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Game Stories: Pulling Them Apart, Putting Them Back Together Again

An edited version of this piece appeared in the July 2010 issue of GamePro magazine.

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” It’s a bold statement that opens the eponymous essay in Joan Didion’s book The White Album, first published in 1979. When the Everyman’s Library put together an anthology of her nonfiction in 2006, that sentence was chosen as the title from over 1100 pages of text.

The essay is sprawling and disjointed, like the Beatles album from which it takes its name. But before spinning off into a million different directions, Didion explains her first sentence:

“We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the ‘ideas’ with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.”

Sound familiar?

It’s kind of how games work, isn’t it? They offer many potential possibilities, and we impose our own narrative. I can choose to play missions in Grand Theft Auto in any order, but I have to play them in an order. Maybe this makes games a more true reflection of life than other forms of art, because it doesn’t make any sense until you’ve put it in some kind of order yourself.

When recounting a game’s narrative, you have two tales to tell: the story of the game and story of playing the game. The Mirror’s Edge-inspired website The Runner blends the two, jumping back and forth between narration of the game-as-experience and experience of the game. Sometimes the subject is “Faith,” sometimes it’s “I.”

The Runner works because that’s how games work. Not like a book or a film, where the characters are always separate from you (no matter how much you identify with them). “I” versus “she.” For comparison — the story of reading a book: “I turned the page.” Story of watching a movie: “I watched the screen.” When you’re writing about books or films, that part of the story is understood. It’s irrelevant.

Or maybe it’s not. Maybe other forms of media aren’t quite as passive as they first appear. Maybe the obvious interaction we have with games isn’t as unique as we first thought (this is not a bad thing). Games do plenty of things far better than other media, we don’t have to own this one.

Games are NOW. The narrative of a game always occurs in the present tense — even more so than films, which play out in real time, or a book narrating events that are ostensibly currently happening. In those cases, they’re constructed in the past: The end already exists. That book in your hand, you can see the remaining 50 pages. A film marches inexorably forward, whether you stand on your chair clapping or snooze through it. Your input is irrelevant.

Is stopping a game different than putting down a book or a movie? Does the story stop there? There’s no one else to move it forward — the characters don’t have a will of their own; they don’t act unless you tell them what to do.

But what about when, in the course of playing a game, it becomes clear that the events have already happened and you are controlling a part of someone’s story?

I really enjoyPrince of Persia: The Sands of Time. The rhythm of movement, the interaction between the Prince and Farah, the aesthetic; all wonderful. They misdirect you from the main theme of the story — a young man who has the power to undo any and all of his mistakes. His actions don’t have to have consequences until he gets them just right (thanks to the dagger’s ability to turn back time by a few seconds). He falls into a pit, no big deal. Killed by a koopa? Just hit the reset button, or retry from the beginning of the level. Wait…I think I’m confusing the Prince’s adventure with my own gaming.

Because Sands of Time is not only a video game, but a metaphor for gaming itself. But unlike Max Payne, the Prince never stops and points out that he’s in a video game. He doesn’t have to.

The path through the game is linear; its phantasmagoria frozen. But just as the avoid-death mechanic is narrative-driven, so is this linearity: There is only one path you can take, because the Prince has already taken it, and is telling his story to someone now. You’re reminded of this when you DO die, and the Prince’s voice-over insists, “No, no, no, that’s not how it happened.” It’s not too difficult to imagine the storytelling:

“And I ran up the wall, and I jumped toward a pole–” “And you fell to your death?” “No, no, no, that’s not what happened.”

At the end, after he has told the story, the game shifts to real time for a very underwhelming boss fight against an old man. Stripped of the Prince’s narration (and dependent solely on the game’s lackluster combat system), the fight is bland and repetitive.

The first time you use the dagger in that battle, though, it cements at least part of the Prince’s story as true (up until that point, it’s equally plausible that he climbed into Farah’s bedchamber and subjected her to his insane ravings). In the final cut-scene, the victorious Prince kisses Farah. She slaps him, and he uses the dagger to rewind time and undo it. He still hasn’t learned to accept responsibility for his choices (the game’s sequels, though not without their flaws in execution, explore this idea more explicitly).

The immature youth who can’t bear the consequences of his actions — it’s the literal story of Sands of Time, and it’s not too difficult to see how it might be the stereotypical story people associate with video games as a whole. Playing them has no consequences outside of the game, they could say. That’s not like real life, where you don’t get multiple chances to do things over and over, and try different approaches. You know what, though? That’s not a very good story. Neither is its equally reductive counterpart, “it’s just a game.” I prefer constructing order from chaos; story from disconnected events. And think about it — even if someone were to see gamers as the Prince, well, gamers DO learn from their mistakes. Because video game death isn’t a metaphor for the end of life; it’s a metaphor for making mistakes.

Are stories the main point of gaming? Probably not. Paintings, music, books, films — these don’t necessarily need stories, either. Sometimes narrative is the point of the work, and sometimes it’s just there to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria of life. In any art, you can appreciate color, shading, technique, content, and context.

The competition of a Modern Warfare match, the in-depth canon that informs a Bethesda or a Bioware game, the impression of space and movement you get from a platformer, the sense of scale as you face a colossus or enlarge your katamari ball — when we write about these experiences, these sensations, we turn them into stories. That’s what we’re here for, isn’t it?

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December 2010
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