Art and Culture # 9: Video Games and Narrative

12 Feb

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There are a few things that are interesting about video games and narrative. 

It has always been a discussion in the gaming community. Graphics, sound design, visuals, but Narrative has always been the last point to study when games are brought into the “are they art conversation.”

 Narrative, even posed to someone who doesn’t play games, *cough look at the Boomers in the room*, and they say, “What does that mean? Well written.”

Even an Atlantic article will say, “Why are video games obsessed with narrative?” and why they don’t need stories and “games’ obsession with story obscures more ambitious goals anyway.” (https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2017/04/video-games-stories/524148/). Let me tell you, Atlantic (the most insane publication on the planet). They are ambitious, and they do need stories to help create an affective world, not just through environment, or lore.

They don’t have to follow a three act structure, and they also can spend hours developing a story a television show can’t. What is important in your  It also can use cut scenes that are important to telling a story. There are camera angles that help tell a story too. First, and Third Person are the most popular versions of camera angles that help with telling the story too. But the real genius in games is that they have advanced that they could also allow multiplayer to add some arcade elements to the original campaign. 

            Video games and narrative have come a long way. Older readers will remember games like Pong, where a cursor moves up and down to pass a ball back and forth. There is no narrative structure. Just moving the blocks up and down, as it creates a soft but mesmerizing tactic. Just keep passing the ball back and forth to the computer and the other player. Now, this is just an example of how games did not have the capability to tell a story that movies were already ahead of the curb on. This was in the late 1970’s. 

            What proved faster than most filmmakers could expect is how technology advanced into fruition as computers came along, but the impossible definitions are unknowable at that point in time. People thought “this wouldn’t last” but they were so wrong. 

            The only thing that has lasted since its inception are books, and even when the Kindle came around to “threaten” books dominance, sales doubled as well as Kindle sales. Self publishing became a very real thing, and it wasn’t seen as vanity publishing anymore. 

            But with the birth of technology meant that franchises would come (DOOM, Call of Duty, Last of Us, Wolfenstein, Gears of War) go (ET, and some games get a ported edition to the Nintendo Switch to gain new life again), in production limbo, but narrative is important as video games are now a 6 billion dollar business. 

            If the narrative is important it must meet what the buttons and the actions are making the player do. So the player and the character are the same. That’s why first person is valued as a singular vision, and many characters in first person are usually silent protagonists (DOOM, Call of Duty, Wolfenstein), while third person view shows the character (The Last of Us, God of War, and Gears of War).

            Narrative, much like Borges Garden of Forking Paths, allows game writers to go wherever they think is necessary to tell there story. It’s when multiple narratives can take place, but also the ludonarrative dissonance conversation comes into play. If a game lets you experience extreme violence, and then has a message saying, “violence is bad” that’s when the ludonarrative form comes into question. (Such as Last of Us 2, which I think is a masterpiece of gaming sequels, and maybe should be the end of the story.) Polygon did cover this in there article, if you need more background. (https://www.polygon.com/2020/6/26/21304642/the-last-of-us-2-violence)

            It can be subtle dialogue (Raven’s Call of Duty Modern Warfare and Black Ops reboot, Last of Us, Fall Out,), over the top (Grand Theft Auto), much of dialogue must veer the player to perform a certain command. Certain dialogue helps to create a new stimulating conversation that is almost akin to a novelist changing the subject of a conversation. In Mass Effect, you can pick any line of dialogue and it opens up an answer for the computer character to respond to. Fallout has the same open ended conversation pattern that with a push of a button, you can have a longer in depth conversation. But also you can build your character with a system that allows you to favor strength, charisma, and any power that you want to use with your character. 

Fallout Conversation Charisma technique cheat: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CIMCMgnk4m8. Charisma is used in Fallout to help you gain advantage over your enemies or friends.

In scripted dialogue scenes, the player has to hear it delivered by a voice actor in motion capture technology, with a green screen behind them, with dots placed all over there body so the camera can pick them up.

Bill Safe House Scene:   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4Wb9qipBVc8
Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?app=desktop&v=PshKSylg_UE. This whole segment in particular, while it is my favorite, is when the Last of Us introduces you to crafting new survival material, that the player must command inside the crafting system. It’s also where much of the friendship between Joel and Ellie is established in the Last of Us, and the overall level design is flawless. And it’s a great example of third person game play, where you are playing as Joel.

What the dishonest will say that there is no narrative in dialogue. In an open world game, like Grand Theft Auto, there are numerous storylines to fulfill as it will help the character grow a special ability or just be able to commit violence on a massive scale. With games, there is no end to narrative, which is why even John Milius, screenwriter for Apocalypse Now (1979), took his writing and visual skills to games like Medal of Honor. 

Medal of Honor, a first person shooter, helmed by John Milius, brought new life to the series with expert realism and attention to detail.

So, the whole “not being art” conversation is pretty fucking absurd, and anyone who doesn’t believe it, is born in another generation. I don’t hold anything agains them, but the weapon of ignorance is not knowing what trends are arising out of the culture. If books are merely words, video games are like novels with buttons. It’s about taking command of the screen and following either a scripted narrative with buttons or allowing yourself to let the conversation go beyond. 

            But some game companies don’t even write games, as Bethesda, the publisher behind DOOM and Wolfenstein reboots, let the levels tell the story and then they put dialogue and characters in. 

            When it comes to action scenes, some scenes require a button mashing scene, where the player, or character has to fight his way out of a scripted scene, by pushing the button repeatedly. All of this is required by the player in order to escape or they will die. A famous example of this is in Metal Gear Solid, where Snake is being tortured, and Revolver Ocelot tells him to “press the circle button repeatedly to regain strength.” It’s probably one of the most famous scenes in video game history, where the player must take part in saving Solid Snakes life (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zzBj5uozI7c).

The narrative calls on the player to save themselves, and continue the story. So, video games do push narrative as much as they can. What makes video games viable for being art is what the community thinks of it, too.

            Visual narration had to take this leap, and while many would credit the likes of Hideo Kojima, Neil Druckman, John Milius, all games have various degrees of visuals that compliment the story and the buttons used to make sense of the world created in game and the world we live in. The opportunities to make a narrative leap are endless, which is why movies will eventually die off, and games will supersede movies, as it offers all of movie entertainment at your home, and let you control what you want, or let you follow a character through a scripted scene. The possibilities and examples are endless in the conversation of how video games matter to the culture and becoming viable artistic expressions. 

-Louis Bruno is the author of more than 15 books, including, The Michael Project, Thy Kingdom Come, The Disintegrating Bloodline, Apocalypse Soldier, Hierarchy of Dwindling Sheep. His books can be found on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Lulu. He can be found on Gab, https://gab.com/thereallouistbruno, Minds https://www.minds.com/lbruno8063/. His latest novel, a work of fantasy, Come Home, Young One, is out now at Lulu.com. Here’s the link: https://www.lulu.com/en/us/shop/louis-bruno/come-home-young-one/hardcover/product-pw8q7z.html?page=1&pageSize=4.

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