Video game innovation and storytelling incompatible?

With it's nomination as “innovative game of the year” in the 2008 IGF competition, You Have to Burn the Rope (YHTBTR) by Mazapán created a lot of heat in the indie game dev community. (For the context, YHTBTR is a small “parody game” which consists of a short corridor and a single boss. In all, it takes about 3 minutes to complete and closes on a short song complementing the parodical aspect.)

Despite it's small scope and utter sillyness, I'm glad this game was made for one thing: it's construction and reception point towards the maturation of video games as an artistic medium.
Much like the work of Marcel Duchamp (who exposed a mostly untransformed urinal in an art gallery) created a lot of heat in it's own time, the simplicity of YHTBTR feels like an insult to other game makers, some of them working their asses off for years for a fraction of the recognition (I'm sure at least a few of those indie developers will be glad to find I compare YHTBTR to an urinal).

The slap in the face was necessary in Duchamp's time and Mazapán's slap in the face is probably as necessary now for the game medium. Far from being a great work of art, this small vignette can still make you stop and think. It can make a player think about how he plays and a game maker think about how he creates (It still doesnt deserve any innovation award...).

In the past decades of it's history, video games developed a language that can be mostly divided in game genres. Games praised to be innovative mostly mix and match mechanics from different, known genres in new unexpected ways. Sometimes very innovative games successfully create new ways of playing but as time passes, it's becoming increasingly rare. Technical and functional (aka: gameplay) innovations have their limits. Not in their possibilities but in the effect they have on the player. Though it will always be possible to create new ways of playing, it might not always be profitable to do so.

While innovation has a hook on some hardcore gamers looking for new mental exercises, sometimes the need to construct new mental models can push other players out of the magic circle of a game (or out of the game completely). Just like when we rent the latest horror movie, we, as players, are developing expectations about the games we play. A game providing us with a known mental model prevents us from having to think too much. We know what to expect and thus can jump right into the game and enjoy the actual content. If the game maker wants to make the content the most important aspect of his game, innovation can become a nuisance.

In fact that's exactly where YHTBTR stands. There is absolutely no technical or functional innovation in this game. It tackles a known genre (platformer), uses it's codes and turns some upside-down in order to create meaning.

Storytelling and meaning
Nowadays video game contents seem to be very volatile. Most avid gamers do not really care what the story is about as long as there is at least a slight innovation in gameplay or technology. In such a situation, why would a developer bet on stories? This is not the fault of the players. It is the fault of the way the games are sold to them. Stories are all too often overly generic and mere pretexts for the proposed game mechanics. More often than not, there is very little attention given to it.

To me, video games is essentially a story telling medium. Though the importance of stories in games has long been debated, it is mostly that which keeps us going through the game. The player uses the story to map his progression in the game. It can be the author's story or the player's story but if the game does not provide for neither one nor the other, what interest can there be in continuing to play the game? If you answered “challenge”, remember that overcoming a meaningful challenge creates space for the player's story.

If a game creator really wants to focus on storytelling, he has to choose the best mechanics to allow the storytelling to take place, but he should not feel obliged to introduce any “twist” in the choosen mechanics. Having the finest understanding of the choosen mechanics and their particular codes and patterns should allow him to create his own masterpiece without having to uselessly reinvent the wheel. Innovation for the sake of innovation always bears the risk of creating discrepencies between a player's expectations and his actual experience of the game.

Games are becoming mature. This is undeniable. Known genres and their particular codes and patterns are becoming increasingly developed and elaborate. These codes are a language that any developer can use. While it is sometime fun to do so, it is not necessary to create any new codes. Mastering the existing codes of a particular genre can be more than enough to create a masterpiece. Some authors could dedicate their creative process to the mastering of a particular set of codes in a classic genre with great success, just like tons of artist in other mediums (music, painting, movies, ..) find their own niche and exploit it with great mastery.

Maybe the best way to achieve it is to stop trying to please everyone and actually do what WE really like?


WorldMaker said...

This post follows some of the things that I've been thinking and blogging about over the last few years. I'm hopeful that we are nearing the plateau of the "power curve" in which new features/innovations/iteratively better gameplay or graphics trump storytelling or the things actually done with said graphics/gameplay/et al. Once we get past this adolescent one-upmanship, I think we might see more in the way of standardized/established engines/middleware and less wheel reinvention. Gaming needs those things more than it currently seems to know or care...

Anonymous said...

Imagine a video game engine which could bring 1984, Animal Farm, A Brave New World, Atlas Shrugged, Dante's Inferno, and the American Founding to life! Imagine a video game which could render classical principles real and exalt games with with story--the "soul" of art, as Aristotle stated.

The patent and "The Gold 45 Revolver" are already generating buzz:


"The basic concepts and ideas in this invention will have far-ranging implications for the realm of video games, for the greater culture, novel video games, greater commercial opportunities in the realm of games, greater and enhanced opportunities in merging games with film and literature, greater opportunities for games with deep and profound souls and storytelling, and new opportunities for games with vast educational potential. The ideas and embodiments described herein may be modified, extended, and improvised upon in countless ways. The present invention can bring both the external hero's journey, that Moses and Odysseus traveled, as well as the internal hero's journey, that Jesus and Socrates walked to life. "