Dead inside

I got to #3 — You Miss Game Storylines That Were Actually Compelling — of 5 ways to tell you’re getting too old for video games and had an aha moment regarding the whole “video games as narrative art” question.

Wait a second. Is it possible that those old games didn’t do anything magical with their programming to create “immersion,” and that, like my kids with GTA, I “immersed” myself in those games because I was playing them at a time before I was dead inside?

Ha ha. Dead inside. But really, this is what I’ve been trying to say all along: the narrative in a video game isn’t really there, it’s an illusion created by the player’s interest in what’s going on. The game has a suggestive narrative framework, but it’s not telling a story. The player is telling herself the story.

I can play a zombie game now, and I just see a bunch of boring, repetitive enemies.

This is a guy who likes video games and (I guess) used to see something else when he looked at a zombie game. I have never seen anything else when I look at a zombie game.

The older you get, the less elastic your imagination becomes, and the less able you are to fill in whatever gaps the game leaves in the narrative.

I am inclined to dispute the “less elastic imagination” hypothesis. Partly, because this fails to explain why some of us have never gotten narrative out of video games, and partly because it seems to be letting the entertainment in question entirely off the hook, as if it’s my flaw that I want a story to have a level of narrative cohesion and character development that just isn’t feasible in video games.

Also, not everyone who sees “story” in video games is a kid.

So I think it comes down to something else — motivation, maybe? If there’s something about the game that sucks you in, the brain starts to supply narrative, because hey, that’s what the brain does. But if you’re not sucked in, it’s just a bunch of zombies running around.

It might be similar to what happens when I find a movie really boring. Yeah, there’s stuff happening on screen, and there may be a story, I guess, but I couldn’t explain it to you and anyway I just don’t care.


  1. Your second to last paragraph is what I would have jumped to at the very beginning. It’s very similar to people’s ability to learn things.

    It is true that there are some subjects that some people’s brains are truly incapable of grasping because of damage or genetics or developmental issues. But for everything else, the ability to learn something really comes down to a matter of interest and patience. If you’re interested in something, it’s much easier to make connections to other things while you’re researching or practicing it. And really, that’s the same thing as developing a narrative.

    1. Of course, jump to the conclusion at the beginning makes for somewhat poorer writing, as I would not have even walked through the other options to dismiss them. ;)

    2. Author

      I’m working from a theory that one of the primary activities of human consciousness is generating narrative from input.

  2. I thought much the same when reading the article. It really is down to personal interest and motivation.

    Some games I can get into, others I cannot. Same with movies. It’s all subjective.

    1. Author

      And for me, *all* games fall into the “can’t get into it” category — for whatever reason. But then I’ve met people who just don’t seem to like movies or just don’t seem to like books, and I find them baffling…

      1. As a film school graduate it’s very disheartening to hear someone say -“I don’t really like any movies”. My only response is – clearly you haven’t seen the right movies.

        But really? Are there actually people who lack the ability to get sucked into a narrative?

        1. Author

          I don’t know how absolute it is — like if they never like any movies ever, or if they just don’t tend to like movies. And it’s rare. I’ve just heard people say things like “I don’t like movies” much the same way they’ll say things like “I don’t read fiction.”

          I also feel like there are a lot of people who don’t get sucked into narrative all that hard — they watch it or read it, and they like it, but they’re never so sucked in that they couldn’t also be doing the dishes or something.

          1. This goes a long way to explaining people who use their phones during movies at the cinema- they’re just not that sucked in.

            Worst example I’ve seen was a girl clearly getting into a lengthy text argument on her iPhone during an IMAX screening of Avatar – a screening that cost a lot more than a regular cinema presentation. Then again, that could just be bad manners.

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