Monday, July 1, 2013

Albert, Somme

Roger Ebert is dead, and were I to be called upon to spend another minute talking about whether or not videogames will ever be "art," I'd prefer to join him. A few weeks back, I made a mental note to reread John Walker's recent RockPaperShotgun editorial on the relationship between games and stories, so I could explore some of its unexamined conceits. Not a rebuttal, exactly, or even a critique--Walker seems to have handled that responsibility himself--but a vague thought on vocabulary, and what imprecision can conceal.

Story is a revered word among gamers, even if some critics aren't so enthusiastic. We're used to that. If you've spent any time reading games criticism, you're as bored with the yes/no of games and story, and have hopefully moved onto the how. What I find interesting, though, is not the idea that story is a desirable thing for a game to "have," but the assumption that story is the essential aspect of other narrative media.
[w]hat exactly is it we’re holding aloft as an example of storytelling done right? There are games whose stories I’ve enjoyed a great deal. I immediately reach for The Longest Journey, Deus Ex, Planescape Torment… um… and then I start to struggle. And the most recent of those was 2000 – thirteen years ago. [...] But of these, which do I hold up as great examples of literature? Honestly? None. That’s not to demean the best of them – stories from games have genuinely changed my life, moved me enormously, altered my thinking in significant ways. But if gaming’s ultimate goal, from both technology and development, is this spurious notion of “storytelling”, then it’s doing a pretty poor job.
 "Literature" is an interesting place to go here. The written word remains our most highbrow massively reproducible medium; as Supernatural has reminded us recently, men of letters are not to be trifled with. And as Eagleton reminds us in Literary Theory: An Introduction, "literature" is far from a stable subject. "Literature" is often employed as a synonym for "classic," or "art," or "good." People who study literature do not employ it this way, because for litnerds, literature is a descriptive term, not an evaluative one. It's a thing, not an admiring way to describe that thing. Ceci n'est pas un stick, after all.

Description is an important concept to keep in mind, given the next two uses of "literature":
My thought is whether this matters at all. Perhaps it’s time for us all to just accept that games aren’t ever going to be home to classic works of literature – it’s not what they’re for, and it’s not what they’re ever going to achieve.
For years I’ve lamented this, decried the failure of this medium to mature to a point where it can match literature and cinema in terms of intelligence in design. (And to be clearly, yes, most books and movies are terrible – we’re talking about comparing the very best.) When is gaming, I would ask, going to find its great stories? I believe I was wrong to ask.
Here we see references to "classic works of literature" (emphasis mine, obvs.) and "literature and cinema," which rules out such pedestrian fare as books and movies, or even novels and film. I don't know exactly what Walker means by these terms, beyond entities in particular media that are better than most others. But I wonder how he would describe some of these works. When people talk about "story" in videogames--especially when they talk about it derisively--they go to examples, and something gets tricksy. Yes, a prose summary of a game's plot, even one of the best plots, is going to sound pretty silly, but plots invariably sound silly when you alienate content from form. As children, we're taught to use "plot" and "story" interchangeably, primarily in an evaluative sense: "story" is what movies with a lot of CGI must necessarily lack; "plot" is why grown-up movies about mediocre people fucking are better than kids' movies about exceptional people killing. I'll not dwell on the technical definitions, because the comprehensive definition is one of the most beloved lies we tell to schoolchildren. Suffice to say that a description of a story is not that story, a plot summary is not a plot. If games are not a narrative medium, then "story" is an element extricable from the rest of the experience, identical to its own summary. If games are a narrative medium, the story isn't a thing that the player is drawn into, nor is it a thing the player creates by interpreting the text, but the experience itself. The decisions you made, and the ones you were forced to make, and the ones they pretended to let you make, and the way you felt about the experience. Granted, those distinctions might still be useful to make, as they are in other media, and that's a conversation I'd be quite interested in having. But we have to start with the text, the thing. If you want a story that's easily communicable in text, you're going to have the experience and then write about it afterwords.

That's right; videogames are just as depressing as real life.

Oh, bee tee dubs, if you opened up the first Walker article, I advise you to break the first rule of the internet and read the comments.

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