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 the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.