This post serves as a response to the The Atlantic's recently-published article "Video Games Are Better Without Stories," which makes the argument that, since the history and architecture of modern games is grounded in spatial navigation and combat, storytelling makes for a poor complement. However, in this post I would like to dispute that premise, as I believe that the author first neglects the fact that the design space surrounding mainstream videogame development has been, up until recently, incredibly homogeneous. Second, a significant portion of the author's argument is focused on criticizing the type of environmental storytelling found in first-person games like Bioshock, which I will argue is not wholly representative of storytelling in videogames as a medium.
One of the author's key points is that early videogames, due to the technical constraints of the computational technology of the time, were often designed with a focus on combat within and navigation of wide-open and empty spaces. Although these technological constraints have since been eased (though certainly not erased), much of the design DNA found in games like Doom and Duke Nukem persists today, with many modern AAA videogames placing much of their structural focus on locomotion and combat. Here is where the author and I agree: Doom did not find mainstream success through a focus on narrative, and that was by almost definitely by design. The development team behind Doom aspired to create a game about combat, and judging by the game's commercial and critical reception, they were successful in their endeavor. However, because of the success of this style of game within the context of the early and malleable state of the early games industry, these design foci defined the AAA space going forward. While this isn't to say that all developers in this era aspired to create shooters (and indeed, the '90s were as vibrant and varied a decade for games as any), it's clear from the strength of the genre even today that first-person shooters built in the blueprint of Doom commanded the direction of the mature AAA market. Because of this predetermined focus on spatial navigation, AAA designers with an interest in telling stories were and often still are forced to shoehorn their narrative into the game as a secondary focus -- as books to read (Thief, Dishonored, Deus Ex) or audiologs to listen to (Doom 3, System Shock 2, Bioshock). The author names Bioshock as a chief example, and I tend to agree with the point being made: I don't think this is an ideal way to tell a story, as it sits at odds with the rest of the game's focus on movement and fighting. With that said, the author's primary argument is that the failure of these methods suggests that games ought not try to tell a story. While I can understand the author's reluctance, I feel that he ignores the substantial proportion of AAA games that attempt storytelling outside of the first-person shooter space, not to mention the bevy of smaller games that are allowed to exist outside of many of the financial and cultural boundaries that define the AAA space. Role-playing games like Earthbound and the Persona series feature gameplay that acts as a natural extension of the narrative, while smaller and more niche experiences like dating simulators or Sword and Sworcery place a large structural focus on player agency within a story. While this isn't to say that any or all of these games achieve a perfect integration of gameplay with narrative, their popularity suggests that their approach has found favor with players. Furthermore, this kind of storytelling is inseparable from the interactivity implicit to the the medium, suggesting that narrative in games is not a futile pursuit.
Videogames need not be defined by what made Doom a financial success in the 1990s; I would argue they are defined exclusively by their interactivity, as this is the aspect that sets them apart from other media. I would also suggest that to insist otherwise is to severely limit their potential as a medium. The author makes a point at the start of the piece that reads, "the best interactive stories are still worse than even middling books and films." I feel this misses something fundamental, though, in that great works in different mediums are, at their structural core, very different from one another. Furthermore, this kind of comparison seems fruitless unless those differences are sufficiently addressed and considered. The stories told in games like Virginia, Kentucky Route Zero, or Firewatch are certainly simpler and less robust than those found in works by Dickins or Kubrick, but then, how would you compare Great Expectations to Dr. Strangelove? Both are works of art because of their mastery of their respective mediums, and because each has the ability to engage and enthrall audiences by making use of the key features of those mediums. Games are no different, and in order to create meaningful stories, designers must learn to better engage their medium's own quirks and idiosyncrasies to do so. I would agree with the author, that many of the most popular and financially successful examples of work in the medium struggle to do this, but to suggest that designers should simply stop trying denies the medium its own incredible storytelling potential before it manifests.
As games have become more complex over the years, user interfaces (UIs) have had to evolve to accommodate them. While earlier games were often less complicated than their modern contemporaries, and as such, required similarly less complicated UIs, games like blah require blah in order to convey the requisite information to the player. As a result, it's often important to be smart about designing UIs, as over complicated interfaces can be difficult to manage and can make playing the game feel like a cluttered and unfocused experience. Many modern games attempt to solve this issue by continually reducing the UI, or by making it invisible until it's absolutely necessary.
This is a perfectly fine practice for some games, and it speaks to the developers' priorities: Naughty Dog wants you to be engaged with the characters and the world when you are playing Uncharted, so they strip away everything else during gameplay unless it's absolutely necessary. In these games, the UI isn't seen as part of the game, but rather as an informational concession made for the player. You don't play the UI, you play the game.
While this works fine for games like Uncharted, I would argue that it needn't be a one-size-fits-all approach. While much of the industry has moved to this approach, I think there is merit to be found in a UI that contributes to the experience of playing the game, rather than simply existing alongside it. While this isn't a unique approach, I do want to highlight a few specific titles and methods that I would argue use UI as an augmentation of the game rather than a lens through which to experience it. The Persona series, for instance, has always had a stylish presentation, but the 5th iteration is a great example of using UI to enrich an experience. The menu systems are intensely varied and are always accompanied by interesting and context-specific animations. Because Persona's combat system is that of a turn-based RPG, much of the player's time is spent in these menus. It makes sense that the developers would design their UI to feel as varied and spirited as the rest of the game. As such, being in menus doesn't end up feeling like something to get through in order to reach the game, but indeed rather like interacting with the game itself.
Another way that games can use UI to enrich an experience is through the use of diagetic interfaces. Diagetic interfaces are UIs where interface elements (text, icons, etc.) are actually made part of the in-game environment, rather than acting like a static filter over-top of the rest of the game. This is a technique used a lot in VR games, since the need for an HMD makes screen-mounted UI elements feel intensely uncomfortable (imagine holding a newspaper up to your face and moving it around with your head). However, diagetic UIs don't need to be constrained to VR games; a number of 2D games make use of diagetic UI, with the effect of the UI elements feeling like part of the game world, rather than like a departure from it. I think this ends up providing a more immersive experience, as nothing in the game acknowledges that there are elements that exist outside the game world.
This post isn't meant to be so much of a call to action as a reminder that there are a lot of interesting and unique ways that UIs can employed to different effect. It's worth thinking about what your game is trying to achieve with its interface before committing to a single solution, as a well-designed UI offers the ability to elevate your game's central purpose, rather than simply filter it.