In The Shadow of the Holodeck

A few weeks ago the scholar and columnist for The Atlantic, Ian Bogost, put forward what became a very controversial argument. The central points, to my mind, were that video games are not the most apt medium for storytelling, and indeed when they do try to tell stories they mostly do so in a manner that apes more linear media, but often with far less sophistication. Therefore, Bogost argued, it might make more sense for video games to leave storytelling to books, movies, and TV shows, and find a more ways of expression that dovetail much more closely to their existing strengths. For instance, rendering and arranging 3D environments.

Responses to Bogost’s piece ranged from the somewhat fatalistic stance that Waypoint’s Patrick Klepek, where games simply have no choice but to try and tell stories, to the more even response by Frictional Games’ Thomas Grip, where he describes the uses of narrative context as a driver for play (which is closer to my own position on the role of stories games). However, my overall impression is that most folks missed the historical context in which Bogost was making his observations.

My interpretation is that Bogost is not primarily arguing that most stories in games are bad, and therefore games should avoid trying to tell them. Rather, what he’s saying is that most of even the successful cases of storytelling in video games are, formally speaking, extremely unambitious. As I observed at the time, most stories in contemporary games are presented as radio plays, or in cutscenes of various lengths. What was remarkable to me about the responses to Bogost’s piece from both critics and developers is that people seemed to acknowledge, sometimes implicitly and sometimes explicitly, that Bogost was actually correct. What seemed to irk most people was that Ian had the temerity to point out how unambitious storytelling in games has been and, instead of asking how we can do better, to suggest that maybe we’ve had our ladder on the wrong wall this whole time.

Even Austin Walker, the editor of Waypoint, who I think makes an excellent case for the futility of Bogost’s admonishments has a strange set of subjects he calls to mind for the possibilities in game storytelling that lay out before us:

Tomorrow there will be more games in the world than there are today. Some of them won’t have any stories at all, and that’s okay. But others will tell tales about dragons, teenage drama, and cave diving. Maybe there will be a game about a girl with a missing memory, or about a struggling colony on a distant ice planet. There will definitely, absolutely be one about a space marine.

Perhaps I speak for myself but I agree that caving, amnesiac girls, and surviving on an ice planet all sound like great narrative settings for video games. However, they also sound exactly like a parody of that narrative possibilities that games present: “No, no, really! Games have all of the potential for rich storytelling that movies and book do! For instance, this game is about two lovers that are torn apart by class conflict and the pressures of society in enforcing gender norms. And it’s all set in a struggling colony on a distant ice planet.”

Of course, I’m only half kidding here. The premise above actually sounds a lot like a game I would be excited to play! But it certainly isn’t going to convince Bogost to re-think his position, or convince his readers at The Atlantic that games are much more than puerile, instant gratification machines with a veneer of narrative around them that rarely arises to much more than the plot of a mid-tier YA novel.

But to base one’s criticism of Bogost’s piece on a charge of elitism or snobbery, while satisfying and maybe partly true, does not amount to a real refutation of his argument. Nor does it acknowledge what I believe to be the historical context in which that argument is being made.

I believe to understand where Bogost is coming from, whether you agree or disagree with him, you have to have an appreciation for the power of a phrase like ‘the holodeck’, which he employs in the opening sentence of his piece. The phrase has a particular resonance for people who have followed the debate about narrative in games for the last couple of decades. To someone who has studied the ancient conflagration that gave birth to Game Studies (capital S, capital G), which became known as the ‘Narratology vs Ludology Debate’ or ‘The Debate That Never Happened’, the idea of ‘the holodeck’ invokes a set of promises around the potential for storytelling with computers, in games but also in things like virtual reality and hypertext fiction.

It also invokes a woman who has shaped the conversation around stories in games and interactive media more than anyone else: Janet Murray.

Like many people who have had outsized impact on the discipline of Game Studies Janet Murray’s work has never been specifically centered on games. However, that has not stopped some of her pupils, such as my colleague Clara Fernandez-Vara, from becoming influential game scholars, or her book from 1997, Hamlet on the Holodeck, from becoming one of the most impactful on the course of game scholarship. Published just a few years after the release of games like DOOM and Myst Murray’s book sketches out possible futures for storytelling that leverage what she thought of has the three most important aesthetic capacities of the medium of the computer. First, through its ability to project detailed and encyclopedic 3D worlds the computer was well equipped to supply users with a sense of ‘immersion’. For Murray this term was meant the idea of being completely surrounded sensorially by a world, in contrast with the contemporary use which often just means something very compelling. The second unique aesthetic of the medium of the computer is agency, and her words on this subject are worth quoting directly:

…the pleasure of agency in electronic environments is often confused with the mere ability to move a joystick or click on a mouse. But activity alone is not agency.

She continues in the next paragraph:

Agency, then, goes beyond both participation and activity. As an aesthetic pleasure, as an experience to be savored for its own sake, is it offered to a limited degree in traditional art forms but is more commonly available in the structured activities we call games. Therefore, when we move narrative to the computer, we move it to a realm already shaped by the structures of games. Can we imagine a compelling narrative literature that builds on these game structures with out being diminished by them? [emphasis is mine]

We know how Bogost might answer this!

The final aesthetic that Murray describes is the transformative power of the computer. By this she means the ability of the computer to change itself and its content on the fly. Here Murray is up front about the difficulties this aspect of computers might present for people accustomed to traditional storytelling media. How can a storyteller make sure that their narrative is coherent in a constantly shifting medium? How will users know where to begin, or where it ends? Murray warns that we will need to develop new conventions and structures in order to deal with the mutability of the computer.

In relation to Bogost’s controversial piece it is Murray’s discussion of agency that is most interesting, because her worries that the type of agency modeled in games might attenuate the potential of digital storytelling is what I believe Bogost is referencing. To some extent Bogost is saying that Murray’s fears were well founded, that the stories in our games are either in thrall to their mechanical necessities or entirely fail to embrace the unique aesthetics of the computer as a medium in terms of meaningful agency and transformative potential.

In other words, there was a vision 20 years ago, which Murray articulated but was shared by many, that the guns and puzzles of video games would eventually fall away and be replaced by characters and plots that had the same opportunities for real agency and play but none of the trappings of ‘cowboys and indians’. For a deeper understanding of these dreams and where they are now I would point people to a recent post by Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Michael Mateas on the decades long work of making Murray’s visions more of a reality.

What Bogost is pointing out in his piece is that game stories are still mostly ‘cowboys and indians’ except maybe on ice planets. And those that aren’t ‘cowboys and indians’ are not much more than pages of young adult fiction hidden in the nooks and crannies of virtual houses. And while that’s enough for most people there is a sense in which the current state of narrative in games is a “diminished” version of the dreams that people had about narrative and computers 20 years ago.

But the question remains: How did we get here? Why don’t we have narratives that fully embrace the medium in ways that Murray laid out, in games or otherwise? Why is it that the work of folks like Wardrip-Fruin, Mateas, and their students has not been taken from the academy and applied on an industrial scale to any mainstream games? My answer to this question is simple: it turns out that most people don’t really want interactive narrative.

Patrick Klepeck is right. People really like stories! And the presence of stories in games is basically inevitable. What this glosses over though is what kinds of stories people like, as revealed by those we find in most games. I would argue that the last 20 years of experimentation in games has shown that the traditional pleasures of narrative, such as interesting characters that interact with each other in surprising and compelling ways, series of events that unfold in ways pleasantly expected and thrillingly unexpected, and endings that are satisfyingly happy or happily unsatisfying, are surprisingly resilient. People really like traditionally structured stories and it turns out that featuring a traditionally structured story in your media product is a good way to get people on board for it.

Of course, there is also a problem. It turns out that the traditional pleasures of narrative don’t survive well when mixed with expansive agency or rich systems, two very common features of games throughout their history. Stories that are structured around a great deal of real agency on the part of the player, the type that Murray described, or that are stretched across a vast number of possible states, such as you might find in a game like Chess, while still definitely qualifying as narratives, don’t seem to produce the kinds of traditional narrative pleasures that people are usually looking for from stories.

The classic ‘ludological’ response to this (which I admit with some chagrin I used to put forward) is that games are clearly not meant to tell stories and we should concentrate on developing an understanding of their mechanical nature and the exclusive pleasures that their nature tends to produce. This is a position that most video game makers and players have also wisely rejected. What we have settled on though is not the future dreamed by either Murray or the sterner ludologists. Instead what we have is an often haphazard and almost always pragmatic mix of traditional storytelling sprinkled into, or inserted between, traditional and/or non-traditional gameplay.

A few years ago I taught a class at the Game Center called Narrative Strategies in Contemporary Video Games. Once you got past the very long name the premise of the course was simple: over the years designers have come up with several strategies, both formal and rhetorical, in order to deal with the fact that agency, combinatorics, and satisfying narrative don’t mix well. The most popular strategies that I and my students could identify were the following:

  • Framing — In which the game switched back and forth between traditional gameplay and a more traditional narrative format (usually animation or text) with thematic elements shared in order to bind the two together.
  • Configurative —This is where developers made a story feel more interactive by generating parallel narrative branches that players could choose between. These could range from the relatively simple to the a sort of Choose Your Own Adventure on steroids represented by games like Fallout.
  • Performative — People will sometimes suggest that in games that employ this strategy the story is generated by the actions of the player. I would prefer to say that games that lean on this strategy frequently produce events that are especially interesting when formed into a post-hoc narrative by the players. Either way, an excellent strategy for indie developers on a tight budget!
  • Environmental — Similar to the performative strategy, but here it is the virtual spaces of the game, rather than the events, that are arranged and decorated in such a way as to prompt players to form their own, post-hoc narrative justifications.
  • Procedural — Here the narrative formed by players is based, interestingly, on their understanding of the mechanical systems of the game, as separate from the particular performance of the players or presentation of the virtual space.

Obviously all of these strategies are employed pragmatically by a number of games, both in isolation and in concert, and these definitions should themselves be considered pragmatic at best. My audience was budding game designers who were interested in ways of articulating and deepening their craft, not philosophers hoping to pin down logically defensible definitions.

But the reason I wanted to take this detour into my teaching is to point out that what gets lost in all this talk about the future of interactive narrative, or what games are or are not good at, is how developers are actually structuring stories in games.

Following my terminology, what I find when I survey the vast landscape of video games is that the overwhelmingly popular strategy for stories in games is having a simple or complex Framing narrative, followed by or joined to either a light or a heavy Configurable narrative. Environmental narrative is also very well represented, though it tends to only really register with players in certain genres. Finally, I would point out that while Performative and Procedural strategies are becoming more common as both design strategies, and increasingly part of critical and rhetorical strategies, they are almost always paired with a distinct and recognizable Framing narrative that ends up giving them much more resonance with players.

Why is it that Framing and, to a lesser extent, the Configurable strategies are so popular? I would argue the reason is that what I call the ‘traditional pleasures of narrative’ survive best when using these strategies in a game because these strategies overwhelmingly preserve the linear structure that makes those pleasures possible. And when I think of what I consider the most successful recent examples of narrative in video games, Undertale, The Last Guardian, Gone Home, etc., what they all have in common is the very strong spine of a linear narrative. Even Undertale, which has several points of configuration in its narrative design, is still overwhelmingly linear.

Which isn’t to say that it’s impossible we might someday enjoy AI driven narratives and characters in fully immersive VR worlds where we won’t need any shooting or sword fighting to keep us entertained. But if I had to place my bets I would say the odds are that we will use all of that amazing technology to tell the same linear narratives that people have always enjoyed experiencing and sharing.

It also means that it’s unlikely we’ll ever take Bogost’s advice and abandon our pragmatic measures to put the pleasure of narrative into games. Not just because, as Walker and Klepek assert, we will inevitably use any medium as a way to represent our fears and hopes about ourselves and our place in the world, but also because there doesn’t seem like there’s any great aesthetic cost in juxtaposing or superimposing narrative with or onto game systems.

And beyond that I would make one final point:

In the muddle of strategies that developers and critics are using to understand the role of storytelling in games is an emerging aesthetic sensibility around the methods themselves that developers use to entwine gameplay and narrative. Like an opera fan appreciating a particular use of a leit motif, the modern gamer thrills not at grand innovations in narrative structure, but at the particular moments where narrative strategy is most artfully employed. For some players this is when the lightly configurable narrative in a game like Undertale breaks into and through the procedures of its combat system. And though it might seem impossibly arcane to most of the readership of The Atlantic, many longtime gamers have a taste for the particular way that dialogue is presented in an RPG like Dragon Age: Inquisition, knowing that the stiffness of the virtual performances are a reflection of the colossal scale and encyclopedic style of the storytelling in those games.

For my part, perhaps due to my age, I have a warmth for the classic mix of cutscenes, charming character design and animation, monumental architecture, and, yes, puzzles that The Last Guardian uses to tell its story.

The emerging aesthetic sense I’m describing is not the austerity that Bogost is calling for, but it also isn’t the kind of AI-driven or kaleidoscopic future that Murray predicted. Instead, where Murray was most prescient was her acknowledgement that, whatever the shape that narrative took on the medium of the computer, we would need new conventions and tastes in order to accommodate and appreciate it. Many of the conventions of video game storytelling already exist, though we in the games intelligentsia have often thought of them as ‘compromises’.

But there are no novels that are compromised by having chapter headings, nor movies that are compromised by the ‘180-degree rule’. Operas aren’t compromised by having a distinction between recitative and aria (no matter what Richard Wagner might have thought), and radio plays themselves weren’t compromised by needing to take commercial breaks. And the extent to which the stories featured in any of these art forms is ‘diminished’ is most likely proportional to the degree of familiarity the audience has with its methods and conventions.

While an aesthetic appreciation for the myriad of forms that games take certainly doesn’t solve the ‘ice planet problem’ prevalent in so many of them, it does point to a place where we can see the so-called ‘limits’ of storytelling in games as possibilities in themselves. They are the forms that we can explore and rebel against with the freedom of knowing that we are working in a craft with its own history and practices. That history hasn’t turned out as some thought it would shouldn’t be counted against those that are working with the traditions they have inherited, or those who enjoy the work done in those traditions. And if the future brings tastes and sensibilities far more austere than they presently are there will be inevitably be creators passionate about working in that mode as well, with players and critics excited to champion their work.