I feel nothing for their game where beauty goes unrecognized

Via the RPS Sunday Papers there’s a rather nice piece on Kotaku, “Gameplay and Story Are Exactly Like Music and Lyrics”. It’s a neat analogy; without music, music isn’t music (said Captain Tautology), and without gameplay you haven’t got a game. Gameplay alone works just as well as music with no vocals, but story can be just as integral to a great game as lyrics can be to a great song. Just as most game stories don’t stand up particularly well on their own, lyrics don’t have to, so long as they work in the context of the music; separated from a song they can be trite or indeed gibberish, “tutti frutti, ah rooty” indeed. They don’t have to be particularly intelligible or meaningful to be a vital element, an instrumental version of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” wouldn’t be the same.

There was a recent Gamasutra post, “Putting story before gameplay ‘a waste of time’ says Jaffe”, and reframing it in music/lyrics terms is quite interesting. Writing 90 verses of fantastic lyrics for a song is indeed a waste of time if they’re accompanied by someone banging some railings with a stick. Likewise a game can have a fantastically involving story, but if experiencing it involves awful controls, wonky camera angles and generally terrible gameplay it’ll rightly get slated. That’s pretty obvious. What Jaffe is really railing against, though, is gameplay being sacrificed for story, which is more difficult to parallel in music; I’m struggling to think of lyrics actively making a song worse, apart from perhaps deliberately offensive lyrics. There’s Kid Rock’s “All Summer Long”: “we were trying different things, we were smoking funny things” sets my teeth on edge, but it’s not like the song was any good to start with; Geezer Butler has the same rhyming-a-word-with-itself problem in Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs” (“generals gathered in their masses, just like witches at black masses”), but it doesn’t spoil the song for me. I don’t think it would be misrepresenting the general position to frame it musically as: the music is the important thing, not the words. And by and large I’d agree, but there are exceptions. Dylan’s “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” is musically simple (a few strummed chords and a bit of harmonica), but the lyrics propel it for seven and a half minutes. With a plethora of quotable lines, notably “money doesn’t talk, it swears”, it works. If it had no words, or seven minutes of “Bing Tiddle Tiddle Bong”, it wouldn’t. The music/gameplay needs to be solid enough to support the base, but an RPG or adventure game can have straightforward gameplay (hit monster with sword get loot/use every item with every other item and bit of scenery in a desperate bid to work out what the hell the designer was thinking of), it’s the combination of that with a story that can elevate them.

Jaffe is fine with games like Skyrim where “the player by the very nature of playing the game … is the story”, but the analogy breaks down if you try and crowbar player-driven vs developer-driven narrative into it (Karaoke? People making up their own words to an instrumental? An otter singing along to the noise made by the machinery of an ice cream factory?) It’s clearly not perfect, but I think there’s one other area where a musical parallel may be appropriate, the idea that as technology has brought more cinematic elements to games, so developers can lose sight of gameplay in a bid to tell a story in a medium not designed for it: “If you’ve got something inside of you that’s so powerful … why the fuck … would you choose the medium that has historically been the worst medium to express philosophy and story?”

Now I’m not a big fan of musicals, ballet or opera, but I’m not going to try and shoot them down as sub-optimal mediums for telling a story; “Look, Mozart, this Figaro geezer getting married or whatever? Just leave it to a playwright and get on with writing a kick-arse symphony, yeah?” The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a radio series, novel, TV show, film, adventure game, comic, several stage shows and commemorative towel without a definitive version (though the towel is probably closest), each brings out different facets that appeal more or less to different people. Games are a young medium, they might not have excelled at telling stories so far, but that’s no reason not to try.

6 thoughts on “I feel nothing for their game where beauty goes unrecognized

  1. Azuriel

    “why […] would you choose the medium that has historically been the worst medium to express philosophy and story?”

    “Historically” as in the “in the last 30 years,” amirite? Jaffe needs to jump off a bridge.

    It is not just about the false choice between story and gameplay – what do a game’s writers have to do with the designers? – it is about intentionally sacrificing the most compelling angle that games bring to storytelling: interactivity. Reading a book or watching a movie is a passive activity; at most, you can empathize with the characters, or try and put yourself in their shoes. With games, you are in their shoes by default. Your choices, even if heavily scripted, are still yours.

    I like using Far Cry 2 as an example, even though I didn’t like the game all that much. By the end of the game, I felt dirty. And that was the entire point: a subtle subversion of the typical FPS trope of wanton, consequence-less slaughter of (virtual) human beings. The gameplay and design had issues, but the narrative wonderfully coalesced at the end.

    What book or movie could present this specific feeling? Reading Silence of the Lambs made me feel gross, not dirty, and almost entirely because of its graphic descriptions of poop, organs, and what is done with them. It was a good book, but I never put myself in the story. Games can, and do.

    Obviously, interactive narratives require interaction, so game devs can go too far with scripting. But I typically find games like Kane & Lynch to be wonderfully refreshing, even if everyone thinks they are bad/shallow. No one would make a Kane & Lynch movie; the closest analogy would be the movie Payback. But the very fact that Kane & Lynch can exist as a videogame means that we can similarly explore other experimental narrative concepts that wouldn’t fit in a novel or on film. And we should!

    P.S. I beat Twisted Metal games with all the characters precisely to see their various endings. There is no way Jaffe’s own series gameplay holds up on its own, otherwise.

  2. Vic Sandman

    Hmm. An interesting argument for better games in general. However, I think Jaffe is mistaken. There are quite a few games that have so-so gameplay *cough*Mass Effect, but I’m still more than willing to trudge through the somewhat monotonous game mechanics simply because the storyline is so incredibly epic.
    And in regards to video games being historically the “worst” medium for storytelling? How could a story like Heavy Rain be told in film or novel form? The genre provides many opportunities; the only problem is that designers and writers aren’t taking advantage of them. If only the designers and writers behind some of these incredibly well-made games were to provide some more lateral freedom for their players, maybe we’d have more immersive games that have significantly more replay value. There’s a reason that, despite being a high school teen, I don’t play Call of Duty; it’s because I enjoy writing and reading a good story. Call of Duty, in and of itself, is not a particularly good story. The gameplay may be decent, but the story feels bland and lacking in character. On the other hand, Mass Effect and Deus Ex 3 have incredible stories but average-quality gameplay; however, I find myself playing those games till the wee hours of the night. So for me, at any rate, games aren’t about gameplay as much as they are about telling a good story, and telling it well. Of course, to be able to tell the story well, acceptable gameplay is required as a lubricant of sorts for the storytelling gears; however, it’s a side-dish to the meat and potatoes of the game, the story and the characters.
    TL;DR: I don’t play games for the gameplay, I play them for the story, and if you want better writing in games, you should too.

  3. Jeff

    I’ve always preferred to think of Dylan songs as being poetry rather than songs, because the tunes are so trite. Plus, approaching them in this way neatly excuses us from calling them an exception to the theory here.

  4. Saucelah

    @Jeff: Considering Dylan has been nominated for a Nobel Prize in literature for his lyrics, that’s a legit perspective.

    @Vic: on the other hand, I gave up on Deus Ex 3 in part because of the mediocre game play and in part because of the boss fights, where the game play particularly jarred me out of the story. I haven’t uninstalled, but it’s high on the cut list next time I need space. I got through both Mass Effects, but I found the story rather predictable in both of them. I enjoyed the first Dragon Age, but the story was a stereotype — I was there for the tactical game play. The second game actually had an interesting story, or at least it was conveyed in an interesting manner, but I will never know how it ends. The game play was so terrible that at one point, in an attempt to just force my way through, I dropped the difficulty all the way down. Just made things worse, and I’ve long since uninstalled and will never bother again.

    I think my point here is just simply that not all gamers are alike. Great story will not overwhelm mediocre game play for everyone, just as great game play will not overwhelm mediocre story for you.

    In my case, it’s not that I dislike story. It’s that I have spent most of my life studying literature. It’s pretty rare for a plot to feel new to me. It takes one hell of a story to impress me, and it would take a serious masterpiece for me to slog through terrible game play just for a story when there are so many amazing works of lit that I can read from beginning to end without annoyances.

    @Azuriel: literature and movies are passive for you. But critics and academics talk a lot about active reading, active watching. I put a heck of a lot more thought and energy into examining stories that come off the page — at this point in my life, I can no longer turn that training off. Even though I am participating and interacting, I probably think a heck of a lot less about and put a lot less effort into experiencing games.

    So yeah, gamers are all different. Different people with different training with different preferences and different needs.

    I probably don’t agree with Jaffe, but I don’t agree with the opposite either. It’s case by case, game by game.

  5. Saucelah

    Though now that I think about it more, I am able to imagine really fun games with absolutely no story. I’ve certainly lost count of how many hours I’ve put into Tetris over the last 20+ years, and while I don’t play it every day, or even every month, I still have fun when I do play it.

    A story without game play at all would just be a book.

  6. Zoso Post author

    @Vic By all accounts Call of Duty 4 had rather a good story, but the gameplay never hooked me enough to see all of it. Playing games for the story is a perfectly valid approach, but I think it’s as unusual as listening to songs primarily for the lyrics.

    @Jeff Dylan has said he considers himself a poet first and musician second, though it’s often hard to take his own words at face value. He’s a particularly noteworthy example, what with the push for Nobel nominations and everything, but I wouldn’t say unique in lyrics being a critical part of his work, you can go from Cole Porter to Public Enemy to pick out other examples.

    @Saucelah Absolutely, gamers are all different, so blanket statements don’t tend to be terribly useful. The fact that games absolutely do no need story is one of the reasons I think the story/lyrics analogy fits so well; Tetris, Bejeweled, Angry Birds, Guitar Hero, splendid games all, I’m still playing a lot of World of Tanks that has no story past “FIGHT!” (I’m rather thankful they didn’t try to come up with a bizarre parallel history justification for endless multinational battles). Mind you, Guitar Hero did add entirely nugatory story elements in some instalments, but trying to use the gameplay/music analogy with music games where the gameplay is music gets terribly confusing…

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