Writing for The Atlantic, academic and media commentator Ian Bogost put forth the rather bold claim that “video games are better without stories” and asked “film, television and literature all tell them better, so why are games still obsessed with narrative?”
This is an interesting question to ponder in light of any discussion of video games, but it’s a particularly pertinent discussion to have when we’re considering something as ambitious and audacious as Nier: Automata — a game which not only tells a compelling story, it tells it in an incredibly fascinating way.
Bogost’s article meanders around the point somewhat, but ultimately seems to come to the conclusion that purely environmental storytelling — be it through the use of audiologs, a la BioShock, or less explicitly through the environment itself, as in “walking simulators” such as Gone Home — is not a particularly effective approach to presenting an interactive narrative, though it can provide an interesting playground for a player to explore.
And he’s not really wrong in this regard… apart from the fact that it’s only in relatively rare cases that a game exclusively relies on this approach.
Nier: Automata’s environment in itself isn’t “a story” as such, but when combined with the other things the game is doing it allows us to understand a great deal about the overall narrative.
Nier: Automata certainly makes some strong use of environmental storytelling throughout, primarily through its contrast between the grainy, monochrome presentation of life on YorHa’s space station and the vibrant colours of a ruined world taken over by a combination of nature and the invading machine forces.
This contrast immediately highlights how life for the androids in the Bunker is strictly regimented, monotonous and free of personality — “emotions are prohibited”, as 2B says early in the game — while the surface of the Earth, long-abandoned by humanity, is chaotic, disorganised, unruly — and much more fascinating as a result. From the very beginning of the game, we can start learning about the world, the characters than inhabit it and the context in which they go about their business. And a lot of this understanding comes from things other than the script and dialogue.
Bogost queries whether stories created through environmental storytelling are “really interactive, when all the player does is assemble something from parts; are they really stories, when they are really environments?” The answers to these questions are neither simple nor universally applicable to all games.
But in Nier: Automata’s case it’s most correct to say that while the game environment in itself isn’t “a story” as such, when combined with the other things the game is doing — and, perhaps more importantly, the context which its predecessors provide it with — it most certainly does allow us to understand a great deal about the overall narrative we’re supposed to be experiencing, and without making too much of it explicit or insulting our intelligence. Show, don’t tell, and all that.
There’s a lot we can unpick from this — it’s certainly more than “just an environment”.
For those who played the original Nier, one of the most potent examples of this comes when entering the desert zone. This region is probably the first moment that causes series veterans to start attempting to make mental connections between Automata and its predecessor, which aren’t made at all explicit until much later in the game’s overall narrative. However, those who remember the desert area and the city of Facade from Nier will doubtless have their suspicions from the moment they enter the region — and a bit of searching around will reveal some “relics” from the old world that mention numerous, extremely specific “rules”, which were a core tenet of Facadian society as presented in Nier.
Automata is set ten millenia after the original Nier, however, so it’s not a simple case of wandering into an area that resembles the original game, perhaps buried by a bit more sand. Instead, we encounter a Facade very different from the relatively primitive society we once knew. We discover towering, ruined apartment blocks and remnants of industrial technology. We discover what appear to be small, abandoned, tribal settlements out in the desert proper — and variations on the Machines who appear to have attempted to mimic the distinctive clothing of Facadian residents. There’s a lot we can unpick from this, in other words — it’s certainly much more than “just an environment”.
No story truly “needs” to be told in a particular way; it simply needs to make the best use of the medium the creator has decided upon.
Another of Bogost’s key arguments in his piece is a common question when discussing narrative-based interactive entertainment: “why does this story need to be told as a video game?” Bogost applies it specifically to the recent title What Remains of Edith Finch in his article, but it’s a question you’ll often see critics of attempts to combine narrative and gameplay ask more generally. The answer to this one, however, is much simpler and pretty much can be universally applied across the entire spectrum of video games: it doesn’t. No story truly “needs” to be told in a particular way; it simply needs to make the best use of the medium the creator has decided upon, and it is up to that creator to decide how they wish to present their work. In the case of Nier: Automata, Yoko and his team decided that a video game would be the most appropriate way to do this — and, more crucially, they made good use of the medium in order to tell that story.
Nier: Automata, much like its predecessor, adopts a combination of approaches to handling its narrative. We’ve already talked about the environmental aspects of the story and how knowledge of their context can provide non-verbal meaning to the overall narrative. And the game also creates context and meaning in a variety of other ways.
Closely related to the environmental aspect, for example, is the use of optional side content such as quests and collectibles to flesh out the game world and provide the player with additional information over and above what the main narrative provides. This could be argued to fall into Bogost’s criticism of “assembling something from parts”, but an important thing to bear in mind with Nier: Automata as compared to something like BioShock, which Bogost references in his piece, is that most of this aspect of Automata is optional, while it’s a significant part of how BioShock (along with other titles Bogost mentions, such as Gone Home) delivers its main story. In other words, in Automata’s case, it is the player’s choice to engage with it (or not, as the case may be) and consequently they can direct their experience to a certain degree.
Nier provided a rare example of the player being asked to “method act” the protagonist; to truly inhabit their role, and to understand that sometimes, even the best intentions and efforts go unrewarded.
This aspect was particularly apparent in the original Nier, arguably even more so than in Automata. In the original game, there were a wide variety of sidequests, many of which required a great deal of rather tedious work on the player’s part to complete, and many of which actually ended rather “badly” for the questgiver, the protagonist and/or any of the other people involved in that particular narrative arc. This was interpreted by many reviewers as “bad gameplay”, a lack of payoff for the game’s core activities, or simply padding out the whole experience with unnecessary busywork, but it’s perhaps more accurate to look at this aspect of the game as part of the storytelling. Nier’s world is a difficult one in which to survive, and the sidequests reflect the fact that everyone — even the suppposed “hero” — has to do their part to help life go on for everyone, even if it’s an ultimately pointless endeavour. A rare example of the player being asked to “method act” the protagonist, in other words; to truly inhabit their role, and to understand that sometimes, even the best intentions and efforts go unrewarded.
Automata explores this theme too, with the added dimension of the fact that no-one you are interacting with is actually human: whether android or machine, everyone you involve yourself with is ultimately a mechanical being of some description. Mechanical beings that have, in many cases, transcended the original limitations of their technology, admittedly, but mechanical nonetheless. This raises interesting philosophical questions: can machines “struggle”? Is there any meaning to mechanical beings attempting to make a better world when there are no humans present to enjoy it? Why are the two respective “sides” in this conflict even still fighting, anyway? Further questions arise once you start to get to the bottom of the reason for YorHa’s existence as explored in the third playthrough onwards.
Nier: Automata is much more interesting for all these different narrative aspects. This isn’t to diminish its mechanical accomplishments, mind you — the moment-to-moment gameplay of getting around the environments, exploring, jumping and attacking enemies is very solid and enjoyable indeed, helped further by the wide variety of things you find yourself doing over the course of the complete story, and Yoko’s on-the-record desire to create a constantly changing experience. Without the story, though, there would be little “meaning” to anything you do in the game and certainly no sense of structure. In this regard, without a narrative, it would quickly lose its appeal, while with it, it provides sufficient incentive for many players to complete the three or more separate playthroughs required to understand the complete story.
For titles like Nier and its sequel, their narratives act not as the sole reason for the games’ existence, but rather as a means of fusing their disparate elements together.
Games don’t always need a narrative, of course. Completely abstract games, sandbox experiences and titles based primarily around mechanics such as puzzle games and shoot ’em ups can most certainly hold their own without needing anything in the way of explicit narrative and characterisation. But for titles like Nier and its sequel, their narratives act not as the sole reason for the games’ existence, but rather as a means of fusing their disparate elements together and, more importantly, providing the player with a powerful incentive to continue.
The idea of “narrative as reward” is often criticised for being one of the main sources of ludonarrative dissonance: as comedian Dara O’Briain put it in his 2010 set for Live at the Apollo, “you cannot be bad at watching a movie; you cannot be bad at listening to an album; but you can be bad at playing a video game, and the video game will punish you, and deny you access to the rest of the video game.”
It’s a fair point — it can be frustrating to run into an insurmountable obstacle that prevents you from accessing the next part of a linear narrative, though in Automata’s case this is somewhat subverted within the setting’s context through the androids’ “immortal” nature. Death is a minor inconvenience for androids, so long as they are able to back up their memories at regular intervals, and consequently any time you “die” in the game, it’s not a premature end to the story. That said, Automata promptly adds another layer of subversion to all this by providing numerous “secret” endings that do bring the narrative to an early conclusion, often through silly, negligent or recklessly curious behaviour such as seeing what happens if you whip out 2B’s central processing unit, force her to eat a fresh mackerel or trigger her self-destruct sequence while on the apparently quite fragile Bunker.
The interesting thing about “games” is that we’re not talking about a single medium; we’re talking about a broad collection of different experiences loosely gathered under a single banner.
Even these seeming “joke” endings provide context and further information to the player, though, and offer something unique to gaming: there’s no practical means of adding a variety of possible premature endings to a film, especially ones that can be triggered at pretty much any time; books and plays, meanwhile, have experimented with non-linear formats through works such as Choose Your Own Adventure gamebooks and their ilk, or plays running in parallel — Alan Ayckbourn’s The Norman Conquests is a good example of how this approach can work even with the most mundane of subject matter — but ultimately, they’ve always come back to what they’re good at: presenting a single, linear narrative.
The interesting thing about “games” is that we’re not talking about a single medium in the same way as we are when we’re talking about books or stage plays or movies. Instead, we’re talking about a broad collection of very different experiences loosely gathered — rather inappropriately — under a single banner, with none being any more or less “valid” than another, regardless of personal tastes. At one end of the spectrum, we have purely narrative experiences such as visual novels, which use the aesthetic, audio-visual and functional conventions of “games” to provide a linear narrative (or collection of linear narratives, in the case of multi-route works) and little else, except in a few notable cases. At the other, we have purely mechanical experiences such as competitive multiplayer esports, shoot ’em ups and puzzlers, where more often than not the only real “story” is that of the player struggling to overcome the challenges they have been set or the competition provided by their peers and opponents.
And in between, we have titles like Nier: Automata, which make use of their linear narrative to provide context to the player’s engagement with the mechanical aspects; which make use of non-linear storytelling to flesh out their setting; and which use their mechanics to provide a sense of a “journey” between narrative beats, or a practical means of reflecting the passage of time by filling the player’s real time with things to do beyond simply watching passively.
To say something as narrow-minded as “video games are better without stories” not only denigrates the hard work of creators, it attempts to invalidate the experiences of those who draw meaning from games’ storytelling.
With such a diverse array of experiences on offer to all of us, to say something as narrow-minded as “video games are better without stories” — and to follow it up with the subjective, unprovable claim that “the best interactive stories are still worse than even middling books and films” — not only denigrates the hard work of creators who have challenged themselves to create interactive stories for their audiences to enjoy, it also attempts to invalidate the experiences of those who do draw meaning from games’ storytelling and characterisation. It’s particularly disappointing to hear something like this from an academic that supposedly specialises in interactive entertainment, and it demonstrates a lack of awareness of gaming’s broader context outside of the big-budget triple-A and Western indie spaces — not coincidentally, the aspects that tend to get the most attention from the mainstream press.
Games most certainly can be sandboxes and playgrounds for our imagination, creativity and curiosity, as Bogost argues — “taking the tidy, ordinary world apart and putting it back together again in surprising, ghastly new ways” — but that’s not all they can be. Titles like Nier: Automata — and many of the other games covered here on MoeGamer, for that matter — demonstrate that not only are games capable of telling stories, they’re capable of telling them well, and in fascinating, creative ways that simply wouldn’t be possible to explore in any other medium.
That is, after all, one of the myriad reasons why so many of us have come to love them so much.
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