The Elephant in the Room: Video Games and Narrative

Recently, a quotation from John Carmack — lead programmer on titles like Doom and Quake — has been making the rounds with some criticism attached to it. Though his quotation is in poor taste, he contends that the story in video game is not an important portion of the game. Naturally, such a notion has sustained an enormous degree of criticism by the gaming community at large which believes narrative is significant in video games. However, Carmack is correct in his contention; the story in a video game is not necessary to produce a quality game.

The Art Problem

One of the more lively debates within the gaming community in the past 10 years has been whether or not video games can be considered a “work of art.” This question is extremely difficult to resolve as what exactly qualifies as “art” is a matter of significant dispute in regards to individual cases within accepted mediums. However, arguments can be mounted in favor or against the idea of video games as “art” which operate under an established definition or theory of art. This debate among the gaming community at large seems to have been adjudicated (through self-congratulation as opposed to logical argumentation) and the answer they have come up with is “yes, video games are art.” In academia, the results of the question have been a little different. However, you still find a similar sort of analysis taking place — only a few professional philosophers have the expertise in video games to answer the question in a compelling fashion, and the majority of these philosophers (if not all of them) have argued video games are art. However, the vast majority of aestheticians (who have probably never played a video game in their life) do not even understand why the question is being posed.

Normally it would be clear whose opinion should carry more weight. Expertise in an area confers the opinion someone produces about that area with additional logical force. However, in this case, the group lacking expertise tends to have the stronger argument. Interestingly enough, they are in good company. Developers like Hideo Kojima (see: here ) and Fumito Ueda (see: here ) have been similarly baffled by the question. Though this evaluation will be better argued in another work, the reason this debate resonated so deeply in the United States and United Kingdom as opposed to with Japanese and other international game developers is based on the ideology of western exceptionalism.

To give this, admittedly audacious, claim some merit, one must examine what exactly is occurring when the video game community says something like “this is art.” This argument typically manifests itself as something contingent on quality. Breaking the argument down, an established form might be:

The truth or falsity of the premises of this argument aside, this ultimately tells us very little about whether video games are “art” or not. The conclusion contains a inductive leap which is insufficiently argued because there is no philosophically satisfying definition of “art” which makes admission into the category a matter of quality (to say nothing of the fact that an argument which states video games have produced work of a degree of aesthetic quality which matches famous works of art has not been made). Thus, this debate of quality — while it certainly does support the idea that video games are entitled to some protections art enjoys and justifies some of the analysis of video games which has occurred — is a parallel issue to the question of whether video games are “art.”

What I find to be more compelling is the question of “what metric best suits a form?” That is to say, “art” is lumped together as such because one employs a fundamentally similar metric of “aesthetics” to determine the quality of or gain insight about this group of forms. Video games are a group of forms which the metric of “aesthetics” is wholly insufficient to capture the fundamental element of a video game, the “game” itself. Aesthetics is not equip to provide that sort of analysis, which is the most important aspect of a video game. After all, without the “game” (systems, mechanics, ect.) a video game is in some cases a movie and in other cases simply ceases to exist.

The Game Problem

So, if video games are typically an assemblage of works of art (music, graphics, ect.) over the top of a skeleton of a “game,” why is it so important that it is not called “art”? What gaps does applying aesthetics to video games leave? And, most importantly, the issue at hand, what is the significance of narrative within a video game? One important fact to remember is that the elements of “art” within a video game are peripheral. Video games exist with no music, no story, and even no graphics. A game like Street Fighter II, considered by many to be one of the finest games of all time, has only the bare minimum of narrative. In fact, in any discussion of the games quality the narrative’s baseness is entirely absent from the conversation. Certainly, however, because of the nature of Street Fighter II as a competitive fighting game, the story’s lack of quality is not a mark against it in any way. In judging the quality of video games, a critic is required to go above and beyond the vocabulary that aesthetics offers in terms of rendering a judgment of quality. If Street Fighter II were to be put against the Mona Lisa or Hemingway’s As I Lay Dying, a fundamentally different metric would need to be applied to Street Fighter II as opposed the similar metrics used to judge things like paintings and novels, both modes of criticism which have their roots in aesthetic theory.

Elements from aesthetic criticism might be great for assessing a game’s narrative or art design, but ultimately what a video game critic needs is something which can make some sort of judgment about the quality of a video game’s decisions in regards to mechanics. Such a critic would need to have some authority to make an assessment about things like “balance,” “accessibility,” and most importantly “fun.” Though something like “fun” is so subjective, it is no more subjective than the elements that aesthetic theory makes judgments about. Furthermore, it certainly is curious that certain video games which are regarded as being the “most fun” do capture a wide net of people who share that point of view without engaging with any of the criticism which rendered that judgment.

Working Against Narrative

The reason Carmack’s quotation has sustained so much criticism is because it insufficiently demonstrates his point. The analogy he makes in the quotation is weak, and likely offensive to some. However, he is correct in asserting that the narrative in a video game is not important. As stated, narrative can be completely absent from an incredible game. From Street Fighter II to Mario Kart 8, this has been proven time and time again. That is not to say that video games with strong stories shouldn’t be appreciated and produced, but narrative is not an essential characteristic of a great video game by any means.

An interesting contention made by one of Carmack’s critics was that a philosophy which doesn’t privilege narrative produces disproportionately misogynist and Eurocentric video gaming experiences. This is, of course, utter nonsense. Though it barely merits analysis because the argument made in favor of this claim was the positioning of two sentences next to each other, there is a great deal at stake in terms of understanding that a narrative is not an essential element of a fantastic video game. There is no reason whatsoever why lacking a narrative or having a simple or inconsequential narrative would produce video games that are Eurocentric or misogynist. I will concede that by-the-numbers narrative archetypes need to be deconstructed prior to being employed as they are products of a racist and patriarchal society, however such a concession, obviously, does not mean video game narrative should be privileged as important to a video game’s quality.

One of the key issues with chaining developers to the notion of quality narrative is that video games as a medium do not facilitate the creation of a quality narrative. Random encounters, endless combat, respawning enemies, large scale exploration of landscapes, many necessary functions of video games occur in an meta-narrative space. That is to say, in the case of Final Fantasy VII, the player is not expected to think that Cloud killed 1034234234234 soldiers and 23453425623456 monsters in terms of his character arc. Instead, players must suspend their disbelief about how this sort of killing on a massive scale would impact someone. Beyond games about combat, many other video game mechanics necessitate conceivably narrative-altering functions or behaviors which should contribute to character or narrative development but simply do not. This is because they are the mechanics of the video game which are necessary, whether for fun or for some other reason, and they must exist in this meta-narrative space where the player does not expect these functions to have an impact on narrative.

Conclusion

Though I certainly love to play video games with compelling stories, and I believe compelling stories of high quality exist in the realm of video games, there is a great deal to be said for games which are excellent precisely because they do not privilege narrative. These games, after all, avoid the pitfall of the meta-narrative space which compromise the integrity of a narrative to some extent. As video games become endlessly more complex and socially recognizable, I hope that developers do not confine themselves to the expectations of those who conflate great video game experiences with great “art” experiences. That conflation is what drives the incorrect attribution of narrative as essential to a high quality video game. Hopefully games which follow in the footsteps of Doom‘s immaculate design and incomparable (and, perhaps, inexplicable) fun factor continue to be produced as consumer expectations change and production values increase.

 
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