An Example Of Storytelling That Isn’t Unique to Video Games Although Some Think It Is

-Or-
“Daniel Floyd Is A Fool And Raven’s Will Peck Out His Eyes”

snake and boss ending

[~1300 words]
#WallOfText

There’s this video posted by Dan Olson on his Folding Ideas youtube channel?/page?/account? It’s Daniel Floyd (writer for Extra Credits) talking about,

“…the very first game that I played that really made me… start thinking and looking for ways that games could do something with the narrative that nothing else could.”

For him, it was the ending to Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, which he states,

“… was the moment that lit the spark, that games can do something unique here, something that no other medium can emulate this in any way I can think of.”

[For those that don’t know what happens at the end of Metal Gear Solid 3: The player, as Snake, has to fight a character who has been Snake’s mentor and surrogate mother throughout the game’s story. After beating the Boss, there is a cutscene where Snake points a gun at the prone but still alive character. Then the game puts control back in the player’s hands and it is the player who has to make Snake pull the trigger in order to move the story forward.]

And I wanted to respond to that because Daniel Floyd says this is an experience unique to video games, except it isn’t. This is essentially the same thing as turning the page in a book. All the player is really doing is choosing to progress to the next part of the story. In MGS3 you don’t really have a choice in what happens: the developer/writer has already decided that the protagonist is going to shoot the bad guy. The only choice the player has is whether to move the story forward or not. The player can refuse to shoot, but that’s the same as a reader choosing not to turn the page.

I’ve read an article online talking about how this ending makes the player complicit in the Boss’ murder. Except it doesn’t. Because the player didn’t decide to kill the Boss and the player didn’t choose to shoot her; the developer did. The player only chose to continue experiencing the story.

So, the player isn’t really participating in storytelling. The story was already told and decided upon before the player picked it up. Even if there were multiple options this would still be mechanically identical to turning a page: you’re moving onto the next piece of content, except you would have multiple pieces of content to choose from. The player is only participating in the progression of the story, not the telling of the story.

And I think what makes moments like these seem like they’re unique to video games is because they combine two forms of making progress from two different mediums: reading literature and watching film.

In film, you are largely dealing with a passive and automatic form of progress: the movie moves itself forward regardless of the player’s input; the player can pause the movie, but they don’t have to maintain active engagement to keep the movie going forward; you technically don’t even have to be looking at the screen to be “watching” the movie, you could be playing a video game on another screen at the same time (which I think many of us are guilty of). In direct contrast, literature has an active and audience dependent form of progression: the reader has to actively focus on one part of the page to read it and has to choose to move forward through the content; the book isn’t going to turn its own pages because “when” to do this is dependent on the reader.

And these modes of progress are universal through each medium: you will always progress through a movie by letting it move forward by itself, and you will always make progress through literature by reading one sentence at a time and choosing when to turn the page.

What video games do in moments like the MGS3 example is to take those two modes of progression and mix them up without warning. One second your watching a passive cinematic that automatically moves forward on its own, then all of a sudden the progression is halted and the player is required to physically engage with the medium to move the story forward.

But, because of how the moment is structured it makes players feel like they are actively participating in the story. But really, they are just participating in the mechanical progression of the story. The sense of agency is an illusion.

This MGS3 example is kind of a microcosm for all video game storytelling. You, the player, are never telling the story, you’re never creating the story, you’re never participating in the narrative. You never really have a choice. You’re just participating in the mechanical progression of the narrative and choosing which section of content to access next. The story was already written before you ever picked up the game; the decisions were already made by the developer. Even the choices you can make are not really your choices. The choices are those of the developer which he allows you to explore.

And that doesn’t feel cool. Saying that you, the player, are actually telling the story yourself makes you feel cooler, it makes you feel important. I think it is this feeling of importance that caters to our natural sense of self-interest and this feeling is why the narrative of “storytelling unique to video games and no other medium” has caught on so easily in gaming culture.

As a last point, Daniel Floyd says this about the MGS3 ending,

“…the player and the character are both brought to this exact same state of mind, state of feeling, so perfectly, that gels so well, that I was just blown away…”

Okay, that is really cool, but that happens in film and literature, as well. I have literally had that exact experience while reading a book, where I didn’t want to continue reading, didn’t want to turn the page because I didn’t want what was about to happen to actually happen.

None of this is meant to undermine Daniel Floyd’s personal experience with the MGS3 ending. The impact that moment had on him is valid and valuable, and the way it altered his perception of how video game stories can be experienced is valid. However, to claim that this is an example of how games “do something with the narrative that nothing else [can]” is simply naive and incorrect. It is only an example of how video games can ask players to make progress through a game by combining two different progression mechanisms that are also present in other mediums.

ADDENDUM:

You may be eagerly typing “BUT!!!” along with, “procedurally generated games”, or “emergent gameplay”, or “sandboxes let players tell their own stories”. Those aspects of games are actually a whole ‘nother kettle o’ worms that I don’t want to get into right now. Needless to say, the problems with those counter arguments has to do with perceptions of “storytelling” and the different meanings it has depending on the context in which they are used. Essentially, the term “story” when used while talking about our MGS3 example is referring to something completely different than the term “story” as it’s used when saying “the player tells his own story when he accidently falls of a cliff fleeing skeletons and discovers a hidden cache of gold deposits”. It’s the same word as written, but it’s two different words in terms of what they actually mean.

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5 comments

  1. Domarius

    There’s a lot to be said for the difference between reading about a tragedy, and actually witnessing it. And more still, to actually be involved in it. By simulating a virtual reality where you’re given the point of view of a person, and being made to do the physical action of pulling the trigger and watching the event unfold in response to your action, this makes the situation more “real” as if you’re really experiencing it. That’s what video games can do that books cannot. That’s what the original article was about. That simple fact is what you missed while spending your time writing an entire article about whittling experiences down to their mechanical operation.

    You can trivialise any experience by just whittling it down the technical facts. Reading a book is just turning pages and seeing words. Playing video games is just looking at a screen and pressing buttons. That completely misses the actual experience. Your point of view is just like the “movie plots explained badly” memes. “Spend 9 hours watching a group of people returning jewellery” (Lord of the Rings).

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    • Philtron

      Thank you for your comment Domarius, but I did not miss “that simple fact”. You on the other hand, you did miss the point of everything I wrote, especially since you think I was trivializing Dan’s experience when I explicitly said I wasn’t (“None of this is meant to undermine Daniel Floyd’s personal experience”), and implicitly this means I’m not trivializing anyone’s experience.

      I think a good place to unpack why you didn’t understand what I was saying would be the assumptions you’re making, as seen in your first two sentences:

      “There’s a lot to be said for the difference between reading about a tragedy, and actually witnessing it. And more still, to actually be involved in it.”

      We’re talking about fiction stories, here, not real world tragedies; in this context if you think that reading about a tragedy is somehow different than witnessing it or being involved in it then YOU are the one trivializing the readers’ experience. When someone reads, or watches, or hears a well written story then they ARE witnessing it, they ARE involved in it. That is the ENTIRE POINT of any art that tries to accomplish anything worthwhile: to get the audience to become involved in what is happening. You aren’t MORE involved in the story just because you FEEL like you’re “in control” of the main character; you’re not witnessing it MORE just because you have access to visual imagery. You don’t just witness an event with your eyes, you witness it with your emotions, and it’s the emotions that matter when we’re talking about how “involved” or “immersed” someone is in a story. You can’t argue that an experience is “more real” to a person in one medium than it is to another person in another medium, because that feeling of “realness” is emotional and subjective. You can’t argue that one medium has more or better or greater subjective experiences than another, that’s just insane.

      Your first two sentences, which treat reading a story as objectively being more distant from the story, kind of reminds me of the same fallacy back when gamers were arguing that game stories shouldn’t follow the rule of “show, don’t tell” and instead should follow the rule “do, don’t show”, not understanding that those two phrases MEAN THE EXACT SAME THING. “Do, don’t show” and “show, don’t tell” are the same statement, and if someone doesn’t understand that then they don’t really understand how storytelling works. (Btw, both statements actually mean, “Don’t explain things to the audience, let them experience things for themselves”.)

      And getting back to the MGS3 example, the reason Dan felt the way he did was because of the relationship between Snake and the Boss. A relationship built up in the same way as in any other medium. Simulation or no simulation, the player is never pulling the trigger, regardless of how they FEEL. Taking “control” of the game to make Snake pull the trigger may have been a surprise and it may have made Dan FEEL more involved, but, again, feelings are subjective and not relevant in an analysis of “what is really going on”.

      Apropos of this: the experience Dan Floyd describes, of feeling complicit in the actions of the main character, I have felt that same way with both video games and books.

      In both cases I was so emotionally involved in the story, so psychologically immersed, that I felt as though I was somehow responsible for what was taking place, even though I wasn’t. In both video games and books.

      This is why your experience as a player or a reader will never be the same as the character’s. Dan Floyd will never feel the way Snake felt when shooting the Boss, because Dan Floyd can reboot the game and experience the relationship with Boss all over again, while Snake cannot because for him the Boss is gone forever. For Snake, the Boss was in fact a real person, for the player, the Boss only FELT like a real person, the same way characters FEEL real in books.

      So, considering that it is pointless to argue about which medium has more subjective FEELINGS, which medium subjectively feels “more real”, all that’s left is to look at what’s REALLY going on beneath the surface. Which is important to do because this understanding helps artists gain more control and discipline over their craft, and thus they can make better art.

      (Damn, I promised myself I wasn’t going to make this a long response, and here I go posting an entire other article. Geez.)

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      • Domarius

        Reading, seeing, and personally experiencing things, are 3 different ways of experiencing something. (And now that we have video games, and virtual reality, that’s another step to add in between seeing and personally experiencing.)

        You seem to be hung up on me saying some are better than others, and missing what I’m still saying – that they are all different, and so the person who is the target of your article is not wrong.

        When someone says “Games can provide an experience that a book can’t”, they’re not wrong. But, by saying “Books have been doing this for years” you’re trying to say it’s the same, and it’s not. I used to read Enid Blyton books all the time, and well written as they are, they never created the immediate, visceral experience that video games provided. Conversely, video games never provided such whimsical worlds and adventures and endearing characters that her books did.

        Notice nowhere have I said one is better than the other. You presumed that, and so, missed the point again. Though perhaps it might seem implied when I said “really experiencing it”, there is still something to be said for going through the act of something, seeing the visuals and sounds play out in response to something. It can seem more “real” in a way that reading can’t.

        Whether it’s a fictional event or not doesn’t have any bearing on the argument.

        Many people have had their mind’s changed when something they read about didn’t seem real, and then when witnessing it in person or actually speaking to someone connected to it, picking up information they hadn’t by just reading about it. Trust me, I know people who think they know all about certain topics because they’ve read a lot. And they have no idea how little they really know – they hold an opposing viewpoint to someone who’s actually experiencing it.

        I will never agree with you that turning a page is the same as pulling the trigger in MGS3. By stripping it of the emotion, (what you might call “feeling cool”) you remove what makes the mediums different, and of course you arrive at the same technical fact – they are both simply ways to progress the story. But that’s no more profound than calling Lord of the Rings, 9 hours of watching people return jewellery.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Philtron

          Reading and seeing things ARE both methods of experiencing something and you can’t say that they are emotionally different from each other because that’s subjective to each person. They are physically different from each other, but that is a superficial difference with very little meaning to it.

          My point in the preceding comment was that you can’t use subjective experiences to argue what a medium is objectively capable of doing or not capable of doing. And yet every single one of your arguments hinges on using personal, subjective experiences for universal, objective truths.

          Here’s part of your comment: “[going through the act of something] can seem more ‘real’ in a way that reading can’t”

          That’s just a personal experience; it does not reflect on the medium of reading in general. I can just as easily say, “Reading can seem more ‘real’ in a way that playing a game can’t”; that is a totally valid statement for some people, but does not reflect on the medium of gaming as a whole.

          Your comment: “Many people have had their mind’s changed when something they read about didn’t seem real, and then when witnessing it in person… connected to it, picking up information they hadn’t by just reading about it.”

          Again, this isn’t a valid argument about the limits of reading because I can just reverse it:

          “Many people have had their mind’s change when something they lived through didn’t seem real, and then reading about it they connected to it, picking up information they hadn’t by just experiencing it in person.”

          That is an actual experience people have had, but it doesn’t mean that reading can accomplish something that personally living through something cannot (on a general, universal level). All it means is that different people experience mediums in personally different ways.

          Your comment: “I use to read Enid Blyton books all the time, and well written as they are, they never created the immediate, visceral experience that video games provided.”

          This may be personally true for you, but that doesn’t mean that literature as a whole is incapable of accomplishing the same thing for other people. My counterpoint is that for me, books have always been a more immediate, visceral experience than video games have. Situations like in the MGS3 ending (companion Cube death, moral decisions in Mass Effect, etc.) have rarely had a strong emotional impact on me, despite me “doing the same things as the characters”; if anything, moments like the MGS3 ending break the 4th wall for me and pull me out of the experience. On the other hand, I have had experiences similar to Dan Floyd’s while I was reading a book (games like Gravity Bone and Myst have provided me more visceral experiences than RPGs or action games).

          (Also, let me just state, I have played games and read books for a very long time, since back when games were played on command line interfaces of orange text. I have been reading and gaming for pretty much the same number of years, so I don’t have a bias for one or the other in terms of experience.)

          Anyway, that’s why looking at someone’s personal experience with a medium doesn’t prove anything about the medium as a whole. That’s why in my article I try to look beneath the surface of personal experience to find out what’s REALLY going on artistically. And with the example of the MGS3 ending, what’s really going on is that the player is just accessing the next piece of the story, just like turning the page of the book; the player’s emotional experience during the ending is valid, but does not represent something unique to the medium. Just because you press a button and the character shoots a gun in response does not mean YOU shot the gun, even though it may FEEL like it, just the same as when a character in a book shoots a gun and the reader feels complicit, having become so immersed that they feel like THEY shot the gun somehow, it doesn’t matter, the reader didn’t actually shoot the gun.

          Closing comment:
          I feel like we may be going in circles here so I’ll probably bow out at this point. That’s not to discourage you from replying to this comment; feel free if you want. I just wanted to say however, that I’m actually surprised out how relatively civil this conversation has gone. Despite how different our perspectives are, things have been relatively respectful. So, thank you for that. And thank you for your comments, they’ve really helped me explore my own opinions by looking at them from a different perspective. My opinions have not changed, obviously, but they’ve become more refined and I think I can explain my perspective a little better now.

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          • Domarius

            The main point I’m making is; the person who said “This video game provides a story telling experience that a book can’t” is not incorrect.

            At the same time, you’re correct, in saying there is a mechanical similarity in progressing a linear story when you turn a page in a book, or pull the trigger in the MGS cutscene.

            But – by saying “this is no different than turning a page, this is not new, the person who said the experience is unique to games is wrong”, you’re ignoring the very difference that makes the original statement valid.

            Like a buffet, a person can choose to ignore or miss the option to have a different experience than a book could provide. I could say “there’s no choice here” and just pull the trigger to keep watching, but I bet if you hand the controller to a person who doesn’t play video games, it’s possible to get a response “I don’t want to shoot him!”. You might find that having someone read about the shooting is one thing, but putting a virtual gun in their hand and asking them to actually pull the trigger and watch the response MAY illicit a stronger emotion, a possibility not provided by a book.

            There’s two arguments you’ve made to this, I know;
            1. Not everyone will experience same thing
            2. Someone may refuse to turn the page just as much as they may refuse to pull the trigger.

            1.
            I don’t disagree with you – I’m saying the option is there to have that experience in a particular way that isn’t in a book or even a movie (and I’ll explain what I mean further in 2.). This is not to devalue any of them – they are just different, and to ignore the difference is to ignore what the person was feeling when they made the original statement driving this article “This provides an experience that a book can’t.”

            2.
            When you said that a person feels just as complicit in the murder by turning the page as pulling the trigger – I strongly disagree. That choice is deciding if you want to keep watching or not, which is a different choice. Eg. I stopped playing GTA IV because the cutscenes were too sickeningly violent. Left a bad taste in my mouth and I was not enjoying the experience. Someone could put down a book or movie for the same reason. That’s a very very different choice, this is you saying “I’m not enjoying the experience, I’m out.” What the game provides you is “You may be enjoying the experience, now see what it feels like to go through that, in a virtual reality, simulated point of view, playing out in real time in response to your choice to pull the trigger.” Even without a choice to shoot the guy or not (which would change story paths) there IS a choice, in a brief moment, at some point you will have to actually pull the trigger, and the immediacy of the audio and visual playing out in response itself is an experience unique to video games. And yes, again, I agree with you, this might be ignored or missed, but the option is there to have that *particular* experience, where as in a book it’s not. It’s why a person can actually feel even more “immersed” in a Vive VR game, feeling like they’re really there, even though the games themselves are more simplistic than normal video games (and far more simplistic than any movie or book) simply because you can walk around in a 3 meter square and and actually use your hands to move objects around. There is real time, audio and visual responses responsible for this, and pulling the trigger in MGS is a very miniature version of this that still has value.

            Regarding the discussion, you’re welcome. I’ll always say what I think without cushioning it, this is usually to my detriment as this will normally cause other people to pull emotion into the discussion, so it’s nice to be able to do that once in a while and just stick to the content of the discussion without people taking it personally.

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