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Telling stories without saying anything

edited September 2006 in Art/Culture
click for Tetris wikiSo a plumber jumps on this walking mushroom...
I love videogames. I love stories. Videogames are not stories. Not normally. Mario Bros. is not a story about a plumber who runs from left to right for ages. Why? Because that story would be shit, and Mario Bros. is agonizingly good. So it must be something other than that kind of story.

Mario Bros. is a simple set of rules which can be investigated and played with by pressing buttons and getting on-screen feedback. I don't enjoy watching a blocky man jump all that much, I enjoy the inertia, that feeling as I understand - and test my understanding of - the rules. It helps, at first, that the images I see are of a gambolling Italian. That makes sense of the running and hopping and bopping and so on. If I press this 'jump' button, the guy goes up, and, naturally - and correctly - I will assume that he's going to come down again. Indeed, the fact that there's a profile of a running plumber on the screen helps me to read the image properly and to know which way is 'up' - it guides my assumptions about the gravity of the world. When the screen looks like water, it helps me, by putting in my head the idea that Mario's floating, to grasp the way in which my guy is likely to move when he 'swims'.

In Tetris, the blocks aren't falling
click for Shadow of the Collosus wikiSo it matters that Mario is a man who runs from left to right. However, once I have grasped this idea - which, after nearly two decades, I have - it's not so important any more. The image of Mario could be replaced with an indescript blob, or an upside-down picture of a goat, and I would enjoy the game - those rules - just as excitedly. I don't even need to think of 'gravity' in a 'world', at least not in any conventional sense. 'Up' means nothing more than the direction in which Mario goes when I press the button. The 'up' of the game does not carry the connotations of the 'up' I understand in the real world. It is not contrary to the direction of gravity. There is no huge, massive entity off the bottom of the screen pulling things towards its centre. The game, in essence, is nothing beyond what's strictly defined by its rules.

Dancing around a book
So where might one fit a story? Given that the images - the metaphors - which help to convey to the newcomer the nature of the rules - the system - are so thoroughly disposable in this kind of game, why are so many games developed, marketed, and purchased on the basis of their stories? Are story-led games different beasts altogether? Do any actual games tell stories? Or are they just crap movies punctuated with tetris-like button-twitches? If you wanted to communicate something, express something, through dance, say, how would you do it? I sometimes think that if a game designer was choreographing then you'd do a really fucking cool dance, thrilling with the dynamism, then stop and ask the audience to read a chapter of a book. That could be brilliant, but not all of that is really dancing.

If games do not per se lend themselves to normal, linear narratives, are those narratives the right route for videogame stories to take?

Peter Jackson (no less) seems to think he knows the answer:
During a roundtable discussion, Peter Jackson discussed his new studio, Wingnut Interactive, and his reasons for starting it.

click for Donkey Kong wiki"I've got to the stage now where I just end up catching something on DVD and I'm more excited about games coming out in the next 2-3 months than films," said Peter Jackson, director of Lord of The Rings and founder of Wingnut Interactive, an offshoot of his movie studio. "That created an awareness in me of the shift in entertainment options out there, and if I'm feeling that others are [aware of it] too."

... [videogames are] an amazing living canvas... which allows the storytellers of our time to express themselves in a new medium," said Jackson.

The goal is to approach game design with stories and scenarios that wouldn't work as well in a movie. "We're not going to force a round peg in a square hole," he reasoned.

From The Escapist.
(Found it on SlashDot first, though, which is a better site.)
Your thoughts, please!

Can videogames tell stories?
Can they do it in their own way, or must they replicate existing media?
If they do provide a unique slant on storytelling, does that open doors to new kinds of story?


  • I'm working on a response, but until then, did you know that cognitive scientists working on tetris players have shown that the really good ones are making decisions faster than the scientists thought possible, they seem to be predicting the future.
    This ties in with a segment from a doco I watched recently. The subjects were wired up and shown a large number of random images, including some that were horrible. A couple of second before the shocking pictures appeared, the subjects showed a marked stress responce.
    So how ddid they know what was coming?

    I don't play games, apart from the odd Mario Kart, but I can sit and watch my kids play, Zelda's a good example, and enjoy the game in the same way I enjoy a movie, so I'd say video games do certainly tell stories.
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