Stories That Suck

Let me give you a quick recap: Jason Schreier wrote a post on his blog responding to Andrew Groen’s twitter assertion that “game stories are near universally shit.” Schreier gives an appropriate and smart response, suggesting that games criticism should develop a more sophisticated mechanism than “this is bad” versus “this is good.” I will admit that I actually took Schreier’s post in the same way that Richard Goodness did. Goodness responded that

“Stories are not good. Nor are they bad. They’re just stories,” Schreier concludes, and I could not disagree more. There’s a weird sort of servile tone to his article, as he clucks his tongue at his fellow critics who dare to find fault with storylines. Why, people might like the stories of games you don’t like, and imagine how they must feel.

This is a brutal criticism of Schreier, and one what he responded to. Schreier posted a response, and I think that it is really smart, though I think that he is making a definite rhetorical shift from the first piece to the second. Schreier makes it clear that he wants games criticism to move into a more complex sphere, and clarifies his position:

My point is that we should be fighting for harsher criticism than “this is good” or “this is bad.” Those are not the questions we should be asking. So what should we be asking? How about: How does this story make me feel? When is it most effective? Does its setting fit its themes? Do its characters have clear motivations and desires? Does its plot follow a coherent path? How does it fit into Joseph Campbell’s monomyth structure? How does it integrate player interactivity? Do the player’s actions contrast with the narrative? Can the player fight against the story’s current? Is it worth the player’s time?

I’m not sure how I feel about this. The questions read like a checklist, and I feel like they reduce the critic to the role of the interpreter or the analyst. It seems like the absence of any of these qualities would constitute a pathology of the game, something that should have been there and wasn’t. That worries me. I think that the idea that criticism needs to move toward a literary-interpretive, New Critical-style stance means that video game criticism is arrested in its development.

On some level, I think that Goodness might be right. There is nothing that is sacred, and there does come a moment where a critic should be able to simply say that a game sucks. This happens all the time with film, novels, etc. and the world hasn’t ended yet, so I think that we might be okay. I feel like I can safely, and without any doubt, say that the storyline of the Call of Duty games sucks without any regard for the affective desires and connections that millions of people have made to those games.

I guess what I am saying, after that rambling, is that Schreier sees the possibility for a great destruction in the laziness of saying “game stories are shit” and that it could paralyze games criticism. I see a much greater problem in the notion that we should immediately begin with the notion that a story is good, that we should ever give the benefit of the doubt to a narrative simply because it appears in a medium that I enjoy. That’s essentially the worst thing in “games journalism” right now–I read positive reviews of the stories and mechanics of terrible games for months before they come out, and that all stems from a desire to give the benefit of the doubt to a format that the authors love. The games that aren’t shit, and there are a great many that have passed this marker (GTA IV, Mass Effect, Fallout), make themselves known. They resonate broadly, not just in the micro, and that gives them a cultural precedence.

It is simply true that some media artifacts reward analysis more than others. I don’t think that games critics aren’t asking the right questions, but rather that most games don’t meet very high standards when it comes to storytelling. Most books aren’t great novels, most movies aren’t classics, most games aren’t great at narrative.

Goodness also made a final response, basically being a peacemaker, finding common ground, what have you.

(A final note here at the end: I think that the most laughable thing I have read in a long time is that a narrative could gain credence or value by being aligned with Joseph Campbell. If anything, a narrative that tries to actively undermine that monomyth silliness is the best kind of game in my book. Maybe Space Invaders is where it’s at.)

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