Earlier this summer, we went to see Puccini’s opera The Girl of the Golden West. Which was quite the spectacle, but my first thought after it was over was “after this, I’d better not hear anybody ever complain about video game plots again!” Its plot was threadbare and ridiculous; I’ve certainly played video games with worse plots, but most of the narrative video games I’ve played this year did better, some of them significantly so.
The thing is, when judging an opera, that doesn’t matter! Perhaps that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but really what I’m looking for in an opera plot is something that supports a string of scenes in which characters can break into song and make beautiful music together. I didn’t actually think The Girl of the Golden West was very good, but the plot had nothing to do with that: the plot served its role adequately, I simply didn’t like the music.
And then last weekend, we went to a production of Cole Porter’s Anything Goes. Again, a threadbare and ludicrous plot; apparently P. G. Wodehouse worked on it, and there’s a certain similarity in tone, but its story doesn’t have anything approaching the richness of his books. But, again, that’s okay: the plot is simply an excuse for musical numbers (and, as an extra bonus, dance numbers!); in Anything Goes, unlike The Girl of the Golden West, those are stunning. (And, actually, the songs’ lyrics really are clever, so it’s not completely abandoning literary virtues.)
Which leads us to video games. If these well-respected art forms can use a threadbare narrative as a vehicle for glorious set pieces, why on earth shouldn’t we do the same? Take Professor Layton as an example: it has a plot, it’s a pretty silly one (though no worse than the ones in the works mentioned above), but the game’s designers manage to shoehorn the plot into an excuse to throw puzzle after puzzle at you. And the puzzles are awesome, and that awesomeness is enriched by the art work, the music, and even the plot that surrounds them.
I am not proposing this aspect of operas and musicals as a general model that all video games should follow: non-narrative video games are just as valid as non-narrative music is, and for that matter video games are so multifaceted that they’re entirely capable of learning from the virtues of any other art form. (We need more experimentation with the possibilities of video games, not less!) But I think it’s a useful counterpoint to the comparisons of video games to movies: consider thinking of narrative as a cord to string pearls along rather than as diamond that, while horribly flawed, nonetheless makes the rest of your game look tawdry.
Or, perhaps, give up on similes entirely: that’s a pretty bad one. But, if you follow me down this route, I have one last suggestion: consider the sorts of narratives that you do find in operas and musicals. There are certainly opera narratives that are as grandiose as any video game plot, the Ring being the most obvious example. But a lot of them are rather slight, quite aware of the supporting role they play, dancing lightly along with the music, with even tragedies not expecting the world to be consumed by their grief.
Shouldn’t more games do the same? Focus on your gameplay set pieces, get them right, and let the story skip along with them. And, while you’re at it, maybe consider following musical forms and make those set pieces rather shorter, too.
Mitch Krpata recently wrote a parody piece injecting Hydro Thunder into the “games as art” debate. The thing is, I played that game with friends last Thursday, and we all had a great time, because the game did such a good job of helping us focus on enjoying our play together in the context of the constraints that the game placed on us. And it did this while treating the context that surrounded that gameplay respectfully but not particularly seriously. So yes: art it is, and my world is richer because of it.
(Quick poll: are the pictures a good idea, a bad idea, a good idea in theory but I chose bad pictures, or something else?)
This post has not been revised since publication.