I think videogames are a great medium for storytelling. A videogame with an interesting narrative is like being pulled into your favourite movie and becoming part of the action. It’s a choose-your-own-adventure book on steroids.
But a good story alone does not make for a good game. Fascinating characters and riveting stories won’t make up for boring or broken gameplay. A cool premise that suffers from failed execution is a good way to disappoint viewers. I’m looking at you, Walking Dead. I am so disappointed in that show that I plan on watching every episode just so I can complain about it. Which means… they win, I guess. Huh.
A game that is fun on a basic level of play can be made better with the addition of a good story. But the raw gameplay—a game’s game-ness—is the key ingredient. Without that, you’re just pressing X to get from one cutscene to the next. There’s no way I would want to do that. It’s more work than watching a movie, and less pay-off than playing a game. Everyone loses.
So, let’s talk about pure games. I mean “pure” in the sense that there is essentially nothing between the player and the gameplay. You’re in one corner, and in the other corner is an angry mongoose, and all you have to do is beat that mongoose in combat. You don’t know why. You don’t know how you got here. Someone threw you in a van and knocked you out, and you woke up in this warehouse. Fight that mongoose!
Still with me? So what do I think of when I’m talking about pure gaming? To start with, I think of old games. The stuff you used to only find in arcade cabinets. Pong. Pac-Man. Centipede. Asteroids. Space Invaders. I’m talking about the glorious titans of the age of video games. Let’s get old-school and pay them some respect.
In pure gaming, there is something you control, something that hurts you, and a means of racking up points. Pac-Man, ghosts, power pellets. Spaceship, asteroids, space-lasers. Space-cannon, invaders (from space), space-lasers. Okay, so space and lasers played a heavy role in these early games. I’m not complaining. And it’s not as if they’ve gone away since then, is it?
The point of games like this is simple: kill or be killed. And if you really want to get down to it, I think that’s what a game is all about. Not literally killing people—I’m definitely not promoting a game-warrior society and how awesome it would be—but that good old-fashioned concept of good vs. evil, set down in black and white. And I mean that literally; those early games were simply coloured pixels on a black background, duking it out. How poetic.
I think there is a profound value in these types of games. The past fifteen years or so have been making great strides in realistic environments and captivating, cinematic storylines. These are great. I don’t want to suggest that I didn’t get giddy when I played L.A. Noire or Red Dead Redemption. I did. But I’m talking about a different kind of satisfaction here.
Let’s take Tetris as an example. When you start it up, what do you see? An empty box, and a block slowly falling to the bottom. You don’t know where it came from, or why. But you quickly figure out that placing these blocks in solid formations that span the width of the empty box will make them disappear. And then you quickly figure out that this is awesome. And then you play Tetris until sunrise.
There is no ending to Tetris. You don’t beat Tetris. You clear lines, faster and faster, until you can’t anymore. At that point, you die in a blaze of glory. Wait—back that up for a second. There is no ‘you’. You’re not a character, on the screen. You are the god of Tetris, now and forever more, moving and destroying shapes for countless eons to come. How can you not want to high-five someone when you’re doing that?
Where there is no story in a game, there is tons of room for imagination. Allow me, for a moment, to move this argument into the world of action figures. If G.I. Joe is fighting Cobra Command, it’s business as usual. But if G.I. Joe is fighting He-Man, and Hulk Hogan shows up with Buzz Lightyear, things are going to get very interesting. There are no rules, no back-story for any of it. You get to make it your own. And until a movie studio gets desperate enough to make G.I. Joe: Operation Lightyear, the story is yours alone.
You don’t have to do that when you’re playing an arcade game, of course. Even when the game does have a story, you don’t have to invest in it. Street Fighter has a back-story; so does Donkey Kong and, surprisingly, brick-smasher Arkanoid. But you don’t have to care about these narratives; they often get mentioned only in passing, or exist solely in the game manual. You can bypass them entirely and still have a great time.
When it comes to story-heavy games, you might even want to ignore the storyline. Some people played Metal Gear Solid 4 to sneak around and kill poor saps. Some people played it for the deep story being told through extensive cutscenes—the final one alone clocks in at just over an hour. Granted, that’s a pretty extreme example. Most games don’t demand you spend that much time watching instead of playing. But you’ll find your comfort level somewhere on the spectrum.
By the way, the age of mindless gaming is far from dead. I know that I focussed on the classic arcade games, but there are plenty of new ways to get your fix. You can fire up Peggle for some pachinko action, or Castle Crashers for some stabby action. And let’s not forget the biggest force in raw, competitive game-ness: online shooter games. If you’re a CoD expert, you probably already know that you’re being trained to be a killing drone in the upcoming wars against the robot/alien invasion. Keep up the good work!
Video games are still happily pushing all the boundaries interactive storytelling. This is good news. All I ask of you, dear gamer, is to make room in your repertoire for the simpler things in gaming. It’s a chance to test your reflexes, your twitch reactions, your pattern recognition. There will be days when you want to jump into a strange world with your favourite protagonist and save her family from cyborgs who never learned to love. There will also be days when you want to shoot shiny things, earn millions of points, and lament the fact that those points can’t be traded in for any real-world currency.