Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Embrace the Holodeck Dream for Video Games

Are video games better without a narrative? Noted author and authoritarian on video game academia, Ian Bogost, believes that games are holding themselves back (in a sense) by only allowing themselves to exist when bundled with a story. The idea of games becoming Star Trek's Holodeck, is a dream that should be dropped, according to Bogost.

If there is a future of games, let alone a future in which they discover their potential as a defining medium of an era, it will be one in which games 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 is a repeat offender on The Geek Spot. Having read his work during my Masters and PhD years at college, I'm open to his ideas but I'm not always on board. Which is why I think his latest article 'Video Games Are Better Without Stories' is missing the mark. Are some games better when they forgo the narrative? Sure. Video games are one of the few entertainment mediums where there are no boundaries. If you want to make a game that allows people to build anything to their hearts content, you can do that. Or provide a space to allow people to code and communicate with each other from across the world, there are games for that too. It's an art form that isn't like films, television, theater, or books. It has transcended to something wholly unto it's own where narrative and the Holodeck can exist in the same space.

But to say that all video games are better without stories, that's pretty far-fetched. Narratives are a gateway into gaming. They provide familiar territory for the uninitiated, while expanding on the beauty of telling stories. There's nothing wrong with telling or creating a story in a game. It's a power few of us have in reality - to tell a digital being to walk, move, run, and make decisions that alter the course of the game is exciting as well as rewarding. How many of us say we have that luxury in our realities? Probably few to none. If I had the ability to change things at my job, whether it's better or worse, I would. But I can't and I never will be able to. Games let me live out possibilities that I wouldn't have in reality; whether it's to save a princess from a castle or to help create life in a far-off galaxy. Even in games like The Sims that deal with the every day, I can make multiple career choices, or none at all. The consequences create dynamic methods of game play that allow me to experience new realities. Each one a story.

I think the problem with Bogost's argument is that he's not seeing that everything we do in our realities and virtual realms revolves around telling a story. It may not be the most interesting one, but our lives are all small stories that makes up one large autobiography that caps off the end of our life. Getting up, washing your face, brushing your teeth, eating breakfast, and starting up the car to go to work/school - that's a story. There's this assumption that stories need to be this grand escapade full of boss fights, monsters, and swashbuckling antics. Stories, like people, come in all different shapes, styles, and sizes. One of my favorite indie games is Papers Please where you are a government official at an immigration-like office. Your job is to review papers and determine who is allowed in your country and who isn't. It's a repetitive task of stamping papers, so the gameplay is lackluster at times. However by the end, it could change how you view people. Even yourself. Immigration is a complicated political and social issue. So to have a game that focuses on this topic is a challenge. The story provided is your story. You determine right from wrong; good and bad. If you went into the game without a narrative behind it, knowing your role and your character, it wouldn't be as impactful. The player needs a story to provide depth and understanding to their actions.

Now I don't believe that Bogost is entirely wrong about games relying too much on telling over the top stories. Some could take a cue from their indie partners and tone down the content, while still delivering a compelling game. But everything in our life is a narrative, and games are an extension of our storytelling. It's an important part of our society that a game without a story isn't a game at all. It's nothing. Hold on to that Holodeck dream.

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