Think of those ugly, malformed crystals you could grow with a kid’s chemistry set at home but much bigger. How big? Think miles. And no one knew they were coming because one day they were simply there. As if they’d always been there, you know, like some dusty forgotten ornaments of the atmosphere.

I am nostalgic about those days, the last good days, because I like to think the fear of the unknown, of the uncertain future, was still tinged with optimism.   

Governments confirmed our visitors were not here to do harm but neither were they here to help. No green energy. No cancer-curing medicine. The blue-skinned aliens of the orbiting crystal colonies visited, observed, studied and sometimes hung out for a chat. Few of us were comfortable with the official, benign story; the aliens surely had some reason for coming here en masse. We waited for something to happen, for the aliens to show their hand.

I still don’t know whether the aliens had benign or malignant intentions for our planet, because it didn’t play out like we expected. Another colony arrived, bringing news of a plague that had taken root amongst their worlds. Although the aliens put on their best blue face, details were thin and we knew they were anxious.

The end started when our two worlds mated: a colony slipped from orbit and plummeted to the surface. I think the bodycount was in the thousands, not including the aliens aboard the downed colony. I have no idea of the numbers there. But not every colonist perished and… that is how the infection came to Earth.

Looking back, it’s obvious that the plague was more virulent than the aliens revealed and the crash was the first sign that they had lost control of the situation. Our governments looked to the aliens for help but with Earth now in the grip of the same plague they had been fleeing from, the aliens made for greener pastures. How strange that both their sudden appearance and sudden disappearance could cause so much fear and alarm. Their absence was their last communication: your species is a lost cause.

I believe their civilisation has probably fallen to the plague like ours has, out there in darkest space, colonies waging private wars between the plague vampires and the uninfected. The plague infects slowly and you never know which ones amongst us are turning until it is too late. Several of our group concern me, some are healing their wounds faster than I would expect. Two of our number are blues who were stranded after the colonies took their leave abruptly; I believe they are both carriers.

The clock is ticking. It is only a matter of time before we all know the bloodlust…

When I woke up from this dream I thought it was an awesome idea for a short story which demanded to be written. But when reality filtered back in, I thought: “Alien vampires… really?

My dream factory has plenty of source material to draw from. Mired in my subconscious are memories of the Buck Rogers episode “Space Vampire” and the flawed sci-fi film Lifeforce. It’s important to note that my dream painted in big, chunky brush strokes, all big picture setup yet little actual plot. The story is derivative and thin.

It’s not the first time this has happened and it’s always annoying. I experience an amazing dream, awake possessed with the urge to turn it into a novel then discover the whole thing is unoriginal. It has no plus to sell yet I shudder with creative adrenaline for the better part of a day.

If I’d read the above passage on someone’s website, I would probably think: nice try, come back when you’ve got some ideas. But the fact is I’ve experienced living through the end of the world via alien vampire plague. Between the dark of sleep and the light of waking, the dream survived in waking memory for a short, terrifying instant, but quickly floundered as the external world flooded in. Ah, it was all a dream. Thank Christ for that.

I wasn’t the passive consumer of a movie or a book, but a participant in a gripping drama. In sleep, I was able to overlook some of the loopholes in the plot and put aside the fact that it was not contiguous, seemingly jumpcutting across space and time. Living the story elevated its mundane plot, unworthy of print and HTML, into something more dramatic.

Okay, so, videogames.


Delphine Software’s Flashback was the first game I played outside of interactive fiction that pushed a story more complex than a single sentence like “stop the bad guys” or “save the princess”. I was engrossed in every little twist and turn through to its eventual conclusion on an alien planet. Half-Life was also very special to me because whereas Flashback made me feel like I was exploring a movie, Half-Life put me inside one.

But the stories in these games have no meat and the majority of them are spent in fetch quests, in puzzle-solving, in trap-escaping and in gunning down opponents. Our experience of agency seems to flesh out the story, putting weight behind cut-scenes or scripted moments we’ve worked an hour or more for. Without agency, there’s no participation, no interactive hook to snag the brain. Thus, when videogames are translated to the silver screen, they need a lot additional narrative work to fill in for the missing player experience.

We have forgiven game stories for being so empty because we are allowed to be inside them.

It’s not that simple, of course. The more games we play, the more familiar the thin tropes become and our expectations keep rising. Stories have evolved to the point where it is now commonplace for reviewers to write about story and critics to deconstruct meaning. It begs the question whether games like Planescape: Torment are great stories in their own right or whether we’re just being kind because it was fun to be there.

But let’s not be so binary about it. There’s a third option. We could posit that games are something else like we’ve being saying all along and best used for crafting stories that are not cinematic or literary in nature, that don’t work in other media. Because is it fair to reduce a game to its story? Isn’t that destroying its true nature? Isn’t it just proving the ludological reductionist case of “games are rules not story” if you assume you can lift out the story elements intact?

So maybe we should think about games a little more like dreams, as a composite experience instead of something we can slice and dice into pieces that don’t make sense in isolation.

Further thoughts for the reader

  • What does this mean for games with “low” interactivity such as Dear Esther or Dys4ia?
  • Laura Michet wrote about games as dreams in 2010.
  • We often think indie games give us more nutritious stories than BrainShotgun IV, but this may be down to expectations. Sometimes we don’t look for messages because we don’t expect them and the same happens in movies as well. Matt Singer, in a piece called “Breaking the End of ‘Source Code’” was surprised to discover his own dark interpretation of the film’s ending was the one envisioned by the film’s director, Duncan Jones.
  • Aping cinematic conventions has long been seen as a stopgap, with cut-scenes bearing the unspoken implication that story is something to paint onto the core game. Cart Life succeeds not by creating a game with a powerful story but by creating a game that is a story.

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18 thoughts on “A Third Option

  1. Some thoughts:

    Your arguments would feel a little more compelling if you didn’t link them to the ridiculous idea that alien vampires aren’t awesome.

    Sure, maybe we forgive so many games for being so shallow because they’re really fun. But also, maybe we forgive so many books for being so boring because they’re really deep.

    I always wanted to like Source Code and Inception, but the more I think of them the more I realize their entire plots are based on the silly idea that regular human imagination is capable of simulating entire worlds at molecular level. Also, Source Code’s ending leaves its hero in the awkward position of either explaining his father a lot of crazy stuff, or never speaking with him again, even if he has the chance to rebuild the relationship.

  2. A novel about saving a princess has to make each step of an inherently productive journey interesting, whereas a game about saving a princess might be better served by having inherently interesting things occur that happen to be productive. The difference might be that the hero in the novel has to buy supplies for his journey and meets a future companion in the midst of it, while a game hero would do sidequests that ultimately reward them with more/better supplies for their journey. It’s natural to tie a major character meeting to a mundane task in a novel, but it comes off as somewhat awkward in a game.

    I guess.

  3. That final line has some overlap with my upcoming review of Killing is Harmless.

    Interesting idea, comparing the personal response one has to a dream to a composite experience of a game. I’m not sure that it fully holds up to scrutiny partly as it’s not that rare for contemporary games criticism to treat games as a composite experience, without examining narrative and mechanics as isolated and decontextualised strands (although I can’t deny that is also common), but primarily because dreams tap into subconscious anxieties, stress, desires, needs and fears that are unique to the dreamer, and no game – no fictional work – can ever be so perfectly tailored. Not by design, and only by an almost infinitesimally small probability by coincidence.

    Nonetheless, I too dug the alien vampire idea and I am in agreement with the basic conclusion of understanding and critiquing games as composite artefacts. Deconstruct them, by all means, but don’t rob their components of their common context.

  4. @David, every time I read the first line of your comment I laugh, it’s just spontaneous. Just to be clear, I have no grudge against alien vampires (unless they were actually real, of course) but the problem was that “agh! alien vampires” was the dream’s big reveal which… isn’t enough to fly as a short story of note.

    I’ll be honest, I’m not sure I completely buy my own argument above. I’m following a line of thought which leads to some interesting implications, the one about the yakking about story while ignoring the mechanics being the mirror of ludological reductionism is the my personal favourite.

    Your issue with Source Code is similar – but not identical – to the “missing the message” problem I was suggesting. For anyone well-versed in SF, the idea that a few memories of a dead person could reconstruct an entire universe of which he had no knowledge is plainly rubbish. The film tries to sell this lie until the very end, where it finally gives in and admits the truth. The lie is something that a casual moviegoer could swallow as part of the fantasy of film, but for someone looking for something a bit hard, that lie is difficult to swallow. It doesn’t feel good that the movie then says “aha! because it was all a lie!” because you’d watched for 90 minutes thinking the film was badly constructed.

    @BeamSplashX: It’s interesting because are we talking about a game where story has been blended in, or a story where game has been blended in? You look at something like Dishonored, and you can’t help but think the game was pitched as a magic assassin with the story dribbled in later. On the other hand, plenty of small scale “art games” strike you as story first, with a few mechanics thrown in to please the needs of players. I’m happy to hear examples but I think it’s rare that the mechanics and story are designed in tandem, more common to build one and add the other further down the line.

    I might disagree with tying a character to a mundane task in a game being awkward, because that might be seen as what is missing from games today (Richard Hofmeier loves the mundane). Let’s say I agree- it is awkward to implement without losing the player.

    @Eric: Okay then everywhere I said “mechanic” imagine I wrote “all the other mechanics except narrative”.

    @Shaun: Still waiting for that review, Shaun.

    I’d defend the “personal response to a dream” line because what I’m trying to explain is why we forgive game stories for their flaws because, in the end, they don’t usually destroy the games. If I read a book with a flawed story. Those games which do rest heavily on narrative then, yes, absolutely, flaws in story can blow the thing apart – interactive fiction, point-and-clicks and many JRPGs for example. But those games which are trying to evoke a visceral experience for the player can carry us along and we don’t pay attention to the flaws. Dead Space has a hokey plot but it’s kind of fun. A film version of the game would likely bore the shit out of me. This is where the dream connection comes in: another type of experience where the plot doesn’t matter as much as you think it would.

    I’m going for the devil’s advocate, here. We get so angry and worked up about crappy game stories (which they are) yet still buy them. So are we all idiots or is there something else going on here? I vote idiot. (Aside: I get annoyed that I sometimes have better thoughts down in the comments which I wished I’d written in the article.. but of course that’s the whole point of getting the article out. To have more thoughts in conversation with other people! Maybe I’ll change the articles in that Electron Dance anthology book I keep planning…)

    You’re right to call me out on that timid bashing of contemporary criticism; the words ended up there but I don’t think that’s what I wanted the focus to be.

    Nonetheless! I would like to see more alternative game stories, particularly in AAA.

  5. I don’t think AAA can afford to be experimental anymore. Maybe after the industry rebuilds after the crash that everyone’s been saying is coming for a couple of years.

    I mean, look at Bioshock: Infinite. All I’ve read about it is basically: This is a very well-done and polished videogames.

    It reportedly cost $100 million.

  6. Tom Chick had a reasonably interesting Bioshock Infinite review. I can’t comment on owt else as I’m not reading anyone else on it until I’ve finished it.

    The Killing is Harmless review is *finally* finished and scheduled for two Mondays from now. Took a while to wrap it up thanks to a short-notice flat move and all the associated faff. In the end I just sat down drunk and ranted into a word processor, then went back sober and made it more coherent and balanced. 🙂

    Thanks for the elucidation on the games/dreams comparison. I think what you’ve expanded on should logically emerge from the line “We have forgiven game stories for being so empty because we are allowed to be inside them” but, well… I ate too fast.

    (Does anyone else read most writing on games at work? Does anyone else find this means they miss subtleties as a result? Complex ideas, no problem, but anything easy to miss when reading quickly… grr.)

    On a side note, I am almost certainly an idiot. I do love my nonsense spectacle games from time to time and regularly overlook problematic elements of things so that I can enjoy them. Although I guess that’s more a privilege of privilege; getting to act like an unthinking, often passive receptacle and enjoying it.

  7. No, I haven’t, I decided against buying it right now, mostly because I thought I’d regret spending $60 on it.

    I have plenty of other stuff to play anyway!

  8. @HM:
    Cart Life differs and overcomes this divide by giving every moment of mundanity a layer of significance. In a fantasy RPG, that’s far less common or expected. Sure, you constantly engage in the mundane task of being a street vendor in Cart Life, but that enhances the story’s impact (ideally).

    In an RPG, you would expect a fight with a dragon to hold the most significance in a schedule of “buy weapons, fight dragon, restock food”. Maybe there’s some emergent element that adds excitement throughout that process, but the dragon fight not being a major high point risks being considered a design failure; I’ve seen this response to the dragon encounters in Skyrim.

  9. Cool idea.

    I’m not sure I’m feeling the horror of the Source Code ending even when it’s explained that way. I mean (spoilers follow, obviously) sure Jake has vamped Fentress’s consciousness, and it’s creepy for him to be in someone’s body in a false-advertising sort of way, but if he *doesn’t* do all that you still don’t get an alternate universe in which Fentress stays alive, and that he *does* do that means that you do get an alternate universe in which everyone else on the train is alive. So it seems sort of like one of those dilemmas where you sacrifice/abandon one person who’s going to die anyway in order to save a bunch of other people, which is not much more horrifying than battlefield triage perhaps.

    There is the “he only did all this because he wanted to smooch Michelle Monaghan” problem but that’s too widespread to be really worth noting.

    Also: Did you know that Duncan Jones was born Zowie Bowie and is currently going to direct the Warcraft movie? I am the first person to point this out!

  10. I relate these ideas to the old joke “I went outside once, the graphics were good but the gameplay was terrible.” Life can be lame if you rate it as a game, dreams and games can be lame if you rate them as, I don’t know, movies was it, or books? But I guess the conclusion is we have to think about games as if they were games, and not something else. Crazy I know. Isn’t that like an old thing, that’s been said since forever?

    Anyway, mandatory Source Code thought: You have a guy who lives something that already happened. You immediately think “time travel.” The movie does a lot of exposition to explain that’s NOT the case. It’s actually about controlled simulation, NOT time travel (they even have a dude saying only “quantum physics” like that’s a full explanation TWICE). You see the originality in this, so you think it’s good that this is not just another movie about time travel. Then you reach the ending, and the plot twist is “hey: time travel.” I was not impressed.

  11. @Shaun: I read a lot of writing on the train commute when I am drifting into semi-unconsciousness! I keep wondering if the game stories are hollowed out to give us a space to exist in them, somewhat similar to the blank protagonists of Half-Life or Dishonored.

    @BeamSplashX: Yeah, I don’t know what I’m really talking about. Mundane in your average RPG is usually pretty boring. Some might point to Recettear with its protagonist being a shopkeeper but that still has actual adventuring.

    Source Code spoilersville…

    @matt: Did you just bring up the trolley problem again? Interesting “sacrifice already-dead Fentress to save train” line of thought. Did he have to stay in the body? Couldn’t they have pulled him out of the “simulation”? We don’t know what happens to Fentress after Jake goes back to Kansas, for sure, but… And, hey, why can’t he go back and keep on saving trains in other parallel realities? Why save “one train” and be done with it? (I can think of one counterargument to this, but it’s not a great one.)

    All that Duncan Jones stuff is new to me. I’m not sure it’ll inspire an Electron Dance post, though.

    @David: Yes, I’ve just written another piece in support of the “games aren’t other media” argument and wonder, as devil’s advocate, whether we should criticise the stories in games as much. There’s a lot of love for games that emotionally ping without a particularly deep story. A heavily crafted interactive fiction/Twine is not the same as, say, a Bioshock Infinite: are these stories that comparable? Is the urge to group everything under the heading “game” leading to false comparisons?

    Regarding Source Code – but it wasn’t straight time travel, right? It was that great band-aid of theoretical quantum physics, the many worlds theory. He was going back in time in a parallel universe.

  12. SOURCE CODE SPOILERS (but really, if you’re diving into source code shouldn’t you expect spoilers?)

    Yeah, the first thought I had when I read this was “But this is just like the problem where the cave is flooding and the fat man stuck in the only opening is face in! Everyone thinks you’re allowed to dynamite him then!” Which is one of the examples in “The Problem of Abortion and the Doctrine of the Double Effect,” which is the article that introduced the trolley (or tram) problem. And perhaps not everyone thinks it, though if you actually go through the Double Effect stuff you could argue that Jake’s killing of Fentress is indirect enough that it’s permissible — how directly your actions result in someone’s death matters.

    I have to confess that I haven’t (and won’t) thought about the metaphysics of the parallel realities enough to consider whether Jake could go save more and more trains.

    Of course one of the problems with my defense here is that the whole movie is set up to be opposed to the idea that it’s OK to hijack someone for the greater good — that’s what Jeffrey Wright wants to do with Jake.

  13. @HM: So we’re back to defining games, huh. I don’t know if you’ve read Women, fire and dangerous things, but I think that kind of thinking could do some good here. At least that’s where I stand. We should consider a list of all features that make the most classic stereotypical videogame imaginable (being a computer program, being interactive, strict set of rules, having a goal, winning and losing, all that), and define games as anything that has several of those features.

    That’s an interesting way of handling definitions, I think, because one game could have half of those features and another game could have the other half, and they’d both be defined as games even though they don’t share any features in common. That reflects reality much more accurately and can’t be achieved with classical definitions of “this is game, this ain’t.”

    If you think it that way, you’ll have much more freedom to say “these two games are the same thing, games, yet they’re not comparable on this aspect.”

    So, Source Code: Going back to a parallel reality thus not affecting YOUR timeline is already an established way to time-travel in many works of fiction, so we’re still talking about time travel regardless. What I’m getting at is the idea that in the end, the obvious thing is the true one. Common sense beats critical thought. When we face new scientific discoveries, usually the people who understand them best are the ones who made the discoveries and the research. Not the average dude whose opinion is based on common sense and his immediate experience of the thing. In Source Code the only one who gets it right is the one who never stops believing his first impression (that the simulation is real). What are the odds that any dude based on his common sense will make accurate predictions about quantum physics, predictions that quantum physicists have deemed ridiculous?

  14. @matt: If only I’d thought of that killer argument that you just offered, you would have been toast.

    @david: I’m not trying to kick off a discussion on what is and isn’t a game but one of the problems I have with the “everything is a game” is that it is useful to inspire ideas and create inclusivity but does nothing for the technical side of things. It offers a weak foundation to make theoretical pronouncements about anything.

    So we can say Úrquel is a game with a story and Bioshock Infinite is a game with a story, but these things operate in completely different ways. Twine games work in the realm of words and can afford to be narratively deep in a traditional sense; Bioshock Infinite can’t because of multiple issues (expense, player agency, aversion to exposition). They are not equal – so is it even fair to compare them at all? It’s like saying Leave Home doesn’t have the strategic depth of XCOM.

    This goes back to what Raph Koster has been arguing for, a technical partitioning of this space, although he would still call just one part of that space “games” (rules-based; MDA framework). Some of this was discussed in the comments here on Electron Dance last year.

    Lots of games have “story” but what we mean by that, across different games, is an entirely different thing. This is less about what a game is, and what we mean by “a story”. (I feel like I’m tying back to some of the earlier arguments of the narratology/ludology war that a player’s experience cannot be described as a narrative.)

    On your Source Code line: Okay, I agree. I hate it when common sense trumps science in films, as if your gut instinct is better than any experiment. Gut instinct leads to experiment, it doesn’t replace it.

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