Video game narrative imperatives

Curator's Note

When The Atlantic published Ian Bogost’s provocative “Video Games Are Better Without Stories,” I immediately went on the defensive. I respect Bogost’s work and use it to teach students how games have affordances that other media do not, but in this argument, Bogost argues that game designers are chasing other media by enviously adopting traditional narrative techniques. This argument is not new. Twenty years ago, when the nascent field of game studies was trying to define itself, a faux debate took place that pointed out that games were a new mode and shouldn’t be saddled with clumsy narrative limitations.

Yet, as a lifelong gamer, I have always appreciated the stories that games tell. Games are storytelling media as much as play and simulation media. Sometimes they are good, sometimes they are bad. Sometimes they are original, sometimes they are derivative. Where Bogost is wrong is that literature and movies aren’t inherently better. I’ve seen plenty of bad/good, original/derivative of the latter. Games are different, sure, but they still tell stories as well (or not) as anything else.

However, I recently spent the summer going through my gaming backlog. As any gamer with a job knows, the idea of playing the newest, latest, best is a dream long ago abandoned. Among the games I got around to playing were Witcher 3 and Fallout 4. What I noticed is that both games create this imperative to do the “main” quest. In an open world game, it always seemed ridiculous to force such a device. With so many interesting things to do outside that main quest, Witcher 3's and Fallout 4's narrative imperatives seemed particularly ham-fisted.

So I have returned to Bogost to think maybe he is at least partially correct. The “big” narrative, or macronarrative, is often a clumsy device in a video game. The narrative imperative is essential to novels and movies, but not so much to games. Games have other ways to assemble stories and ask the player to immerse in the game.

In thinking about this, I’d love to hear whether you “save” the main quest to the end, or do you it quickly and then move on to the side quests? The larger question. Do games need that narrative imperative for their stories to work?


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