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.