I recently came across an article on Grantland that featured a long winded review by author Tom Bissell of L.A. Noire, the latest release from Rockstar Games. On top of reviewing the games features Bissell makes several fascinating observations, and arguments, about video games as storytelling devices. One such observation is this: "How big of a problem is it that players can effectively screw up video game stories?" One of the possible answers to this question ,that Bissell provides, is: "the video game medium is incompatible with authored forms of storytelling". That particular question and that particular answer (that a significant number of people appear to hold although Bissell himself says it does not satisfy him) is one that needs to be discussed.
Before I get into the nuts and bolts of the this argument I need to tell a quick side story. In the spring of 2009 I was enrolled at my local university in a 20th century American Novel class (I'm an English Lit major). We discussed what a novel specifically was, the development of the American canonical Novel and read about one a week. In the early part of the class my professor made a fascinating point about the Novel saying that eventually it would die out. At first I could not understand, for the life of me, how this was possible. How could stories die? How could we not read books anymore? Then my professor made this claim a whole lot clearer: it wasn't stories that were going to go out of fashion it was the way we tell them, it was the idea of a novel. He went on to give epic poems as an example. Back in the times of ancient Greece the way people primarily told stories was through epic poems like the Iliad and the Odyssey. These days there aren't many people writing epic poetry. In terms of literature it appears our most popular storytelling device or format, has become the novel.
Now here's where video games come in. Video games certainly do not operate like any storytelling device. They are a far cry from books and differ significantly from film. Bissell certainly agrees when he writes things like this:
"any writer who is not interested in what we are now calling "video games" is a bystander to one of the most important conceptual shifts between story and storyteller in a hundred years."
I wholeheartedly agree. They are the latest trend in the development of storytelling. What we are all collectively seeing these days with video games is an extremely young medium, with incredibly new techniques, tell stories. Just like my professor stated in class that day, these things come and go with advancements in technology and the passage of time. Since I believe in this idea my answer to Bissell's question (and really a disagreement to those who agree with that one particular answer he gave) is that it is not video games that need to adapt to storytelling its storytelling that needs to adapt to video games.
Think of the incredible advancement of video games whether its L.A. Noire's new facial recognition technology or RPG games like Fallout 3 where your choices actively determine the storyline of a game. These are huge advantages to storytelling because they not only dramatically enhance the way you look at characters (L.A. Noire) but they also allow you to become more actively involved in the story as the player (Fallout 3).
It seems true that video games haven't reached the zenith of story telling that film or books have but I can't believe that a medium whose advancements are making huge leaps by the day, cannot achieve the same level of success. I don't think Bissell should look at players as "screwing up stories" by making free choices. I think he should be looking at players making free choices as an advantage to telling great stories. Video game writers have all these shiny new tools to enhance their stories, they just haven't figured out how effectively use them yet. They will though. They're too smart not to.