This is a special article by Souvik Mukherjee, who researches videogames and storytelling and has a PhD on the subject. When he’s not saving the Capital Wasteland, he teaches English at Presidency University, Kolkata.
Sixteen years ago, when I was a rather diffident English Literature back bencher in Jadavpur University in Calcutta, India, a friend of mine had brought three marvelous possessions to me: they were called Road Rash, Diablo and Age of Empires. He had got them as demo-versions that came with a computer magazine that he had bought. The magazine was called Chip and soon managing the Hittite Empire became the foremost priority of our lives. Videogames had not meant much to me before then: the 2-D Digdug game that I used to play during the computer classes at school (yes, back in the days, videogames were an essential part of IT education at my school – I’m not sure why) or the tiny space rescue game on the smuggled Chinese GameBoy clone became boring after a time. Before December 2000, I had never played anything else – except for two rather pleasant run-ins with B.J. Blazkowicz on somebody’s office computer. That was the demo version of Wolfenstein 3D and I knew why I liked it. Just as I liked Age of Empires: these games told me stories. One entered a storyworld and what one did there seemed to change the story.
Do games really tell stories? Many people I’ve spoken to and many scholars the world over think they do. Many, however, disagree. Markku Eskelinen, who was part of the ‘ludologist’ critics, had famously said something like if you throw a ball and then catch it, it doesn’t tell you stories. Janet Murray, a scholar from the opposing camp, had argued for Tetris telling the stories of the lives of overtasked Americans trying to clear up their work tables. Amid all this prominent voices, I heard myself being told the obvious: ‘Shush!’. Speaking hesitantly and quietly, I have always maintained that videogames can tell stories. Now, with some of the large open-world RPGs ostensibly starting to be more about storytelling and the GameSpot reviews often commenting on the narrative, I think I’m part of the accepted crowd. So in Fallout 4 and The Witcher 3, we have massive multi-branched story-worlds in which you can explore complex scenarios such as whether to nuke out all androids and save only those who are human (kind of the same choice that you get in the movie Blade Runner) or just content yourself with planning an attack on a massive mythical monster. What you do is the story you create. Each story has multiple endings and you are part of it all. There lies the rub, however. Now people might struggle with this phenomena that sprouts endings hydra-fashion – where’s the plot and the ending?
Remember the stories by the writers, Jorge Luis Borges and Italo Calvino? Now, some games do tell stories just like the stories of Borges and Calvino, they include many potential other stories. Let us go back to storytellers in ancient India when it was an oral tradition. The sutradhar would tell stories but the stories would change their structure, their events and even endings. Remember, re-reading your own favourite story ten years later; you will most likely find it having a somewhat different appeal. What one sees as a story, is mostly a web of possible stories. Videogame stories are symptomatic – they just make this ‘web’ more obvious. Now how well they tell stories is another thing. First, not all videogames (or indeed all games) tell stories – I would struggle to read the story of overtasked Americans in Tetris, personally (the game was made in Soviet Russia by the way). Now some may say that the story is super-added to the main gameplay. Really? Let’s take out the story and play it then. Here’s an example from the artists Jodi where they have taken out the characters and the story-trappings from Wolfenstein 3D. I wonder if anyone will recognize the game now:
The story is intrinsically a part of the play experience. We need the Nazi bad guys, the dogs, the treasure and finally B.J. Blazkowicz for the game to make sense as it has always done.
To get back to whether videogames tell compelling stories, though. In 1997, Murray had written her classic game studies text, Hamlet on the Holodeck. With the advances in VR tech, the holodeck is becoming a close possibility but what happened to Hamlet? Do videogame stories move us as much as Shakespearean tragedy? I can hear the laughter around for suggesting this. Indeed, can videogames make us laugh? I haven’t yet read Katherine Isbister’s new book, How Games Move Us, but there are many instances that I can recollect when something I played affected me and made me want to do something different. Back in 1997, Westwood Studios made a Blade Runner game and it was a point-and-click adventure. The game made me administer a Voight-Kampff test to some of the NPCs. Now a Voight-Kampff test is a fictional development on the Turing test, which is supposed to enable one to differentiate a machine from a human. In the game, there were some rogue androids pretending to be human and my job was to find them out and ‘retire’ them. I remember being positively sad. Perhaps sadder than the novel and the Blade Runner movie had left me. Not so long ago, I played a game called Spec Ops: The Line. The game is a loose adaptation of Apocalypse Now and Joseph Conrad’s novel, The Heart of Darkness. It tells the story of an American soldiers journey through a calamity-ravaged Dubai. Soon, however, the trappings of being part of a just and humane mission fall away and truth and honour seem to be quite relative terms. Here was a game where I was shooting through hordes of ‘bad’ guys without being too sure at the end about which side I was on. There’s a particularly traumatic level where the player uses white phosphorus on the ‘enemy’ and later finds thousands of civilian bodies with their charred and contorted faces showing how they suffered as they were killed slowly. In Fallout 3, if you ever find this place (it is a large game world) a robot popped out and recited Sara Teasdale’s poem ‘There Will Come Soft Rains’ – in the irradiated post-apocalyptic world I did not know whether to laugh or cry. If we are talking about cathartic moments (going by Aristotle’s criteria of catharsis being linked to the emotions, pity and fear), I’ve had many such experiences. Still, we haven’t found our Hamlet or indeed our Shakespeare or Tolstoy equivalent for videogames.
For example, the standard fare of the Call of Duty game (or indeed. others of its kind) where you are struggling to defend America (that’s what the world boils down to) against all sorts of enemies, from Nazis to aliens, getting to replay levels against game-bosses who have significant advantages over you (although this changes in some games if you manage to find or ‘craft’ your own super-blaster) and finally, after following the same rigmarole of kill, kidnap, defend, engage in minimal conversation (interrogation, sometimes) and kill again, you emerge the victorious saviour of the world. Superman, Luke Skywalker, The Lone Wanderer, Ezio de Firenze – you have saved the world. By the way, even Ezio’s adventures in Renaissance Italy are actually happening in a resurrected memory somewhere in a sci-fi setting in the U.S.A. Instead of a deeper exploration of humanity and the multiplicity of human emotions, as is certainly possible and can be found in many unexpected corners of the videogame world, what we get is a repetition of the same monomyth of the hero’s journey. It’s a one-size fits all formula. Create a hero, send him (it is usually a ‘he’) out into the world of danger and adventure and then to the crisis in the world so that he can save us all. All things considered, down to the last Star Wars movie (where they did change the gender of the hero), this formula works for the box-office. As a storytelling medium, however, videogames can do so much more. After four-hundred years of Shakespeare, we still celebrate the richness of his work. I wonder what will happen to the videogame stories that we experience today, four hundred years later. Will there be a Hamlet on the holodeck? You tell me.
All I can say is that this is a rich storytelling medium that makes it easier to explore the plurality of stories and of meaning as well as the diversity of life itself. It all depends on how our future games are going to be like – it’s like a videogame and there are so many choices. Somewhere behind it all, however, there is the design that has been created to make it one way or the other. Ultimately, the players do have choice – to build a mod or to play along.
Edit Credits: Joel Monteiro