It’s this last point where Dyack’s analysis starts to go off the rails. These particular statements are key:
“It’s an unpopular viewpoint,” he said. “But I don’t believe that gameplay is the most important aspect to games. I have a theory: that engagement is greater than or equal to art plus story plus gameplay plus audio plus technology. It’s all of these things combined, and one is not more important than another.”
“While I think that narrative is going to become more and more dominant, possibly superseding gameplay, narrative is not the be all and end all,” he added.
“You can have 100-year-old films where narrative is very light and they are still enjoyable. However, I think we will move towards a place where games can be a success because of more than just their gameplay, because of their music, their internal architecture and so on.”
In one sense, I actually agree with Dyack here. As games become more and more mainstream, narrative will become more and more important. What he misses is that it will also become less and less important. This is because as games become more “movie-like” in terms of gaining mainstream acceptance, they will also go through the same cultural evolution that films did. Once they become ubiquitous, they will lose their novelty as an art form. Games will always have their “hard-core” audience even as movies have their hard-core cinephiles. What will disappear is “gamers” as a category. Just as today no one is a “movie-er,” when everyone plays games, no one can be a “gamer.” This will have a profound impact on not only the evolution of games but also on how games are created, studied, classified and understood.
Consider a brainless but otherwise well-crafted summer blockbuster like “The Transformers.” Transformers has all the requisite artistic elements of a film — story, plot, characters, sets, music, special effects — in greater and lesser combinations and of greater or lesser quality. You know what game a broad-based crowd-pleaser like Transformers is most comparable to? Farmville or Mafia Wars or any of a dozen or so social-network based games with minimal narratives. The common denominator here is that as “The Eighth Art” gameplay will and must be dominant because it’s the only artistic element that seperates a game from a film. Soren Johnson’s Tweet was right on the money.
What Dyack describes as the future already exists, they’re called adventure games. Consider Cryostasis. As I mentioned in an earlier Angry Bear column, Cryostasis is a game with loads of great features — a fascinating story, great set design, a great time-travel conceit — that can and should be praised. What it doesn’t have is great gameplay,. The combat and movement system is clunky and awkward and it was only my interest in the story that kept me going through it — and even that was a near thing. Had the system been any more unenjoyable, nothing would have made me finish the game. What good is even the best narrative if the user will never see the end of it because the process is so unenjoyable? Like the plot of Transformers, a game’s narrative is necessary, but it actually comes last in the priority list.
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Of course, that does leave a small hole in my argument. What about a game that has no narrative at all such as Tetris? That’s where Ebert’s analysis actually holds water and gives us a clue about the future of the medium. Art is the creation of an artist and giving control over to the audience is what prevents it from being art. Put simply, Tetris and similarly plotless “games” aren’t really “videogames” at all, they are what Ebert describes them as. They’re sports. Yes, this distinction is arbitrary, but it’s a necessary one if Dyack’s contention that videogames are “The Eighth Art” is to be taken seriously. Most of the games in this category are of course, actual sports games — i.e. representations of real world sports, but a number of pure multiplayer titles such as Defense of the Ancients and most multiplayer modes in single-player titles could comfortably fit into this category as well. They’re the flip side of adventure game which is almost pure narrative with the bare minimum of gameplay.
What Ebert misses is that most games don’t actually give the player the level of control he thinks they do. In most games, the player’s path is dictated by the game creator. When a game’s boundaries are absolutely clear and arbitrary, that’s what puts the game into the realm of sport. There’s no reason why a baseball player only gets three strikes except that those are the rules. The fun is playing against other players when all the rules are clear. One doesn’t need a narrative because it’s the sheer randomness and the application of rule-bound skill that makes it exciting. Adventure games have become a niche precisely because they try to do what Dyack is suggesting — privelege the narrative at the expense of gameplay. Old Man Murray illustrated this far better than I ever could in a classic article called “Who Killed Adventure Games?” where he mocks the bizarre designer-fiat barriers placed in the way of a compelling story for the sake of providing “gameplay” in titles that are only one step from movies.
It’s only when the gameplay boundaries are obscured and the player is given the illusion of freedom that narrative can thrive. A game like BioShock places walls and locked doors to restrict the player’s movement but creates a convincing artificial world where the player is able to suspend disbelief enough that these barriers are accepted as an intrinsic part of an nominally unlimited world bound by the “reality” of the crushing depths of the sea rather than the arbitrary lines of code they really are. This is what allows that game to present it’s story of a Utopia fallen to ruin. The narrative is presented in the player’s interaction with and challenge by the environment, not a non-interactive cut-scene. Indeed, the cut-scene is the worst of all possible methods of narrative delivery precisely because it’s not under the player’s control. . I don’t know what words we’ll use to describe them in the future, but I believe that what we today call “games” will split into player vs. environment (including co-op) and player vs. player games for the purposes of artistic criticism.
The most unfortunate thing is that Dyack’s is actually proceeding from the right sensibility but he follows it to an incorrect conclusion. Narrative will become more important in gaming’s future, but not at the expense of gameplay. Finding the way for videogame artists to tell their stories certainly won’t be found by looking to the movies. That way lies Myst and The 7th Guest. Narrative will become more important as it becomes an intregral part of gameplay and becomes a distinct language peculiar and distinct to gaming and takes its proper place in the game developer’s toolbox — subservient to and an integral part of gameplay.