Awaiting the Gaming Potemkin
In her essay “Film and Theatre”, Susan Sontag notes that “the history of cinema is often treated as the history of its emancipation from theatre.” She then goes on to deconstruct this point, but the essence of the claim holds true – for the first few decades of its life, narrative filmmaking was interested more in filmed plays than in exploring the potential of cinema as its own medium. The turning point was Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925), where a property unique to film (editing) was used to tell the story. As Chris Hecker notes “[filmmakers] had to figure out the things they could do that theatre couldn’t.” In doing so, cinema declared its independence.
Gaming is at a similar point. To adapt Sontag’s phrase, “The history of narrative gaming will be the history of its emancipation from cinema and novels.” The bulk of storytelling in mainstream video games is done via transplants from these mediums – cutscenes and text. “Cinematic” and “interactive movie” are often used to praise games. “Novelistic”, though rarer, would no doubt be used in the same way.
Why, though, does a game deserve credit for emulating another medium? Consider the reverse. If a film is compared to a video game, it will almost certainly be to the denigration of the latter. The implication being that the film in question is loud and stupid. What’s worse, it’s usually a valid criticism. To quote Braid developer Jonathan Blow, “the de facto reference for a video game is a shitty action movie.” When games emulate films, they tend to emulate bad films, adopting the hokey dialogue, clichéd storytelling and flagrant violations of basic cinematic rules.
Even if this weren’t the case (and it’s not, always – there are good cut-scenes, just as there are good films based on plays) there are still valid artistic reasons for pushing for the emancipation of gaming. To return to Potemkin, this will be the moment when a property unique to gaming is used to tell stories, when gaming does something narratively that film can’t. Maybe it’s already happened. There’s environmental storytelling, for example, where “the story element is infused into a physical space.” The biggest proponents of this form of storytelling are Valve, who use environmental cues to convey narrative points – think, for example, of the stark contrast between the sterile labs and the inner workings of the test centre in Portal. Cinema might be able to build similar sets, but sets can be explored only in as much as the cinematography allows for it. The freedom to explore a virtual world at will is a property that is unique to gaming.
Environmental storytelling is a solution, but a limited one when brought to bear on complex narratives. For narrative-heavy sections, Valve still doesn’t resort to cut-scenes, instead treating dialogue as ambient noise. It’s up to the player to discern the expository parts and ignore any irrelevant chatter. A similar technique is what might be called piecemeal storytelling, where the player must construct the narrative for themselves. The Silent Hill series makes use of this, leaving notes and fragments strewn about. Outside of a few experimental novels (Nabokov’s Pale Fire, for example), it’s hard to imagine these forms of storytelling working in another medium.
These are, incidentally, just examples. They’re disparate examples, at that, yet the end result is the same: greater harmonisation between story and mechanics, as opposed to the demarcation that occurs when cinematic transplants are employed (the segregation line usually takes the form of a fade to black, bracketing off the cinematic from the interactive). There are others that haven’t been discussed here, and there may be others yet to be invented – the game-changing “Potemkin moment” could still lie ahead.
There is, of course, what Warren Spector refers to as a “silly and amusing” position: that games should not tell stories, full stop. This argument might suggest that games should be an experiential art form, closer to music and poetry than film and novels. Given the range of problems that narrative gaming throws up, this argument holds a certain appeal. Wouldn’t it be nice to just nuke the whole concept, sit back and look forward to a future of games like Flower? When one considers the list of games that have managed to tell stories independently of cinematic trappings (Shadow of the Colossus, Limbo, Braid, Half-Life), though, it becomes clear that narrative gaming is worth fighting for.
The real problem might not be cutscenes per se, but their overuse. Why worry about finding fresh methods of harmonising story and mechanics (what Extra Credits calls Mechanics as Metaphor) when voice actors can be hired to quickly convey narrative points? This is less of a problem in the indie sector, where budgets don’t stretch to fancy cutscenes or voice acting. Not surprisingly, it is here that many of the more promising harmonisations have occurred in recent years, such as the purely visual storytelling of games such as Limbo and Machinarium.
If all of this sounds prescriptive, it’s really not meant to be. All mediums start out rooted in some other medium, whether its film in theatre or novels in verse. Surprising as it may seem, we’re in the (comparatively) early days of gaming history, and it’s natural that narrative form would not yet be codified. “Building on a foundation provided by other media is pretty normal and natural”, says Spector in the above-linked article. Whenever it comes, therefore, the “Potemkin moment” won’t be be an outright denunciation of father cinema, but the birth of something new. It will be exciting, innovative and, perhaps, incomprehensible at first. Above all, it will be worth waiting for.