Ian Bogost is an incredibly smart man. He has done more to validate games within academic discourse than likely just about anyone. He and Lev Manovich are largely responsible for my pursuit of videogames as a subject for my own academic research. My feelings towards his article in The Atlantic today are not centered on his inflammatory headline, subject matter, nor opinion. My biggest issue is the reliance on a rather archaic and largely rejected understanding of agency and medium which becomes the crux of the argument. Below I hope to convey the areas which I feel Bogost’s piece was most lacking. This will not be a “oh but you need to consider this game and this game that do a better job of storytelling” type of piece (I actually rely heavily on Bioshock and Gone Home in my own thesis about the Architecture as the requisite link between multiple forms of immersion). I seek only to provide a critique of Bogost’s work in an attempt to provide a measured response. The following should be read with the understanding that Bogost is in man respects an authority in and of himself. The man has likely forgotten more about Ludonarrative Dissonance than most will ever know.
Bogost’s leading question, “are [videogame stories] better stories than the more popular and proven ones in the cinema, on television, and in books?” lays the groundwork for the narrative comparisons he hopes to draw. Ignoring the fact that the aforementioned forms of media have been around significantly longer than videogames and have a significantly larger sample size of stories to pull from, Bogost’s question is problematic in that it offers no basis of confirmation. The question, or really, the answer, cannot be confirmed as anything more than opinion because there are no perimeters by which to measure a result. How does one constitute “better?” Clearly his thesis is: no, videogame stories are not better than the ones in cinema, television, or books but at no point does he prove it. Is he wrong? Not necessarily. Does he sufficiently validate his claim? No.
Pointing to Bioshock, Gone Home, What Remains of Edith Finch, and Dear Esther as games in which “the glory of refusing the player agency was part of the goal,” Bogost argues that these linear games would serve equally well as movies because they have linear stories and claims that, “interacting with the environment only gets in the way.” Sure, Bioshock intentionally points out to players that it has stripped them of their agency and the rest of the games listed are certainly linear games to an extent, but the problem comes in conflating linearity with a lack of agency.
In their book, Glued to Games: How Video Games Draw Us In and Hold Us Spellbound, psychologist Scott Rigby and Richard M. Ryan state:
“Autonomy itself is not dependent on always having ‘options.’ It is more fundamentally about acting volitionally, regardless of the level of choice that may be before you. At its heart, autonomy means that one’s acton are aligned with one’s inner self and values; that you feel you are making the decisions and are able to stand behind what you do. Even if you have only a single pathway open to you, you still feel autonomous if it is the one you want to travel down. Certainly, circumstances of freedom and choice facilitate being able to select and optimize one’s preferences, but volition doesn’t require that one have lots of opportunities. Indeed, it is often when an individual has a sense of mission and purpose that they feel most autonomous, even thought they may not perceive a lot of options or specific choices.”
Incorporating this logic, Bogost’s assertion that a linear game’s story is better suited as a film fails to acknowledge the interactivity required of the videogame story. Simply because a game deprives players of options does not mean it limits their agency. Providing adequate motivation to facilitate player actions provides agency all on its own, a feat which the previously listed games certainly accomplish. While a film may lead viewers through the Greenbriar home and illuminate what happened to the family, Gone Home makes its story unique to videogames because the player feels that they are acting of their own volition at all times, a feeling which cinema, television, and books cannot convey.
So when Bogost asks, “Why does this story need to be told as a video game?” the answer becomes, because the player needs to experience it under their own volition in order to become immersed in the illusionary narrative that they are the protagonist.
Forgive the colloquialism, but Bogost’s article has an air of “stay in your lane” about it. “These other mediums do storytelling so well, videogames should just focus on what they have going for them,” which, according to Bogost, is taking the “ordinary world apart and putting it back together again in surprising, ghastly new ways.” This is not to say that Bogost diminishes videogames at any point. In fact, while there is a hint of “stay in your lane” it is in service to his reverence for the medium and his hopes for it to transcend the confines of its predecessors, an admirable goal certainly.
The assertion that videogames should stick to what they do best and ignore what other disciplines do better is overly reliant on a belief in medium specificity. In 1960, Clement Greenberg’s “Modernist Painting” put forth the notion of medium specificity. He claimed that for art to become independent, for it to be acknowledged as its own specific medium it must embrace those aspects which it does not share with any other art form, or those aspects which are specific to only it. As an example he calls upon painting and classifies its defining characteristic as flatness. Yet, is this true of all painting? In her 1979 essay, “Sculpture in the Expanded Field” Rosalind Krauss rejects the notion of medium specificity and argues that there is no statement one could make that is applicable to all forms of an art, in her case, sculpture. This is not to say that painting and sculpture do not exist, but rather that they do not exist as “mediums” because there is no such thing as a “medium.” Mediums are pre-defined pre- conceived notions of a particular genre or type that exist, until they do not. Not all paintings are flat, not all sculptures are three dimensional, and not all videogames are bad storytellers.
When Bogost classifies medium, he states:
Think of a medium as the aesthetic form of common materials. Poetry aestheticizes language. Painting aestheticizes flatness and pigment. Photography does so for time. Film, for time and space. Architecture, for mass and void. Television, for economic leisure and domestic habit. Sure, yes, those media can and do tell stories. But the stories come later, built atop the medium’s foundations.
The quote utilizes a Clement Greenbergian notion of medium specificity, one which is admittedly simple and clean, but one which is largely rejected today. Art is in a post-medium era and simple classifications like painting is flat and videogames cannot tell stories is a rather archaic notion. Perhaps no videogame that has told a story on the same level of narrative merit as the most revered books or films, until one does.
Should videogame ignore the conventions of other disciplines and pursue more complex and “ambitious” goals? Perhaps. After all, the use of the single world “videogame” seeks to identify games as a unique discipline, independent of the disparate notions of “video” and “game.” Yet, the single word usage also embraces the nature of videogames to do whatever they please and avoid any singular defining characteristic. I am not upset with what Bogost said, I am disappointed in how he said it.