Video games are not a storytelling medium. Sure, some might be considered art–some graphics and music of games throughout the ages are downright gorgeous–but to paraphrase what Johannes said in his post, games have rules and they are designed to be won or lost.
If you don’t have a possibility of losing, then you don’t have a game. And stories don’t have the possibility of losing.
You can’t lose at a movie or a book, not even one of those old Choose Your Own Adventure novels we had as kids a million years ago. A game? It’s kill or be killed, metaphorically.
I suppose if you like a story to go with your game of poker or parcheesi, you may disagree with me. That’s fine (but I’m still right).
I say this as a guy who loves old video games (“retrogames,” we say, so we don’t get too ancient) and has a penchant for JRPGs. You know, those 60-80 hour time-sinks that have oodles and oodles of melodramatic Japanese storytelling tropes?
Well, the difference between a Final Fantasy VI and some modern fare is that Final Fantasy VI began with a focus on gameplay and built the story around it, and not vice versa.
Video games were a lot less pretentious back then. Even serious games like Final Fantasy VI, and even VII and VIII, never took themselves too seriously.
And don’t get me started on the Dragon Quest series.
Those old JRPGs were about the battle systems, baby. And you could lose at those battles. Boy howdy, could you lose.
If you’re familiar with the original Final Fantasy, you’ll understand these words: “Sorcerers in the ice cave.” A random battle that could wipe out your party in a round or two with their insta-kill physical attacks.
And we loved it. Because when you beat that game, brother, you earned it.
It wasn’t just JRPGs I like, then and now. Give me Castlevania or Contra or Bubble Bobble and I’m a happy man. Gameplay is eternal.
Look, the story of Final Fantasy VII is utterly preposterous and relatively irrelevant. It’s window dressing to make you want to fight those 75,000 random battles to build up your characters. But if the fight system wasn’t fun, you’d ditch the game and read a book no matter how cool the story seems.
A book doesn’t require grinding to defeat a boss before moving on to chapter 3.
People who view video games as a storytelling device must be like what my pen-and-paper RPG friends lament as “storygamers,” people who want to actually act out the part instead of utilizing the rules to win at what is essentially simulated war.
Tabletop RPGs are not acting classes. And video games are not storytelling devices.
This is why gamers lament that too many games are easy, overly linear, provide little to no challenge, and are like a movie you occasionally press a button during.
Even games that come closest to hitting this mark, like Metal Gear Solid still err on the side of gameplay. The game never becomes a game-in-name-only despite some epically long cut-scenes. This game is tough. At least, it was for me.
But it’s not the story that made this game a classic. It was the stealth-based gameplay, not its nonsensical, philosophically rambling plot. That’s all just fluff, no different than the preposterous framing stories in old NES games like Rygar and Life Force.
As comic books became the home for failed writers, video games seem like the home die failed filmmakers.
Yet great game design is eternal. I dare you to fire up Super Metroid and not declare it more fun than pretty much all triple-AAA stuff released the past year or so.
Mega Man II still rules.
Super Mario Bros. 3 remains the pinnacle of Mario games, though to be fair to Nintendo, they seem like the only company who still remembers what video games are supposed to be.
And as much as I’m tempted to get a switch to play Breath of the Wild, I find myself itching to play the original Legend of Zelda, and when I do, it’s still as fresh as it was when I was seven.
Maybe I’m just old. Or maybe video games are the most overrated so-called storytelling vehicle around.