to call it - it doesn't work. We end up with a hybrid monster, neither fish nor fowl. We end up with a chimera.” [Cameron, Andy, Crit. The Future of Gaming? I am Still Waiting, Creative Review, 2011]

Now unless I am mistaken this quote says, quite bluntly, that games and stories do not work together. This is a completely different argument to saying that games do not provide a film-like cinematic experience, which in the long run they don’t, you get game play, then you get a cinematic and it goes round. That’s not to say some of the games that choose this method to display a narrative are not good, Metal Gear Solid 3 has plenty of long cut-scenes that are great and flow the story on. But it is two very different beasts melded together to move story forward.

Yet again this is not what the quote says, it states that games do not work with stories, and that is simply wrong. The problem seems to be that some people cannot distinguish the fact that videogames are a fundamentally different narrative medium to film. Yes they are both similar in the way they use visual and aural stimuli to relay a message but in terms of how a person views the story games are more similar to books than film. Let me elaborate a little bit.

When a person views a story within a film they are watching the events unfold to characters external to that person. They are viewing events that are happening to someone else, in other words you are not in their shoes. When you read a book the reader has to create the narrative world through their own imagination based upon the descriptions laid before them, this ‘interaction’ with the story makes the events more personal to the reader and often results in the reader casting their self upon the main character. Now although games lay out the visual and aural themes before the player they are far more similar to books in the way the player takes in the story. This is due to players ‘interacting’ with the game again projecting themselves upon the characters that they are playing with. Its not Cole Phelps who drives between one objective to another, it is you and this is why games will never have the same experience as film whereas they may have a similar experience to a book.

Lets look at a game that I believe has an excellent story that works with the games main components. Portal is a high point for contemporary videogames that I am sure you all know, and I am sure that most people who have played the game understand the narrative in the title is not presented to the player through cinematic means. It is presented to the player through the world that they inhabit and the environment they are in, it builds upon the players control and experience to create an absorbing narrative that is as complex at is heart as it is simple on its surface. It provides a single character that interacts with you, providing all the necessities to that game world, drawing you in, immersing you in the events that are going to unfold. It has a beginning middle and an end that fills the player with hope before crushing them with a simple blow. It is a wonderful, short story, which we are lucky enough to have continued in a sequel that continues the trend.

Portal is not a game trying to be a film, it is a game being what it is and with that comes story in a way that is new to the world of narrative. You are not watching a story unfold, you are not imaging the way a story would unfold, you are controlling you own experience with the story, in a way creating it. Portal is a linear experience yet it manages to fill each room with choices that fit in with the reality that has been created for you. There are more as well, titles like BraidLimboHalf-Life 2FlowerDear Esther(okay this one is a mod but still…), Shadow of the Collosus, Ico and the soon to be released Journey all know what medium they are from and their strengths in narrative lay there.

Gamers get so very defensive about how games can tell stories, and this is mainly because they have experienced stories that they hold dear to them. It can be difficult for people to hear that the stories they hold dear are not very good stories.

Its time that the videogame industry stops looking at films for narrative inspiration and realise that we have the tools to surpass it as a narrative medium. We just need to know how to utilise those tools.


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Darren Tomlyn
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As usual, all my replies on this site - (especially on subjects like this) - are based upon my blog - (click my name) - but if you don't mind, I'd like to post a fully-contained reply.

Which means that this post is going to be VERY LONG - (you have been warned!).

The reason for that, is that a lot of people have been getting wrong idea about what I've written - and although some of this will be dealt with in the post I'm currently writing, I'm still going to take the opportunity to explain here.

The problem you're running into here, not fully recognising what the words game, art and puzzle represent, (and the word story isn't helping), either in isolation, and just as important for this situation, in relation to each other, (along with other words we currently have similar problems with, such as competition, work and play), is fundamentally a symptom of a deeper problem in the language - a failure of LINGUISTICS.

The language is not, and has not been, taught, (including dictionaries/encyclopedias), in a manner that is consistent with its basic rules, (English grammar), in regards to not just these words directly, but also indirectly, either for centuries or even ever, for the more basic problem that underpins these words. (Obviously without being taught at all, (properly enough), our language would not, could not, exist - which is why that is the root of the problems).

The real problem, of which these words are merely symptoms, is that nouns/verbs/adjectives are not fully recognised and described/defined, (and taught), for what they represent IN RELATION to each other, and that is why we're have problems with this particular TYPE of noun.

Game, art, puzzle, competition, work and play etc. ALL belong to the same type of noun - they all represent the same type of concept/information. Other examples would include the words event, state, flight, movement, speech, complaint, activity/action etc..

This type of word therefore represents applications of whatever it is that verbs are used to represent, either directly or abstractly. (Another type of noun represents a similar concept in relation to adjectives). The problem then becomes one of describing verbs (and adjectives) in a manner that allows such types of noun to be described in relation to.

The basic description of what verbs represent, must be: Things that happen.

Which means this type of noun represents: Applications of things that happen.

But such a description can cause problems for people who get confused between 'things' and 'things that happen' - especially if the same word can be, and is, used for both, (like the word game). (Yes, I@ve seen this happen). My suggestion is to use the word Behaviour, in place of things that happen.

So, this type of word represents 'applications of behaviour'.

The question therefore becomes:

WHAT application, of WHAT behaviour, of WHO, do these words represent? And, just as importantly, how can we describe such words in a manner that is not just consistent with their use in relation to the rules of the language, but also in a manner that shows why and how they are related to each other too? (Since that is causing all these problems).

In order to do that, we need to understand how and why they can be so related in the first place - to and by who/whatever it is that is behaving in such a manner to begin with.

One of the reason these words cause problems, especially since they're generally abstract applications of behaviour, is that they tend to be described purely for the application of behaviour itself, (whether consistent or not), separately from any thing/entity/person that is so behaving.

Why is this a problem? Because people are very good, due to how the language is taught, at viewing people and their behaviour, subjectively - mainly due to pronouns - (I/you/me/them/us/we etc.).

What this means, is that there is no consistent, objective, (within and using the language itself), foundation upon and around which to base such descriptions and definitions of these words.

It shouldn't be surprising that some of these words - (game in particular) - have become subjective in meaning - since the perception of what it represents is not fully consistent with its use and the rules of the language on behalf of individuals who use it - exactly the situation the rules of English grammar, and then lessons/dictionaries/encyclopedias etc. are supposed to prevent - yet, in this situation, have had a place in causing.

So, what we need is an OBJECTIVE representation of a person/thing/entity that such behaviour in particular, can be described in relation to. And, needless to say, the English language already has such a word - but it's not being recognised for what it represents, because the perception, recognition, teaching/definitions etc. of this word, are, and always has been, again, inconsistent with the language's basic rules.

That word - is STORY.

The word story is also a noun, yet is used as representing a THING, in this case, an intangible thing - a form or arrangement of information - that is treated by the language independently of any application, state or quality/property, and yet it has come to be described as and by one of the main VERBS used in combination - the word tell. No things are ever described to and by and actual behaviour - especially if used in combination - since even nouns that are derived form/related to such verbs only represent potential and/or intended behaviour a thing may possess. (Speaker/narrator etc.). The word story is not used in a manner that is consistent with an application of behaviour itself, and so it cannot represent any actual behaviour - especially since the word tell is normally used in combination.

So, what does the word story actually represent, according to it's use, and how and where does it/can it exist in such a manner - independently of tell/being told? Simple:

Story n. A form or arrangement of information of or about a series of events, either real or imaginary, (created and stored inside (a person's) memory).

(The parentheses are necessary, because they only generally apply when the word is used for what it represents in isolation - (which is how it needs to be defined) - stories can exist, and be referenced to, as existing, elsewhere).

So what does this mean for the behaviour and descriptions thereof that we need? Again, simple:

Things a person does FOR themselves = writing their own stories

Things a person does FOR others = telling stories

Things that happen to a person = stories they are told

The same story can NEVER be written AND told, to and by the SAME person/entity simultaneously!

So what does this mean for the definitions of the words at hand?

Games are about people writing their own stories.

Art is about telling stories - (see my blog for more specifics).

Puzzles are about interacting with stories being told - (again, see my blog).

Competitions (a competition) are about competing to be told a story.

(Play = non-productive story-writing / work = productive story-writing).

Something can be seen as a work-of-art if you perceive a creative story being told - (someone else is telling, intended or otherwise).

Something is a puzzle if the story has already been written, and you're merely interacting with it - (through power of choice/discovery etc.).

Something is a game if it involves:

The behaviour of competing in a structured (rules) environment, by WRITING (your own) stories.

The basic games are:

A race

Structured combat

Competitive throwing/movement for accuracy/precision distance/time (duration).

These can all exist both in isolation and in (various) combinations with each other.

The other elements that games have are:


Chance/(player) skill

Real-time or turn/phase-based.

All games can be described in such a manner, by using the relevant phrases above. If an activity cannot, then it's not a game. There are MANY activities at this time that are considered to be games (unfortunately) which would not be - sometimes just because they're on (involve) a computer!

Hint: choose your own adventure books (in general) are PUZZLES - mazes in literary form. The same/a similar concept using video etc. is also a puzzle! If the story of an activity has already been written before it takes place, then it cannot be a game - (it's called cheating if it should happen within such an activity). This is, AFAICT, where L.A. Noire falls on the scale of interactivity - not a game, or a video, but a puzzle - a maze of different nature.

John McMahon
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I feel like BioShock is a better (or at least equal) example compared to Portal. I can see the differences and why you may hold Portal in higher regard as BioShock still has some scenes that are out of the player's control.

But the way in which BioShock uses the fundamental interaction the player has with the game to tell a story and the surprise twist it contains is a story that can only be done with games. Portal is another aspect of a story told only through games but in a very different way.

But are these the limits to the ability of using games' potential for story-telling. How else can the medium of games leverage its uniqueness to better stories? Does the success of games with stories (like Portal and BioShock) mean that any other games with the more conventional story structures should be left behind for those seeking good stories?

Call of Duty offers something different, a setup to allow the gameplay to continue uninterrupted for as long as technically feasible. Some would argue it's telling a story, but how many players engage in it's multiplayer for a story?

I agree with the blog's point that games can and do contain wonderful stories that can only be told through the games themselves. Whether it's a action game that's ripped from the latest blockbuster film, the story is probably more enjoyable for a gamer since they are performing the actions instead of merely watching it.

That interaction is the key to what games are about.