So, a rabbi, a rabbit and a robot walk into a bar.
The bartender sighs.
Bartender: Is this another joke?
Robot: What? No, we were just having a conversation and we thought we might get something to drink, maybe some nibbles.
The bartender looks at them suspiciously.
Bartender: Where’s the punchline?
Rabbi: There’s no punchline. Trust me, I’m a rabbi.
Bartender: Yeah, right. Half the punchlines I get come from you guys.
Rabbit: Seriously, this isn’t a joke. We’re just having a conversation.
Bartender: What about?
Rabbit: Stories in games.
Bartender: Hah! Now that is a joke.
Rabbi: How do you mean?
Bartender: Well, the stories in most games suck.
Robot: Oh yeah.
Rabbit: We’re just debating what’s wrong with them.
Robot: Or whether they need to exist at all.
Rabbi: No, my robotic friend, we’re not having that debate. I think we’ve established perfectly well that not all games need stories, but some games do. Some people love stories in games. Get over it.
Robot: I am over it!
Rabbit: No you’re not.
Robot: Shut up!
Bartender: So what do you think is wrong with stories in games?
Robot: Personally, I believe we haven’t evolved the right tools yet. Dwarf Fortress is a good example of where we need to go; look at all those diaries people are writing! Those stories are not written by some writer, they’re emergent, they are created by the game and the gameplay itself. That’s the only way to do storytelling that’s appropriate to the medium.
Rabbit: Except that those stories are being written down by writers! They’re being written down by the people who write the diaries, who carefully filter information from the game and depict it in such a way as to create emotional resonance. Which means they’re doing exactly what any regular writer does with that other massive and incredibly complex game-like system – the real world! – that is to say drawing on their experiences to create something with a beginning, middle and end.
Rabbi: But is there something wrong with that?
Rabbit: No, not at all! But all that’s happened is that the designers have handed over the task of storytelling to the player, made it an optional part of playing the game.
Robot: Which is fine with me. Games are about interactivity!
Rabbi: Rabbit has a point, though. The kind of people who will write Dwarf Fortress diaries are creative by nature anyway; they’d probably be capable of writing a diary about Minesweeper. What about the players who want to experience a story, not tell one themselves?
Bartender: That would be me, I guess.
Robot: Let them read a book.
Rabbi: Surely that’s not the same.
Robot: Why not? Interactivity is what defines videogames, why should they have non-interactive stories?
Rabbit: Who says they have to be non-interactive? Reading a book in which two characters talk isn’t the same as talking to a character in a game! Games allow us to examine details, to experience spaces, to take on perspectives, to do all kinds of things that other forms of storytelling don’t allow us to do.
Robot: But the essence-
Rabbi: All those things are still interactivity, robot, and unique to games as a medium. It may not be your favourite type of interactivity, but it’s just as valid as the type that you do like.
Bartender: Well, if the robot’s wrong, or at least kind of wrong, why am I still disappointed with the stories in most games?
Rabbit: I have a suggestion.
Bartender: What is it?
Rabbit: It’s because most of the stories aren’t very good.
Robot: Well thank you, Mr. Obvious!
Rabbit: No, seriously. Why is everyone so obsessed with how stories are told rather than with what sort of stories are told?
Rabbi: It does matter how stories are told, though.
Rabbit: Yes, and I’m not denying that.
Rabbi: How a story is told also includes the quality of the writing, for example.
Rabbit: OK, OK. Let me try to put it another way: let’s imagine for a moment that for some sort of cosmic reason, the only tools we had at our disposal for making games were the ones we have now. And by tools I mean both technology and design concepts. The world of gaming as it is at the moment, Dwarf Fortress and similar games excluded.
Robot: In which most game stories suck.
Rabbit: Yes. But I contend that with the very same tools, we could be telling game stories that do not suck. It’s not the tools that are broken, it’s our storytelling.
Rabbit: I’d have to break the problem down into several aspects.
Rabbi: Just start somewhere.
Rabbit: The most superficial problem, in a sense, is how writing and storytelling are valued – or not. Since a lot of game developers aren’t writers themselves, they don’t take writing seriously.
Robot: Oh boo hoo, writers and their big whiny ego subroutines.
Rabbi: Be quiet, Robot.
Rabbit: Why do you think that storytellers were always respected in societies across the ages? Because storytelling is easy and anyone can do it? A story is more than “this happened, then that happened.” It takes skill and effort to tell a good story, no matter what the medium is. Because if you do it wrong, it doesn’t work.
Rabbi: That shouldn’t be so hard for you to get, Robot. If there’s a mistake in a piece of code, it doesn’t work; it could crash the whole program. If you can respect the skill it takes to write a complex program, you should be able to respect the skill it takes to write a complex story.
Rabbit: Doubly so in a game, where story and worldbuilding are intertwined in unique ways!
Robot: OK, yes, I get it.
Rabbit: Well, then you should get what happens when people don’t take this aspect of making a game seriously. When they bring in writers at the last moment and tell them to just make something up, or when the writing is done by people who aren’t skilled writers. When you do that with programmers…
Robot: …then the game either crashes or runs like a dead chicken. Because bad programmers write bad code and rushed programmers use dangerous shortcuts and hacks.
Robot: I doubt that explains all the suck, though.
Bartender: I have to agree with the robot there. Sorry, buddy. Anyway, just think of all those military shooters the kids like to play, I bet they put a lot of effort into writing the cutscenes and the tough macho guy dialogue and all that, but they’re still pretty crappy.
Rabbi: You don’t like those?
Bartender: Nah, man, I got enough of the military when I served in ‘Nam.
Rabbit: You remember me saying that the problem had several aspects?
Robot: I have perfect recall.
Rabbit: Lovely, then you can refrain from making stupid comments before I’ve finished my argument.
Rabbi: Stay cool, bunny. No need to get aggressive. Same goes for you, Robot.
Rabbit: Right. OK. Can I go on now?
Rabbi: Go on.
Rabbit: Apart from the purely technical problems of how writers are forced to work and who gets to write, there’s the far more important question of what sort of stories we tell. And I contend that the stories in almost all games are entirely adolescent. They’re ridiculous. Stories for frigging babies – or the only thing that’s even more infantile, which is adolescents pretending to be adults. Though I fear “adolescent” sadly has to refer to a state of mind, not an age group.
Robot: Bit arrogant, aren’t we?
Rabbi: Let’s not get sidetracked.
Rabbit: What we need, what games really need, is games for adults. Stories for adults, by adults.
Robot: You just want more pretentious games because you’re a rabbit and rabbits like pretentiousness!
Rabbi: He’s just saying that because he didn’t get Donnie Darko. Never mind, go on.
Rabbit: I don’t actually particularly like pretentiousness. But the whole idea that adult equals pretentious, or that pretentious equals adult-
Robot: Actually to equal means-
Rabbi: Let it go.
Rabbit: -is part of the problem. Games are so disconnected from the rest of the arts that there’s a serious lack of understanding of what art can be. You’ll say I’m arrogant again, but it’s not like I enjoy this situation.
Rabbi: Nevertheless, there are games that make a big point of being adult.
Rabbit: Yes, and their adultness is the imagined adultness of an adolescent. On the one hand, you’ve got “dark and gritty” stories about violence and murder and incest and cannibalism and psychotic scalpel-wielding torture-obsessed dachshunds or something. Yes, that’s a real reflection of how people experience the world. And then you’ve got the other kind, the kind that pisses me off because it just gives fodder to the people who yell “pretentious!” at everything that’s not the lowest common denominator. You know, the sort of games where “adult” is taken to refer to such shockingly non-teenage topics as… loneliness! The gaming equivalent of European arthouse movies with nothing to say except that social interactions are hard when you’re a self-involved twit.
Rabbi: Made by the sort of people who think that “hell is other people” is a fresh insight. Yeah, I know what you’re getting at.
Robot: What do you mean when you say “adult”, then?
Rabbit: I mean informed by the real world! By the complex, bittersweet, heartbreaking world that we live in! By the struggles and traumas and hopes of real people. Stories about being a person in the world. You’d think games would be excellent at just that sort of thing! Games always brag about how they’ll let you experience a world, but that experience is ultimately almost always an antisocial fantasy in which you are completely apart from everything and everyone you meet.
Robot: So, what, you want more contemporary, documentary-style games?
Rabbit: That’s not what I’m saying, though a bit more variety in settings would be nice, wouldn’t you think? But being informed by the real world doesn’t mean being set in the real world! I mean, look at all the other art forms, they manage this stuff. The Lord of the Rings is an epic adventure, but it’s also all about the passage of time, about death, about storytelling and history, about hope in the face of despair. It’s about regular people, how they can be heroes but also how they can be villains. And I could go on and on; it’s full of powerful human themes. Or take It. One of the most terrifying horror novels I’ve ever read, but also one of the most moving and truthful meditations on childhood I’ve ever encountered. They’re stories that are about something, without that something being as simplistic as a “message” that can be conveniently expressed in a single sentence – not the sort of thing adolescents and teachers who didn’t pay attention at university imagine serious art to be, that is.
Robot: But those stories are also entertaining!
Rabbit: Exactly! The definition of art as something boring and incomprehensible is itself childish; it’s completely alien to human experience and history.
Rabbi: But you’re not saying all art has to be entertaining, right? I mean, there has to be space for variety.
Rabbit: Of course! What I’m trying to focus on here is that we must reject definitions of “artistic” that negate the possibility of adult play. You see, on the one hand we have the people who want games to remain childish, and on the other we have the people who want adult games not to be games – and both are rejecting the idea that an actual grown-up individual, who engages with the world and society, could experience play as a meaningful activity.
Bartender: It’s all getting a bit too intellectual for me now.
Rabbit: It shouldn’t be! Honestly, this isn’t about some grand intellectual point; I’m not saying games should be one way or another to conform to some kind of academic theory of mine. It’s just that I’m a grown-up bunny and when I play games with stories I’d like them to be up to the storytelling quality I get from other forms of art. Games that have genuine variety and whose content speaks to me as someone who lives in this world. Games with themes and ideas and characters. Games for adults. Because they’re more fun, and more rewarding, and more memorable.
Rabbi: Come to think of it, didn’t you cry when playing Photopia, Robot?
Robot: Erm… maybe. But even if I did, that’s interactive fiction, not a game!
Bartender: You’re not opening that can of worms in my bar, buddy! I have clear rules against that sort of discussion.
Rabbi: Then I think we can call it a day. Yes? Good.
Bartender: But you didn’t order any drinks!
Rabbi: Oh, you’re right. I’ll have a water.
Robot: Machine oil.
Rabbit: Carrot juice.
Bartender: Coming right up.
Rabbi: So, what shall we talk about next?