I was reading the last issue of a popular games magazine, and then I reach a page with an article that had a title stating that “Games are not a storytelling medium”. This is a popular discussion, but saying that games can't tell a story (and will never be able to do it) just because there are no proofs of success in the last 40 years (as the same article stated) is a major disbelief in the possibility of videogames to evolve.
Another article somewhere on the web started with “Storytelling in video games – why it may never reach the level of books/movies”. My question here is: Why it should reach the level of books/movies? Why are Shakespeare works being used as an example against story in videogames?
You're talking about storytelling in movies? The story of the vast majority of blockbuster movies released in the last years pale in comparison with the intricate world building and plot of games like Bioshock or Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Is the “Alvin & The Chipmunks” movie a better storytelling experience than Bioshock? You tell me. I know what my answer is.
To say that a videogame cannot deliver a storytelling experience like the one you have on movies, radio or TV is simply... a wrong approach. Just as storytelling in radio is not similar to storytelling in TV, why do we always need to have this type of comparisons? Plus, we can never predict how the medium will evolve. If you watch a movie made in the 50's or 60's, you will see that it's fundamentelly different to a film made in the last 10 years. It's not just about pace. The dialogues construction, the action scenes rythm... It's about visual storytelling. Storytelling evolves, and a good storyteller has to adapt to take the best out of each medium. You can't say that only because something failed till now, it will not suceed in the future. That is the same than saying that evolution in games narrative stopped. And that's not true. At all!
Do you need further proof? Some of the biggest game publishers such as THQ and Electronic Arts are embrancing Transmedia – telling a story over multiple media using different media to tell different aspects of the story. This means that the big players from the games industry are only recently looking at storytelling and it's possibilities in the same way that Walt Disney has done since the 1920's...! This is because gaming is still quite a young field and game makers have still to master their craft in the same way that artists and filmmakers have been doing for decades.
Even storytellers famous in other mediums like movies can see videogames as a great platform for telling a story, as can be read in a recent interview with Guillermo Del Toro:
“(…) So I approach it as a medium that seems similar to film in some ways, but it’s actually very different. It has its own rules of language and storytelling. In this case, it’s not a passive audience. They’re far more active. I must say, in the past year, I’ve learned a lot working on “Insane,” which is good for me as a filmmaker. To me, videogames are a huge component of genre filmmaking in the future. You will always have Jim Jarmusch and Terrence Malick—there will always be quirkier independent films, but for the next big step for genre storytelling, videogames will be a major component.”
When you have master storytellers like Guillermo Del Toro understanding that videogames are a storytelling medium, but with its own rules of language, why do we continue to have factions in the games industry saying the opposite?
Sometimes this discussion goes hand in hand with another one: That you should forget story because what matters is that games should always be fun. Do they? I know it's entertainment, but does they always need to provide fun? Or can they be entertaining without being fun? Drama movies are entertainment too, but I doubt you had fun watching “Schindler's List”. I am not a 12 year old kid that just looks for fun stuff to do. I like games that provide me with other feelings. Loneliness, terror, despair... They keep me entertained, but they don't provide me fun per se. If you ever shed a tear while playing a game, that was because of the story and not because of a fancy gameplay mechanic.
We as an industry should always look at those who have been successful in other creative fields and learn from them.
I , for one, welcome all the Writers, Narrative Designers and Directors who are joining this industry. Games like the brilliant Bastion are incorporating new elements – in this case the narrator -that helps not only on the storytelling side but also in involving the player in all the little things that happen in the game world. With videogames we have the opportunity to create new, exciting and important works that will entertain, inspire, educate. Transmedia is currently a buzzword in the tech and entertainment worlds. It may take some time and persistence for it to pay off, but when it does, the dividends promise to be huge.
Excellent illustration posted by Dan Sellars of the way that storytelling traditions have evolved over time to reflect and utilise the technology available