The greatest stories ever played

Can video games combine strong narratives with actual play? Phil Hartup examines the contenders.

When Spec Ops: The Line appeared to a somewhat muted fanfare it didn’t look like much more than another Call of Duty wannabe in a third person view. At first it all feels like Gears of War reborn in a ruined Dubai, our hero dutifully shooting Islamic insurgents, presumably to stop them constructing some kind of Muslamic Ray Gun, shrugging off multiple gunshot wounds and exchanging cheerful banter with generic macho sidekicks. It is only once you get into the belly of the game that you start to realise that this is no ordinary story of good guys and bad rather that it is a subversive work of art not merely in terms of its content and narrative, but in how that narrative is delivered.

To summarise the plot of Spec Ops: The Line is not easy without spoiling it, and it really should not be spoiled, it should be experienced. Suffice it to say that it turns a run and gun action game into a painful descent into guilt and madness, at the same time examining the very nature of linear gaming. Spec Ops: The Line shatters the gaming trope that if you meekly kill everybody you are told to kill you can make everything right.

But here we come to the problem of Spec Ops: The Line, and it is one shared by almost every other game that has ever attempted to take a mature approach to storytelling: it is a game. When you choose to tell a traditionally structured story through a video game you need to make it, well, gamey. Games need something to do to stop them simply being a movie and this activity tends to be violent, which in turn can undermine the human elements. Max Payne 3 for example could have been a great story but for the body count. Heavy Rain tried to go in a different direction by turning elements of the story that were not violent into gameplay and this largely succeeded, but it hasn’t caught on. Too often a developer will reach for the small army of goons and have you shoot your way through them for no better reason than to delay the ending.

This problem is writ large in Spec Ops: The Line, where the very real emotional and psychological foundations of the tale are played out alongside cartoonish violence. There is a case to be made that Spec Ops: The Line is aware of that dichotomy and is toying with it, a satire of the Call of Duty military war-porn genre. But taking things to that level of analysis does little to mitigate the fact that while you are playing it and shooting your way through an entire US Army battalion, you get bored. You want the gunfire to stop and the story to start again. Challenge becomes chore and from a game design perspective this is a serious problem.

This flaw is inherent to linear gaming narratives. If the story is already set in stone then two symptoms develop in the game, firstly the actual act of playing the game becomes simply filler, busy work, to increase the run time of the game and secondly the story itself has to somehow acknowledge your actions during play in a credible sense. It is this last symptom that so cripples the story of Max Payne 3. Anything the plot has to say feels a bit like a footnote after you’ve cut a swathe through Sao Paulo like Godzilla on roller skates.

Thankfully not all games suffer this flaw. Skyrim benefits from the fact that not only does it have an open world; it also has an open story. There are linear quest chains in the game with pre-planned narratives but the degree of control in how you approach them is so complete that you can choose to not approach them at all. Don’t want to save the world? No biggie. Get married and build a little house in the mountains.

This ability to write your own story has been around almost as long as video games themselves. Elite for instance gave the player a spaceship, a laser, the ability to buy and sell goods and a populated galaxy to fly around in. It is also telling that The Sims has become one of the most popular game series in history by providing what basically amounts to a digital Lego set. Likewise, the phenomenon of Minecraft saw millions of eager gamers eschew a predetermined narrative for the simple joys of digging holes, building houses and getting chased around a procedurally generated world by exploding cacti. Every time you start a new game the story turns out differently.

If there is ever to be a truly great story in a video game perhaps this is where it will be born, in a dynamic sandbox environment, birthed out of the consequences and creativity of player actions rather than on the storyboard of a studio developer.

A screenshot from Spec Ops: The Line. Photograph: ryjek.net

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture

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Why Nigel Farage is hoovering up all the women I know

Beware young fogeys.

I can’t remember where I was when I first worked out that I was older than Nigel Farage. You’d think after that bombshell went off, you’d still be able to locate the crater. Anyway, there it is: the cut-price little Oswald Mosley is about a year younger than me.

I mention this not because I want to dwell on the nasty piece of shit, but because I’ve been having to face, at one remove, so to speak, the problem of young fogeyism. It seems to be all around. And not only that, it’s hoovering up women I know.

The first time it happened was with B——. She was going to come round last weekend, but then emailed to cancel the day before, because she was going to watch rugby – apparently there’s some kind of tournament on, but it never seems to end – with her boyfriend. How ghastly, I said, or words to that effect; I’d rather die.

She then made the Category One mistake of saying, “Rugby, cricket, all the same to me,” with a cheeky little “x” at the end of it.

I replied thus: Rugby is a violent and brutal game (the coy term is “contact sport”, which means you get to – indeed, are encouraged to – injure the opposing team as often as you can, in the absence of any other tactic) loved by fascists, or, at best, those with suspicious ideas about the order of society with which I doubt you, B——, would wish to be aligned. Also, only people of immense bulk and limited intelligence can play it. Cricket is a game of deep and subtle strategy, capable of extraordinary variation, which is appreciated across the class spectrum, and is also so democratically designed that even the less athletic – such as I – can play it. [I delete here, for your comfort, a rant of 800 or so words in which I develop my theory that cricket is a bulwark against racism, and rugby, er, isn’t.] Both are dismayingly over-represented at the national level by ex-public-school boys; cricket as a matter of historical accident (the selling-off of school playing fields under Thatcher and Major), rugby as a matter of policy. Have a lovely day watching it.

Two things to note. 1) This woman is not, by either birth or ancestry, from a part of the world where rugby is played. 2) You wouldn’t have thought she was one of nature’s rugby fans, as she considers that Jeremy Corbyn is a good person to be leading the Labour Party. (True, thousands of Tories think the same thing, but for completely different reasons.)

That’s Exhibit A. Exhibit B is my old friend C——, whom I haven’t seen for about five years or so but suddenly pops up from the past to say hello, how about a drink? I always liked C—— very much, largely because she’s very funny and, let’s be frank about this, something of a sexpot. She seems keen to bring someone over with her who, reading between the lines like a modern-day Sherlock Holmes, I deduce to be her latest partner. The thing is, she says, she’s not sure he can come, because he might be going beagling.

Beagling?

Well, she does come round (alone, thank goodness) and she’s looking even better than I remember, and is even funnier, too, and she shows me some of the pictures she has put up on her profile page on some dating site, and they’re not the kind of photographs this magazine will ever publish, let’s leave it at that. (One of them even moves.) And, as it turns out – and it doesn’t really surprise me that much – the young beagler she is seeing is a good thirty years-plus younger than she, and his photograph shows him to be all ears and curls, like a transporter mix-up between Prince Charles and the young David Gower. Like B——’s young man, he is not called Gervaise or Peregrine but may as well be.

What on Earth is going on here? Can we blame Farage? I can understand the pull of the void, but this is getting ridiculous. Do they not quite understand what they’re doing? Actually, C—— does, because she’s had her eyes open all her life, and B——, her youth and political idealism notwithstanding, didn’t exactly come down in the last shower, either.

So what is it with these young wannabe toffs – one of whom isn’t even rich? “You’d like him,” C—— says, but I’m not so sure. People who go beagling sure as hell don’t like me, and I see no reason not to return the favour.

Well, I can’t thrash this out here. C—— leaves, but not before giving me the kind of kiss that makes me wish Binkie Beagley, or whatever his name is, would just wink out of existence.

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times