Story & Games

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As a philosopher who teaches aesthetics and a gamer, I find questions about games and art to generally be rather interesting. As I have argued elsewhere, I take the intuitively plausible view that video games can be art. However, even if that matter is considered settled (which can be debated), there is still a rich vein of philosophical issues to mine.

One topic that I and many other gamers often find interesting is the matter of the importance of story in games. John Carmack, who knows a bit about games, said  that “story in a game is like a story in a porn movie. It’s expected to be there, but it’s not that important.” Folks who delight in story driven games no doubt disagree with this view and there does seem to be an issue worth discussing here. For the sake of this discussion, I will be assuming that games (specifically video games) can be art. I have argued for this in an earlier essay and hence will not repeat my arguments here.

Obviously enough, there are games that have no story at all and are still fine games. To use the obvious examples, Tetris and Asteroids are story free, yet fine games. Naturally, these are not the sort of games that people debate about when it comes to whether or not story is important. However, it is worth noting these sorts of games because they provide a relatively pure context in which to present two relevant points.

The first is that game mechanisms (that is, the purely game aspects of the game) are reasonably seen as being distinct from the art aspects of the game (that is, the game as art).  After all, while all games are games and some games are art, not all games are art.  This can, of course, be argued against. However, it does have enough intuitive plausibility that it is well worth considering.

The second point is that even the art aspects of a game that is (or contains) art can be distinguished from each other. For example, while Tetris and Asteroid do not have plots, they do have game artwork and sounds (which might be dismissed as mere sound effects rather than having any status as art). As another example, the music and visual art of Halo can be distinguished from each other in that one is music and the other visual art. This point seems reasonable certain.

The matter of the importance of story is most interesting when it comes to games that do, in fact, feature a story. Obviously enough, the story (or plot) of games have varying degrees of integration into the game. For games that have a story, in one end of the spectrum lives the games whose story have an extremely minimal role in the game. One excellent example of this is Serious Sam: The First Encounter. The game does have a story: an evil alien threatens earth and you, as Sam, have to travel in time and kill wave after wave of monsters. That is pretty much it. Despite the rather limited story, the game works amazingly well as a game-that is, it is fun to play. On the other end of the spectrum are games that are heavily story driven, such as Knights of the Old Republic and Star Wars the Old Republic. These games are, not surprisingly, role-playing games. In these games the player takes on the role of a character and spends considerable time talking to non-player characters, making decisions and experiencing the plot unfold. As might be imagined, the story in such games seems to be rather more important than in the typical first person shooter. In the middle are games like the Halo series which have well-developed stories and unfolding plots, but do not actually have any role-playing elements. For example, in Halo your choices mainly revolve on what gun to use to kill which alien in what way.

As might be imagined, the significance of the story would seem to be proportional to its role in the game. After all, a first person shooter whose plot is rather lacking or poor would suffer less than a full blown story-driven role-playing game whose plot is lacking or badly done. That said, it could still be argued that plot is important.

It is tempting to compare a game with a story to a movie and, obviously enough, plot seems to be somewhat important to a movie (although Michael Bay, some might claim, endeavors to prove otherwise). The idea of plot being the most important aspect of poetical works (broadly and classically construed to include theater) dates back at least to Aristotle. To steal his argument regarding tragedy, the following argument can be given for the importance of plot in games that have a story element.

Games are not an imitation of humans (or elves, aliens, or dragons), “but of an action and of life, and life consists in action, and its end is a mode of action, not a quality.” It is, of course, the actions taken by people that  “make them happy or miserable.” As such the “the incidents and the plot are the end of” the game  and “the end is the chief thing of all.” Thus the story is important, at least on the key assumptions made by Aristotle.

For Aristotle, a key part of having a good plot is ensuring “that the sequence of events, according to the law of probability or necessity permits a change from bad fortune to good or from good to bad.” In more general terms, the plot must be such that the events make sense and fit together to form a coherent whole. In my own experience as a gamer, I have consistently disliked games in which the story fails to meet that basic requirement that events play out in a way that makes sense (except, obviously enough, for games that are supposed to not make sense). After all, if you are running around in a game doing things that make no sense for no apparent reason that leads to nothing, then that will tend to be a disappointing gaming experience (although it would be a fair approximation of life).

The rather obvious reply to this is that there are games that are rather weak in the story department that seem to be great successes as games, thus helping to support Carmack’s claim. This seems to be a rather consistent aspect of the top tier first person shooters-they tend to be marked by weak, implausible or otherwise lame plots but are top-ranked for game play, especially competitive multi-player. As I once jokingly put it, “I don’t really care why I am killing, I just care about whether I’m enjoying it or not.” That, I think, nicely captures the view of most gamers.

Interestingly enough, this view often extends into games in which story would seem to be rather important, such as role-playing games. While some people do enjoy going through all the dialog and getting into the story, my general experience has been that the main focus is on the game-play rather than on the story.  This even extends to my experience in traditional role-playing games, like AD&D and Pathfinder:many players are far more into roll-playing (that is, simply killing monsters in combat) than role-playing (that is, talking to the monsters before killing them).

Getting back to the point raised earlier, namely that the game aspects of a game are not art this does seem to suggest that the story is not as important to the game as the game aspects of the game. Alternatively, it could be argued that the game aspects of the game are still art, but they are a different sort of art than a story. After all, the name of the game is, well, “game” and not “story.” In the case of a first person shooter, the game is (obviously enough) about shooting things from a first person perspective. Story is thus secondary. Even in role-playing games, such as Pathfinder, all the actual game mechanism are about rolling dice, usually while trying to kill monsters who are blatantly and shamelessly holding the loot that rightfully belongs to the party. While the game can be augmented by art (acting, beautiful maps, and well-crafted stories) the core of the game is , it can be argued, the game mechanics. As my friend Ron puts it, “if you are not rolling dice, you are not playing the game. You are just sitting around the table talking.”

The idea that a game should be focused on the game is, interestingly enough, also consistent with Aristotle’s view: “each art ought to produce, not any chance pleasure, but the pleasure proper to it.”

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31 Comments.

  1. Mr. LaBossiere,

    Interesting thoughts on the role of storytelling in games here.

    For those of us who do play table-top/traditional RPGs primarily for the story and character development (we do exist), would you consider these exercises more in storytelling, or a type of improvisational theatre, with some game-like aspects and the RPG style and video games you describe as primarily games with storytelling elements?

    I wonder if there’s not room in your article for discussing what makes something a “game” as opposed to another recreational activity. For example, must a game have the chance of total failure to be considered a game? That aspect might eliminate some people’s RPGs as games, as even a character’s death may not be considered a loss if it contributes to the over all plot and dramatics. Or must it contain an element of chance? In which case, even purely story-oriented RPGs might still be considered, for the use of dice, adding the element of uncertainty, can increase dramatic tension for all players, even the Gamemaster/Dungeon Master who sets up the plot and non-player characters.

    In the realm of video games, though not so popular as they once were, there were the “adventure” games in the Kings Quest genre of interactive stories, that featured wandering around a map, picking up everything that isn’t nailed down, and using it to solve puzzles. Though I’m sure there were many who played the games simply for the puzzle-solving mechanism of game-play, these games had a greater focus on storytelling, with each series of puzzles moving the character from plot point to plot point, and many of the puzzle required interaction between the player character and non-players in conversation to get clues.

    Overall, I think many newer video game developers, other than those who make the almost purely abstract games like TextTwist or Bejewled, are making an effort to provide some elements of story, and the market suggests that more and more gamers are such in their games. The Elder Scrolls games are rich in storytelling and plot development but include a fair amount of action. But even many games that have a mostly abstract playing mechanism, Magic: The Gathering for example, have made efforts to provide stories in the cards’ flavor text or create fictional universes in the form of novels written in the setting of the game. And even when there’s no story within the game, we go and make one up, as they did for Battleship and even Asteroids, which is slated to have its own movie out in 2014. So whether it’s required or not to make a good game, I imagine we’ll see more and more stories in our games in the years to come.

  2. David brings up an interesting point as to what constitutes a ‘game’. My take is that a game is anything that satisfies two conditions: 1) it must have rules, and 2) the final end of the activity must be enjoyment.

    ‘Story’ factors in as one means of creating enjoyment, but it’s only one of many.

    I think an interesting question is how games relate to play in general, such as between children or even animals. If we allow that rules can be implicit, then ‘play’ and ‘game’ might be synonymous.

    One explanation for play activities is that they promote survival skills–whether indirectly through social bonding or directly through teaching something like hunting technique for example.

    It admittedly seems a long road from that to SWTOR, but it might be a continuous path all the same. Do we actually derive benefit from something like an mmo in that sense, or is that sort of gaming just wasted time?

  3. Dennis Sceviour

    Re: David Mayeux, June 8, 2012 at 8:07 pm
    “I wonder if there’s not room in your article for discussing what makes something a “game” as opposed to another recreational activity.”

    This is an interesting question. I agree with Asur on the first condition mentioned. The definition of a game is — a game has rules. Other activities have no rules. For example, there is no limit on how fast a person can swim or fly.

    The interaction with animals can still be called a game, as animals seem also to be aware of rules.

  4. There used to be a disagreement between narratological (story-centric) and ludological (play-centric) approaches to theorising computer games; although I have the impression that both sides of the debate have largely settled their differences.

  5. Asur your conditions of “game” as

    1) it must have rules, and 2) the final end of the activity must be enjoyment.

    are compelling, but I would alter the second condition to 2) the final end of the activity is the activity itself. ie, you play the game to play the game-no reward or benefit beyond the game itself. Benefits may derive from the game, such as the survival skills you mentioned, but if one goes into an activity with that in mind, it’s no longer a game, it becomes training exercises of a skill set. There are many, perhaps unfortunately, who play games repeatedly and continuously, but at least seem to derive no pleasure or enjoyment from it at all nor are they interested in deriving some skill from it (other than perhaps, getting better at the game), and yet we would still say they are engaged in playing the game.

  6. Dennis Sceviour

    Another stipulation may be that a game requires participants to play by the rules. When any side does not play by the rules, then it is not a game, but it may be like real life.

    “All is fair is love and war (John Lyly, Euphues, The Anatomy of Wit, 1578).”

  7. Re Asur June 8th “David brings up an interesting point as to what constitutes a ‘game’. My take is that a game is anything that satisfies two conditions: 1) it must have rules, and 2) the final end of the activity must be enjoyment.“
    There is something which bothers me concerning condition 2 here. Certainly as Condition 1 states there must be rules. I am wondering how it is possible to make, or ensure that. a competitor actually enjoys the game. If he does not than does the activity cease to be a game? It is not possible to enforce someone to enjoy anything. There have been several sports-people who have stated they did not actually enjoy perusing the sport/game they were just good at it. The only one I can think of at the moment is the tennis player Andre Agassi and I seem to remember his wife Steffi Graf also feeling the same. In the final round of a hard fought boxing match when one is near to dropping from exhaustion and with blows still being rained on one, the final end of the round must surely be one of relief, and also disappointment if one believes one has almost certainly lost on points. There is surely no room for enjoyment there.
    My remarks here are not directly aimed at Computer games about which I know very little. However The family of Games has many members all of which have something or some things in common which qualify them to be a member of the family. Is it possible to keep on playing a computer game which one does not enjoy, I would guess it probably is.

  8. David Mayeux,
    I do consider the role-playing aspects of RPGs to be part of the game, especially in games that are strongly plot oriented, such as Call of Cthulhu. As you note, one challenge is sorting out the difference between playing, for example, an antiquarian turned investigator confronting an undead ancestor in a movie and doing so in Call of Cthulhu. I’d be inclined to say that one main difference is that the player gets to contribute to the outcome of the events in the way that an actor does not. The obvious counter is that actors do improvise-but I might argue that when they do this, they are actually playing a sort of game.

    As far as chance goes, many games do have chance-but many do not (such as chess and some RPG games that apparently do not have any dice, cards or other such random devices).

    In some ways, the classic adventure games still exist-although I’ve never been much for the puzzle genre (although I do love crafting traps for Pathfinder) and hence have not kept up with it.

    As you note, people do like to make up stories for games that lack stories (when I heard that they were making Asteroids and Battleship into movies, I thought the person who told me was joking). This could be part of the human tendency to try to explain and order things-even simple games.

  9. Rules do seem necessary for games-otherwise stuff is just happening and enjoyment does seem important. However, there seem to be non-games that meet the requirements. For example, one could say that society has rules and these aim at people being happy (or less sad). But these do seem to be two important elements.

  10. Don,

    Good point. While games are generally taken to aim at enjoyment, there are clearly games that some of the participants would probably not enjoy (like a game in which some well armed people hunted unarmed people). It is also possible to imagine a game that probably makes everyone involved miserable-however we might want to say that it is not really a game. To steal a bit from Aquinas, he said that laws aim at the good of the subjects, but there can be tyrannical laws. Perhaps a similar analogy can be drawn to games.

  11. So, would you personally ascribe to the view that some form of happiness is or should be the final end for the laws of a society?

    For some reason, that idea makes me somewhat uncomfortable…if I had to articulate it, I would say that I think the laws of a society should aim at order, stability, and common interest as final ends.

    Survival is more important than happiness; an evolutionary analysis of ‘happiness’ would even seem to indicate that it roughly pushes us toward things that are conducive to either individual or species survival or both.

    I don’t really like the idea of valuing what seems to be a means as an end–even if it is a subjective end for most people.

  12. While what you are saying is true for the vast majority of games there are a few exceptions. There are story-telling card games, like Once Upon a Time

    On the role-playing side there are various indie games such as Universalis (arguably a story-telling game rather than a role-playing game), Fiasco and Polaris and a more story-driven approach seems to be moving into the mainstream with the various Fate based games, such as The Dresden Files, MWP’s Cortex Plus series and Moon Design’s HeroQuest.

  13. Asur,

    I would, provided that we go with an Aristotelian style definition of happiness (or at least Mill’s considered view). After all, Aristotle takes happiness to be (roughly) a matter of acting in a virtuous matter and this includes living in a well ordered society and so on.

    But, if we go with happiness as mere/crude pleasure, then that would be bad. Also, if we took it as imposing some awful conception of happiness (see the Happiness Patrol).

    I’d contend that happiness is more important than mere survival. Merely living is not better than living well (in the sense of living a virtuous life). I’ll agree with Socrates on this one.

  14. Paul,

    I’ve never played any of the pure story games (other than the actual “game” of telling stories), but they would certainly seem to be games as well. I would say that story telling can become a game-but laying out some clear characteristics would be challenging. One would seem to be rules, another would be the play aspect and so on.

  15. Happiness is I think something of a problem. What makes me happy may well not make others happy. It seems we find our own happiness, it seems to be an emergent state. I do not think it possible to legislate such that pure happiness will be generated. Happiness of the greatest number, does of course play a central role in Utilitarianism but I am not sure this is quite the same happiness as we are thinking of here. This I think is a pleasurable state of contentedness that all is well and we can rest and dwell in pure enjoyment of the feeling for a period of time. That said the happy person is I think in a stasis, neither going forward nor back. My own observations indicate that happiness conspires against progress. If one is a little unhappy then one has a spur to do something to alter the status quo. I ask what part does Happiness play on the evolutionary process where survival is predominant. Motivation at its basic level is driven by one or all of the four Fs i.e, Feeding, Fighting, Fleeing and Reproduction. So a happy state will be generated by sufficient food, no hostile circumstances to combat, and no reason to take refuge from hostile circumstances. I am guessing that these three circumstances being satisfied a state of “happiness” will ensue at which the reproductive process can then commence, or recommence, and survival of the species strengthened.

  16. Dennis Sceviour

    “It is better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied (attributed to JS Mill).” Comments such as these make me believe Mill was never a true Utilitarian, but rather a gifted philosopher encumbered by popular Utilitarianism of his day. In the context of the current discussion, games fill time with occupation and submersion in a task. It is the activity that is enjoyable, and not the purpose of the task.

    There is a caveat about tasks I am slightly aware of in philosophy, although others probably know more about the facts that I do. During WWII, the Germans had a saying for their concentration and labour camps – arbeit machen, or work makes good. I think the Japanese also had a similar saying for their labour camps – be happy in your work. I agree with the wording of the sayings, but the obvious danger is that the intent can be twisted and exploited by the unscrupulous. A game is a poor way to simulate human thinking about jurisprudence. The objectives of games are often destruction, occupation or domination, and further refinements in game analysis will result in other methods.

    Back on story & games, a very popular book “Games People Play (1964)” redefined the meaning of games in the language of psychology. To the psychologist studying human interaction, a game may occurs when a person tries to conceal their motivations. This is a different meaning for game, but concealment can form a part of the “story”.

  17. Don,

    I’d make a distinction between being content/satisfied and being happy. After all, I could have my basic physical needs/desires satisfied and yet not be in a state of virtue.

    I would agree that laws aimed at making people happy would probably fail-after all, what people would tend to do is create laws aimed at bringing about or preventing things that they think would make them happy (or more accurately, laws to make people do what they want and prevent people from doing what they do not want others to do). However, laws could be made that aim at a good and just society in which virtue would be more likely.

    Cases have indeed been made that progress is fueled by discontent. For example, a popular theme these days is that many of the great folks had a form of melancholy that helped drive them to greatness. I suppose a case could be made either way. After all, if someone achieved a state of true happiness, they would not need anything more and would probably be more inclined at preservation rather than change. Unless, of course, part of their happiness involved doing things that led to progress. For example, my happiness includes training and writing-so to stay happy I need to train to become better and keep on writing, thus I’m always making some progress (or at least fighting a holding action against death).

  18. People do, interestingly enough, talk about game playing in the social and dating arenas. When I tried my hand at online dating, I noticed that many women started their profiles with “no games” and “no game players.” I infer that they weren’t talking about people who play chess or Pathfinder-but a different sort of game.

  19. Re Mike LaBossiere June 11th.

    Today at the gym, I knocked three seconds off my personal best on the rowing machine. That made me happy, not withstanding the fact I was pretty much done in at the end. Reading, writing, and satisfying my curiosity for what appears to be, almost all things in this world, also make me happy. I claim no special expertise in any of this and would like to be very much better at it all, would that make me happier, are there degrees of happiness?

  20. Mike, you said that “I’d contend that happiness is more important than mere survival. Merely living is not better than living well (in the sense of living a virtuous life). I’ll agree with Socrates on this one.”

    I’ve always wondered about this. Living is obviously a precondition for living well; you can’t have the latter without the former.

    This or something like it is probably the source of my intuition that survival is more important than happiness.

  21. I think Aristotle is correct. It could be suggested that all games are art & haves stories without exception.

    It could be suggested that games fundamentally reflect life & to Aristotle’s point have purposes – be it deliberate or consequential. And if games reflect life, be it video games, card games, sporting games or life as game – all can produce happiness & sadness – the Gamer could fine happiness in all games & in the game of life itself, even when the end could be, well, gruesome.

  22. Re Asur June 11th:-
    “survival is more important than happiness.”
    If that be the case, then why do people commit suicide?

  23. Hi Don,

    You seem to be agreeing with Berkeley that perception determines reality.

    I find that implausible since it seems to have its causal structure backwards, but if you want to argue for it, I’d read whatever you wrote.

  24. Dear Esther is the perfectly example that some games are art indeed.

  25. Pod,

    I do suspect that all games have a narrative, although in some cases the narrative might be rather limited.

  26. Asur,

    True-just as having a horse is a necessary condition for having a white horse, living would be a necessary condition for living well. However, the choice to live well (in the moral sense) could (and did in Socrates case) lead to making a choice that ends life. That is, it is better to lose the living part of living well rather than merely the well part.

  27. “That is, it is better to lose the living part of living well rather than merely the well part.”

    It seems that what we are saying here is that, at some point, it’s preferable to die than to suffer.

    I just don’t see how that could ever be the case. That people make that choice says something about human psychology but nothing at all about whether we ought to make it.

    Could anything justify this apart form a kind of hedonistic principle that cast pain as the ultimate evil to avoid?

  28. The cake is a lie!

  29. Asur,

    I’m not saying that, although that is a possible interpretation. This is a moral claim: if one must chose between remaining alive by being unjust and dying because one remains virtuous, then it is better to die. The Apology does a reasonable job of presenting arguments as to why it is better to be good and die than to stay alive through injustice.

    “For neither in war nor yet at law ought any man to use every way of escaping death. For often in battle there is no doubt that if a man will throw away his arms, and fall on his knees before his pursuers, he may escape death; and in other dangers there are other ways of escaping death, if a man is willing to say and do anything. The difficulty, my friends, is not in avoiding death, but in avoiding unrighteousness; for that runs faster than death.”
    -Socrates

    Now, some would say that there is a point at which death is preferable to living with suffering. As a matter of fact, people do sometimes prefer death to severe suffering. As you note, this does not tell us what people ought to do (that is “people do x” does not entail “people ought to do x.”

    As far as arguing for the claim that people should choose death over suffering, I suppose that would be (as you note) a hedonistic argument of sorts. This could, of course, be a moral argument (utilitarian, for example).

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