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