Oh No He Di’int.

Ralph Koster, I thought you were a pretty cool guy. But you had to go and mess it up, didn’t you? Yeah. Good job.

What kind of elitist is this guy? “Games are not stories.” I’m going to go out on a limb here and assume that he’s never played Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Or any of the Final Fantasy series. Or Fable, or Chrono Trigger, or or or or…

What made those games amazing? Obviously, people who played the Final Fantasy games just really liked to grind. Except… no. People play those games for their stories. They don’t suffer through battling the same mobs over and over again because they like to– they do it because Sephiroth cast Meteor and it’s going to freakin’ destroy your planet and you might not actually be a human and oh, my god, Aeris is in danger and you’re going to tell me you wouldn’t put up with 600 of the same mob just to save everything?! And you know the funny thing about Final Fantasy VII? I’ve never even played it. When I was in elementary school, my best friend got the game and I stayed over at her house for two days straight, watching as she played through the game (I wasn’t much of a gamer myself back then). If I can get this worked up by a game’s story even though I’ve never played it, that says something about the ability of video games to tell stories. And what’s this about games being all about people’s actions, and stories being all about people’s emotions and thoughts? I mean, sure, puzzle games don’t really have a lot of emotion. But there’s more than one type of game. In Japan, dating simulation games are a very popular (albeit creepy) genre. Those games are all about emotions and being empathetic. (And in my opinion, a book where people just sit around and talk about their emotions through the whole thing doesn’t sound like a “good story.” It sounds like the exact thing you want to avoid being trapped in with your girlfriend.)

And it’s not like stories have always been what they are today. Stories used to be set to music and told in rhyme. They used to be spread by mouth, as a community activity. I’ll bet the story elitists of way back when got pretty huffy when Beowulf was written down. I’ll bet they got themselves in a tizzy again when films started telling stories. I’ll bet they said something like, “Films are not stories. They’re for lazy people! Where’s the imagination aspect of a novel?”

Don’t be such a conservative. Don’t be so opposed to change. Is it really such a blasphemous idea that the story could benefit from an interactive aspect? In the Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, the story and gameplay merged seamlessly together to create one the most highly praised games ever created. And when people reviewed the game, did they rave about how powerful it made them feel (because, like you said, games are all about power and control)? Did they gush about what a sense of accomplishment they got from putting that nasty ol’ Ganondorf in his place? No. They extolled the amazing and epic journey of that brave boy who didn’t have a fairy. (I say they extolled it, but what I really mean is they creamed their pants and could manage no more than a “HOMG.”) Would it have been the same game if the story element had been removed? Since a story only “adds interesting shading to the game but the game at its core is unchanged,” and all that jazz. The answer is no. Games can be a perfectly viable vessel for storytelling. The genre of interactive storytelling could even evolve to have an edge over regular storytelling.

(Also, “commonest” is a silly word. So there.)

4 thoughts on “Oh No He Di’int.

  1. ijohnson

    There is an interesting issue here with games like Zelda (action-focused games with a central plot thread) vs. Final Fantasy (Japanese RPGs in general along with similar games).

    Games like Zelda to me seem to be focused on the immediate gameplay more than the story at hand. They seem to fit better with the opinions of the ludologists whose work we’ve been reading. In these games, while there is a plot, it is more of an accessory than anything. By that I mean that if you completely ignored it, you honestly wouldn’t miss all that much. If you don’t buy that, consider that the plot of almost every Zelda game is pretty much the same (Ganon’s trying to take over Hyrule, stop him), and yet each new one seems to stay fun. (The later ones mixed things up a bit more, but the fundamentals are about the same). If the plot were so important, how would that work?

    On the other hand, games like the main Final Fantasy series (ignoring spinoffs etc., and also ignoring FFXI) seem to truly contradict the ideas of these authors. In those games, if there wasn’t any story, there would be rather little appeal. There would still have a really beautiful world to travel through, especially in the later games, but at the same time you travel through it on rails for the most part (less so in FFXII, but extremely so in FFX), and if you were just left to explore it aimlessly you would probably get bored fairly quickly, as it is very stagnant. You could still evolve your characters’ combat skills, but that system is usually pretty simplistic, and building them up when they don’t progress through the main story at the same time would be much less interesting.

    Incidentally, I’m a pretty big FF fan, but over the years I’ve gradually started to think more and more that the games could really stand to either innovate their “game” aspects or else just become movies, anime, books, or some other medium like that…because the game aspects wind up pretty boring and simple sometimes and seem to take away from the story more than amplify it in places. The FFXIII trilogy seems to be going in this direction to some degree, with the flagship title being more like a movie and Versus focusing more on gameplay.

  2. adecelle

    I couldn’t agree more Brandi, Koster surprised me quite a bit with the narrow mindedness of his thinking when it came to saying that games aren’t stories. What Koster should have said is that MOST games aren’t stories, and a lot of the time when games incorporate a story into them, it feels like a cheap add on that the developers just threw on, as if it were another power up or ‘extra’ element to the game. In my humble opinion (and in the opinion of a whole lot of gamers and game reviewers too apparently) the games that are stories are the best kind of games. The entire Legend of Zelda series (especially Ocarina of Time as Brandi mentioned) is built around the story element, and if one considers where the series has headed since OoT, one will notice that there has been more story telling in its successors (not less). Looking at the last two home console entries in the LOZ series (Wind Waker and Twilight Princess), one notices that there are more characters with back stories that add to the overarching story (sometimes even referencing the other games in the series, creating a story that’s even larger than the single game) and more movie like cut scenes (which are nothing BUT story telling). According to Koster’s logic, this would mean that the games Nintendo is creating are..not really games? Let’s face it, there’s nothing that gets you more involved in a game than a good story line combined with great game play. Koster might be right in saying that most games that try to do this fail miserably, but he should definitely allow for the fact that videogames CAN be stories, and that the way the industry is headed, we can expect to see more and game developers trying to prove this.

  3. Professor Sample

    Great conversation! I don’t want to defend the idea that games can’t be stories (they obviously can, as everyone here points out). But I do want to defend Koster a little bit. What I think he’s trying to argue is that there are certain things games can do better than stories, and certain things stories can do better than games. But I do think his argument depends on the notion that what counts as a game or story is stable. As Brandi emphasizes, the way we tell stories has changed dramatically over time. We’ve gone from an orality-based culture to a print-based culture, and now are moving to an image-based culture, and the form and themes of our stories have changed along the way. So too, I think we should assume, will games change, just as dramatically.

  4. ijohnson

    Looking at this again, it seems like part of the problem here might be semantic. Koster says “games are not stories.” There’s a bunch of things this could mean, and unfortunately English doesn’t distinguish well between them. I think some basic ones might be:
    Games are not identical to stories [but may contain elements of them]. Simple Analogy: purple vs. red, at least for games with narrative elements.
    Games are the opposite of stories. Analogy: purple vs. yellow
    Games are fundamentally separate in some way from stories without being their opposite. Analogy: red vs. blue

    I think Koster at least (not so much some of the ludologists we read last week) may be conveying the first one. That is, while games may have narrative elements or even an entire narrative contained within them, if they are fundamentally a narrative, they are something other than a game, and should be discussed in a different framework.

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