Jeff’s God ComplexPosted: August 9, 2017
Video Games and the Lost Art of Storytelling
by Jeff Bowles
I’m an avid gamer. I’ve played everything from Pac-Man and Halo to Zelda and God of War. As a child, I spent countless hours on the first home console my family ever bought, the original Nintendo Entertainment System, and I’ve owned just about every major gaming platform released since.
I’m also a storyteller, which means I take keen interest in certain gaming industry trends. I’ve heard it suggested video games represent a great opportunity for writers today. Even in an industry dominated by online arena action shooters that feature little plot and the use of impersonal avatars instead of fully developed characters, writers are said to be very much in demand.
Independent job and project posting sites such as Upwork feature by-contract work for games from time to time, and small indy video game developers, which have flourished in recent years, are often much more receptive to unknown or burgeoning writers. If you’ve been stuck hawking short stories and one failed novel after another, it can be a great place to ply your talents.
Landing that kind of gig may be harder than it seems, however. The big developers like Bethesda Softworks, EA, Ubisoft, Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo tend to retain and reuse writers, so unless you’re a well-established author looking to diversify, you may be out of luck. It’s kind of a niche profession anyway, writing for video games, especially since more and more developers have eschewed classic storytelling techniques in favor of more style, more flash, and way more explosions.
Should this surprise us? Like Hollywood, the gaming industry seems to have recognized the public’s slackening attention span. Many of the most popular games released in 2016 featured incredibly robust multiplayer and not much else.
Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare and Battlefield 1, the top sellers of the year, both have single player campaigns that are more or less afterthoughts. Another top seller, Blizzard Entertainment’s highly popular Overwatch, exists entirely online, so if you’ve got a poor internet connection or you just don’t want to play against other people, the message seems to be man up or look elsewhere. Overwatch, by the way, is a hell of a lot of fun. Too bad I didn’t care about any of its characters or situations.
Not so long ago, all of this would have been unthinkable. Before high speed internet made online gaming feasible for the broader market, game developers rarely ever shipped titles designed just for multiplayer. Home consoles had at most four controller ports back then, which meant you either played a deep, engrossing single-player campaign or you challenged a few of your friends to combat right there on the couch. Gaming was a much more personal, sociable experience then. Lord, how I pine for the good old days of just ten years ago!
As the gaming industry advanced into the current generation of home consoles (the Xbox One, PS4, and Nintendo Switch, respectively), an undercurrent of dissatisfaction among consumers became evident. Players were demanding new experiences, expanded horizons, creative and interesting mechanics they’d never seen before. The result, I take it, is that the major developers decided en masse the premium they’d placed on storytelling would no longer serve them going forward.
I found some of the biggest games of the last five years nearly unplayable, simply because competition, blood and guts, and fierce rivalries tend to turn me off. Let’s be honest, in the new millennium fewer and fewer people appreciate good stories. The point for most gamers is not the dialogue or plot so much as the bullets and blood.
I think that’s unfortunate. Good developers recognize their medium is unique. The games that work best allow players to inhabit strange worlds and the skins of other people. Long-standing series such as the Deus Ex franchise, for instance, let players explore innumerable options and solutions to any given scenario or character interaction, thereby assuring a unique experience for everyone. As a point of reference, the latest Deus Ex game was a commercial failure, as were other similar titles. A lot of players feel they don’t have time to invest in long, drawn-out narratives anymore. They just want to drop in, shoot their friends a few times, and drop out.
Classic American gaming, by the way, has not gotten any less violent or offensive in light of this new direction. In fact, divorced from good storytelling, many modern games feel like slaughterhouses, inducing the kind of fight-or-flight panic usually reserved for life and death emergencies. Recently, after playing a frenzied bout of For Honor, a game that simulates medieval sword-based combat in full gory detail, I told my wife I didn’t know if I could take it anymore. A round of that game is like squeezing your heart through a meat grinder fifteen minutes at a time. The experience is intense, but is it particularly fun?
Congress of course has railed against the gaming industry for decades. Too violent, too distracting, and far too addictive. I admit it, I’m hooked. I’m a grown man who hasn’t gone a week without video games since I was five years old, and for the amount of money I’ve spent on all those discs, cartridges, and controllers, you’d think they’d chip in for a limited-edition headset for me or something. When it comes to it, I suppose good storytelling never did anything to offset the more depraved aspects of the medium. They did, however, induce in us the feeling we were part of something exciting and creative.
Now every time I pop a new game into my PlayStation, I have to consider the odds of actually enjoying it. Will I spend the whole time hunting other human beings? Will it contain anything resembling a story? Perhaps the indy movement has opened new doors for the creative potential of the industry—doors which may have otherwise remained closed, especially to writers—but the dominant trends today have adhered very closely to a pretty simple principle.
Like all forms of entertainment intended for mass consumption, the real test of a game is in how it makes us feel. A well-told story feels like nothing else on earth. Unfortunately, so does an hour of mayhem, death, and bare-knuckled survival. Hey gaming industry, bring back the good old days! I guess I don’t mind killing my friends needlessly, but do I have to kill my sense of story, too?
Interested in my writing? Check out my latest short story collection, Fear and Loathing in Las Cruces — https://www.amazon.com/Fear-Loathing-Las-Cruces-Stories-ebook/dp/B06XH2774F