Wanted: Original Gangsta

Posted on 06/07/2009


There’s a popular counter-all argument when it comes to discussing a story being original or not, that goes on the variation of “There are no new stories to be told”, “Everything has been told already” or even “Ever read the Gilgamesh epic? Every story told after that copied it.”

If that’s true, why bother. Originality cannot be had. Everything is a re-telling of a retelling of a retelling anyway. Stop the press, etc.

When dealing with a lot of the stories of games, this ever too often seems true. Heard that one before. Maybe in parts from different places, but originality often times isn’t something to accuse games’ stories of.

Origin story of origin stories?

Origin story of origin stories?

Question is though, does this matter?

Story matters, no doubt about it. But when a story is told through a new medium, the experience it gives to the consumer alters significantly.

Sure I wouldn’t bother playing a game that had a actually 100% original story (if that’s even possible). But then again, playing rather than reading (or experiencing rather than watching for all that matters can even make an “aw, not another damn alien invasion!” plot fresh and exiting.

It’s ultimately all a matter of execution though. Half-Life’s plot is fundamentally uninspired. Things go boom, green things go “y, hello thar!”, shit goes “zomg fan!”. Etc. pp.

It’s the spot-on execution of the game that’s wrapped around this story that makes it, and it’s sequels into the epics they are.

Same goes for the Halo franchise, which does indeed have a pretty good story, but again, one that is hardly original, channeling Banks, Card and Niven, throwing core elements of their work in the blender and add a taste of Cameron for good measure.

Video game stories tend to do that. Amalgamations of other media.

We have come to accept that it seems.

But as mentioned before it doesn’t really seem to matter (yet?).

Amalgamation and emulation of genre defining texts works quite well for a medium where the story itself is on the hand not the center of attention, and on the other hand where the story can be said to be the result of the center of attention. Which in this case would be gameplay.

And here the question is, if gameplay is the factor in gaming that constitutes story, do games need to emulate other forms of text? The benefits of this emulation are obvious, more people can relate to tried and true concepts. Everybody knows what “an orc” is. Everybody knows the concept of “a zombie”. No big explanation needed. Drop people into a Tolkien inspired fantasy world, and they’ll immediately know what to do.

One of the problems I see with this loss of originality is the inherent loss of subtext. Sticking with Tolkien, taking orcs and elves out of the context of his works usually leads to the loss of his Great War allusions and metaphors. Little more than a big “elves love trees” survives the transition.

There are exceptions of course, Bioshock does manage to bring the objectivist agenda across (even if grossly simplified), and Halo renders complex, hard sci-fi themes into something that’s easily consumable by “the masses” while still retaining the better part of the source material’s chewy bits.

Still the danger is there that games as a medium get caught in the “meta trap”, which means that all that games do is emulate other texts and genres directly, without bothering about these texts sources and subtexts, resulting in an entertaining but ultimately shallow blur of concepts.

It sure would be nice to have an openworld gangster game (see how I left out “movie”?) that takes hints from real world police and criminals rather than from fictional ones. Or World War II games that go into historical contexts rather than trying to again imitate Spielberg.

These things wouldn’t have to go all the way of a simulation, mind you. This is not a plea for more realistic games. If anything, it’s a plea for more originality. For games that look at a certain text from another medium, and don’t imitate it, but look at where that text is coming from and draw their own conclusions.

James Cameron’s Aliens has been made into a game a quadzillion times.

But rarely has there been a game that covers the aspect of the movie’s underlying Vietnam themes, the rape fantasies underlying the Xenomorph, and the critique of capitalism that’s running through the first few Alien movies.

Then again…

There are already games out there clinging close to “military studies” and major league sports for example. A good example of a game that navigated close to “true”, non-derivative source material rather than a source genre would be Clover Studio’s Okami, where Japanese mythology was given a truly unique twist. Games like this one are a rare breed though. Also they usually don’t sell too well, for whatever reason. Orcs, elves and space marines seem to be hugely better marketable than less easily recognizable concepts.