Why don’t stories matter in games?

It seems like you believe stories don’t matter in games. If this is true then, do you think they matter in films and books? If so then why do they matter there and not in games?

Does your favorite song have a great story? It might, but probably not. Does most of the music you listen to have nice stories, or even stories at all? Does most of the static visual artwork you enjoy tell a complete story? Does it tell any story? Many people consider cooking an art. I personally would consider it one, I’ll leave that up to you. Do great chefs tell a story with their meal?

Some of these mediums can support stories. Some of them can be bundled with stories as a hybrid medium. Does that necessarily make these mediums suited for storytelling? Is storytelling necessarily the most important part of every medium? Is it necessarily an important part at all for a given medium? Is it something a medium should be judged on?

The core of my philosophy is, “Gameplay is the most important thing in a game.” A lot of the rest is all the necessary ideas to make that core philosophy work and make sense; iteration off that core idea.

We’ve had a ton of games without stories that are considered universal classics. We’ve never had a film that lacked story but was a universal classic. Narrative is almost irrevocably tied to certain mediums and there’s no indication that games are one of them.

Of course the mediums of interactive software or simulations of space can support stories, possibly even good ones, it’s just games that are at odds with stories. Entertainment software lacking good stories is a lack of good authors, not a fault in the medium.

I don’t think a game should be judged for its story any more than for the quality of the visual symbols representing the game constructs (aka. the graphics, which some people (icyclams) will tell you are more important than the story and just as important as gameplay). I don’t think it makes sense to judge a song based on the content of the lyrics (not proposing we ignore the vocals or rhyme scheme, just the meaning). I don’t think it makes sense to judge a painting by anything other than its visual composition, coloring, rendering, construction of forms, and so on.

Many people offer a token, “of course gameplay is what’s most important.” I want to offer you the genuine thing and take that to the absolute limit. It’s a perspective that needs to exist.


3 thoughts on “Why don’t stories matter in games?

  1. orion_black July 31, 2016 / 6:07 pm

    I’ve been reading this book, Antithetical Arts – On the Ancient Quarrel Between Literature and Music, that is a defense of absolute music(non-representational music) as something valuable to human beings. The main thesis/conclusion is that music’s main value is ‘moral’ insofar as it produces a particular kind of mind-uplifting ecstasy in the susceptible spectator. I haven’t finished it, so that’s my take so far.

    I think there are interesting parallels within (absolute) music and games, the first would be that games also produce said morally uplifting experience. ‘Experiencing’ a game’s depth inspires a particular form of awe, in which you can see ‘options’/’possibilities’, a particular sense of ‘clarity’ not only in relation to the game. Like say when you walk out of a claustrophobic place and you perceive ‘openness’, but more intense because you were already in the open. I’m not making the best description, but you probably get a sense of what I’m talking about. If there’s a specific aesthetic to games it’s probably related to the ‘ecstasy of depth’.

    The book also talks about how music can inspire emotions of a garden-variety which is something games also kind of do by managing your options. That’s how survival horror works, by severely and progressively limiting you options. Another form of that would be the ‘anxiety of euros’ where you know you need X, Y and Z resources and also know you’re not going to get them so…

    Inspiriting emotions of a garden-variety is something games regularly do, it’s the more sophisticated/subtle forms(presumably what most people want their games to do) what’s not so easy. To accomplish that, I would presume you should manage the options of a player in a more sophisticated way, not a simpler one.

    Anyways, if you can you’d probably want to give it a look, even if you aren’t particularly into music.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Chris Wagar August 3, 2016 / 6:34 am

      Sounds interesting. I might look into it.

      I don’t think I’d go with anything as abstract as music or games having some type of moral value. I think they just fulfill a type of aesthetic pleasure that we’re evolved to enjoy because it was beneficial in the ancestral environment. Depth is a function of design that helps aid the essential process of inconsistently seeking favored outcomes. It means there’s a lot of different smaller favored outcomes that can be sought and pleasure derived from, it alleviates fatigue with repetition, it creates more ways to experience a smaller set of content.

      I don’t think inspiring emotions is everything in art. I would certainly defend the value of non-narrative forms of art.


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