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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As children face a mental health crisis, should schools take the lead in fighting it?

There is a crisis affecting the mental health of England's young people. As Children’s Mental Health Week gets underway, the government must put schools at the heart of mental health services.

Three children in every classroom have a diagnosable mental health condition. Half of these are conduct (behavioural) disorders, while one third are emotional disorders such as stress, anxiety and depression, which often becomes outwardly apparent through self-harm. There was a staggering 52 per cent jump in hospital admissions for children and young people who had self-harmed between 2009 and 2015.

Schools and teachers have consistently reported the scale of the problem since 2009. Last year, over half of teachers reported that more of their pupils experience mental health problems than in the past. But teachers also consistently report how ill-equipped they feel to meet pupils’ mental health needs, and often cite a lack of training, expertise and support from NHS services.

Part of the reason for the increased pressure on schools is that there are now fewer ‘early intervention’ and low-level mental health services based in the community. Cuts to local authority budgets since 2010 have resulted in significant erosion of these services, despite strong evidence of their effectiveness in reducing escalation and crises further down the line. According to the parliamentary Health Select Committee, this has led specialist child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) to become inundated with more severe and complex cases that have been allowed to escalate through a lack of early treatment.

This matters.  Allowing the mental health of children and young people to deteriorate to this extent will prevent us from creating a healthy, happy, economically productive society.

So what part should schools play in government’s response?

During the last parliament, the government played down the role of schools in meeting pupils’ mental health and wider emotional needs. Michael Gove, during his tenure as education secretary, made a conscious decision to move away from the Every Child Matters framework, which obliged local authorities to work with schools and health services to improve the ‘physical and mental wellbeing’ of all children in their local area. He argued that schools policy needed to focus more heavily on academic outcomes and educational rigour, and references to children’s wellbeing were removed from the Ofsted framework. This created a false dichotomy between academic standards and pupils’ mental health - why can’t a school promote both?

But since Gove was replaced by Nicky Morgan, a new window of opportunity for meaningful reform has opened. Following her appointment in 2014, Morgan has called on schools to promote resilience and protect pupil’s mental health when problems first arise. The Department for Education has made tentative steps in this direction, publishing advice on counselling in schools and announcing a new pilot scheme to link schools with NHS services.

However, much more needs to be done.

The only way to break the pressures on both mental health services and schools is to reinvest in early intervention services of the kind that local authorities and the NHS have been forced to cut over the last few years. But this time around there should be one major difference – there is a compelling case that services should be based largely inside schools.

There are strong arguments for why schools are best placed to provide mental health services. Schools see young people more than any other service, giving them a unique ability to get to hard-to-reach children and young people and build meaningful relationships with them over time. Studies have shown that children and young people largely prefer to see a counsellor in school rather than in an outside environment, and attendance rates for school-based services such as those provided by the charity Place2Be are often better than those for CAMHS. Young people have reported that for low-level conditions such as stress and anxiety, a clinical NHS setting can sometimes be daunting and off-putting.

There are already examples of innovative schools which combine mental health and wellbeing provision with a strong academic curriculum. For example, School 21 in East London dedicates 2.5 hours per week to wellbeing, creating opportunities for pastoral staff to identify problems as early as possible.

There is a huge opportunity for Nicky Morgan – as well as Labour’s shadow mental health minister Luciana Berger – to call for schools to be placed at the heart of a reconstructed early intervention infrastructure.

This will, though, require a huge cultural shift. Politicians, policymakers, commissioners and school leaders must be brave enough to make the leap in to reimagining schools as providers of health as well as education services.

Craig Thorley is a research fellow at IPPR, where he leads work on mental health. Follow him @craigjthorley