If I Want A Story, I’ll Read A Book: A Response to Johannes Fischer’s Guest Post

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.

These bastards…

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.

Pass.

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.


If my books were turned into video games, A Traitor to Dreams would be a third-person action-platformer with light RPG elements, and The Last Ancestor would be a side-scrolling beat-’em-up.

29 comments

  1. I still have my original Final Fantasy cart. And when I tell people “I beat the game with four white mages, four black mages, four red mages, and four martial artists, back to back” their eyes glaze over as they realize the sheer number of hours and grinding that took. And I was what, twelve? Even young adult gamers have no clue what that’s like. Beating Mega Man 2 without dying? Done it. My kids still occasionally ask me to show them just to prove to their friends I can do it.

    FFVII was fun, but due to the way they limited your party selection, there were only so many ways you could beat it (and no matter what you did, you couldn’t prevent you-know-who from dying). It was the beginning of the end.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jeff! What’s up? Dude before I forget, if you ever want to write a guest post just shoot me an email.

      Now on to Final Fantasy I. I wish I still had my cart. I never beat it with those extremely challenging party—in fact, I never beat it until I was 14 or 15. The toughest party I beat it with was fighter-thief-white mage-black mage, and that’s tough mainly because the thief is useless. Hell, even the ninja sucks when he becomes one. I still consider it to be a top 3 FF game. Something about it is so charming.

      FF VII was fun, but your assessment is pretty accurate. Materia was interchangeable, and the only difference between characters was their limit breaks. FF VIII, which I still loved, was similar. At least IX had vastly different characters and four-member parties, so you could really experiment with different line-ups that actually altered the gameplay. Plus I love how Vivi could could cast spells on Steiner’s sword.

      The pinnacle of line-up changes, though, has to be III and V with the excellent job system. V especially. Want a samurai who can use magic and jump like a dragoon? Go right ahead.

      Video games are about gameplay. Books are about stories. End of (hah!) story!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Hmmmm. Well my first video game was actually Pong. Ha! So I think storytelling in video games really matters, or at least the ability to put you into a story of your own making. Perhaps that’s the lure of RPG’s, they capture your imagination and you become the story?

    I am of course a girl and I think that in general we are a bit more enamored with the over all quest, the adventure, the story. Warfare is great, but endless warfare with no plot or storyline is just boring. I have a feeling most men would agree with me eventually…. after having cheerfully engaged in about sixty hours of nonstop pointless warfare. 🙂

    I loved Asteroids, Pac Man, Starfox, Mario, all of the Zelda’s, and EA Mad Alice’s. I’m all about the quest and the story, but we really do need dragons to slay, don’t we? A story with no conflict, no warfare, isn’t a story at all, it’s just cinema sequences.

    Liked by 1 person

    • In the guest post that Alex references, I profess a desire that narratives and lore find their place as the whipped cream on top of the gaming cake, as opposed to the cake itself.

      Take, for example, a hypothetical wargame that we’ll call “Imperial Marines.” If I were to make this game, then you would play as a spacefaring commander who would have to conquer a primitive planet for its resources. If you would refuse, then as your leader would inform you, an enemy commander would conquer it in your place. Thus, as the player, you would choose between two characters who would have different personalities, strengths, and weaknesses; watch an opening cinematic of you and your marines barely escaping your ship; and then be set loose to conquer the world as you please. Any of your comrades could die—officer or enlisted—and the ending that you would receive would depend upon the character that you would choose, as well as your ability to manage whatever supplies with which you landed.

      If “Imperial Marines” were a Call of Duty game, however, then everything would happen like an on-rails shooter. The cutscenes would be lengthy and frequent, you would learn unnecessary details about your character and his or her comrades, and the fate of your unit would be stupidly predetermined and overly dramatic. Releasing the game “Call of Duty” style would make it better suited for the box office than the personal computer.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Your first example is the kind of narrative that works in a video game, because it actually affects the gameplay and isn’t just an excuse for people who are not talented moviemakers to finally have their chance to shine.

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    • “Hmmmm. Well my first video game was actually Pong. Ha! So I think storytelling in video games really matters, or at least the ability to put you into a story of your own making. Perhaps that’s the lure of RPG’s, they capture your imagination and you become the story?”

      Thank you for mentioning Pong. Pong is the exception to my rule. Right out of the gate as the harbinger of console video games, the gripping narrative in Pong is full of drama, action, pathos AND bathos—

      Sorry, I can’t go on.

      To your second point, YOU becoming the story is why I love the older games that focus on gameplay. The limitations almost FORCE you to use your imagination. I know I mention the original Final Fantasy all the time, but that provides a perfect example. The gameplay is the key, the plot just enough to keep you moving, and the characters blank canvasses that let the player feel like the mysterious heroes. I love it.

      “I am of course a girl and I think that in general we are a bit more enamored with the over all quest, the adventure, the story. Warfare is great, but endless warfare with no plot or storyline is just boring. I have a feeling most men would agree with me eventually…. after having cheerfully engaged in about sixty hours of nonstop pointless warfare. 🙂”

      I never thought of it as a gendered thing. I mean, many males also enjoy some narrative. But my point wasn’t that video games should have NO story, just that they aren’t primarily a storytelling medium. Gameplay should be 99% of it. A cool story is, as Johannes said in his original point, the whipped cream on the proverbial cake.

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  3. I think both are important, but there is a distinction. In my experience:

    The best games of all have both great gameplay and great story. Example: Legend of Zelda – Majora’s Mask.

    You can have a great game with no story at all but fun and challenging gameplay. Example: Tetris.

    You can have a great game with not-mechanically-fun but still challenging gameplay and great story. Example: Ace Attorney.

    You can have a bad game with great gameplay, precisely, a great combat system, ruined by bad story. Example: Baten Kaitos.

    And you can have a bad game with a presumably good story but bad or very little gameplay. Example: I have no experience with any such game, but according to articles like this one, that’s what most of the games are like these days. (I haven’t played much of anything made after the Wii U came out.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Your fourth example highlights the inherent danger of narrative-driven games. In addition to designing competent gameplay, you have to hire a decent writer who won’t destroy your work with stupid endings or repulsive characters—and depending on the scope of your game, he could have to write multiple stories and thousands of lines that could trigger when the player chooses to deviate.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Your second point regarding minimal gameplay also holds true. The narrative-driven light-gun shooters at the arcades gave me fond memories, because even though they were literally “on rails,” they were still difficult to beat without depleting my quarters.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Huh! The story in Baten Kaitos ruined an otherwise excellent game? I find that fascinating, and to answer the unspoken question: I have never played Baten Kaitos.

      Majora’s Mask is special. I find Nintendo is really adept at knocking the gameplay/story balance out of the park, mainly because they seem to focus on gameplay first, get that really tight and focused and fun, and THEN craft a story. This approach works.

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      • Yes, the combat system in Baten Kaitos was both very fun and very challenging, and each party member had very unique strengths; but the storyline was nonsensical and the characterization stupid, and that ruined it, at least for me.

        Indeed! Pre-Wii-U Nintendo comprises nearly all of my video gaming, so I don’t have much experience with the sort of thing you criticize.

        Where I think we might disagree is on certain narrative-heavy games like Ace Attorney (which also might annoy you because of its inaccuracy about the legal profession, heh) where the story is what’s important but what gameplay there is is still essential. Ace Attorney is not that different from a mystery novel, except that the player is forced to use logic to figure out the solutions himself; he can’t just keep reading till it’s revealed.

        Perhaps counter-intuitively, games that are basically a novel with game elements work a lot better than games that are basically a movie with game elements, in my opinion. They wouldn’t work quite as well just as novels so I don’t think their existence should be condemned.

        Liked by 1 person

      • “Perhaps counter-intuitively, games that are basically a novel with game elements work a lot better than games that are basically a movie with game elements, in my opinion. They wouldn’t work quite as well just as novels so I don’t think their existence should be condemned.”

        I actually don’t disagree with you here. I think these types of games hit the mark much more than an “interactive movie” chock full of quick-time events and easy difficulty levels. These “visual novels” or whatever they call them are akin to the “Choose Your Own Adventure” books I referenced somewhat tongue-in-cheek in the post, and also resemble adventure games in that (a) you’re trying to solve a puzzle or mystery or whatever and (b) you CAN actually lose.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. TF2 has storytelling and world-building that never get in the way of gameplay. Rather, they reinforce each other.

    The Sniper’s personality and weapons are based on snipers being called “campers” in FPS games for years. Valve made a video where the Sniper pees in a jar while camping out, so they (obviously) made this into an actual in-game weapon.

    The Soldier as a nutcase loose cannon is informed by TFC players self-damaging by rocket jumping and the like.

    Even though I haven’t played TF2 in years, I like it as a modern-ish example of how a *game* can have a rich story.

    Liked by 1 person

    • TF2 was also balanced to oblivion. While Alex specifically focused on narrative in this post, in my guest post (that no one read), I wrote about how developers focused on the player’s “experience” at the expense of logical difficulty. Left 4 Dead and Left 4 Dead 2 (though also nonsensically balanced) are better examples of games where the lore and the narrative complement the gameplay more than they hurt it.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yeah, I picked up on the narrative thread versus gameplay as opposed to the experience versus the gameplay.

        “Experience”-focuses games seem to remove any difficulty so you can get “the feel,” essentially turning a video game into…a less-artistically satisfying movie.

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  5. I see a good story in a game as a bonus. Ninja Gaiden (NES) has a perfect action movie story but the game would still play great without it. It makes an already excellent game better.

    Liked by 1 person

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