There’s an argument that’s been floating around in game design circles for a while that if, say, you have an idea for a game, if you could possibly express that idea using any other medium then you probably shouldn’t be making a game of it. If you just have a story, why, stories can be told in all sorts of ways! Books, graphic novels, television shows, and so forth – so if you want to tell a story, use any one of them, and leave games for gamey game game things that can only be done with the gamiest of games in the gamiest of ways.
It’s a reasonable idea on first sight, and is a viewpoint founded as a reaction to a specific problem that was overtaking games around the mid-2000s, at the time it gained popularity: Games were getting heavier on story and lighter on meaningful interaction, quick-time events and cut-scenes were becoming more prevalent, and yet most of these stories, for all their ambition, were largely boring and cliched and frequently did nothing to enhance the experience of the game – and much to distract from it. There was a clear and growing resentment among many designers at the ‘frustrated film director’ archetype (a term coined by Raph Koster), the guy who really wants to be making an action blockbuster and tries to simply do that within the context of a video game instead of actually trying to create an experience that coheres with the experience of playing it.
So, yeah, I get where this idea is coming from. Unfortunately it’s still a simplistic conception of what can become a good game and how – or, for that matter, what and how something can become a good book or film..
Any number of creations can stem from the same idea. Yeah, your awesome story idea, perhaps it is better suited to a graphic novel or movie – right now. What do we mean when we say that it’s better suited? Well, all that we possibly can mean is that we know there’s a way to do something like that because there’s a precedent for it: It’s an argument for unoriginality. If there are no clear paths to building a game based off of a rough non-gameplay idea, that means that there’s an opportunity here to create a new gameplay out of that idea. That’s what the entire process of game design is for! Or, rather, that’s what it should be for: Many times the role of game designer seems to boil down to a dictionary of ideas that have worked in other games, a list of features players expect, a set of popular genre conventions, blueprints and recipes and formulas in careful balance and not to be tampered with. I reject that conception of design. It’s your goddamn job, as a game designer, to craft an experience around an idea, even if that idea is at first a purely narrative one, even if it seems completely divorced from anything game-like.
No, the problem with the ‘frustrated director’ isn’t that their narrative idea belongs in a movie, it’s that their conception of how that idea must be realized is grounded entirely within the framework of cinematic cliche. It’s a slight improvement to take an experienced game designer and ground it, instead, in a framework of video-game cliche, in that it’s at least a medium-appropriate form of boring, but it’s still redundant by nature. Yes, some people’s brains are filled with film-trope hammers, so every problem looks like a sweet-John-Woo-gun-fight nail, that’s true, but it’s a ludicrous leap from there to then determine that traditional forms of storytelling have no place within the interactive structure of video games. To believe so would be as naive as to look at the many games with nonsensical and trite environmental graffiti and infer from there that environmental storytelling is clumsy and unsuitable for any real narrative or gameplay purpose.
It’s not a disaster to try and use an idea that doesn’t suggest any obvious gameplay for your game. In fact, ideas that don’t immediately fit into our conceptual framework of ‘game’ are necessary in order to expand our conception of what a game can be. Rather than starting with mechanics and working back to construct a narrative to fit them, we should just as often start afield and build a scaffolding of game to explore that narrative space. What happens when you make a game about zombies and remove all of the combat mechanics and replace them with cut-scenes and quick-time events, the very conventions that many designers railed against? You get one of the most beloved and critically acclaimed games of 2012. Do you think that Papers, Please started out as a sweet paperwork-shuffling game looking for a story to accompany it? No, someone built the gameplay mechanics of living in and being part of an oppressive regime out of a narrative-aesthetic concept.
The murderer has been in the house all along. The problem with game stories is that most of our most beloved and institutionalized game mechanics are fundamentally unsuitable to telling any story that isn’t about KILL ALL THE MANS. This is why Hotline Miami was a narrative landmark – not because of its commentary on violence, which is muted at best, but because it’s a setting and character that is actually as murderously insane as most video game characters are. The only difference is that this was one of the only games, like, ever, that actually acknowledged the brutality of its mechanics within its narrative setting.
Basically: If we want to start mechanics first and work our way out from there narratively, we’re going to steadily drift towards a world where all games are Hotline Miami. And, speaking as someone who loves Hotline Miami, that still sounds pretty shitty to me. If you want to tell a story with a game, go right ahead. It might not be ‘suitable’, but you can tailor it, you can shape your idea and construct a set of gameplay mechanics to fit it. Or maybe you can’t! That’s how art is: Some challenges exceed our capabilities as artist, and sometimes we just have to suck it up and try to do better next time. Better that, though, than to cook every meal with the same ingredients, forever and ever, staying firmly within the realm of the well-understood, here to build but never to create.