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Read this Slate article. In particular, the following struck me:

When he looks at video games from a critical distance, Bissell is concerned mainly with their lack of narrative meaning. Games ask us to save the princess, save the country, save the world, save ourselves—but no one plays games to achieve those ends. We play for the puzzle, for the physics, for the sense of being embedded in a fully realized world. Indeed, for me, the "story" usually seems like filler, even in games like Grand Theft Auto and RDR [Red Dead Redemption], whose stories are smarter than the rest of the video-game pack. RDR begins and ends every mission with cleverly scripted movielike "cut scenes" that provide some explanation for why your character is doing what he's doing—but the game also lets you skip the scenes, which I usually elect to do. Thus I can't really explain why my character is doing what he's doing. The real answer is he's doing it because I am making him do it, and I am making him do it only because I am having fun.

"This is one of the most suspect things about the game form," Bissell writes. "A game with an involving story and poor gameplay cannot be considered a successful game, whereas a game with superb gameplay and a laughable story can see its spine bend from the weight of many accolades—and those who praise the latter game will not be wrong." What's the solution to this quandary? Should games invest more in story, in an attempt to bring us narratives that are on the level of those of the other popular arts? Or should games abandon story—is the video game, as a form, simply incompatible with traditional concepts of narrative, and must game designers instead find other ways to invest their creations with lasting meaning?

As if Bissell's uncertainty is echoing throughout the game industry, there has arisen a tendency to make many big-budget blockbuster games heavily story-driven. Even Starcraft II has a fairly story-driven campaign.

Is a game without a high-quality narrative bereft of true value and meaning? Must games have any meaning at all in the literary sense in order to be considered worthwhile forms of entertainment? What about emergent narratives, where the player has a decisive role in determining the plot (ideally much more decisive than we've seen in any games so far released)? If games do not need a higher literary meaning, do they at least need to have some lasting emotional significance for the player?

Those are just some thoughts that the article raised. The real question can be summed up like this: what is the true value of a video game? Is a game to be valued on its dynamic interaction with the player, on its ability to present a narrative in a way other mediums cannot, or on its ability to provide simple pleasure?

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On second thought, maybe this question is a little too subjective for this website. Should this be community wiki? –  Zach Conn Aug 25 '10 at 0:12
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I recall reading a few articles that said that the storyline defined the game too much, making the player feel like his choices were merely influencing the script path being taken (Heavy Rain seems to suffer from this) and made the player feel like a puppet in a play instead of being in control. This would take away from the emotional significance as you feel that your actions are merely perhiperal. I guess it's like people that believe in pure destiny, it renders any decision pointless as the outcome is already defined. –  Kaj Aug 25 '10 at 2:28
    
It's a subjective question with no correct "answer". Converted to CW. –  Tetrad Aug 25 '10 at 4:02
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"The time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time." - Bertrand Russell –  Ólafur Waage Aug 27 '10 at 9:07
    
That's his perspective: "The 'story' usually seems like filler." For me the "game" sometimes seems like a filler between the story. Indeed I have turned down the difficulty (in game that let you do it part way through) many times just to get at the story faster. I wouldn't take one little mans opinions too seriously. It's these types of comments that make more of a name for a person; and that's exactly what he wanted and has achieved. –  Jonathan Dickinson Aug 31 '10 at 14:00
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11 Answers 11

Without reading this in it's entirety my gut reaction is that people like this immediately sound as though they have no credentials:

but no one plays games to achieve those ends

Unsubstantiated opinion, I would even go so far as to call this a lie.

even in games like Grand Theft Auto and RDR [Red Dead Redemption], whose stories are smarter than the rest of the video-game pack

My opinion is that these games have some of the most cookie cutted stories of the industry - even Doom3 and HL2 have more original stories than these!

The reporter comes across like somebodies grand-dad. Bottom line - multi billion dollar industries, growing faster then most others, rooted in entertainment, cannot be described as a waste of time! IMHO :)

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BTW, you might want to read the entire article, as well as his previous one. The sample here is a critical paragraph is what could be considered a rave review. Bissel might be a bloody snob, but he "gets it". Also, he has had problems with addictions of the chemical variety before, so I can forgive him for being a bit guarded. guardian.co.uk/theobserver/2010/mar/21/… –  drxzcl Aug 25 '10 at 7:39
    
cough than* cough –  Petey B Aug 31 '10 at 20:33
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I think it's not very unlike movies. You have genres and traditions, and they value different things. Look for example at Fellini's 8 1/2. Undoubtedly a masterpiece, but very light on narrative. Contrast it with Citizen Kane, again one of the quintessential cinematographic masterpieces, with it's complex plot and reveal.

We do not try to judge all films by the same standard. We should certainly not attempt to do the same for a medium like video games, as it is even more diverse.

With regards to the titular question, I do not think games in general are more of a waste of time than other forms of entertainment. Of course, just like in the other media, there is tremendous variation of quality even within a single genre. There's Max Paine and Serious Sam, just as there's Great Expectations and the romance novels at the supermarket checkout.

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+1 for comparing it to a movie. That's why I don't really like games where you have to decide what way you want to go in a game. Too many crossroads means that, when I've completed the game, I haven't even seen everything (I have yet to see a movie where you have to decide what way the main characted should take) –  Default Aug 27 '10 at 11:27
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@Micheal: I appreciate the +1, but that's not what I meant at all. –  drxzcl Sep 1 '10 at 7:43
    
The question has changed substantially since I posted this answer, to the point that it's not longer answering the question. What is the proper etiquette in these cases? –  drxzcl Sep 1 '10 at 7:45
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The advantage of any game, video, computer, boardgame - is that it's interactive. The player is doing something, interacting with a changing medium, responding, thinking, planning, dreaming, exploring, etc. As opposed to passively sitting in front of a television four hours a night.

Isn't this question a bit meta, anyway?

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Some games are pulp fiction. Others are more like their physical puzzle counterparts. There are games about human interaction, human nature, atmosphere, war, love, deep fantasy, shallow reality...

Are all of those things (and the many more I didn't mention) a waste of time?

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I think the author is looking at it from the wrong perspective. It's a matter of target audience and player preference. He obviously strongly prefers gameplay over story and character considerations. Some people are just the opposite, and some games (RPGs) are targetted at them. RPGs are all about the story; the gameplay is just another narrative device. (The Metal Gear Solid series, for example, takes this to extremes.) In other genres, the story takes a back seat, but it's becoming more important as time goes by. For example, even with all the fun, innovative physics puzzles, can anyone really claim that Portal would have been even half as fun without GlaDOS and all her craziness?

We're seeing a lot of hybridization between the two extremes. Having story and character development introduced into non story-driven genres, what TVTropes calls RPG Elements, is an inevitability of Moore's Law in my opinion. Having a story that explains what's going on speaks to basic human desires. It used to be, back when system resources were sharply limited, that building a story-driven game didn't leave much space for anything else, which is how RPGs appeared as a distinct genre. But now that CPU and RAM power are much more plentiful, game developers have been putting "RPG Elements" in anywhere they can, because they improve the quality of the game.

Look at first-person shooters, the original "mindless cool graphics and gameplay mechanics" genre. Ask people what are the greatest FPSes of all time, and they won't say Quake or Unreal. You hear about the Half-Life series and Deus Ex, and sometimes even games like Halo or Gears of War which quite frankly had pretty mediocre gameplay, but interesting stories.

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Huh? Who am I? Where am I? What time is it? ...Oh. I wish you would warn before linking to TVTropes. –  mmyers Aug 25 '10 at 21:11
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what is the true value of a video game? Is a game to be valued on its dynamic interaction with the player, on its ability to present a narrative in a way other mediums cannot, or on its ability to provide simple pleasure?

Who says it has to be one or the other? These aren't mutually exclusive.

Some games have great linear stories. No reason why they can't, really. There can be value there.

Some games have non-linear stories that let the player create their own, to varying degrees of success. There can be value in the player-created stories, and also in the system that enables them (the same way that the printing press isn't "great fiction" in and of itself, but is still useful for creating such).

Some games have outstanding visual art. Even without anything else, if a painting can have meaning, certainly a painting inside a game could do the same.

Some games have meaning embedded purely within their mechanics. These games may not even have art or a story but they still contain meaning that can be learned through interaction on a purely mechanical level.

Then of course there's the social meaning of playing games with other people, which is enough of a topic that you could probably write several books on the subject (if they haven't already).

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I think you've possibly mis-stated the premise of the original article (and I say possibly as I haven't read it). I don't think he has an opinion of the importance or otherwise of narrative in games, but I do think he's concerned that you can tack a bad story onto a game and it's still a great game. In that case, what value does the story have at all? Is the story just a charade to dress up the game - if so, for whose benefit?

It would be like having 'click to fast-forward' on the love scenes in action films. That would be akin to admitting that the scene is completely unnecessary. And indeed sometimes it is - but while film suffers from sometimes being a little incongruous, games seem to embrace it, flaunting the optional nature of certain aspects of the work.

So, in answer to his final question, "must game designers instead find other ways to invest their creations with lasting meaning", I would say that they should certainly consider other ways (if indeed they care about meaning), but that if narrative forms a part or a whole of their game, it should be viewed as an integral design feature, not a bolt-on cosmetic aspect.

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Like one of my previous speakers already said. Games are not a bigger waste of time than classic movies.

In fact they have quite some big advantages over movies. They include the spectator (player) as part of the story. Some games manage to do that better than others. For example some games change their story and/or ending based on the decisions are made and actions are done by the player. A good example for this is BioWare/LucasArts (developer/publisher) Knight of the old republic series. A player starts with his character in a lets call it neutral state. Based on his decisions and actions the state changes and so does the story (in this example not the ending).

Then there are others with other approaches like Infinity Ward and Treyarch/Activision which decided to create an interactive movie. You have a linear story and even a linear gameplay but that doesn't even bother anyone since it is like watching a movie in the cinema and even more interacting with it. Playing a role in it. It gives the players the impression they are important and have done something.

Then there are also different types of games. Every type of game fulfills its role and trains the players abilities sometimes its their soft skills sometimes its their hard skills (kind of).

For example role play games and multiplayer games actively train a players ability to interact with others and to communicate with others. This however depends on the specific type and layout of the game but generally this is true.

Multiplayer games can serve as a way for players to interact socially it even allows players to make friends online based on the same interest (the game) and based on their experiences and achievements.

Now first person shooter for example can train a players reaction and decision making speed (this is a true fact which even saved my life once).

Strategy games train your ability to plan for the future and foresee certain outcomes based on certain circumstances.

Logic games and games of skill well I guess you know what they are good for.

So what I've tried to say with all this is that every game serves a purpose and has its own way to interact and get to the player. It is impossible to answer your question as games can't be put in stereotypes.

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(this is a true fact which even saved my life once) Care to elaborate? :) –  RCIX Aug 30 '10 at 9:15
    
@RCIX, obviously he was touring a secret government facility when a physics-experiment-gone-wrong breached a portal into another dimension, requiring him to quickly decide how to make effective use of makeshift weapons, how to improvise under pressure when faced with impending deadlines, and how to react quickly and decisively to a fluid environment. It's definitely the sort of thing you'd put on your resume - right after the section on your guild leadership experience. –  Cyclops Aug 30 '10 at 13:46
    
Competitive first person shooters train your reaction time which proved very useful in a quite precarious situation in traffic. I'm not here to start a flame war Cyclops neither should you. You may accept the fact or not. Simple as. –  Octavian Damiean Aug 30 '10 at 17:03
    
I wasn't trying to start a flame war :P just interested.... –  RCIX Aug 30 '10 at 20:04
    
I wasn't referring to you. I was talking about Cyclops. –  Octavian Damiean Aug 31 '10 at 7:41
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I'd compare video games to board games, since the two share many traits that they don't with any non-interactive media.

Take Monopoly, for instance. The game's been around 50+ years (correct me if i'm wrong), and people still play it. Why? not for the story, but mainly for the gameplay. It's always fun to have a game of Monopoly and see who wins! Or Clue: people don't play that for the story either (there's almost no story: someone killed the whats-his-name of the mansion and it's your job to find out). The theme here is that board games bring people together to play games and have a good time interacting with each other.

Video games offer the ability to play a game much like a board game, but there are different (and fewer) restrictions on what can be modeled. Only more recently have developers been working on multiplayer games and games with story, and thus the focus has been on making gameplay the king. Games allow you to do this in many ways not previously possible; you can do highly detailed models of the world or implement complex systems for interaction, which would be an incredible pain or impossible to do in real life.

Games also pose a unique problem for telling stories in that it's difficult to both allow the player to play it as a game (not restrain him/her heavily) and move a story forward well. The industry has begun work on overcoming that, but it's a long road to do so.

In short, right now games are prized for their interactivity and not their story, but remember that video games are a new medium (being around for 20-30 years at most), and it hasn't had time to mature like film or literature. As time goes on, people will find ways to integrate story into their games quite well. However, the "games for the sake of playing" will stay around quite a long time i imagine, judging from the length of time humans have invented ways to entertain themselves through (traditional) games :)

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This is a subjective question.

EDIT: I have a better example. Pokemon games actually have the most generic storylines ever. Imagine they are published as novels.

I had fun in OpenArena and Nexuiz and other storyless open-source shooting games. It's fun because how exciting it is to jump around and pick up frags.

I also played HeavyGunner, where there is a over 5-page description of the technology and history, and a one-page description of what happened after finished every bosses.

I also played Colony, the story is simple and brief, but it's fun to play online.

Last, the game of Life (literally), a typical life (including mine), doesn't have a stunning plot like a romance novel have, and a life doesn't even have a clear objective (the objective is subjective: varies from person to person). However, if that game is made, it will become the seller over its realism and complexity and even scientific value.

I also tried Grand Theft Auto on iPod Touch, I had hours of fun in the demo version, suicide bombing cops and blowing up cars, and I ignored all the missions except the first, mandatory one.

Pokemon games, it can get boring over full of battles, and the battle mechanic never improved, plus a high learning curve for competitive battling online. The story between generations also follow a fixed template (8 Gyms, a criminal organization, Pokemon League, that's it), it's the Pokedex and the fanbase made them enjoyable.

I think a good game should have a simple story that does not even require you to read it, and a good gameplay.

Here is a good test for your game: Reading skill test. Can someone who can't read English play your game? Can you play the game if it was translated to Japanese?

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To me it's a rather simple thought experiment. If I take a game with story and gameplay and take out the story, is it still a game? I think so. Tetris is a good example of a game without story. Now if I have a game with story and gameplay and I take out the gameplay, is it still a game? Not so much. So, in order for something to be even classified as a game story seems less critical than gameplay.

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