This is going to sound like I’m starting an argument; which are better, books or video games? Instead, I want to explore the similarities and differences between books and video games as a form of storytelling medium and answer these two questions:
- Can video games be used to tell a good story?
- Are books inherently better?
First, a little background about myself. I was raised on books and video games and both have occupied massive chunks of my life. For most of my teens and twenties, it was video games who won the battle. I played a variety of games but found myself drawn to role playing games and those with a good story to tell. This love for gaming inspired me to write for community and professional websites about games and then I took the next step and studied computer game design at university. It was there that I came across the two distinct paths of game design; ludology vs narration.
Ludology means the rules of play. It is the study of game mechanics and what makes a game fun. Narration is the process and flow of telling a story. A book is typically written with narration in mind, whereas a game is created with game mechanics at the forefront. For most games, the game mechanics come first and the story, the narration, is tacked on as an afterthought. Role playing games need to think about story more, but the gameplay – the battle systems and stats – comes first. There are many artistic games out now where story is told via the visual medium of an interactive game, but the interaction is the point.
My professors taught me that game mechanics would always be more important than narration when designing a game. I agree, otherwise it wouldn’t be a game.
Honestly, it was this revelation that pushed me towards becoming an author. I personally prefer narration over gameplay. What kind of game designer does that make me? Well, it makes me a writer!
What is a Story?
Humans have been telling each other stories since the dawn of time. They’re an inherent part of us, and weren’t just used for entertainment, but to also teach. Stories could be used to warn us of danger, to pass on information vital to our survival, and to also pass on our history. Back in the cavemen days we didn’t have books to preserve such sacred knowledge and so stories were a spoken art which evolved into sermons and lectures and speeches and acting in theatres and eventually movies. You could argue that script writing is one of the purest forms of making stories. Or maybe stand up comedy is!
With the invention of pen and paper and print came books. Finally, our stories could be preserved for everyone. Reading and writing is a much valued skill, and whilst there is still some illiteracy in the world, the majority of modern society depends on literacy to function. Reading, writing, and the spoken word are all mediums we use to tell stories, and we tell stories to each other every day. We talk about the adventures we got up to at the weekend. We share funny anecdotes from our lives. We pass on other people’s stories as a moral lesson. We use modern forms of communication to tell stories; images, emojis, Snapchat, YouTube, and podcasts.
Stories aren’t just the written and spoken word. There is research to suggest that our early ancestors didn’t speak at all, but used song to communicate. Humans were singing and painting long before they were talking and writing. We can tell a story through music and images. Listen to any classical album and you’ll realise we don’t need lyrics to hear a story. Visit any art gallery and you’ll see we don’t need words to understand the emotions an artist is trying to convey. Humans see patterns everywhere, and we can make a story out of anything.
A story is narration. It can be anything and it can be delivered via any medium.
What is a Video Game?
Video games are the evolution of play.
Just as narration is needed to entertain and inform, so is playing used to teach our children. This is one behaviour we share with animals. Young animals play fight with their siblings in order to learn the essential life skills needed to hunt and survive. Human children play games like house or tag to learn how to socialise and interact with the world in preparation for school and employment. Play is just as fundamental to human nature as telling stories are, and even adults need play time to grow and unwind.
Back in our cavemen days, we needed to hunt and kill like our animal counterparts. We also needed to gather food. Our hunting instincts evolved into fighting wars and playing sports. Our gathering instincts evolved into farming and, dare I say it, shopping. Both hunting and gathering were social activities. The first MMORPG, you could say. The art of play comes from these base instincts; to learn the skills needed for hunting and gathering and socialising. So how does this relate to video games?
Well, video games easily fit into hunting and gathering and socialising archetypes. You don’t need me to explain the hunting part, but gathering is something gamers naturally do every time they try to 100% a game by collecting all the shiny trinkets or achievements, or whenever you to get to the last boss in a RPG and you’ve still got a hundred potions because you didn’t dare use any of them. Video games have become more social with technology; online multiplayer and voice chat. But even in the 16-bit days, gaming was a social event. We’d hang around our TV’s and play Streets of Rage co-op or challenge each other to Mario Kart.
Again, we use video games as we used play; to hunt, to fight, to cooperate, to challenge, to socialise. To form guilds/tribes of our own.
As I mentioned above, the art of playing is just as important as the art of telling a good story.
Can Video Games Tell a Good Story?
Back in the 8-bit and 16-bit days, video games were mostly an interactive series of bleeps and bloops with the bare minimum of story. Just as a caveman painting can depict a story, these early video games also had some semblance of story; Mario goes on a quest to save the princess, for example. But they weren’t particularly good stories. Even the RPG’s of those days weren’t in-depth. It has been a long running joke that writing in video games is atrocious, but this has started to change in the modern era thanks to game developers taking writing and stories more seriously and hiring professional writers and voice actors. Most large game studios now have a lead writer. Big budget games like Grand Theft Auto 5 have hired Hollywood writers and actors to great effect, and indie games are leading the way by creating games which are art.
In terms of story, there seem to be four types of video game:
- Games where mechanics are key and there is little to no story. These are your classic games. Examples: Rocket League, FIFA, Fortnite, Minecraft, Street Fighter, Mario, Age of Empires, The Sims, Tetris, The Legend of Zelda.
- Games where mechanics are key but there exists a cinematic (movie-inspired) story that the characters progress through. These are your modern games. Examples: God of War, Uncharted, Grand Theft Auto, Modern Warfare.
- Games where mechanics are important but they are woven with the story. Examples: Final Fantasy, Persona, Fire Emblem, The Elder Scrolls, Mass Effect, The Witcher, World of Warcraft, Assassins Creed, The Last of Us.
- Games where mechanics are secondary to the story. These tend to be interactive stories or “walking simulators.” Examples: Life is Strange, The Walking Dead, Dear Esther, Detroit: Become Human, Firewatch, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, To The Moon.
Most big-budget modern games take on the cinematic approach to story telling. They’re often well written and well acted, but the story is still secondary to the game. I know this from my game design days; the story is written to fit around the game mechanics, and not the other way round. Without a fun game to play though, the story is almost pointless. RPG’s and MMORPG’s are different as the gameplay for many RPG’s focuses on grinding and filler. Individual quests and the overall main storyline has to be interesting enough to keep the player going so they want to know how the story ends. There’s a difference between Japanese RPG’s and western RPG’s in that JRPG’s feature more grind and hundreds of hours of gameplay, but their stories focus on specific characters and side stories and the relationships between characters. In western RPG’s, these are more inspired by Dungeons and Dragons where you create your own character and create your own role playing experience based on the overall narrative of the world.
Interactive stories like Life is Strange are becoming more popular. Here, the gameplay mechanics are bare-minimum and it’s the story which is the main focus. Games like Dear Esther offer little interaction besides exploring the landscape. On paper, it sounds boring. But, it’s the story and mystery which engages the player and encourages them to keep playing. These types of games are mostly dominated by indie developers because they’re easier to make, but this isn’t a bad thing. They’ve lead to some truly beautiful and artistic games.
Even though game mechanics are the focus of games, for obvious reasons, I’ve still found myself entertained by cinematic games like Grand Theft Auto. Games like God of War or Tomb Raider can pass on philosophical lessons as well as entertain. They can be used to teach and be fun. RPG’s can be as sprawling as Lord of the Rings, and whereas a book can be constrained to word counts and pages, a video game can take your favourite side character and allow you to get to know them and explore their story and world at your leisure, and not at the whims of the author. I often read books and want more. Video games have the power to give more. Look at any MMORPG to see just how much lore goes into these games.
And yes, there have been video games where the story and characters have touched me deeply and I’ve formed an emotional bond as I would with a book. I dare anyone to get through Final Fantasy VII and not mourn a certain character’s death. And I challenge you all to pick up indie classic To The Moon and not be affected by it.
However, one of the biggest barriers to video games as a story telling medium is the game itself. Not everyone has the same skill level to make it to the final boss and reveal the true ending. Games are unique in this manner compared to film and books. Story content can be locked behind tests of skill, and if you can’t pass the test, you can’t finish the story.
Do Books Tell a Better Story?
Whilst I mention that video games can lock story content behind skill levels, there can also be barriers to reading. Younger kids may engage with games better than books, and I think part of this is because we force high schoolers to study classic books which can be hard to delve into rather than allowing them to find and enjoy books they’re interested in. Books may not lock their chapters behind a skills test, but some books can be difficult to read. Especially classic ones. By choosing to use complex language in a book, you could be teaching the reader new words, which is great, but you could also be locking them out of your content and telling them this story isn’t for them. Gaming can be more accessible and is a fitting medium to tell a story, but there are other solutions; graphic novels, comics, and audio books.
One advantage a book has over a game is that I can read a book at my own pace. Stories are often balanced between acts. Video games tend to be more sporadic, and I don’t always have a choice between advancing the story or dealing with another random battle I don’t care for.
As someone who enjoys both video games and books, the main difference to me (other than cost!) between games and books is that books have the capacity for more depth. When I read a book, I can get inside a character’s head and explore their world through their eyes. I can read their innermost thoughts and feel their emotions alongside them. Authors have long mastered the art of “show, don’t tell” which is something I think video games struggle with. With a game, you need to focus on getting across character emotions and information by telling them to the audience. Whilst authors have learned not to info-dump and avoid “As you know”-type stilted dialogue in their prose, these are still issues present in modern video games. These issues are getting better as professional writers take the wheel, but it’s something game designers need to bear in mind.
Books also tend to focus more on character interaction and slices of life which would be too slow or too dull for a video game audience, though there are exceptions to this.
Ultimately, game mechanics will always win over story when it comes to video games whereas a book is 100% focussed on the story. I actually think books are more like JRPG’s; you take on the role of a character that has been set up for you and you explore the world as that character. In books, you don’t create your own character and interact with the story as you would a western RPG. The closest books to those would be Choose Your Own Adventure books. I used to read CYOA books as a kid and really liked them, except they didn’t seem to have the depth of story I would expect from a book and tended to include game mechanics as well, such as item and stat tracking. I’d love to read more books in this genre that focussed more on story.
So Which is Better?
Both books and video games can be immersive, emotional, and create a connection between reader and player. Both can be indulged as escapism to the point of neglecting real life responsibilities. Both can be solo and social adventures.
Video games get a bad reputation for being violent or for offering nothing but entertainment value, whereas books are praised as tools for the educated. Both games and books can feature art and violence. Both can teach us things and bring us together. Both can be pulpy and offering nothing beyond entertainment. I doubt our early ancestors cared for the medium in which they shared their stories.
Both video games and books offer different experiences that the modern human would benefit from, and in this case, it’s not about video games being better than books or vice versa. Humans need stories and they need play. They need both.
If you think books are better because you can curl up with a good book on your sofa, then get a Nintendo Switch!
These are all my opinions of course, but I’d love to hear your thoughts on story telling in games. Are there any video games with stories that have stayed with you? Drop me a comment!