Games’ not-so-infinite choices; or, Kotaku comes around to Korr’s side

In the discussion of games as art and games vs. movies/books, gamers are fond of saying video games are better because they’re dynamic. That is, unlike “static” linear storytelling, player choices and branching possibilities make video games much more interesting. When Roger Ebert caused a ruckus last year by saying games are inferior to other art, this was the defense that Kotaku, among others, used.

I took issue with that, for several reasons. Most basically, the argument falls short because it gives way too much credit to video games’ mostly lame, cliched stories and vastly overestimates the actual choices available to players. Kotaku said, “Ebert overlooked the role of the developer and didn’t factor in that each pathway taken in a video game is one the developers already expected you to take. And as a result they were prepared.” To which I responded:

If each storyline and possible decision tree in a game were crafted as a powerful, unique story, this might be true. And in time, this could happen. But I think Ebert has a point. First, he is responding to the fact that right now, the player choices and evolving storylines are more like a Choose Your Own Adventure book than anything else. That is, the “story” consists not of illuminating interactions with others or with the character’s own thoughts or imagination; not of original dialogue that brings out the characters’ personalities and journeys or highlights the greater themes in play; not of landscapes and scene shots or descriptions that underpin the greater theme or symbolism of the work; not of asides from the author that do all of the above or take you out of the work for whatever reason. Rather, the story consists of “Talk to character A to find out how to get to point B; then talk to character B to find out how to pick up weapon C.” So while Kotaku says the developers are prepared for each choice by the player, that may be true in a basic video game/Choose Your Own Adventure sense. But not in the sense of narrative storytelling.”

Put another way, I said, “the matrix of choices and expressions available to the player is at this point so limited and cliched that few games rise above the level of a Choose Your Own Adventure book. Those books also give players choices, but sacrifice any kind of depth. This is where most video games are right now.”

Now Kotaku has changed its tune, and its new one seems decidedly Korr-inspired. The Web site responds to Will Wright, whose Wired essay says: “In linear storytelling, we can only imagine the possibility space that surrounds the narrative: What if Luke had joined the Dark Side? What if Neo isn’t the One? In interactive media, we can explore it.” Kotaku says:

No, you can’t… you can only rigidly program in a limited number of different possibilities. Your options for exploration in a game are only trivially greater than your options in a novel. In linear story-telling, you are told a narrative in which one and only one outcome can happen. In games, you are often told linear stories in which more than one outcome occurs, depending on your actions. But really, this is no different a mechanism than choose-your-own-adventure novels. In other words, branching narrative paths don’t make any form of art dynamic and it’s silly to think that gaming, in its current state, is any different in this regard to drama or literature. The only real difference is that a game might have two or three equally rigid endings where a novel might only have one.

I thought this was just an interesting, more articulate formulation of what I was saying. But then I read further and saw an even more distinct echo:

There are some games that are “dynamic,” but this dynamicism comes in with the cost of an extremely vague or non-existent plot. What truly dynamic games would offer would be an infinitely branching plot depending on a player’s action at any given point. But there’s no reason to think that this technology will ever be available. … We’re still talking about a finite number of possibilities — any outcome that deviates from the programmed paths will need to be imagined. Games may be superior to books in the number of plot possibilities they offer, but they are still largely trite clichés when it comes to important artistic elements other forms have already mastered: believable characters, emotional poignancy, intellectual sophistication, etc. Novels and films possess an artistic and even humanistic quality that games are sorely lacking.

Hmm. Tell the truth, guys. Did you read this series of posts on Hard Korr Gamer and change your minds?

— March 23, 2006

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