At Norwescon I got asked whether I thought video games were a narrative art form. I knew the answer — "no, I do not believe that video games are a narrative art form." But I presented my case off the cuff and wanted to spend some time examining it.
I asserted that an essential quality that makes something a game — interactivity — is fundamentally at odds with the act of storytelling. I think that was slightly wrong. What I really mean is, the act of playing a game is fundamentally not a narrative act.
I think this in part because narrative — a novel, for example — requires no play. And play — darts, for example — requires no narrative. However, a game with no play would be a failed game. And a novel with no narrative would be a failed novel. So to me it simply doesn’t make sense to regard them as the same thing, since they can be separated so completely.
However, just because they can be completely separated, does not mean that they inevitably are. Many games, especially video games, have a lot of narrative applied. We can regard these as hybrid art forms, narrative games (Myst, for example), or a gamed narratives (Choose Your Own Adventure Books, for example). I suspect highly narrative games — and not Tetris or Guitar Hero — are what game fans have in mind when they claim that video games should be considered right alongside movies as a narrative art form. However, they are incorrect.
I believe they are incorrect because I would put even slightly gamed narratives on the "game" part of the spectrum, as more game than narrative. That’s a personal judgment call — not everyone may agree. Okay. But they are incorrect for a second reason.
Games simply fail to be very good when considered as narrative.
Game narratives can be complex and intriguing in their own way, but these narratives have a completely different criteria for success than narratives that stand alone as narrative. Emotional engagement in a game is supplied primarily by the act of playing it. Emotional engagement in a story is supplied primarily by — you know, the story. This is fundamental. It’s why movies based on video games are almost inevitably dreadful. The story that seems to be there when you’re engaged in playing the game doesn’t actually exist. It’s a clever illusion. Like the story that seemed to be there during your dream last night, it falls apart on the retelling.
Disagree if you like, but keep in mind that I consider any argument that begins "how can you say that when you haven’t actually played game X?" to prove my point. Without the act of play, a game narrative does not exist. And in my mind, that makes it not a narrative at all.