“This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it is merely wires and lights in a box. Good night, and good luck. ” -Edward R. Murrow, on Television
Spoiler Content: Spoiler Free!
Gaming did not begin as a grandiose art. There is a lot of debate over what the first video game was, but it is pretty clear that it was not some epic tale that explored the nuances of human experience. As much as I would wish it turned out otherwise, the first narrative in gaming was probably about a little pixel bouncing back and forth across a screen in Tennis for Two (1958). Gaming has a problem, if you could call it that, that other storytelling mediums do not have: it can be done without any sort of story. Storytelling does not have to be the emphasis, you can have a game that is entirely gameplay-centric. A game does not need a compelling narrative to be great. As a result, we didn’t start getting real solid stories in video games, outside of interactive fiction text adventures, until a while after this creation. Our Silent Hill 2s (2001), Bioshocks (2007), and Grim Fandangos (1997) didn’t come until much later in gaming’s history. This isn’t because video games are inherently opposed to storytelling, in fact I would argue quite the opposite. Instead, it results from narrative delivery being both difficult and nonessential, so that when gaming was emerging, the conventional ways of telling stories didn’t really work. So gaming evolved, largely, without stories. Sure, we had little filler bits, like the all-time favorite “princess gets kidnapped, hero saves princess”, but profound stories were hard to come by.
With this in mind, it actually makes a lot of sense that narrative in games is largely unrecognized by even the more educated people in our culture. Ask the most educated adult you know for one artfully designed video game, and I’d bet my next paycheck that they won’t be able to name one. The Last of Us? Bioshock Infinite? Gone Home? Three amazing titles that came out this year to universal acclaim, all with strong and powerful narratives? Probably not. They’ll name Mario, Call of Duty, Pacman, Pokemon, maybe even Zelda if you’re lucky, but practically none of them will see these games as art. Games aren’t really recognized as an art form, and that belief isn’t without basis. Hell, even ask the average gamer and they might not care too much about gaming stories or artistic merit; it’s not a requirement for good games. How much fun have we all had blasting the hell out of some aliens for hours on end in a solid game of Halo, without caring much about the admittedly fascinating narrative behind it?
So, why then, do I think games are so important? Wouldn’t it be easier to just stick to film, books or theater, mediums that have all proven themselves to be powerful vehicles of narrative delivery? It’s because gaming has something to offer that no other way of telling stories does. It’s similar to when film introduced the idea of having huge visual emphasis in a story: creators didn’t know what to do with it at first, but soon it became the hallmark of the medium. Gaming has its own new aspect: player interactivity, the ability to let a story not just unfold on a screen, but between that screen and the player sitting in front of it. Agency and choice are important concepts in life, and these two aspects have a colossal potential for exploration through video games. In a game, every choice you make is yours, you are the one carrying out those actions, and that makes the consequences of those choices carry a weight that it simply cannot elsewhere. YOU killed those people. YOU saved that princess. YOU dove into that horde of orcs and singlehandedly defeated every one. Those actions mean something to you, in a way that even the most beautifully written book simply cannot because you are not the one doing them.
Gaming did not begin as a way of telling stories, it sort of awkwardly grew into it, with most of the industry rejecting the idea. The stories it started telling were ones of epic battles fought on screen, without a real context other than the idea that you were the one fighting them. The thrill of victory and the brutality of defeat were the first concepts we explored. But, as our medium evolved, we realized that this could be the next great way to tell stories, so we became artists. It didn’t happen overnight and it certainly isn’t done happening, but we have created art.
I want to talk about this; I think it’s worth exploring. Many women and men put a lot of effort into making this new art form great, and if they find value in it, then I think there’s a lot for us to find as well.