Stories and games have been being chewed on this week in a way that I find a lot more fruitful than the usual dance, and I explicitly want to point over at Chuck’s blog and Gameplaywright for good stuff to read on the topic. I’ve found a lot of good fruit in this thinking, and the question of what it is that games do well (and poorly). My short suspicion is that games look like stories not because they are but because the events in games are the kinds of things you tell stories about – that is to say, cool, interesting, exciting things – and the similarity to stories has more to do with the compression algorithm that makes fiction than something inherent in their structure.
But that got me thinking about things that are exciting, interesting or compelling but make bad stories. Are maybe those sort of things in an area similar to where games live? Specifically, could the difference be found within? That required thinking about what you can’t storytell about well, and at first that seemed a daunting challenge. A good writer can make even very mundane things compelling, but there’s the rub. There are certain tricks that are used to write about certain things to make up for the fact that the thing itself doesn’t make a good story.
This is best revealed in any long activity, where endurance is part of the satisfaction. Climbing a mountain is long and hard work, but it can be intensely rewarding and satisfying. Telling the story of a climb in any irect way will be very boring indeed, and capture none of what actually makes it compelling. Instead, an author will turn it into a story by focusing in on a single, emblematic moment, or using the climb as a framework to tell other stories that might symbolically resonate with the climb. There are plenty of tricks to do this, but the point is fiction compressed (or perhaps more poetically, distills) the experience to find something compelling in it, even if that thing you find is not the reason someone climbed a mountain in the first place.
Games, and in this case I especially mean video games, have a different sort of compression algorithm, and most notably, endurance is in their bag of tricks. Done badly it’s slog or grind, but games can have their player commit hours to activities which would be described in a few sentences in text. Sure, it’s not a full mountain climb – it’s still compressed – but its much closer to the experience.
What’s interesting me most is that as I’ve been writing this, I’ve found I don’t have the words for these things. Because we can’t represent it in fiction, there’s not a lot of common language for satisfaction out of endurance. I’ve got tons of words for other types of satisfaction, but not this. Yet despite that lack of words this is a real thing, and something that games serve well.
And that feels to me like a blind spot. We’ve talked about how it might be worth having the game experience have its own word to distinguish it form the structures we’ve associated with story, but that has also come with an idea that the stories you get out of games are more raw, unfinished clay – full of power, maybe, but not much else. But thinking about endurance makes me wonder how much of this is really about our limited (and self perpetuation) understanding of stories rather than some shortcoming in games.
1 – And whether we’d all be better off if it was called something other than story. A lot of this came out of my trying to think of how one describes Shadow of the Colossus.
2 – This isn’t limited to writing. In film or TV, for example, this will be a montage.
3 – I’m sure there IS a word, something latin-y and used by people who use “Fiero” in sentences, but jargon doesn’t count.