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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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.