News Article

Talking Point: Should Game Stories Be Regarded as Highly as Literature?

Posted by Renato Velarde

Expert assures us that games do, in fact, tell us stories that engage our minds.

Dr Souvik Mukherjee of Nottingham Trent University believes video games should be regarded as a storytelling medium that can stand along with traditional literary texts. Of course as a computer game narrative expert he has conducted an arbitrary research study to make these incredible findings... well, more credible.

He took a number of games and studied their storytelling potential from 1st person shooters to adventure games. I can only imagine how the grant proposals read for such a study. Did it include a budget for chips, soda and days off actual work?

Anyway he does provide an important scholarly voice for this somewhat obvious assertion:

I believe a major reason for their popularity is their storytelling experience, as players of game 'blockbusters' like Half Life 2, Assassin's Creed and Bioshock will tell you.

Though often unfairly dismissed as toys for children, computer games are far more complex than that. Most gamers, adults and children alike, play these games because of the stories they tell. So, whilst many focus on the violence in video games, the narrative potential of these games should also be explored.

In his study he looks into how involved a player becomes in the narrative through the interaction of gameplay, and how this may meet or even exceed the connection achieved through a traditional literary form.

For anyone reading about this here this is not exactly news, but still interesting to see it coming from the academic community in a serious fashion. I think it also mirrors a more honest and necessary look at game design as artistic expression, even if they are generally approached with profits in mind.

Games are indeed intended to keep us connected to a story through interactive moving pictures, sound and light but often still heavier on text than a movie or TV show. Since their yearly profits recently exceeded those of the feature films I’d say it’s time it was taken more seriously as a medium.

Next step: Hire some good writers to go with these games that aren’t already gamer nerds.


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User Comments (36)



Nintendork said:

Personally, I don't like the idea of games with story. IMO, less story, more gameplay.



jangonov said:

I have to disagree, I like a good story. And games with a lot of story sell well too. Look at final fantasy, legend of zelda, or halo (ok kidding on halo, the story there was kinda generic)



Objection said:

I love games with good stories. Its (mostly) why I like RPGs. The games with the best story (IMO) are Metal Gear Solid 2, FInal Fantasy X, Xenosaga (triogy), and Half Life 2 (and it's succeeding episodes.)



Adam said:

"Next step: Hire some good writers to go with these games that aren’t already gamer nerds."

Hear, hear! While there's no doubt that video games have all the capacity to tell great tales, they almost never live up to that potential.

I like it when the story is told through the game play. Imagine Fallout 3 without text. Would there not still be a strong sense of narrative simply from your interactions with the environment and enemies / NPCs? The atmosphere and music play a key role in this, too. Another good example is playing Warhawk online. It is a multi-player game with no text at all, and yet I could relate many, many stories of games I've played because interactions naturally form their own context. Nifflas's Knytt and Knytt Stories are some other great examples of how games can tell stories in a way that no other medium can. Night Game looks like a linear puzzle game, so I don't know if we should expect more of this approach (though I'm of course looking forward to it nonetheless!).

Of course, the traditional modes also work. Metal Gear Solid 4 had more video than game, and I still loved it. My two favorite games of all time, Earthbound (Mother 2) and Mother 3 are extremely text heavy, and they work beautifully. The problem with these approaches though is that they do little to set games apart from film and literature. In order for video games to stand tall as an artistic medium, they need to offer a way to explore narrative space that other media cannot. I certainly wouldn't say these more traditional games should be done away with because that would mean getting rid of some of my favorite games, and these games do offer something different since your actions can affect what text or cutscenes you'll end up seeing.

As a gaming and literature nerd, I find the comparisons somewhat tiresome. Video games are distinct and should be regarded as such. Also, someone else mentioned that games should have less story and more game play. While I think game play should inform the story, there is absolutely nothing wrong with a game that makes no effort whatsoever to be anything but a game to be played. I just played Galaga 90 this afternoon, and I require no motivation at all besides "Aliens are evil. Shoot them," to want to keep playing. But it is also nice to have the occasional game that reaches and tries to be something more.



Kawaiipikachu said:

Well this is why im so into Final Fantasy all because of the great story telling in them .
I agree with this articale & also at you Adam (see comment #4) about the storytelling side of things .
One game it self even brought a tear to my eye & that game is Final Fantasy Tatics Advance .



theblackdragon said:

I tend to view games with engaging storylines more like interactive comic books of a sort. I'm seeing pictures of the characters, there are generally animated sequences involved, emotions are portrayed visually as well as textually... sometimes there's a soundtrack, sometimes not. it's like arguing whether comic books should be regarded as highly as literature, IMO. Everything is relative.



Adam said:

@ Kawaii Pikachu "One game it self even brought a tear to my eye & that game is Final Fantasy Tatics Advance ."

Fallout made me retch, so I guess that is a testament to a different kind of emotional power.
Just kidding! Though it seriously was disgusting.

@ The Black Dragon

And the problem with that is, yes, technically anything with text is literature, but while I'd place a graphic novel like Persepolis next to any novel, you can't say the same for the latest issue of Spider-Man. The same can be said of video games if we're really discussing what level of quality a game's story is compared to classical lit. When Literature with a capital L is what's actually being discussed, you've entered the realm of pure opinion, and that's a debate I steer well clear of.



Marvelousmoo said:

I personally like a good story in a game. It brings me to the game and I become more connected. This is the reason why I like RPGs. If there is no story, then why go about playing it? I don't know if they need to hire good writers though. Back in the day of video games, they didn't need all of these fancy writers, and their stories were better than most games that we have now. But if people want to do it, why not? The only problem is, that a story is different than a video game.



Neomega said:

I consider gaming as interactive storytime!

Onslaught for example.......damn someone help me here.



MarkyVigoroth said:

"Expert assures us that games do, in fact, tell us stories that engage our minds."
That surely applies to me. Some games have some parts that cause me to think of "alternate storylines" or even different videogames with the same engine!

I also agree with Koto-san regarding RPG's.



theblackdragon said:

@Adam: Totally agree. Seriously, I would put FFVII up against some novels, but something like Star Fox Command (okay so i'm kinda reaching for a game with a mediocre storyline but also a good amount of text) would probably be in the same pile as the Spider-Man issue. Just like Literature (with the capital L), there's pulp fiction out there along with the novels, and as I said before, everything is relative.

To go off on a tangent, I honestly wish that there were more games that had novelized (or actual comic-book-ized) versions of themselves for casual reading available for purchase. There's a couple games that I own where I wouldn't mind reading through a particularly good scene again, but I (a) don't want to have to play ten hours into it to get to the one scene, or (b) I don't own the system to play it on anymore.



Edwin said:

Just like stories in books, stories in games are sometimes good, sometimes bad. If a game tells a good story and tells it well, it should definitely be regarded as highly as literature.



warioswoods said:


"The problem with these approaches though is that they do little to set games apart from film and literature. In order for video games to stand tall as an artistic medium, they need to offer a way to explore narrative space that other media cannot"

Absolutely. It's always so misguided when someone wants to pull one element out of a compound medium and act as if it can and should stand on its own. A good example: music lyrics. In an attempt to give legitimacy to lyrics from popular music, you will sometimes hear someone claim that it's poetry or should be regarded equally to poetry. That's a tremendous misunderstanding of the medium of popular music. It's not that the lyrics can't be meaningful or artful, it's just that you can't rip that element out of its context in the music, rhythmic phrasing, performance, etc and and claim that it could be compared to poetry. When you write down song lyrics in that way, it makes horrendous poetry, even when the lyrics are in fact brilliant in the context of the song. For popular music, all the details of the music and the performance essentially play the same role as other elements in pure poetry like meter, arrangement, etc, not to mention the fact that the tone and voice are set by the actual performance rather than being conveyed by the words alone. It just makes it laughable when you tear the text of the lyrics apart from all the other elements in play and expect it to stand on its own.

So, likewise when someone claims that the story of a game could be written down directly from the game and could then be compared to literature, they're not realizing how terrible that literature would then be. It's only in the context of all the elements unique to the medium and experience of a game that the story can become something worthy of high regard.

This is not to disagree with theblackdragon(#12), but I'm saying that the translation to a novel, it it were to work, would have to essentially transpose the entire experience of the gameplay into the medium of literature, which itself would be an enormous undertaking.



Bahamut_ZERO said:

Us gamers knew that, but that aint enough for the media, so its good to have some factual, trusted, scientific back-up.



Cthuloops said:

The only game to bring a tear to my eye was Fire Emblem (7) for the GBA. I was so sad when SPOILER Athos died SPOILER. Also I wanted to keep on playing.



Digiki said:

Videogame stories shouldn't be regarded as highly as literature simply because, literature is focused specifically on storytelling. The majority of great videogame stories don't compare to great literature, and why would they? Great stories can be written, but there are many other elements that must mesh with the story for the game to be good.



Stuffgamer1 said:

I agree that RPG's generally do the best job of conveying a compelling story. You could almost transpose Mother 3 into a book, but not quite, because the parts where you fight through an area would lose all meaning. I find the story style of RPG's higher than any other type of story, simply because it gives you a better sense of the time and effort the characters go to in order to accomplish their goals. I'll take a well-balanced turn-based boss battle over a flashy action movie sequence ANY day!

Overall, though, I'd say that most games don't live up to their storytelling potential, especially all those random casual cash-in attempts nowadays, which tend to have little or no story whatsoever. And there are some types of games that just plain shouldn't TRY to have serious stories, like racing games, and most fighting games. Leave the stories for RPG's, Adventure games, and the occasional well-written shooter, I say.

Therefore it stands to reason that gaming as a medium has ENORMOUS potential for storytelling, but it is in no way obligated to make use of that potential. All depends on what you're making. The most important thing is that a game should be built around a story, NOT the other way around. Tacked-on stories are NEVER a good thing.



Adam said:

Great example. In my teens I wrote poetry and music (still working on music), and the processes are very different, as are the products. It's hard to explain to some, though, that the lyrics of a song are not simply a layer pasted onto the music -- well, not in a good song -- but an integral part of the song.

Great stories can also be told through songs, poetry, movies, plays, etc. Why not games? Games are certainly the most distinct in that they require player interaction -- though plays often break the fourth wall and music can ask for crowd participation, obviously in more limited way. But I think this distinction can, if used to the game's advantage, should be an asset rather than a hindrance to making a great story.

It also makes it more difficult since this is experimental ground, which is probably why most game stories tend to be so trite and generic. Well, that and the writers usually suck.



RocketBird said:

Ha Ha. I like games and all. I even feel engaged by some storylines...but I've never played a game that actually challenged my preconceptions or changed the way I thought or explained the way the world works in a a new way the way great novels do...they're games...they are fun and a great hobby and yes they sometimes tell stories...but they are not literature, not by a long shot.



GamerZack87 said:

I personally enjoy reading books (please don't disown me!), so to play a game with a particularly flavourful story entwined to the gameplay (like Ocarina of Time or Secret of Mana) is a real treat.

By the way, since I've been playing Majora's Mask for the past week or so, I have an opinion other than the usual 'Ganon did it'...this time, it's (POTENTIAL SPOILER) 'the creepy artefact did it' (END POTENTIAL SPOILER). I think it's important for a series of games to not retell the same story over and over, just to make sure we don't lose interest in the game.



Amorous_Badger said:

Most games have stories, but it's typically a fairly generic one(can anyone name me an RPG where one of the characters doesn't achieve some sort of redemption in the face of world/universe threatening danger? How cliched is Metal Gear Solid?) and are relatively unsophisticated compared to most other media.
Nothing inherently wrong there, as in most cases the 'story' is only there to provide a reason for you to keep bashing the baddies in a slightly different coloured environments, at varying difficulty levels.
Adventure games, tend to do 'story' a lot better than pretty much any other games but they've fallen badly out of favour in the last ten years.



timp29 said:

Sorry if this has been mentioned already, but there were a few essays and a half in there.

I just thought I would point out the stories behind all the zelda games. If anyone is ever curious, it is well worth googling zelda story timeline. One site that I read speculated that Nintendo even has some kind of official storyline/timeline with the parallel hyrules caused by the split due to OoT adult link's/child link's different futures.

Another honourable mention would be the soul reaver/legacy of kain series. Thats a great storyline.

EDIT: I had to youtube the intro to soul reaver again. I used to watch that repeatedly on ps1. I would vote soul reaver as a great story, but legacy of kain: defiance started to get a little silly.



Chunky_Droid said:

It clearly depends on the genre, obviously the story in Vegas Stakes wouldn't be highly regarded compared to something well written like the Final Fantasy series. But it's nice to see some recognition to game stories anyway



maka said:

There is potential for great storytelling and writing, but it's almost never reached. Talking about actual literature, I'd say the games that come the closest are the old Infocom text adventures and some newer Interactive-fiction, which is all about the writing, and there's some quality stuff out there...



MegaRockman_1990 said:

I just completed the half life 2, episode 1 and 2 the story was so engaging to me that i just could not stop playing the gameplay was totally awesome to. Especially the ending of every episode is like a big cliffhanger especially the one in episode 2 now i cannot wait for episode 3 to come out. also played dead space also has great story and gameplay the thing i wanna come to that gameplay ultimately comes first but a great story makes it twice the better. and yeah games can be regarded as high as litterature depending on which game you are playing.



Wiiloveit said:

Talking Point: Should Game Stories Be Regarded as Highly as Literature?

Yes, for the lulz.



Crazed said:

@jangonov- There are actually huge novels commited to the Halo series, so I don't think it's that generic.

Also, I'm surprised a university-level profesor hasn't reconized a connection between great literature and videogames until now. I don't know many great RPG's that have weak storylines, let alone storylines from other genres (Metal Gear, Half-Life, Zelda are just a few good examples.) Also, how has no one on this comment board mentioned The World Ends With You? My favorite story in a videogame by far (to date.)



GamerZack87 said:

Okay, here's an obvious example of fine literature in a video game: 100 Classic Book Collection. Sorry, I just couldn't resist...



Bensei said:

Many games have amazing stories that are as good or better than books, but in some cases you can't deliver the thrill of the game in a book. For example in BioShock: You know as much as the hero, and you control the hero. In fact you are exactly the hero, because everything he does is directed by you (or Atlas). In a book you would be a 3rd person, even if it is written like in "I went to the computer room".



SergeOfArniVillage said:

Ever read Dune by Frank Herbert? It's arguably the greatest sci-fi story book series ever told. Ever played Chrono Trigger and it's two sequels Radical Dreamers and Chrono Cross? When you've played those three games through (especially Chrono Cross), then you have played something as complex as the Dune series. Chrono Cross is very stimulating not only intellectually, but it also pulls at you emotionally, deep inside your soul. Go look up "Reminisce" or "The Girl Who Stole The Star" or "Singing Emotions" in the Chrono Cross soundtrack too. I could go on, but I'll stop there for now. Some other games that tell pretty darn brilliant stories, off the top of my head:

Majora's Mask
Final Fantasy 6



she_gamer said:

My favorite story/game would have to be Okami. Definatley not a game you want to play through quickly. Beautiful settings, characters with depth, and a plot with plenty of twists and turns. Everything I love about books put into a video game. Brilliant.



Bassman_Q said:

Stories in the game immerse the player into the action, which is why I play most games. Other, simple games (like Mega Man) don't have to have an immersive story to let the player have fun. It all depends on its complexity.



RyuZebian said:

@she_gamer Play through the game quickly? Impossible, because it's just too long! But I guess everything is relative. I'm about to play the game a second time, just to get all stuff.



Bobpie said:

I kept playing through The World Ends With You just to patch the holes in what was going on! Plot is important, I was put of Kirby: Squeak Squad because of it's plot.

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