Tell, Don’t Game: A Medium Manifesto

Introduction

Here’s a paradox: I love video games, and yet I don’t like playing most of them. What gives?

First, consider that this is a ‘me problem’: I must simply lack the time, skill, or attention span to commit to most games on the market. There is certainly truth to this. I remember putting my playthrough of Assassin’s Creed Odyssey on an indefinite hiatus purely because I had not finished its main quest by the 50 hour mark. And this capitulation was far from unique. In my experience as a gamer, supply has definitely outweighed demand.

However, there are also some curious exceptions to my disaffection. Last month, I binged my way through Heaven’s Vault, a fantastical piece of science fiction with strong themes of history and discovery. Before then, and before it went under due to gross mismanagement, I eagerly played many of Telltale’s choose-your-own-adventures, such as its treatments of the Batman and Borderlands franchises. And every once in a while, I just like to boot up Morrowind and walk its windy paths past cryptic ruins and giant mushrooms (much like the image above).

Now, what I’ve said so far is not particularly special. If I like playing some games but not others, that could simply be an expression of preference. And so it is, at least in part. Yet I also believe these preferences to be the expression of something deeper: a categorical divide within the video game medium, one which separates ‘telling’ from ‘gaming’. In this split, I have come to prefer the former over the latter. Were others to feel the same way about this, which I hope they do, then there would be a collective interest in bringing this difference into the foreground. So let’s do that.

This short essay, then, has the ambitious goal of establishing a new medium, one that can unite all interactive works which are not games, but tales. Naturally, such an effort begins by pointing out the (admittedly vague) boundaries between gaming and telling. After that, I will look into this new non-game category a little deeper, teasing out some of its most prevalent forms and examples. Even if a tale-based interactive medium does not prove easy to define, I hope this work gets us thinking about the broad boundaries of the video game medium, and the many distinct meanings of its constituent works.

Part One: Gaming and Telling

Since this first section concerns the theoretical difference between two different forms of media, I will start with a clarifying note on the terminology involved. While all my examples currently belong to the category of ‘video game’, I will address the more tale-based medium I am advocating for as a ‘video tale’. Even if this term sounds a little clunky at first, it cleanly demonstrates its core difference with video games, which is the priority of telling over gaming.

So, what is the distinction between tales and games actually like? Well, one obvious difference would be the notion of story. After all, though you can’t tell tales without stories, video games suffer no such restriction. Even if the literal absence of story is a rarity in high-budget games, there are still many franchises where the ‘campaign’ mode is effectively an afterthought. By contrast, other games have deeply entangled story and gameplay, and can stand or fall depending on the former’s quality. Such works are likely to be video tales, even if we do not yet call them so.

Our second difference concerns skill and failure. Since the fun of games lies partly in their challenge, you can expect them to establish distinct states of victory and failure, and to make the former significantly harder to attain than the latter. A video tale, by contrast, is designed around the effective delivery of story; challenging a player’s skill could only get in the way of that. As such, most video tales lack failure states altogether, or preserve them only for some specific narrative goal. Just like with any other story-based medium, difficulty is considered a downside by default.

Another telltale way to distinguish gaming from telling is the presence of a score system. Once the experience of a work can be quantified into units of achievement, you are surely dealing with a game rather than a tale. This is because scoring not only implies challenge, but also competition. And how could one compete over the experience of a story? Again, unless it serves the narrative, such an element could only distort or distract from one’s experience.

Finally, I want to make note of a non-difference between these two mediums. So far, I’ve made it seem like video tales are more like traditional media (films, literature, etc.) than actual video games. Yet there is one crucial element that separates these two mediums from their predecessors, and that is interactivity. It is decidedly not the case that video tales are a passive event, no matter how much their detractors would accuse them of such. Interactive systems are always at the core of its various subgenres, as I will show you in the following section.

Part Two: Multiple Modes of Electronic Arts

Here is where our discussion turns more practical, as I get to point out some actual examples of video tales, as well as their associated subgenres. Concerning the latter, I should probably start by talking about the ‘walking simulator’. This once-derogatory term refers to a growing genre of narrative-driven games, usually featuring semi-open world segments explored through a first-person perspective. With their general lack of combat or puzzle elements, most of a player’s time will be spent strolling around the environment; hence their designation.

Over the last few years, many prominent indie games have fit into the category of ‘walking simulator’. My favorite example of these would be Tacoma, which centers working class struggle aboard a cislunar space station. Even if this ‘game’ does not feature much in the way of action or platforming, its manner of storytelling works best within an interactive space. To make a long story short, there is just an immediate sense of environmental intimacy to Tacoma that would be hard (if not impossible) to replicate in more traditional media. It is this sort of thing which makes the walking simulator a worthy and meaningful genre; and if its value cannot be appreciated by gamers, perhaps the video tale medium can lend it some much-needed confidence.

The second subgenre of video tale is one which actually precedes the existence of digital media. I speak here of the most basic, choose-your-own-adventure variety of interactive storytelling, as seen in niche forms of theatre, film, and literature. If we combine the various genres of video game that feature it primarily (such as visual novels, adventure games, and interactive fiction), then we realize that this variety of video tale is already well-established within the medium. One archetypical example would be Telltale’s The Walking Dead, which used its studio’s experience with conventional adventure games to tell a more emotional and choice-driven story. Even if the tale itself proved quite linear in the end, the presence and significance of interactive elements was emphasized throughout. This balance, between the satisfaction of choice and the complexity of consequence, may be considered the central dilemma of all such tales. But in the end, its simple structure ensures its longevity. However the rest of the video game medium turns out, interactive storytelling is here to stay.

The last kind of video tale I want to discuss is a little harder to define. I have come to call it ‘database fiction’, as the management of abstract information is centered in these tales. This may involve deciphering an alien language (Sethian), searching through old police interviews (Her Story), or running an invasive government surveillance program (Orwell). Operating such tales often feels more bureaucratic than playful. And with their interfaces being incorporated into the fiction, the barrier between player and character is somewhat dissolves, creating a unique sense of immersion. However, we also find elements of this subgenre as part of larger games, usually in the form of ancillary minigames. When one is accessing the galaxy map in a Mass Effect game, using an in-game interface to explore the stories of various planets and anomalies, is that not a form of database fiction? All in all, this is a growing yet still underappreciated genre, one that is often hidden within a greater product. Let’s hope that as part of the video tale medium, its contribution will be more conspicuous.

Conclusion

There is a rather tiresome yet persistent discourse about whether video games can be art. I would say the greatest impasse in this discussion is the fact that games still carry-to a lesser extent these days-the stigma of not being ‘mature entertainment’. As I recall, the same stigma once befell comic books, yet fall away as soon as more ‘sophisticated’ works started to be called graphic novels. By effectively rebranding a significant chunk of the video game industry as video tales, perhaps we can pull off the same trick.

Of course, I did not just write this piece to pitch a nifty marketing gimmick. No, I believe that there’s a real sense of identity to the video tale medium. By bringing together walking simulators, interactive storytelling, and database fiction, this descriptor can create a self-conscious grouping of playful but noncompetitive digital media. As the term suggests, video tales are about storytelling first and foremost, and do not need to suffer the demands of ‘gameplay’. This is not to say that they are bad or overly serious experiences, they are merely designed from a different mindset. One that I love.

Maybe it’s time to stop calling everything we play a game. By associating so many different works under a pretty loaded term, our preconceptions inevitably get in the way of our experience. So instead, let one work be a video game, and another a video tale. That way, all could be perfectly valid in their own right, without being confused in terms of meaning or prospective audience. I hope that such a sense of semantic sovereignty can be the lasting contribution of this medium manifesto.

 

If you like this piece, you might also enjoy my two “genre manifestoes”:
Anapnoic Fiction (on the hidden narrative of post-civilization)
Resistance Fantasy (where spiritual liberation collides with radical politics)

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