Book review: A Mind Forever Voyaging: A History of Storytelling in Video Games

A Mind Forever Voyaging: A History of Storytelling in Video Games. Dylan Holmes. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.

As a form of storytelling, what makes video games distinct from other forms of storytelling, such as movies or books? What are the strengths and weaknesses of this form, what techniques has it borrowed from other media, and what untapped potential does it still have?

A Mind Forever Voyaging: A History of Storytelling in Video Games is a book that is essentially doing two things at once. It provides a history of thirteen games that have made important contributions to the art of video game storytelling, and on the side, it also provides some commentary on more general questions like the ones above. Doing two things at once is always harder than just doing one thing, but A Mind Forever Voyaging pulls it off pretty well. One or two early transitions between the specific and the general felt a little jarring, but then I either got used to them or the shifts became more natural.

The book is an interesting read in both senses. I had thought myself relatively knowledgeable about the history of video games, but until now, I hadn’t known what 1983 title had been possibly the first video game in history that had managed to make its players cry. And as there several games that I had heard a lot about but never played, it was interesting to hear exactly why Half-Life, for example, had been so popular.

The games that get a full chapter devoted to them are: The Secret of Monkey Island, Planetfall, Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar, System Shock, Final Fantasy VII, Metal Gear Solid, Half-Life, Shenmue, Deus Ex, Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Libery, Façade, Dear Esther, and Heavy Rain. A number of others also get a couple of paragraphs worth of coverage each. As the author readily admits, this necessarily leaves out many games that would have deserved to be included, and the selection of which ones to include is a somewhat subjective one. In one case, a game was excluded from getting the full treatment because it was too good: Planescape: Torment was left out because ”there was too much to talk about: it begs for in-depth literary analysis, which was beyond the scope of what I was doing”.

Still, although one can always quibble about particular games that should have also been included, overall the selection strikes me as a good one: I’m pretty sure that if I’d had to pick thirteen games for such a project, I would have done worse. Before reading the relevant chapters, I felt a little dubious about whether it was really necessary to include two games from the same series – Metal Gear Solid 1 and 2, neither of which I had played. But when I did read the chapter about MGS2, I became apparent that the game had been quite innovative in the way that it exploited its nature as a sequel, and deserved a mention because of that fact. The nature of video game sequels is also somewhat special – as the author points out, video games are exceptional in that the sequels are often better than the original games, which isn’t the case with most other forms of media. That alone merited some discussion.

The titles have basically been picked on the basis of their novelty: whether they contributed new innovations to the art of video game storytelling. As such, the book can also be read as a collection of different storytelling techniques and considerations as applied to video games, which makes for a fascinating read.

How can game mechanics and storytelling aspects be integrated so that they support each other in building a more immersive experience? How much does immersion suffer from the game being so difficult that the player must keep reloading earlier saves? If it is exceedingly hard to make conversations with other characters feel like conversations with real people, is it sometimes better to not include any other characters at all? When can a game get away with addressing the player directly, potentially breaking the fourth wall? What techniques can be used to create the illusion that the player’s choices actually matter and have consequences? Such are some of the questions which are touched upon in the book, and seeing the intricacies behind some of the games I had liked made me appreciate them, and video games storytelling in general, more than I had before. If I were running my own video game studio, this book would probably be required reading for all my employees.

Some of those questions get relatively superficial coverage: they’re raised when discussing a single game, in the context of how that game did things, and then they’re never touched upon again. Others feel like recurring themes. The book will discuss a theoretical aspect of one game, and then move on and return to the same topic from another angle when discussing an entirely different game. These interwoven threads are not always pointed out explicitly, and it remains up to the reader to notice them and put the pieces together.

For example, one recurring theme in the book is the notion that video games are made distinct by the need to develop the whole world beforehand: a strength of video games is that the player can freely explore a world on their own, but fully exploiting this strength also requires the game designer to prepare interesting content that maintains that illusion of freedom and being able to do anything. If the game has many interactive or simulationist elements – an environment that actually gets damaged when it’s shot at, NPCs that display signs of intelligence, a system of moral consequence – it also becomes more likely that the player will be disappointed when the cracks in the illusion show up. Examples of such cracks include there being indestructible parts of the environment, the NPCs being clearly revealed as just scripted pieces of dialogue, or when the player’s actions don’t actually matter or morality is reduced to just another score to be maximized. The designer can avoid this problem by just making things more tightly akin to a movie, where the player is just a passive observer who’s along for the ride – but to do so means neglecting some of the unique potential that video games have.

Another solution is to try to use artificial intelligence techniques and machine-generated content in order to avoid needing to specify all the content by hand – but again, this can easily fail as the successes of the technique make its failures ever more obvious. This is clearly highlighted in the book’s discussion about Façade, an indie game about the breakdown of a couple’s marriage which uses a natural language parser to let the player converse with the couple and try to save their marriage. Sometimes the game gets lucky at interpreting the player’s writing and delivers a strongly compelling experience, and at other times, it performs… considerably less well.

A sort of meta-theme in the book, uniting many other themes, is the sense of game designers being engaged in a constant struggle to overcome the limitations of their format – both technical and financial. In a sense, it is a study of human ingenuity, of many people over many decades throwing themselves into a novel domain and gradually accumulating new ways of handling that domain, each building on the previous accomplishments of the others.

Although the book draws heavily upon the academic study of games, it never comes off as dry and boring: instead, it is a fast and enjoyable read. When I first started reading it, I thought that I’d read it for about half an hour before going to bed – I finally managed to force myself to put it away two and a half hours later. While this is a common occurrence with fiction, a non-fiction book that pulls this off is far more rare.

When not chronicling and analyzing specific games, the style of theoretical analysis is more tilted towards breadth than depth – which is fine, especially given that the book is mainly focused on providing a history of video game storytelling, not building a grand theory of said storytelling. Still, one gets a clear feeling that the author would have been capable of discussing each of the issues in far more detail than he does now. In any case, while the theoretical analysis does occasionally feel somewhat superficial, and never gets to the point of giving off a similar sense of brilliance as reading someone like Henry Jenkins does, it remains fascinating throughout. Reading it, I felt myself wanting to give it to some friends of mine to read, so that we could discuss its analyses together.

As is often the case, possibly the biggest failing of the book is that even at 250 pages, it feels too short. I would have gladly read a version of the book that was twice or even thrice the lenght, and covered that many more games. Right now, the book feels more like a snapshot of the history of storytelling in video games, rather than a history of it.

Perhaps the thing that I like the most about the book is that after reading it, I was left with a clear feeling of the very greatest video games still being ahead of us. Video games remain a young art form, and while game designers have experimented with many techniques for better storytelling, the full potential of those techniques remains untapped, waiting for someone to perfect them. We have only began to glimpse at just how good games could be.

(Full disclosure: the author is a long-time online friend of mine, which has probably biased this review a little, but I wouldn’t have written this in the first place if I hadn’t liked the book on its own merits.)

One comment

  1. I feel ashamed that I played just one game from the list (Dear Esther). I’ll put the book on my reading list for sure.

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