In his now infamous piece for The Atlantic Ian Bogost argues that video games should not try to tell the same types of traditional linear narratives commonly associated with literature or cinema as they are not nearly as efficient at delivering these kinds of stories (Bogost, 2017). Using the genres of the first-person shooter and walking simulators as his main examples, Bogost points out various ways in which these kinds of games attempt and fail at effectively providing a truly interactive narrative experience. He argues that this is the case because within these games, most plot points are communicated to the player through heavily scripted events, cutscenes, or audio recording, all of which Bogost feels work more successfully in fully scripted forms of media such as television or film. Although the particular way in which Bogost goes on to back up these arguments is definitely problematic (he pejoratively uses the entire genre of young-adult fiction as a parallel for the lack of mature storytelling within video games), I think that there are some useful points that can be extracted from his essay–especially towards the end when Bogost begins to express his opinions on games that allow you to reformulate the virtual systems and environments you are being presented with. Here Bogost responds to a video essay by Jesse Schell in which Schell claims that if video games hope to become the defining medium of the twenty-first century that they will have to overtake Hollywood first. Bogost’s response is that if game designers actually hope to achieve this goal that they should “abandon the dream of becoming narrative media and pursue the one they are already so good at: taking the tidy, ordinary world apart and putting it back together again in surprising, ghastly new ways” (Bogost, 2017).
For me, Bogost’s encouragement for games that deconstruct and reconstruct worlds into shocking or unexpected new formations brings to mind a very unique game that I recently finished: David O’Reilly’s Everything (2017). Published by Double Fine Presents and released on the PS4 and PC, Everything is game in which you have the ability to take control of any object or living thing within almost any conceivable environment. Initially you are given control of a single animal, but as you progress through the game’s algorithmically generated worlds you also gain the ability to steer vast choreographed swarms of random objects and creatures. Occasionally the game will give you some very loose goals, such as encouraging you to try controlling smaller or larger things, or to move on to a new continent or planet, though besides these prompts there is not really any type of linear or structured narrative to speak of.
What is present, and what allows for comparisons to Bogost’s treatment of environmental storytelling is the presence of the thoughts of the things that you encounter during gameplay. Appearing as textual thought bubbles floating above nearby objects and animals, these thoughts are mostly a collection of one line musings, sometimes humorous and other times reflective. Although many of these are completely original to the game, an equal number of these thought bubbles are also quotes from various philosophers or intellectuals such as Arthur Schopenhauer, Marcus Aurelius, or Ralph Waldo Emerson to name but a few. Most significantly, you also occasionally encounter a special kind of thought bubble that when interacted with will play an audio segment from one of philosopher Alan Watt’s lectures on how we as humans interpret the world around is. These recordings are comparable to the method of using audio logs to generate narrative that Bogost dismisses from games such as Bioshock (2007) or Gone Home (2013) but differ from these examples in that the quotes and lecture segments are never meant to directly communicate any type of backstory, character development, or plot advancement. Instead Watt’s lectures function as a kind of nonlinear and parallel narrative that runs alongside the gameplay of Everything providing potential points for the player to reflect on the systems and images that are being presented to them. As you collect more and more of these recordings there is definitely a sense of a progression that is unfolding, but not one that is at all cinematic or based in exposition. What the presence of Watts and all the other thought bubble quotations do is to provide you with a critical dialogue that you can consider as you gather, combine, and deconstruct the various things present in the multiple levels of O’Reilly’s strange world.
In this way, I would argue that Everything is a successful example of the type of ghastly deconstruction that Bogost claims that video games are uniquely successful at. This is not to say that I agree with him that games are indeed better without stories–I think that almost any work of cultural expression contains narrative to some degree–but I do think that we should try to encourage and promote games that work with narrative in a systematic, non-linear, or networked manner that creates opportunities that are impossible for other media forms. I don’t think game designers should in any way attempt to abandon story when planning future games, and I don’t necessarily think this is what Bogost is hoping for either. What I instead hope for is a future in which new and unknown storytelling methods are pioneered and refined, methods beyond those that would only attempt to replicate other previous media forms, and that would instead tell the types of stories that can only be told through an interactive medium. Everything does this by allowing the player to engage with multiple, radically different narratives all at once and which rarely are told in direct relation to one another. You may be in control of a wad of chewed bubblegum at the moment that you encounter one of Watts’ lectures on the softness or permeability of our perception of the universe, but you just as easily could be a rock in this instance too. Due to the all-encompassing nature of Watts’ subject matter this type of direct correlation is often unimportant as there is always some small connection that your mind can form between your current in-game circumstances and the particular segment of his that you are listening to.
Again I want to stress that I do not think that this particular type of narrative is better or stronger than other ones, but instead highlight that is one that only truly interactive forms of media can tell. Unlike Bogost I do not think that there is anything wrong with telling stories that could be compared to young adult fiction as it represents a substantial and important component of contemporary cultural output. What I do believe is that it is within the dynamic systems and mechanics of a game where unique possibilities can be found that highlight the medium specificity of video games. By focusing on the improvisational and interactive elements of games rather than filling them with static content, game designers have the ability to invent new methods of ludic storytelling that are communicated through player experience and agency rather than the passive reception of pre-written narratives.
Bogost, Ian. “Video Games Are Better Without Stories.” The Atlantic, April 25, 2017. https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2017/04/video-games-stories/524148/
Schell, Jesse. “Will Video Games Be the Defining Medium of the 21st Century?” BigThink, 2016, video. http://bigthink.com/videos/will-video-games-be-the-defining-medium-of-the-21st-century