It might have been my general awkwardness, or the soft unappealing plume on my upper lip, or my general distaste for humanity, but I’m pretty sure the reason I had no social life in junior high is Ron Gilbert. The computer games he wrote—Maniac Mansion, Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders, The Secret of Monkey Island—were just too funny and engrossing to leave room for things like dances or sports or girls, so I sat in my bedroom and banged on the keyboard and chuckled at zany jokes like a character named Sandy Pantz or another using a kazoo to defeat the aliens who had infiltrated the phone company. This is how I spent my boyhood.
When Gilbert released his latest game, then, entitled The Cave, late last month, I was giddy. I cleared off a few evenings, plugged in, and was delighted to find that the decades had done little to dull the designer’s sense of humor, which is of the sort P.G. Wodehouse might have developed had he been born on the West Coast in the 1960s and passed his days watching Star Wars and toying with computers. Like Gilbert’s best games, this one, too, owes much of its pleasure to remarkably simple controls: characters move around on a classic two-dimensional video game platform (think Mario, Mega Man, or an abundance of other titles), and players click on objects to interact with them and solve witty puzzles. There are seven characters to choose from, with three playable simultaneously, which makes for madcap orchestrations—one character taunts a dog to make him bark, say, while another sneaks up and poisons a pot of soup. Switching back and forth from one character to another is a pleasure; whereas other video games, with their emphasis on running and jumping and shooting, are like marathons for your thumbs, The Cave is a ballet. Having streamlined the game’s mechanics, Gilbert was free to focus on the story. And the story is stellar: anything said about The Cave's intricate plot might spoil some of its devilishly fun surprises, but playing the game makes it clear that Gilbert remains on par with some of the finest storytellers working in any medium today.
And that’s precisely the problem.
Playing The Cave has only sharpened a conundrum myself and other video game scholars 1 have been considering for a while, that of video games and stories. On the extreme end of the spectrum are people like the game scholar Markku Eskelinen, who believe story is totally irrelevant to electronic games. "Outside academic theory," he wrote, "people are usually excellent at making distinctions between narrative, drama and games. If I throw a ball at you I don’t expect you to drop it and wait until it starts telling stories." And yet, he lamented, video game players and critics and scholars alike all make a point of analyzing game storylines, as if the profound experience of playing electronic games was something more than a series of largely mechanical interactions, taking place on a screen rather than in the backyard.
Even if you allow for leniency—some games, after all, have intricate plots and are celebrated as much for their writing as for their game mechanics and design—it's hard not to take the non-narrative viewpoint seriously. My own research suggests that the anti-narrativists 2 are more right than wrong. Ask gamers to tell you the plot of the most recent game they played and the most recent movie they watched, assuming that both were experienced more or less around the same time, and you’ll find that they remember the movie’s plot in great detail but the game’s plot only vaguely, if at all. When gamers play, they focus, to borrow a term from the loftier realm of spirituality, on being in the moment, an almost trance-like condition of pure action. They’re too busy pressing buttons and tugging on joysticks to notice anything quite as demanding as a plot.
This, at least, was the position I held before cackling at The Cave, and to some extent I hold it still. But Ron Gilbert's genius made it more difficult to argue that video games could never be storytelling platforms. When I used a bell, a hot dog vending machine, and a mechanical claw, for example, to lure a spiky beast into a trap, I was delighted not necessarily with having solved a somewhat simple puzzle but with having witnessed such a clever little gag, the equivalent of anything the Marx Brothers might have lobbed at me in one of their movies. What I was enjoying, in other words, was a good joke.
The Cave, then, is particularly masterful, but other recent examples of video game storytelling abound. In the last several years, graphic adventure games—which, like The Cave, revolve primarily around clicking on objects on screen—have experienced a renaissance, shunning the kinetic button-mashing mayhem for a more nuanced and narrative-based approach. The most surprising entry in the field, perhaps, is the series based on the popular comic book and television show "The Walking Dead". Zombies have long been a staple of video games, but they usually make an appearance as the ultimate first-person-shooter enemy, with the player doing nothing more complicated than taking a shotgun or a bat or a chainsaw to the heads of the undead hordes. The new Walking Dead games, on the other hand, focus intensely on character development and emotional depth, creating a dramatic experience every bit as compelling as that which unfurls weekly on AMC.
How to explain the sudden renaissance of point-and-click-style adventures? It’s a remarkable story. The genre’s original birth is easy enough to understand: In the late 1980s and early 90s, with computers still lacking in processing power, game designers sought ways to overcome the medium’s inherent flaws. And since they couldn’t really feature stunning graphics or evolved gameplay mechanics, they turned to story as panacea. Put simply, the hope was that if the jokes or the twists were good enough, players wouldn’t much mind that their actual interaction with the game was minimal.
Things, of course, have changed. Video games are now capable not only of displaying superb animation, but also of gameplay that feels mind-bogglingly realistic. The best-selling game titles of the moment make warfare, or fistfights, or football, seem lifelike. And this may just be too much: as last year’s disappointing sales figures might suggest, gamers are weary of titles that promise nothing but more technical improvements. They’ll still buy the latest Call of Duty, but, overall, they want games to provide what games ought to provide: fun. And as the gaming industry has many more engineering-minded people than it does artists like Ron Gilbert, fun is not always in the offing.
Which brings us back to storytelling. What we’re seeing in the recent slew of graphic adventure games—not only The Cave and "The Walking Dead" series but also the rebirth on smartphones of Gilbert’s Monkey Island franchise and the resurrection of the popular Broken Sword, among others—may be an important coming-of-age moment for the electronic gaming industry, not unlike the indie film boom of the 1990s. After years busy being born and mastering the technicalities of its craft, it just might be that the video game industry is tired of all that shooting and jumping and non-stop movement. It just might be that it is ready to slow down, grow up, and focus on things like subtle emotions. As more and more game artists explore the possibilities of interactive storytelling, they’ll likely discover that the medium has not only its limitations but also its unsurpassable advantages: literally losing control of a character as he or she is slowly dying, say, is, arguably, a more effective way of creating instantaneous empathy than anything movies or even novels can manufacture.
I’m thrilled to watch the medium I so dearly love settle down, but I’m also terrified. After all, I’ve seen what game designers like Ben Gilbert can do to my social prospects. And judging by The Cave, I’m in for many more lonesome nights.
I am well-aware that the very term “video game scholar” sounds like some sort of wacky invention you might expect to find in a Ben Gilbert game.
Again, sounds like a joke: a militia ideologically opposed to storytelling, the ultimate video game villains.