I'm making my way through the documentary series 'Rise of the Videogame', and having just come off the second episode I'm a little wound up about a topic that often grates with me; the notion that the ultimate goal of videogames is to become like movies. That and the hoary old chestnut of whether a videogame can make you cry.
Gaming in general has a chip on its shoulder about squaring up to its rivals in entertainment. Films, music and literature are all comfortably considered art forms, and have proven themselves perfectly capable of eliciting a wide range of emotions in their audiences. For some reason a large chunk of the videogame industry, its commentators and consumers believe that gaming is a lesser entity for so far lacking the kind of narrative and characterization that we take for granted in a well-made film. I think this is a gross misjudgement of the true strengths of videogaming. For me its strengths lie in the fact that videogames can be something completely different in presentation and experience and goals. Beating highscores, solving puzzles, strategic planning, reflex and hand-to-eye co-ordination challenges... these are the things that videogames can provide in a completely unique fashion. These are the reasons I play videogames.
More than anything I need the challenge and satisfaction of playing. I don't see a game without a story as a negative thing at all, because a good one will stand on its own merits as offering a particular interactive experience. The background narrative and drip-fed storyline of Braid is completely disposable to me, but the thrill and sense of achievement on solving each puzzle is something that no other medium can bring me. Geometry Wars Retro Evolved 2 has no story or characters, unless you count the base levels of 'shape must destroy other shapes', yet it's the best game I've played all year and is a huge critical success. People still want games like that if they're good.
This is not to say that there's no place at all for stories in videogames. I like a good story as much as anyone, and in an adventure game I like to have characters I can empathise with and care about. I can enjoy an action adventure like Mass Effect a great deal, and I can be drawn into the world and characters of Final Fantasy XII. These things are fine in their own ways, I just don't think they make the games any more worthwhile than, say, Pac-Man, and I don't think they should be held up as the one true evolution of the medium. I hate the notion of equating an abstract arcade game as somehow a relic of a best-forgotten past. I think if we do that we move further and further away from the greatest strengths and possibilities of videogames.
That really would make me cry.