Video games are not a monolithic medium. I've said this before and I'll probably have to keep on saying it for at least a few years. In the meantime I've been wanting to get a blog post up to point people to when any of the myriad issues that come back to this simple fact pop up. This is that post.
It's that time of the year again when the games industry blogs are filled with content from the DICE talks. One of these years I'm going to have attend that conference because a lot of interesting things definitely come out of it. That said, one of the things that seems to happen a lot at DICE (and GDC for that matter) is a talk from a well known developer in which strong claims are made about what video games should and should not be.
This year, that talk was by David Jaffe, and it echoed what seems to be an increasingly common "anti-story in games" sentiment among a certain crowd of developers. As reported over on Gamasutra, Jaffe is specifically against games where story telling plays a major role in the design process stating that this approach, "is a bad idea, waste of resources, of time and money, and worst, I think that it has stuffed the progress of video games, to our own peril."
Essentially, Jaffe is advocating vociferously for the elevation of what Ian Bogost has called "The proceduralist style", and an abandonment of what I've referred to previously as big narrative games. Like Dan Cook, Tadhg Kelly, and Eskil Steenberg , Jaffe is advocating an approach to the future of game design that works to free itself from design constraints imposed by more traditional story telling media. I actually agree with these author/developers that video games as a medium have a very unique capacity to take advantage of procedural techniques to offer the player an opportunity to create their own emergent narrative. However, I think that this line of thinking becomes dogmatic when it asserts that designer driven narrative approaches that lean on traditions of story telling drawn from films and novels should be excised from the game industry.
It all comes back to the fact that video games are not a monolithic medium. Like any other medium, there are many different types of artifacts that can be developed with video games as a tool. In this respect it is just as senseless to assert that games should only support emergent narrative as it is to say that all movies should be action films or all books should be philosophical treatises. Many things can be done with the medium and there are different audiences for different forms and genres of games just as with every other medium.
In this respect, it is not for designers to decree what all games should or should not be. Video games are, after all, just lines of code and the hard media they're encoded on without players to play them. As with all other media, forms and genres are contested spaces in which the creators, audience, producers, and even pundits negotiate what sorts of things should and should not be made. Any given designer as artist certainly has the right to design the games they believe should exist, but as with any other art form it will depend on how the audience receives the form of game that will determine whether games of that genre are elevated or deprecated.
Beyond this general criteria of games as an artistic medium, claims that all video games should conform to specific forms are even more outrageous due to the very nature of video games as a medium. Video games are an inherently eclectic medium that can well be defined in relation to the concept of bricolage. While video games are not literally composed of materials found on hand, like comic books, board games, or installation art they rely on the fusion of multiple media into a new hybrid medium.*
In terms of assertions about what forms games should or should not take, their hybrid nature has fairly strong consequences. While video games are not games if they don't have a set of rules bounding a system that the player interacts with, without elements like art, music, and text the player has no means of receiving information to interact with the system. Designers will of course make choices about which of these different media will be leveraged in order for the player to receive feedback. However, the very fact that all of these various media are available as substrates from which games can be made makes any dogmatic assertion about what games should be fundamentally unsustainable.
As a medium video games can be used to create things as diverse as Tetris, Super Mario Brothers, Portal, Psychonauts, World of Warcraft, and Farmville. The distance between these different types of games is immense, but all of them have enjoyed tremendous success among various audiences, and each has shaped the larger landscape of what games can be. I believe the future of game design will only add to this plurality because at the end of the day, video games are not a monolothic medium.
* This is also incidentally one of the reasons I have asserted previously that video games are inherently postmodern.