An Explanation of ‘Video Games are Better without Stories’

Monday, I took my normal jaunt over to MassivelyOverpowered in the morning and picked up The Daily Grind, which is a daily a prompt about something in the news or video games or just something that came up in discussion elsewhere on the website. Monday’s prompt was about whether games, MMOs in specific, need story.

So I responded in the comments without reading the referenced article, just the prompt about the importance of lore, story, and agency within MMOs. Other comments throughout suggested the writer of The Atlantic article was unfamiliar with games, and just someone spouting off for clicks. I circled back to read the original article from The Atlantic.

I actually read the piece and didn’t realize it was Ian Bogost who wrote it.  Bogost is genuinely not just an Atlantic Writer, he’s actually one of the leading voices in Games Studies (critical studies of video games), and has written a series of books, including Unit Operations, Persuasive Games, and Alien Phenomenology or What it’s like to be a Thing.   I’m familiar with his work and actually considered studying in his Georgia Tech Comparative Media department, explicitly because of him. Instead, I just ended up using his theoretical framework when writing my own critiques of games in grad school.

I think Bogost is approaching the idea of narrative in games not from an enjoyment perspective, but rather a “what makes games different” perspective. He’s focusing on what his theoretical framework marks as the defining aspect of the medium–mechanics or unit operations.  He defines unit operations as:

Unit operations are modes of meaning-making that privilege discrete, disconnected actions over deterministic, progressive systems.
-Unit Operations, Kindle version, Location 113

I’m going to just focus on the ‘discrete’ aspect and the ‘progressive’ aspects of unit operations for my critique of Bogost’s article. Bogost makes the statement at the end of his piece of:

“…games abandon the dream of becoming narrative media and pursue the one they are already so good at: taking the tidy, ordinary world apart and putting it back together again in surprising, ghastly new ways.”

Here it’s really apparent that he’s driving towards his theoretical framework of ‘discrete, disconnected actions.’ Everything can be taken apart into its unit operations and put back together — completely outside of the context of narrative or story. For him, this is the true purpose of games — to break down our understanding of meaning and meaning-making into what amounts to rhetorical legos — taken apart and put back together however we deem appropriate.

Story, or narrative makes this approach problematic as story is inherently connected. One moment within a story only makes sense in the context of the moments immediately surrounding it. In games, these moments of meaning in the story don’t necessarily occur directly next to each other, either narratively or temporally. Games give us the option to backtrack, to re-do, to change the narrative. We can put days or weeks of time between seemingly time-sensitive events that occur within moments of each other in-game, which destroys the deterministic and progressive aspects Bogost is alluding to.  Looking at discrete, disconnected groups of mechanics appeals more than attempting to fit a narrative into a series of what seems like disconnected events.

Viewing narrative as something deterministic and progressive, Bogost’s position makes sense, and why he thinks other media are better suited to story. But what I think Bogost’s position misses in games is two-fold–meta-meaning of the unit operations and agency within the virtual world as meaning and part of the story.

Meta-meaning of unit operations is a super fancy, rhetorician’s way of saying “Mechanics are meaningless without a story to justify why they are.” Bogost’s argument doesn’t quite reject this sentiment, just glazes over it as not really important. Demonstrably, we know that the story is important to gamers even if we don’t directly engage with it. It provides the context of world and the player exist, and answers the greater question of ‘why.’ Unit operations, by virtue of being discrete and disconnected, cannot answer this larger question of ‘Why?’ by themselves. Instead of addressing this, Bogost implies the question was never really important to begin with.

Second, unit operations also glaze over the rhetorical might of agency within the game world and within the story. What games lack in strict deterministic progressive flow, they gain in agency, even simulated agency, within the story itself. There’s something viscerally different about playing a game about a story, and watching a movie about the same story. Experiencing the story, having some agency while an imperfect from a narrative perspective feels viscerally meaningful to us because of that same agency that makes the story imperfect in Bogost’s assessment.

There are a few rhetorical frameworks that would help marry the unit operations to the story in games in a more organic way. The one that immediately jumps to mind is games and players as Performance, which could include unit operations and makes the agency of the player part of the story, instead of making the agency of the player a detractor from the story.

Bogost’s theoretical framework makes a lot of sense, but I think he defines what games do well too narrowly. We can expand our perspective to understand the agency is a meaning-making activity in and of itself that allows us to experience a story in a different (not better or worse) way than other media.  While the story might not be as ‘good’ in Bogost’s assessment in games as other media, mechanics within the game still need to answer the overarching question of why it is a thing. Unit operations on their own cannot, by their very nature answer that question. Story does.

The Atlantic: Video Games Are Better Without Stories

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