Story, Simulation, and Videogames

Jul 13, 2010

It is not my intention to be critical of how videogames have been, or to claim that anyone ought to “fix” the relationship between player choice and story. Rather, I only hope to clarify a point that has often been misunderstood by those new to videogames or making them.

Central to Roger Ebert’s original argument that videogames can’t rise to the level of film or literature is the notion that videogames lack the quality of authorship, because what happens is up to the player: “Video games by their nature require player choices, which is the opposite of the strategy of serious film and literature, which requires authorial control.” (He defended that statement at great length before semi-redacting it.)

A concerned parent I spoke to a few weeks ago at my dentist’s office expressed concern about her children playing videogames, because, “In movies, the good guys can win, but in a videogame anything can happen.”

Players, while certainly less naïve and removed from what videogames are in practice, will often talk about their idealized concept of videogames in a way that supports this confusion, alternatively celebrating that Just Cause 2 and Grand Theft Auto let the player do anything – or complaining that those videogames don’t let the player do enough.

A Misplaced Ideal

Like the mid-90’s chase of 3D Virtual Reality headsets, or the strangeness that persists to this day of imagining a videogame is at its best when there’s no HUD (see: Trespasser) or no controller in your hands (EyeToy/Kinect), there’s a lot of excitement about vague ideas that are out of touch with reality.

For anyone coming from a background in traditional narrative, this idea of user-controlled story is a tempting trap. The key difference in videogames as a medium is often simplified as its “interactivity”, which is in turn further simplified and thought of as the ability for players to affect what happens.

That the case for very few videogames. Even in the best examples, it’s true only to a very minor extent. The notable attempts at user directed story were such bold exceptions to the norm that even by supporting only a couple of alternative outcomes, that feature became a key selling point for those games. Usually, the player’s control over narrative arc is to advance it, or die then retry.

The fiction in videogames, for videogames that have fiction (unlike abstract, extremely bottom-up projects), generally revolves around pre-designed characters being dropped into a pre-designed setting to do something, which some pre-written events triggered periodically to help justify why the characters are in that setting doing that thing. The essential property of the videogame that distinguishes it from being a cartoon or CGI movie is not the pre-written characters, the pre-designed settings, nor what the characters are doing – it is in how the doing gets done.

Regarding Interactive Fiction

It’s worth taking a moment to acknowledge that there is such a thing as interactive fiction, although it is more popular among readers than players. It’s generally text-centric, and without any real-time element, so while it’s still often manifested as digital media it’s stripped of the spatial and temporal signatures of videogames. It has its own particular following of authors and readers, and builds upon traditional paper choose-your-own-adventure books, creating to digital labyrinths of HTML files (Masq is an impressive graphical novel approach), or the somewhat more procedural but ultimately still heavily pre-scripted software in which choices affect stats that in turn place limits on future choices (like Chris Crawford’s Storytron). Conceptually though there are very few overlaps between those projects and Space Invaders or Red Dead Redemption.

Examples of Videogame Narrative

Let’s look at a few of the main ways that story appears in videogames, with varying degrees of user influence:

Some Videogames Are Like Sports

Examples: Warhawk PS3, Team Fortress, StarCraft (online), Madden, Street Fighter II

“Like sports” in that competing teams or individuals (one or more of which may be computer controlled) face off in a contest that challenges skill, dexterity, and luck until one party is the victor.

Narrative in this case refers to two elements: a game’s backstory that enriches the universe’s art and settings, and a lightweight story that evolves dynamically in every match like the ebb and flow during a basketball game. There may be heroic moments, or there may be an unexpected comeback, and for every player there is likely to be intense feelings in the form of frustration, reflection, and accomplishment throughout the match.

Though the user affects the outcome, in the end it’s of narrative sophistication matching a baseball game’s radio commentary. It fits within a very particular pattern, and for someone to make sense of it as a spectator they need to understand the game itself.

“Anything can happen”, here, means any team (including an AI team) may win.

Some Videogames Are Like Films or Novels

Examples: Final Fantasy 7, Zelda, Call of Duty, Tomb Raider, Peter Jackson’s King Kong

“Like films or novels” in that the user experiences a linear sequence of events, or sometimes allowing for slight variation in the order.

“Anything can happen”, here, means that either the player wins the current scene or challenge, and thus advances the story, or doesn’t, and is then faced with trying again.

Some Videogames Are Like Special Edition DVDs (Deleted Scenes, Alternate Endings)

Examples: Fallout 3, Grand Theft Auto San Andreas, Myst

“Like DVDs…” in that there is additional content available, for people who want more of it, but it is not part of the core experience. Fans will likely go through nearly all of it, while those less excited about it will see only a sliver, or one potential outcome.

This is, for the most part, like the film or novel examples above but with a strategic difference – there’s an emphasis on side quests that don’t need to be taken in a particular order, which are outright skippable if the player prefers to instead stick to the main quest only. In this regard, besides their difference in scale and making many objectives optional, they are at the core no more open-ended than a classic Mega Man game, which enabled the player to choose any order to take on levels and bosses.

When it comes to alternate endings, frequently the player saves the game before the major decision then tries out each of the possible results. The decision of consequence is generally near the end of the game, often only 5-10 minutes from the end or less, since the developers know that the players want to do this.

“Anything can happen”, here, is like telling someone at a restaurant they can have anything they want – just so long as it’s on the menu. What’s on that menu is still up to what the chef and establishment planned in advance. The player isn’t even allowed in the kitchen.

Some Videogames Are Like Choose-Your-Own-Adventure Books

Examples: Indigo Prophecy, Mass Effect, Vampire – The Masquerade: Bloodlines

“Like C.Y.O.A. Books” in that the player can switch between a few pre-written paths, decided at a few discrete branching points. These often go the furthest in creating the impression of user consequence, although it’s still a matter of stringing together a handful of discrete choices in some situations to minor differences in later scenes, such as whether or not a secondary character appears to help the player in a battle scene.

One minor variation on this, which is in some ways more granular, is the “Good and Evil” game (Knights of the Old Republic, Fable, Black and White, BioShock). In these case killing innocent people turns the character into a nazi demon goblin that criminals welcome, though doing good deeds (often involving sacrificing some bounty) your character starts looking more like an angelic knight, and is showered by compliments from gracious followers. A handful of situations then have 2-3 separate sequences that might happen, depending upon whether the player is primarily good, evil, or neutral when the event takes place.

“Anything can happen”, here, means that “anything” is limited to “either A or B.”

Some Videogames Are Like Toy Sets

Examples: Animal Crossing, Sim City, The Sims

“Like toy sets” in that the player is provided with pieces and matching settings (doll and dollhouse, action figures and army base, etc.) then cut loose to conceive of interesting things with them. Very little punishment, reward, or guidance is provided by the game for any particular choice of play style, such that the results can be different but generally aren’t judged objectively.

Very little about the narrative is articulated by the game itself, for if it did so it might conflict with the narrative the player has in mind. The Sims speak gibberish because if they didn’t, they wouldn’t be saying what we want to imagine them to saying.

“Anything can happen,” here, means that the story in the player’s imagination is largely in the player’s control. That makes sense, as what is mostly in the player’s control is already mostly in the player’s imagination – the computer is assisting with continuity, and occasionally making unexpected suggestions, but the part the computer will aid with is only that set of events that can be imagined using those toys in that matching setting.

Some Videogames Are Like Tool Kits

Examples: NeverWinter Nights, Little Big Planet, ModNation Racers

“Like tool kits” in that the core user experience is expected to come from other players, or by the player’s own authorship.

“Anything can happen,” here, means that as an author the player can create anything they would like, so long as they use the pieces and methods provided. However from a player perspective, the resulting gameplay fits into one or more of the other categories here (most commonly the more narrow categories, as a consequence of limited time and resources).

Some Videogames Don’t Have Fiction

Examples: Tetris, Bejeweled, Qix

Just a friendly reminder, as is often forgotten in discussions of videogames and narrative, that there are videogames which are without any sort of built-in story. There haven’t been as many of these in the past decade – it’s challenging to market something without characters, these aren’t as much fun to watch others play, and it’s easier to fund projects that might lead to selling rights to cartoons, action figures, and movies – but these videogames are particularly helpful in illustrating that piece which is unique to videogames.

There is no “anything can happen” here. There is a dynamic system, with unique temporal and spatial relationships, that the user is challenged to interact with in a particular way. It’s not like turning pages in a book after boss battles, it’s not switching between good and evil dialog responses from NPCs based on which characters the user entered combat with, and it’s not offering alternate endings based on player choices made moments before the end.

How It Happens

That part we can’t make into a movie, that part we can’t easily convey besides letting someone else play (with?) it, that part that makes up the whole of purely abstract videogames – that is the essence that makes something uniquely a videogame. That element is present in all videogames (some more so than others – I’m looking at you, Dragon’s Lair), and although putting more into this aspect isn’t as obvious from a traditional narrative perspective it’s what the medium does best.

One thing that set classic Deus Ex apart from many “player choice” games since is that rather than devoting much development energy letting a player choose between branching story choices, the emphasis was placed instead on more granular gameplay choices. In the style of the “games like toy sets”, equipping the player with a gas grenade that temporarily demobilized enemy groups created as much potential for personalized narrative as anything that took place in dialog. Similarly, Just Cause 2 is a playground, and by giving the player a grappling hook, unlimited parachutes, and access to motorcycles on the island etc. the ownership is in “how it happens” (at a moment-to-moment level) more so than “what happens” (people die and things get blown up).

The authorship, the control of “What happens” is still from the project’s author(s). And even though the player’s control over “How it happens” is the source of satisfaction and ownership over the experience, the How still fits within a particular slice of available actions crafted by the project’s author(s).


“Simulation” is a term that has been proposed for referring to this quality, and sees some use to this extent. However simulation is heavy with a more specific meaning, and I can no more use it to describe the fundamental procedural-nature of videogames than I could refer to all rectangles as squares. We would lose something in exactness, as we do here, to treat a particular as synonymous with its containing set.

Simulation is interactive modeling – trying to accurately recreate the most salient interactive and causal properties in an illustrative way. Simulators train airplane pilots. Simulators create a realistic race car driving experience at a fraction of the cost and minus physical danger. Simulations are an important part of the Serious Games community, in the form of software built to create interactive models of how people respond to disasters, or to train operators of specialized heavy machinery.

What is Tetris simulating? What is Pac-Man simulating?

What is Asteroids simulating? Despite its recognizable visual and conceptual metaphors, it isn’t a simulation, either. Spaceships do not teleport across screen edges, bullets do not stop in space after a short distance, there are not hopeless warzones in the midst of space full of asteroids and a lone ship that teleports to another set each time the last remaining fragment is… defeated? A game simulating the experience of piloting a realistic spaceship through an asteroid field would alternate between hopelessness and boredom. This same amount of considerable fudging for the sake of playability and comprehensibility is what also prevents us from calling Red Dead Redemption or Madden NFL a simulator.

We can use “simulation-ness” to talk about what separates the game design of projects appealing to functional (as opposed to purely visual) accuracy in videogames like Gran Turismo, Jane’s Advanced Tactical Fighters, ARMA, Rainbow Six, or even MechWarrior 2 (which was designed as though it were an accurate, complex simulation of something that exists only in fiction). Those games are less “arcadey”/”gamey” (sacrificing realism for playability) than Super Mario Kart, Blue Lightning, Call of Duty, Star Wars Republic Commando, or Slave Zero.

Even if Super Mario Bros. appeals to well understood real-world concepts like gravity and jumping, it is not by no means a simulation. Super Mario Bros. is not a jump simulator.

Why Terms Matter

Just like the player control over story is a common point of confusion about what videogames are, simulation is another stretch of terminology that invites outsider misunderstanding. Professional troll and former lawyer Jack Thompson, for the longest time, referring to videogames as “murder simulators”.

The dominant features of actually murdering someone – even in the most hellish of depictions – are avoided altogether in videogames, or at the very least glossed over and greatly simplified (respawn from the nearest jail and lose 50 coins?), whereas the dominant features of videogame playing have little to no connection to actual murder. There are games that attempt to appeal to the player’s sense of these grim realities, projects like Heavy Rain, ManHunt, and Hitman, but such attempts generally fall flat due to the distance from real harm, finality, or repercussions, playing more to a sense of authenticity than accuracy.

(And as I have said before, in terms of the user experience and perception, playing violent videogames isn’t much different than water pistols, laser tag, or paintball.)

The idea that we can redefine the term for our audience as needed is a risky proposition, particularly when the term most nearly means something very relevant in largely overlapping jargon circles (academic, as compared to industry and consumers). We might risk less harm by choosing a totally unrelated word – “peaches” perhaps – or a new nonword – so that at least if our listeners do not understand what we’re saying, they will know (so that we can know) that they don’t understand what we’re saying.

They Are What They Are

When we frame what we make in light of something else that it isn’t, we’re setting ourselves up to be condemned as a second rate version of that other thing. A musical is not a good opera, it is a different thing and needs to be considered on different terms.

Videogames may not be as good at doing what movies do as movies are, but for what it’s worth videogames are definitely better at doing what movies do than movies are at what videogames do. Videogames may not be as good at doing what books do as books are, but videogames are better at doing what books do than books are at what videogames do. We risk losing that distinction by pushing too hard to be compared to traditional linear story media on their terms. This medium does many other things that virtually no other formats can do at all, in addition to (not primarily!) doing a halfway decent job of what those other formats can do.

On the other hand, handling videogames as simulations invites misplaced ideals and expectations like realism, immersion, and infinite possibility.

As one of my former co-workers pointed out a few years ago, if videogames were really trying to be the intersection between player-driven stories and realistic simulations, the player could desert the war and instead live out the years with the local rice farmers.

That would hardly be the epitome of what our medium can (and more importantly: does) achieve.

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