Text adventures, point and clicks, FMV games, oh my!

If I didn’t know any better I’d say it was the nineties again. Not that I’m complaining. As someone who’s into gaming primarily to experience unconventionally-told stories I have no problem with these kinds of things. People tend to get fussy over whether works like the recent and much-acclaimed Her Story really qualify as “games” per se, but at the end of the day it doesn’t matter to me. It’s digital, it’s interactive, and somebody out there other than myself enjoys it enough to pay money for it. Wonderful! Article over. Have a nice day.

Okay not really.

I wish I could stop this piece there, but unfortunately the return to prominence of these genres has only further highlighted the insularity of popular gaming discourse. What I’ll generously refer to as “gaming thought leaders,” in their infinite insecurity, see these games and immediately leap to elevate them in the interest of inflating the image of an industry that really doesn’t need any more hot air. They do it because they feel they have to defend games, legitimize them.

They do it because they haven’t done their research.

I can’t entirely fault them for it. The Jack Thompsons and Leland Yees of the world haven’t done their research either so it kind of balances out. The debate is simple: interactive media are a newfangled phenomenon. The kids think they’re art and the old farts think they’re destroying the kids. Problem is, both sides are operating under a false assumption.

Turns out interactive media aren’t actually new. They definitely pre-date videogames, and interactive narratives pre-date electricity, assuming you subscribe to the reader-response school of literary theory. The point is, interactive art and its potential are topics that have been discussed at length for quite a while. There is precedent here.

But no one wants to look into that stuffy book-learnin’ crap, so we end up with statements like the following. Bold emphasis is mine:

  • Her Story is a bold experiment in interactive storytelling.” —Mark Brown, Pocketgamer.
  • Her Story is an intriguing experimentation in game narrative.” —Kimberley Wallace, Game Informer.
  • “[Zoe Quinn’s Depression Quest is] one of the most gripping and educational views on the subject [of depression]…” —Kyle Orland, Ars Technica
  • Depression Quest is the most important game I’ve ever played,” —Game researcher, Mark Chen.
  • Soundself isn’t a game. Soundself is an experience...” —Soundself developer, Robin Arnott.

Just look at how experimental and educational and important these new experiences are! Don’t you understand how relevant this is? Don’t you?!

Please say yes. I’ll cry if you don’t.

To be frank, despite all of the earnest insistence, there is nothing remotely experimental or innovative about text adventures. Likewise, combining FMV segments with hypertext-style database navigation is the definition of repackaging old material. Espen Aarseth and Janet Murray were literally writing the books on this stuff like it was the new frontier nearly twenty years ago. We’ve been there and done that, and just because a large swath of the gaming public was too young to remember it does not mean it didn’t happen.

That’s not to say that being archaic is an inherently bad thing. Heck, I’m a JRPG fan. Some of my favorite genre conventions have been resolutely labelled outdated and even dead by parts of the community, yet I still enjoy the hell out of them. I am not taking shots at contemporary text adventures and FMVs by pointing out that they’re spun from old thread. Some of them (not all, but some) accomplish what they set out to do with flying colors. Her Story, for instance, works pretty well in my humble opinion, but it’s not breaking new ground, and gaming doesn’t gain anything by pretending like it is. Those words I put in bold are puff. Period. And they’re inconsistently effectual puff at that. I mean, look at Depression Quest. Despite the truckload of glowing attention it and its developer have received, no one is actually playing it.

And then there’s Soundself. I’ll bet anything some of you reading this were puzzled by the fact that I included it in my list of quotes earlier. It doesn’t really have any genre to speak of at this point let alone a classic one from gaming’s primordial phases.

Or does it?

For those who don’t know what Soundself is, check out this video:

Done? Okay now watch this one:

Nam June Paik is often considered the progenitor of video art. His work was light-years ahead of its time, introducing interactivity to television decades before videogames would grip the popular consciousness. The original version of Arnott’s Soundself did not utilize the Oculus Rift and looked even more like a carbon copy of “Participation TV.” In light of this, I want to be really really clear that I am not accusing Robin Arnott of plagiarism. It’s much more likely that he had, and still has, no idea who Nam June Paik is.

And maybe that’s its own problem.

The barriers to entry into game production are staggeringly low nowadays. Programs like GameMaker: Studio and RPG Maker are fairly cheap. Unity is free. While previous coding experience is very helpful going into these programs, it is by no means essential to getting your feet wet. This has some terrific ups, not the least of which is a flood of new and creative ideas. It also has some downs that, while perhaps lesser than the benefits, are still notable. Maybe we have a growing class of game devs and pundits that hasn’t done its homework. Maybe it can’t talk about games in anything other than promotion-laced jargon because that’s all it’s ever heard. Maybe gamers deserve better.

Arnott can be forgiven in this particular instance. He is actively promoting his own work. But what about the legions of professional reviewers who view themselves as fanboys/girls first—or even political advocates first—and educated commentators second if at all? Is it really so much to ask that the people claiming to speak for and about our industry have actual expertise? Perhaps that debate over whether games are art would have ended much sooner if our unelected representatives in the gaming press had been astute enough to cite a certain established precedent of interactive art.

Being that this is the Internet, I want to clarify that this article is not intended as a slap at everyone who talks about games without having researched obscure Korean video artists of the mid-20th century. I fully acknowledge that I’m a special kind of loser in that regard. Rather, it’s a slap at those who leap to prop up the industry by putting pet projects on a pedestal without fully considering the surrounding context. It doesn’t make gaming look “grown-up.” To the contrary, the act is reminiscent of an insecure preteen trying to define him/herself by what he/she thinks the adults want to see.

Gaming popularized the idea of interactive media; it did not invent it. There are stage plays, paintings, and even classic works of literature that sought to mesh audience agency with authorial intent long before Bioware, CDProjekt Red, or Zoe Quinn were ever born. Videogames are not becoming important. They’ve always been important as the next step in the evolution of interactive media. Get external critics to acknowledge that legacy, and their acceptance of videogames will follow naturally. But that will never happen if the voices within gaming do not acknowledge it first.

Kaitlyn Coleman

A recent college grad with a taste for stealth, RPGs, and character action. Other interests include food, cats, oddly shaped rocks, and weird Japanese cartoons.