Thoughts About the Narrative Power of Video Games
I’ve been listening to a lot of the Nerdist Podcasts lately. They are humorous and entertaining, and most importantly they keep my brain from destroying itself with doubt and loathing. My favorite is The Indoor Kids, where professional comedian Kumail Nanjiani and his wife Emily V. Gordon talk to various funny people about video games. One of the best episodes by far starred Film Crit Hulk, where the idea of Video Games as art was debated.
It is difficult to talk about art in general, mostly because everybody has a different idea about what art is. A good baseline definition for art is: Art is the expression of feelings or ideas through a specific medium, whether it is Literary, Visual, or Audible. Whether something is Art or just artistic depends on how accurately the thought or feelings are expressed and the performance of the medium. The consensus from the podcast was that video games tell a story, much like films, and therefore are able to be art. However, the inherent gameness of most video games takes away from the story, and therefore the accuracy of the themes and ideas of the narrative get watered down, making it not art.
I’ve been taking these thoughts with me as I have been thinking about how it applies to one of my favorite video games of all time, Final Fantasy VIII. I feel of all the Final Fantasy games, it has arguably the strongest narrative (Final Fantasy X and XII would both be in that discussion). The game’s story is based around a team of mercenaries who have been training since their youth to face an evil sorceress. Throughout the game, the characters learn that they have forgotten their strong ties (they were all orphans together at the same orphanage) due to their training and use of magical Guardian Forces.
The B story throughout game hinges around the main characters Squall and Rinoa. Squall’s father and Rinoa’s mother were once semi-romantically intwined. But due to war they were tragically never to see each other again, and their lives were to go on elsewhere. While the team relives scenes from Squall’s father’s past (oh by the way, that is a spoiler, I don’t think you get to that revelation until the third disc, sorry) Squall and Rinoa develop romantically. The games main themes revolve, therefore, on how War takes the childhood and futures of those involved, and on how the powerful memories of the past can help us to anchor or present.
The game’s main beats happen over four discs, but the story stays mostly in the first three with the fourth containing a strange metaworld where the past, present, and future happen simultaneously and the team must fight against the evil sorceress on the edge of time. The story plays pretty strongly, with reveals spread out enough to keep the story interesting. However, with all the side quests and the ability to explore a vast territory, the narrative often takes a backseat to game play. Even the great Triple Triad side game (which is better than any other FF side game with the exception of maybe blitzball) can eat up a lot of your time and take away from the story. Therefore, I would have to come to the conclusion that FFVIII can come very close to being considered and artistic game, if the game play didn’t take away from the execution of the narrative.
The same could probably be said for any of the other games in the series. Even with the strong storyline in FFXII hinging around the idea of revenge and the responsibility involved with using force, the massiveness of the game takes away from the overall execution of the narrative, thus taking from its ability to be called art. They are great games. I don’t think anyone can argue they are bad games without having a bias against RPGs. For them to be considered art they would have to take away all the things that take away from the story line, which would make them weaker games.