Every day that passes, the events in our lives create for us a unique blend of experiences and emotions. Most of the time these aren’t very interesting, but every once in a while it creates something incredible, a moment of transcendence, joy, elation, wonder. Then it passes. That’s just how things happen. Some of us, though, just can’t let it go. We try to capture the moment. Crystallize it. Preserve it. That’s how art is born.
Those emotions and experiences that we try to preserve, though, don’t exist in a void. What creates the moment is the moments that came before it, and it becomes a pressing question: How much of this experience can we carry away from the preceding experiences? How can we separate it from the whole? We can’t completely: That’s why we tell stories instead of moments, why we build to crescendos instead of constantly playing at maximum volume. There’s a desire in inexperienced artists to be at maximum intensity at all times, without really acknowledging that things can only feel intense if there’s a corresponding calmness, lack of intensity, to contrast against.
That’s pretty elementary though. Most artists figure it out pretty fast. Contrast is the foundation of art. However, if you’re trying to create a particular emotional experience, that raises a lot of questions about what that balance ought to look like. How much time should an experience about triumph spend in despair to make the triumph taste sweet? How much time should an experience about love spend in loneliness and disaffection? There’s different ways to answer this, different balances to strike, but over time a set of formulas emerge. The most popular of these is probably the hero’s journey formula, which many set out as the archetypal formula which all stories are cut from – this is an absurd pronouncement that requires many increasingly tenuous analogies to make fit, but it is nevertheless a common argument.
Regardless, the hero’s journey is a useful formula for creating a certain kind of story (the kind where there’s a hero and they journey). Many games, being stories where there’s a hero and a journey, seek to adhere to this formula, but in this medium we have fairly limited control over the exact narrative arc of the experiences we create: Though we might set out to tell a story about a call to action, an ordeal, a boon, and so forth, just as often we create an experience of getting stuck on the first boss for 3 infuriating hours then getting a magic sword and easily murdering the lord of darkness. The dynamic nature of games makes it even harder to create a consistent emotional response, makes it even harder to stick to a formula that strikes the exact balance of sensations we might desire – and, correspondingly, makes it harder for the hero’s journey to be crafted into a game narrative, as gamey as that narrative might at first sound in the abstract.
These are, in short, the two main ways that video game stories suck. Either they try to create a consistent experience of the same emotion – such as, say, empowerment – or they try to recreate a tried and true narrative formula such as the hero’s journey within a dynamic framework that cannot accommodate it. The first is completely untenable, since feelings can only be meaningfully experienced in relation to each other. The second is… difficult, but not actually impossible.
Many game designers would then take that as the challenge: How to systematize the hero’s journey. How to create a narrative-making machine, a myth-making machine, something that takes in player inputs and spits out a grand epic tale. I don’t think that’s a particularly worthwhile goal. The most interesting stories that games spit out right now aren’t imitations of the hero’s journey or some other hackneyed formula, but startling stories of systems gone rampant, results that make sense but are utterly surprising, with the all the perverse interconnectedness and none of the post-hoc narrativization of real history.
Rather than this, we should seek to understand how game systems can lead to emotional outcomes, both in terms of the primary emotion we seek to elicit and the secondary emotions, its opposites, which we seek to define it by. If a game system has an understanding of how it can create frustration and elation, confusion and understanding, joy and sorrow, power and weakness, then it can balance these against each other into a satisfying complete experience. Perhaps this is a more challenging goal than creating a systematization of the hero’s journey, but I believe it is one far more worth striving towards.