Issues: Eskil Steenberg’s Open Letter to John Carmack

I rather like Rock Paper Shotgun; after all, they were the ones who got me into writing about games in the first place. On Sundays, they post something called The Sunday Papers, which is basically a collection of links to neat articles about gaming. Often, I find them engaging and enlightening… but not today. No, today I find myself frustrated by two specific links, and I’ve decided to write a response to both, because, hey, I’ve got three hours to spare.

The first post comes from Eskil Steenberg, who, unless I’m mistaken, is the developer of indie MMO LOVE. It’s about Rage, and how Steenberg feels that iD needs to get back to the drawing board and rethink the way they’ve done things.

It’s an interesting read, and I think it’s got some valid points, but I take issue with this statement: “Many games designers think its their job to tell stories, but games isn’t a story medium, they should go write books or make films. Many artists think that games are about attention to graphical details and in extension to proving how ambitious they are. They should go make art. No, games are about mechanics, they are about feedback, and that is something that programmers provide.

He goes on to say defend his position, saying: “The story most of you are talking about is story telling being told in text, cut scenes, voiceover, and machinima. None of that is a game, its other media squeezed in between what is a game. Games have emergent stories, or what I prefer to call drama. That’s the thing that happens when you are the last counter terrorist trying to defuse the bomb in counterstrike. Quake, and Doom had drama, modern AAA games have Story telling.

Games are about a lot of things. Sure, you can make games without art assets–Zork’s a great example of that. If you want, you can make games without stories, such as Pac-Man. Admittedly, all you need to have to make a game is gameplay, but to suggest that programmers are important, and no one else is required is downright silly. If applied to film, Steenberg’s argument would read something like this: “Movies are simply a series of pictures in sequence that simulate motion! That is something that cameramen or directors provide! Actors, scriptwriters, and prop artists are unnecessary!”

While films such as Baraka prove that movies don’t require storytelling, it would be foolish–perhaps even stupid–to claim that films are not a storytelling medium. Likewise, just because “gameplay” (as far as I can tell, nobody’s really bothered to define this, so here goes: it’s a specific level of interactivity that all games must have in order to be considered games) might be the base from which all games must derive, to argue that games are not a storytelling medium is still wrong in every conceivable way.

While it is indeed possible to develop a game without telling a story, it’s equally possible to make a film or write a book without doing so.

Surely no one could argue that Fallout is not a game, much less argue that it’s a game despite its story and art. The story and art is what makes Fallout the game it is. It is inextricable from Fallout’s identity. The Fallout series is defined not by its gameplay mechanics, which don’t matter (the fact that the game could not only survive a genre shift, but receive even greater acclaim post-shift is proof of this), but by its aesthetics. Fallout, at its very core, is not an isometric RPG, nor is it an open-world immersive sim. It is, instead, a darkly humorous evisceration of American pop culture in the 1950s. It’s all about the things that were popular at the time: westerns, science fiction, and thoughts of nuclear war, seen through the lens of Hollywood’s pleasant denial of reality. Those aesthetics, strictly the result of the game’s storytelling sensibilities, are what make Fallout unique. If we look merely at the gameplay (which, by the way, is defined as much by game designers who define stat tables as it is defined by programmers), then Fallout is no different from, say, Baldur’s Gate, Planescape: Torment, or any other isometric cRPG.

Fallout would be nothing without its writing and art. That identity is what makes Fallout the game it is. To argue that games are not a storytelling medium (both writing and art are aspects of storytelling) is ignorant, if not wholly dishonest. As with film, games are a storytelling medium, but… that’s a part of what they can be. To say that they are a storytelling medium is not to say that they can’t be something else as well.

There’s a part of me that wants to call Steenberg arrogant, since he appears to believe that his role as a programmer is the most important role in game creation. However, I don’t feel that this is the case, because on the most literal terms, he’s right: you can create a game with nothing but programmers. Really, that’s what I think it boils down to: Steenberg’s an incredibly literal individual, perhaps to the point of a close-mindedness that’s unwilling to accept that games can be a bit more than their most basic parts.

I believe that Steenberg is an extremely left-brained individual. I have no proof of this beyond his own words, which seem extremely rigid and analytical, as well as the fact that he’s responsible for the creation of LOVE (and all the programming and left-brainedness that LOVE’s creation would entail), so there’s no way I can be certain, but it does seem to be the most obvious conclusion. Having a left-dominant brain isn’t a fault in any way–the world needs left-brained people–but it can have its drawbacks. In this case, there’s a rigidity and literalness to Steenberg’s thinking that fosters a great and terrible ignorance.

Steenberg also tries to define emergent story as drama, which strikes me as odd, seeing as a great way to define emergent story would be to use the term… emergent story (and/or emergent narrative). Drama is basically defined as “fiction created with the intent to be seriously considered.” It would make no sense to use “drama” to mean something there is a perfectly good phrase for; if you just don’t want to type out “emergent story” all the time, then why not write “emergent story (ES, for short)” and say “ES” for the rest of the paper?

I rather like Emergent Stories, by the way. STALKER is a game that’s partiularly conducive to their creation. One time, in Call of Pripyat, I was overburdened, having just murdered a rather large mercenary camp to get myself some working capital. I was heading home when the call came: a blowout was coming! I started to run, hoping against hope that I would reach shelter in time. Unfortunately, due to the weight of my precious loot, I found myself pausing to catch my breath every few seconds, chugging energy drinks to give myself superhuman stamina, and repeating the cycle ad nauseam (well, as ad nauseam as one can get within the course of a minute or so).

Suddenly, I fell in a very deep hole.

“Shelter!” I thought.

Then that portion of my brain that controls threat detection turned back on. I could hear a snork making snorky noises somewhere in the darkness. Lights flickered on and off, accompanied by the soft thundercrack that indicated the presence of several electrical anomalies. I’m fairly certain there was at least one gas anomaly, as well as a few fire and gravitational anomalies as well. Thank goodness I had my semi-automatic shotgun ready, because there wasn’t just one snork, but half a dozen. I must have killed one or two before panicking, switching to my pistol and anomaly detector, and bolting. I might have screamed as I ran; I’m not really sure. I was in panic mode, either preferring the certain death offered by the blowout to death-by-snork or forgetting it entirely, but just before I finally found my way out of the labyrinthine caves, I got a message that the blowout was over.

When all was said and done, I believe I had killed eight snorks outside the cave, in addition to whatever I’d managed to kill inside. I dropped several kilos of supplies and bolted home, where I sold my wares and swore to myself never to overburden myself again. After that, I learned to create an effective, light loadout that would help me survive any mission I undertook. I might have put a hundred hours into STALKER and a further hundred into Clear Sky, but it was Call of Pripyat that taught me what it meant to be a true STALKER. I’ll never forget it.

If that doesn’t prove games can be a wonderful storytelling medium, I don’t know what can.

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    • Kyle Thompson
    • October 26th, 2011

    Stumbled on your blog via Kotaku – glad I did, and I’ve added you to my reader. I’m glad you took Steenberg’s piece on – his screed against artists was embarassing. *in terrible russian accent* Good work, stalker.

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