Autism to Artistic Integrity: Do Video Games Need Good Plotting?
Unless you exclusively watch Syfy channel B-movies like Sharknado 4: The Fourth Awakens, then you understand the importance of good dialogue. If it sounds mechanical (or too organic, with too many ums and uhs) the audience will disconnect from the story. The same goes for plotting: A novel might have the greatest dialogue known to humankind, but none of that matters when there is no plot and the story just floats aimlessly like a seagull bobbing in the ocean. These two elements of storytelling have a symbiotic relationship. Alone, they cannot sustain a story. They must be used in conjunction with each other in order to work.
How do video games fit into this? After all, video games have a history of success despite sparse plots and paper-thin characters like Mario, who would jump from platform to platform, castle after castle in search of his beloved princess. Gran Turismo saw players racing different cars over and over, and we all remember the infamous dialogue “All you base are belong to us,” from the 1992 Sega Mega Drive port of Zero Wing.
But the video game market has changed dramatically since then. We now see fantasy epics set in distant lands with enough story content for fifteen or more movies, and rich characters that have to deal with real moral dilemmas. So, is there a need for good dialogue and plotting in video games? Or is it enough to simply have an enjoyable game with fun mechanics and great graphics?
Raising the Bar for Video Games
Traditionally, video games have managed to slip under the narrative radar, succeeding despite some terrible plotting and dialogue. Original era video games such as Pong didn’t have plot or dialogue at all; so why is it important that the medium has these elements now? And why has there been a push to include richer storytelling in gaming?
There are many contributing factors, but the biggest of them is demographics. Video games gained traction during the 80s and 90s and now these gamers are all grown up and looking for more mature content and storytelling. In 2016, the Entertainment Software Association published that the average gamer was 35 years old. These children who grew up with Mario and Sonic are now progressing to darker, more complex stories like Grand Theft Auto V or The Witcher III: The Wild Hunt. The customer base has grown up and so has the market.
Not everybody got the memo.
Back in 2014, Australian Kmart and Target stores pulled the release of Grand Theft Auto V from their shelves because of a petition complaining it depicted violence against women. The three women who started the petition stated the following about the game.
“It’s a game that encourages players to murder women for entertainment. The incentive is to commit sexual violence against women, then abuse or kill them to proceed or get ‘health’ points,”
Whatever game these people were playing, it wasn’t GTA V. Glossing over the glaring problem that by omission this campaign has said violence against men is acceptable, despite men being the overwhelming majority victims of real life violent crimes, their statements are completely false. In fact, the only instance of sexual assault against women in GTA V is a random event where you pull over to find a woman who is about to be raped. You kill the rapists and drive her home, which is the exact opposite of the claims detailed in the petition. While nobody is going to argue that the content is not disturbing, it at no point glorifies the actions of these men. It is seen for the heinous act that it is, and implores you to stop it.
Deceptions and misinformation aside, this petition sparks an interesting question: Why did they pick GTA V? Crime shows like Sons of Anarchy and The Sopranos have featured sexual assault storylines in a similar way, and yet these stories are not given anywhere near the level of criticism that GTA V did.
But GTA V is a video game.
It all stems from a perception that video games are a lesser form of entertainment meant only for children and forty-year-old men living in their parents’ basement. The overwhelming majority of people who signed the petition were concerned parents, worried their children would get a hold of the game and become corrupted by its adult content. This is a valid concern. Children should not be playing games with such dark themes, but this game was never intended for children.
Video games need to break this stigma and continue to strive for the same quality writing as mature themed film and television. We need to draw more attention to this market and distinguish the difference between titles like Mario and Mass Effect. We must accept this medium as the art form that it is. Many people expect terrible dialogue and cheap thrills storytelling, but game designers set a very high benchmark for their narratives. The public perception needs to change. We as a society need to appreciate that video games have become more than bright sprites and chirpy digital music.
Truly Innovative Storytelling
We all remember the choose your own adventure books from our childhood where you guide the main character through the story, giving them choices that would impact the plot and the character’s safety. The stories didn’t always end well. It wasn’t always happy, and there was something fun and exciting about that. The problem with these books was that it was often too obvious to figure out which option you needed to survive, and the choices kept the character relatively undeveloped; otherwise, the writer would need to plot several emotional arcs for each option, also factoring in the previous decisions. Before he/she knew it, the writer would be looking at a 1,000-page doorstop with a ton of complicated rules that suck all the fun from the original concept.
Video games have been able to use this choose your own adventure style much more effectively; all those complicated rules and algorithms happen behind the scenes. BioWare games like Mass Effect and Dragon Age have genuine consequences. Certain actions will appal some characters and they may not wish to embark on an adventure with you. During my own playthrough of the original Dragon Age, the adventuring party was ambushed by Zevran Arainai: an elven assassin who was raised in a brothel when his mother died shortly after childbirth. The party had the option to kill him, but I, as the leader, chose to spare his life and offer him a role in our group. Zevran explored with the party for some time, and after listening to his snappy dialogue and tragic backstory, a bond was formed; both with the characters and myself.
Everything was coming up Milhouse until the party reached the Denerim Alienage, where he betrayed us and we were forced to kill him. The games’ choices had consequences. The kind act of adding Zevran to the party was not rewarded. This was the result of a choice system. Things were said and choices were made that Zevran was not particularly happy with and because of this, the party didn’t have his loyalty. These choices plotted a course for Zevran that did not end well. It also impacted the plot for the other characters. Some were not happy about the decision to bring him into our party, and some admired the compassion. This multi-faceted plotting system added a new dimension to the story. Choices that were being made in real-time had impactful consequences later on.
Dragon Age has all the grit and fleshed out characters of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, and the dialogue is just as believable. This is not a comparison about which story is better. They both employ storytelling methods that offer different experiences. While books like A Game of Thrones might offer insight to interesting characters, well-written games like Dragon Age give you a chance to inhabit such a layered character and make choices that have serious consequences for themselves, their party and the world at large.
Structure and Social Interaction for Kids with Intellectual Disabilities
Just as different mediums have better advantages for certain styles of storytelling, they can also better cater to a particular audience.
Video games have been given the reputation of being damaging to children and stunting their emotional development; but there has been research in recent years that suggests video games can actually help children, particularly those with intellectual learning disabilities. This is not to say that a child with autism is going to show great social improvement after spending a weekend playing Leisure Suit Larry, but there are definite advantages to using the right games.
Autistic children need structure. It makes them feel safe and secure in a world where the curveballs of life affect them more than most people. A heavily plotted series like Final Fantasy or Tomb Raider can provide some of those constraints and boundaries that an autistic child craves. Characters have clear motivations and the plot progresses in a sequential order. This is no different to film or television; so why not just have the child watch those, instead? The difference for a child with autism is the level of immersion. They become the character. This is able to teach the child about compassion and empathy for others (a trait autistic children can sometimes struggle with) in a direct and immediate way, with an intensity they cannot get from other mediums. When Lara Croft dies at the hands of your fumbling controller, there is a much heavier investment than watching it in a film. Many children of the 90s’ first encounters with character empathy were during the now famous scene from Final Fantasy VII where Aerith was disemboweled by Sephiroth. So many people have discussed the intense reaction they have to this scene; a reaction wrapped in a protective layer to allow controlled emotional expression without exposing the vulnerability you would with real world tragedies.
As much as the children are immersed in the world, there is also a level of safety and security in playing games. Minecraft has proven to be a popular choice among autistic children, and while the game is an open world adventure with no plotting or structure outside of Story Mode, it offers something else: genuine conversations with real people from around the world; arguably the most authentic dialogue. When autistic children log on to an online game of Minecraft they are presented with an opportunity to start a genuine dialogue with a real human being, but still within the safe confines of their fantasy world of pixelated bricks.
We should never underestimate the power of the right video game in the hands of a child with learning disabilities. Sure, it might not be the most conventional way to learn social skills, but autistic people rarely do things in the most conventional way. These children are learning social skills that will help them better assimilate and function within society. That is the important part.
After the Dazzling Visuals Fade
Beauty fades, and so too do video game visuals. There is a scene in Final Fantasy VIII where Squall Leonheart is attending a dance at Balamb Garden. He is approached by a young raven-haired woman in a champagne dress who saunters over and says: “You’re the best looking guy here.” Her back to the ‘camera’, players can only see the ‘best looking’ guy himself and the indiscernible expression on his face; pixelated beyond recognition. It might be funny to laugh at this now, but when gamers played this title upon its original release, the visuals were cutting edge and they were all in awe of them.
But any fan of Final Fantasy VIII won’t remember Squall’s mangulated face. They will remember the time they stormed the city of Dollet and ran away from the giant robot spider before it exploded on the beach, giving them a chance to flee; or the time they assembled in Galbadia for a needlessly complicated mission to assassinate the sorceress Edea.
Time outdates the visuals and even the mechanics of a video game, but if it manages to have an engaging plot and believable dialogue, people will look past the visuals and outdated gameplay. Take a series like Chrono Trigger or Resident Evil. People continually drag out their clunky old consoles or rebuy HD remakes, just for a chance to play their favourite games. A game like Final Fantasy VII has become a religious experience for some fans. The gameplay is fairly standard for a JRPG of its time, and the low-polygon graphics are beyond outdated, but the story still rings true. From the themes of commercial destruction of the planet to the tragic death of Aerith; these are the moments that fans remember. These are the moments that make them timeless.
But is There Always A Need?
The video game market has certainly changed, and both the designers and the consumers are always looking for new ways to push the boundaries; to have larger worlds with more vibrant characters. But what does this mean for the classic game? Platformers seem to be a thing of the past (with only old franchises like Ratchet and Clank and Crash Bandicoot being brought back). The days of a simple, repetitive game seems to be in the rear-view. But should these classic formats be completely discarded? Isn’t there a place for platformers?
Retro (and retro inspired) games are the gaming equivalent to McDonald’s: They have absolutely no substance, and yet we continue to consume them, and it’s very hard to stop at one serve. While it’s great that stories have evolved beyond a three-word synopsis, that doesn’t mean that video games always need to have a rich and detailed plot. Much like film, television and even novels have their own pulp fiction equivalents, there is nothing wrong with a game that has fun mechanics that give you a break from depth and complexity. It’s like watching a three-hour complex, mind-bending epic like Cloud Atlas and finishing off by soothing your mind with a binge of The Real Housewives of [Insert City Here].
The online gaming world embodies this ideal. If you are looking for something story driven, there is an array of MMORPGs brimming with great writing, but if you are looking for a more ‘turn your brain off and enjoy yourself’ kind of game, there is a ton of content from shooters like Star Wars: Battlefront and Overwatch to the slasher showdown Friday the 13th: The Game.
In the end, we should raise the bar for video games. We should respect that people invest a lot of time and hard work into crafting interesting stories that can not only entertain us but hold the mirror up to us as a society and force us to look at some facet of our humanity; but sometimes it’s fun to mow through an army of stormtroopers in the Battle of Jakku or sneak away from Jason Vorhees for fear of him yanking your spine out of you like the string from a party-popper.
What do you think? Leave a comment.