Story & Games



A look at the importance (or lack thereof) of story in games.

As a philosopher who teaches aesthetics and a gamer, I find questions about games and art to generally be rather interesting. As I have argued elsewhere, I take the intuitively plausible view that video games can be art. However, even if that matter is considered settled (which can be debated), there is still a rich vein of philosophical issues to mine.

One topic that I and many other gamers often find interesting is the matter of the importance of story in games. John Carmack, who knows a bit about games, said that "story in a game is like a story in a porn movie. It's expected to be there, but it's not that important." Folks who delight in story driven games no doubt disagree with this view and there does seem to be an issue worth discussing here. For the sake of this discussion, I will be assuming that games (specifically video games) can be art. I have argued for this in an earlier essay and hence will not repeat my arguments here.

Obviously enough, there are games that have no story at all and are still fine games. To use the obvious examples, Tetris and Asteroids are story free, yet fine games. Naturally, these are not the sort of games that people debate about when it comes to whether or not story is important. However, it is worth noting these sorts of games because they provide a relatively pure context in which to present two relevant points.

The first is that game mechanisms (that is, the purely game aspects of the game) are reasonably seen as being distinct from the art aspects of the game (that is, the game as art).  After all, while all games are games and some games are art, not all games are art.  This can, of course, be argued against. However, it does have enough intuitive plausibility that it is well worth considering.

The second point is that even the art aspects of a game that is (or contains) art can be distinguished from each other. For example, while Tetris and Asteroid do not have plots, they do have game artwork and sounds (which might be dismissed as mere sound effects rather than having any status as art). As another example, the music and visual art of Halo can be distinguished from each other in that one is music and the other visual art. This point seems reasonable certain.

The matter of the importance of story is most interesting when it comes to games that do, in fact, feature a story. Obviously enough, the story (or plot) of games have varying degrees of integration into the game. For games that have a story, in one end of the spectrum lives the games whose story have an extremely minimal role in the game. One excellent example of this is Serious Sam: The First Encounter. The game does have a story: an evil alien threatens earth and you, as Sam, have to travel in time and kill wave after wave of monsters. That is pretty much it. Despite the rather limited story, the game works amazingly well as a game-that is, it is fun to play. On the other end of the spectrum are games that are heavily story driven, such as Knights of the Old Republic and Star Wars the Old Republic. These games are, not surprisingly, role-playing games. In these games the player takes on the role of a character and spends considerable time talking to non-player characters, making decisions and experiencing the plot unfold. As might be imagined, the story in such games seems to be rather more important than in the typical first person shooter. In the middle are games like the Halo series which have well-developed stories and unfolding plots, but do not actually have any role-playing elements. For example, in Halo your choices mainly revolve on what gun to use to kill which alien in what way.

As might be imagined, the significance of the story would seem to be proportional to its role in the game. After all, a first person shooter whose plot is rather lacking or poor would suffer less than a full blown story-driven role-playing game whose plot is lacking or badly done. That said, it could still be argued that plot is important.

It is tempting to compare a game with a story to a movie and, obviously enough, plot seems to be somewhat important to a movie (although Michael Bay, some might claim, endeavors to prove otherwise). The idea of plot being the most important aspect of poetical works (broadly and classically construed to include theater) dates back at least to Aristotle. To steal his argument regarding tragedy, the following argument can be given for the importance of plot in games that have a story element.

Games are not an imitation of humans (or elves, aliens, or dragons), "but of an action and of life, and life consists in action, and its end is a mode of action, not a quality." It is, of course, the actions taken by people that  "make them happy or miserable." As such the "the incidents and the plot are the end of" the game  and "the end is the chief thing of all." Thus the story is important, at least on the key assumptions made by Aristotle.

For Aristotle, a key part of having a good plot is ensuring "that the sequence of events, according to the law of probability or necessity permits a change from bad fortune to good or from good to bad." In more general terms, the plot must be such that the events make sense and fit together to form a coherent whole. In my own experience as a gamer, I have consistently disliked games in which the story fails to meet that basic requirement that events play out in a way that makes sense (except, obviously enough, for games that are supposed to not make sense). After all, if you are running around in a game doing things that make no sense for no apparent reason that leads to nothing, then that will tend to be a disappointing gaming experience (although it would be a fair approximation of life).

The rather obvious reply to this is that there are games that are rather weak in the story department that seem to be great successes as games, thus helping to support Carmack's claim. This seems to be a rather consistent aspect of the top tier first person shooters-they tend to be marked by weak, implausible or otherwise lame plots but are top-ranked for game play, especially competitive multi-player. As I once jokingly put it, "I don't really care why I am killing, I just care about whether I'm enjoying it or not." That, I think, nicely captures the view of most gamers. 

Interestingly enough, this view often extends into games in which story would seem to be rather important, such as role-playing games. While some people do enjoy going through all the dialog and getting into the story, my general experience has been that the main focus is on the game-play rather than on the story.  This even extends to my experience in traditional role-playing games, like AD&D and Pathfinder:many players are far more into roll-playing (that is, simply killing monsters in combat) than role-playing (that is, talking to the monsters before killing them).

Getting back to the point raised earlier, namely that the game aspects of a game are not art this does seem to suggest that the story is not as important to the game as the game aspects of the game. Alternatively, it could be argued that the game aspects of the game are still art, but they are a different sort of art than a story. After all, the name of the game is, well, "game" and not "story." In the case of a first person shooter, the game is (obviously enough) about shooting things from a first person perspective. Story is thus secondary. Even in role-playing games, such as Pathfinder, all the actual game mechanism are about rolling dice, usually while trying to kill monsters who are blatantly and shamelessly holding the loot that rightfully belongs to the party. While the game can be augmented by art (acting, beautiful maps, and well-crafted stories) the core of the game is , it can be argued, the game mechanics. As my friend Ron puts it, "if you are not rolling dice, you are not playing the game. You are just sitting around the table talking."

The idea that a game should be focused on the game is, interestingly enough, also consistent with Aristotle's view: "each art ought to produce, not any chance pleasure, but the pleasure proper to it."


Tags: art, carmack, games, labossiere, philosophy, video games

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