Video Games Are Better Without Stories

Film, television, and literature all tell them better. So why are games still obsessed with narrative?

A still from the video game
Giant Sparrow

A longstanding dream: Video games will evolve into interactive stories, like the ones that play out fictionally on the Star Trek Holodeck. In this hypothetical future, players could interact with computerized characters as round as those in novels or films, making choices that would influence an ever-evolving plot. It would be like living in a novel, where the player’s actions would have as much of an influence on the story as they might in the real world.

It’s an almost impossible bar to reach, for cultural reasons as much as technical ones. One shortcut is an approach called environmental storytelling. Environmental stories invite players to discover and reconstruct a fixed story from the environment itself. Think of it as the novel wresting the real-time, first-person, 3-D graphics engine from the hands of the shooter game. In Disneyland’s Peter Pan’s Flight, for example, dioramas summarize the plot and setting of the film. In the 2007 game BioShock, recorded messages in an elaborate, Art Deco environment provide context for a story of a utopia’s fall. And in What Remains of Edith Finch, a new game about a girl piecing together a family curse, narration is accomplished through artifacts discovered in an old house.

The approach raises many questions. Are the resulting interactive stories really interactive, when all the player does is assemble something from parts? Are they really stories, when they are really environments? And most of all, are they better stories than the more popular and proven ones in the cinema, on television, and in books?

On this measure, alas, the best interactive stories are still worse than even middling books and films. That’s a problem to be ignored rather than solved. Games’ obsession with story obscures more ambitious goals anyway.

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In retrospect, it’s easy easy to blame old games like Doom and Duke Nukem for stimulating the fantasy of male adolescent power. But that choice was made less deliberately at the time. Real-time 3-D worlds are harder to create than it seems, especially on the relatively low-powered computers that first ran games like Doom in the early 1990s. It helped to empty them out as much as possible, with surfaces detailed by simple textures and objects kept to a minimum. In other words, the first 3-D games were designed to be empty so that they would run.

An empty space is most easily interpreted as one in which something went terribly wrong. Add a few monsters that a powerful player-dude can vanquish, and the first-person shooter is born. The lone, soldier-hero against the Nazis, or the hell spawn, or the aliens.

Those early assumptions vanished quickly into infrastructure, forgotten. As 3-D first-person games evolved, along with the engines that run them, visual verisimilitude improved more than other features. Entire hardware industries developed around the specialized co-processors used to render 3-D scenes.

Left less explored were the other aspects of realistic, physical environments. The inner thoughts and outward behavior of simulated people, for example, beyond the fact of their collision with other objects. The problem becomes increasingly intractable over time. Incremental improvements in visual fidelity make 3-D worlds seem more and more real. But those worlds feel even more incongruous when the people that inhabit them behave like animatronics and the environments work like Potemkin villages.

Worse yet, the very concept of a Holodeck-aspirational interactive story implies that the player should be able to exert agency upon the dramatic arc of the plot. The one serious effort to do this was an ambitious 2005 interactive drama called Façade, a one-act play with roughly the plot of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. It worked remarkably well—for a video game. But it was still easily undermined. One player, for example, pretended to be a zombie, saying nothing but “brains” until the game’s simulated couple threw him out.

Environmental storytelling offers a solution to this conundrum. Instead of trying to resolve the matter of simulated character and plot, the genre gives up on both, embracing scripted action instead. The player’s experience becomes that of a detective, piecing together narrative coherence from fragments conveniently left behind in the game’s physical environment.

In between bouts of combat in BioShock, for instance, the recordings  players discover have no influence on the action of the game, except to color the interpretation of that action. The payoff, if that’s the right word for it, is a tepid reprimand against blind compliance, the very conceit the BioShock player would have to embrace to play the game in the first place.

In 2013, three developers who had worked on the BioShock series borrowed the environmental-storytelling technique and threw away both the shooting and the sci-fi fantasy. The result was Gone Home, a story game about a college-aged woman who returns home to a mysterious, empty mansion near Portland, Oregon. By reassembling the fragments found in this mansion, the player reconstructs the story of the main character’s sister and her journey to discover her sexual identity. The game was widely praised for breaking the mold of the first-person experience while also importing issues in identity politics into a medium known for its unwavering masculinity.

Feats, but relative ones. Writing about Gone Home upon its release, I called it the video-game equivalent of young-adult fiction. Hardly anything to be ashamed of, but maybe much nothing to praise, either. If the ultimate bar for meaning in games is set at teen fare, then perhaps they will remain stuck in a perpetual adolescence even if they escape the stereotypical dude-bro’s basement. Other paths are possible, and perhaps the most promising ones will bypass rather than resolve games’ youthful indiscretions.

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What Remains of Edith Finch both adopts and improves upon the model set by Gone Home. It, too, is about a young woman who returns home to a mysterious, abandoned house in the Pacific Northwest, where she discovers unexpected and dark secrets.

The titular Edith Finch is the youngest surviving member of the Finch family, Nordic immigrants who came to the Seattle area in the late 19th century. It is a family of legendary, cursed doom, an affliction that motivated emigration. But once they arrived on Orcas Island, fate treated the Finches no less severely—all its lineage has been doomed to die, and often in tragically unremarkable ways. Edith has just inherited the old family house from her mother, the latest victim of the curse.

As in Doom and BioShock and almost every other first-person game ever made, the emptiness of the environment becomes essential to its operation. 3-D games are settings as much as experiences—perhaps even more so. And the Finch estate is a remarkable setting, imagined and executed in intricate detail. This is a weird family, and the house has been stocked with  handmade gewgaws and renovated improbably, coiling Dr. Seuss-like into the air. The game is cleverly structured as a series of a dozen or so narrative vignettes, in which Edith accesses prohibited parts of the unusual house, finally learning the individual fates of her forebears by means of the fragments they left behind—diaries, letters, recordings, and other mementos.

The result is aesthetically coherent, fusing the artistic sensibilities of Edward Gorey, Isabel Allende, and Wes Anderson. The writing is good, an uncommon accomplishment in a video game. On the whole, there is nothing to fault in What Remains of Edith Finch. It’s a lovely little title with ambitions scaled to match their execution. Few will leave it unsatisfied.

And yet, the game is pregnant with an unanswered question: Why does this story need to be told as a video game?

The whole way through, I found myself wondering why I couldn’t experience Edith Finch as a traditional time-based narrative. Real-time rendering tools are as good as pre-rendered computer graphics these days, and little would have been compromised visually had the game been an animated film. Or even a live-action film. After all, most films are shot with green screens, the details added in postproduction. The story is entirely linear, and interacting with the environment only gets in the way, such as when a particularly dark hallway makes it unclear that the next scene is right around the corner.

One answer could be cinema envy. The game industry has long dreamed of overtaking Hollywood to become the “medium of the 21st century,” a concept now so retrograde that it could only satisfy an occupant of the 20th. But a more compelling answer is that something would be lost in flattening What Remains of Edith Finch into a linear experience. The character vignettes take different forms, each keyed to a clever interpretation of the very idea of real-time 3-D modeling and interaction. In one case, the player takes on the role of different animals, recasting a familiar space in a new way. In another, the player moves a character through the Finch house, but inside a comic book, where it is rendered with cell-shading instead of conventional, simulated lighting. In yet another, the player encounters a character’s fantasy as a navigable space that must be managed alongside that of the humdrum workplace in which that fantasy took place.

These are remarkable accomplishments. But they are not feats of storytelling, at all. Rather, they are novel expressions of the capacities of a real-time 3-D engine. The ability to render light and shadow, to model structure and turn it into obstacle, to trick the eye into believing a flat surface is a bookshelf or a cavern, and to allow the player to maneuver a camera through that environment, pretending that it is a character. Edith Finch is a story about a family, sure, but first it’s a device made of the conventions of 3-D gaming, one as weird and improvised as the Finch house in which the action takes place.

Such repurposing was already present in earlier environmental story-games, including Gone Home and Dear Esther, another important entry in the genre that prides itself on rejecting the “traditional mechanics” of first-person experience. For these games, the glory of refusing the player agency was part of the goal. So much so that their creators even embraced the derogatory name “walking simulator,” a sneer invented for them by their supposedly shooter-loving critics.

But walking simulators were always doomed to be a transitional form. The gag of a game with no gameplay might seem political at first, but it quickly devolves into conceptualism. What Remains of Edith Finch picks up the baton and designs a different race for it. At stake is not whether a game can tell a good story or even a better story than books or films or television. Rather, what it looks like when a game uses the materials of games to make those materials visible, operable, and beautiful.

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Think of a medium as the aesthetic form of common materials. Poetry aestheticizes language. Painting aestheticizes flatness and pigment. Photography does so for time. Film, for time and space. Architecture, for mass and void. Television, for economic leisure and domestic habit. Sure, yes, those media can and do tell stories. But the stories come later, built atop the medium’s foundations.

What are games good for, then? Players and creators have been mistaken in merely hoping that they might someday share the stage with books, films, and television, let alone to unseat them. To use games to tell stories is a fine goal, I suppose, but it’s also an unambitious one. Games are not a new, interactive medium for stories. Instead, games are the aesthetic form of everyday objects. Of ordinary life. Take a ball and a field: you get soccer. Take property-based wealth and the Depression: you get Monopoly. Take patterns of four contiguous squares and gravity: you get Tetris. Take ray tracing and reverse it to track projectiles: you get Doom. Games show players the unseen uses of ordinary materials.

As the only mass medium that arose after postmodernism, it’s no surprise that those materials so often would be the stuff of games themselves. More often than not, games are about the conventions of games and the materials of games—at least in part. Texas Hold ’em is a game made out of Poker. Candy Crush is a game made out of Bejeweled. Gone Home is a game made out of BioShock.

The true accomplishment of What Remains of Edith Finch is that it invites players to abandon the dream of interactive storytelling at last. Yes, sure, you can tell a story in a game. But what a lot of work that is, when it’s so much easier to watch television, or to read. A greater ambition, which the game accomplishes more effectively anyway: to show the delightful curiosity that can be made when stories, games, comics, game engines, virtual environments—and anything else, for that matter—can be taken apart and put back together again unexpectedly.

To dream of the Holodeck is just to dream a complicated dream of the novel. If there is a future of games, let alone a future in which they discover their potential as a defining medium of an era, it will be one in which 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.