Earlier this week, film critic Roger Ebert created a small stir in the videogaming community. This minor tussle has actually been brewing for a weeks; it seemed to swirl into form first in his review of the movie Doom, and it progressed further in a following letters column on his site. It wasn't until this week's letters column, however, that he finally gave his opinion some actual body, contending that video games are an "inherently inferior" storytelling medium. He writes, "There is a structural reason for that: Video games by their nature require player choices, which is the opposite of the strategy of serious film and literature, which requires authorial control."
Most of the talkback comments on these reports discounted Ebert as an old codger who was making uninformed comments about fields in which he had no expertise. Others overestimated the literary qualities of certain text-heavy RPGs or pointed to elegant, subtle, artful games that had neither the capacity nor the desire to tell stories. And Ebert has even stated that he accepts the medium as capable of such brilliance.
But Ebert cannot be discounted, because, while he may not be the foremost authority on videogames, he knows a great deal about storytelling. He's not even completely ignorant on the subject of gaming; in fact, Roger Ebert is credited with at least one game review, a piece on the obscure Cosmology of Kyoto published in Wired in 1995. He reviewed it positively -- he said it was wonderful.
So his comments cannot be discounted as the result of an insurmountable generation gap. In fact, they shouldn't be discounted at all. Ebert brings up a very real concern, which forces us to ask a very necessary, if uncomfortable, question: are videogames as capable of storytelling as dramatic film and literature? Ebert states that he has yet to find a game that stands up to the greats in other mediums, and there's a good reason for that -- there isn't one.
The reason for this, he contends, is built in to the structure of the medium: there can never be a strong storytelling game because games lack authorial control. It's a reasonable observation to make, though I would argue that the issue is based more on the structure of game creation and the overarching belief in genre -- that stories currently told in games are not being told for the sake of telling them, and are instead simple tropes that exist as one required piece of an established genre.
It's important to note that most games, as a result of not actually existing to tell a story, give up some authorial control to the player. This is not structural; this is a choice on the part of the creators to, say, emphasize visceral thrills or strategic thinking. Many movies do this too, though the nature of film forces a greater amount of story upon them.
Do games have to give up this authorial control? Of course not. Most games don't really give the player many options to change their stories beyond disrupting their pacing - I will admit this is a huge concession, but games don't even have to give up that. The trick, I think, is to give the player the illusion of choice.
Let's look at an example: Resident Evil 4, probably the best game of 2005. It has a ludicrous story about a first family kidnapping and homicidal cultists, and does not hold up to the great works in other mediums. Yet it's highly likely that most players experienced the same story in an identical way. The game does this with the strength of its atmosphere and impeccable direction. When the player wants to explore, they explore. When they want to survive an onslaught, they do that. However, the game is telling the player exactly when to want to do those things. There's a large, lifeless area, so you look around it. There are a dozen crazed villagers out for your blood, so you really don't look around. You get to each plot revelation and sequence in the emotional state the creators of the game wanted you to be in, to give that moment the exact impact they wanted it to have. You've been told a story. The authorial control remains intact.
A storytelling game should give the illusion of control, the idea that you can do anything, while at the same time putting the idea in the player's mind that they want to do a specific thing. The artful game creator can use the mindset of the player as a tool to make a story progress in an exacting manner. The advantages of telling a story in such a way can be great -- many people feel that the interactivity -- the mentality of "being there" can make a story more impactful to them, and I'd go as far to say that this interactivity can help mitigate the tiny structural losses that can occur to player. It can create a close, almost schizophrenic relationship between the player of the game and the protagonist of the story -- an extremely interesting relationship that cannot be reproduced in any other medium.
While the results are not up to par at the moment, there is no inherent inferiority here. There are no structural problems, no loss of control. What is there is potential to speak to people who are not spoken to by great drama or great literature -- anyone who's gone to high school knows that there are a great many people like that. Video games are a young medium, and there are people working every day to work out the problems like the one Ebert is concerned with, but to write it off at this point is to not give it a chance.
It is true that, as he says, "video games represent a loss of those precious hours we have available to make ourselves more cultured, civilized and empathetic" in many cases. People do need to read more, but the hours spent reading certain books or watching certain movies are also quite wasted culturally. On the other hand, to spend time creating a relationship with videogames is to be prepared for a time when an artist uses the tools of the craft to create great stories. I for one can't wait for that moment.