Look, okay. Let’s press pause on the debate. You know the debate I’m talking about, right? That endless disagreement in the video game world about gameplay versus story.
“The two things are incompatible,” say some people. “Video games are not a narrative medium! Video games are games! Why do you think most video game stories are such shit? Because they don’t have to be good! Tetris didn’t have a story, and it’s one of the greatest games of all time! Rabble rabble rabble!”
“They most certainly are compatible,” shout the other people. “Video games are poised to become the most exciting narrative medium of all time! They blur the line between storyteller and audience! They could change the way that we communicate! I cried at the end of Planescape Torment! Rabble!”
Calm your rabbling, friends. I’m not here to try to broker the debate, not really. Lord knows I’ve tried that before. Instead, I’m going to offer a thought that I think might help put this whole thing into perspective: Gameplay and story are exactly like music and lyrics.
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Music is the foundation of any song. The notes and rhythms that make up a piece of music are essential, and I mean that in the truest sense of the word—they are its essence. Without at least some sort of melody, rhythm, or harmony, it’s not music.
Every now and again we have this debate where old people hear something new and say, “This isn’t music!” Whether it’s noise-rock, or avant-garde orchestral compositions, or hip-hop, time and again it comes up. But this statement is total bullshit, and we all know it.
There are rules to music, there are objective qualities that it has that qualify it as music. Is there a beat? It’s music. Is there some form of melody, even if it’s completely bizarre and abstract? It’s music. Is there structure, is there some sort of harmony, even if it doesn’t conform to the 12-tone western scale? It’s music.
Gameplay is the foundation of any game. Almost every day, someone says “This isn’t a game” about a game we’ve written about. The medium is newer, the definition is fresher, the creators are still playing with it, and so we’re still discussing it more openly. But with the majority of games, it’s clear which parts are the “game” and which parts aren’t.
In Mass Effect, the shooting is a game—there are rules and systems, and players must exploit those systems in order to win. The conversation and story are also a sort of game, in that there is a branching system built into the decisions you make and how you play your character’s morality—players must exploit those systems in order to “win,” or get to the end of the story alive. Many other games are similar but simpler—in Gears of War, the game is happening any time you’re in action, shooting at people. When you’re watching a cutscene unfold or reading a bit of text on screen, you’re not playing the game. Without the game, cutscenes are just… a movie. (Think Final Fantasy: Spirits Within.) Without the game, text on the screen is just… an e-book.
Now, think about lyrics. Lyrics, on their own, are not music. They just aren’t! Without some musical element supporting them, they’re just poetry, or storytelling. A song needs a melody. Rap needs rhythm.
But while lyrics need music to be lyrics, music does not need lyrics to be music. The world will always have beautiful instrumental music in it, music that has meaning and depth, music that moves us and tells us universal stories through its design and geometry, through the push and pull of its rhythms and the peaks and valleys of its melodies.
In exactly the same way, we’ll always have games that have no stories. They exist alongside narrative games in a manner identical (identical!) to the way that instrumental music exists alongside songwriting. Just as there will always be Mass Effect and Psychonauts, there will always be Gravity Hook and Lumines.
I didn’t always like music with lyrics—I was into melodies and rhythms. I was a jazz snob, and I got grumpy about needless lyrics in much the same way as some game designers and academics get grumpy about games with dumb, unnecessary stories. I remember when I heard Carmen McRae’s album Carmen Sings Monk. McRae is a wonderful jazz vocalist, but on the album she sings bebop tunes by the great pianist Thelonious Monk... with lyrics that were grafted on after the fact by other writers. Monk is an idiosyncratic and brilliant composer, but his songs do not lend themselves to lyrics.
Listen to her version of Monk’s 1957 bebop tune In Walked Bud. McRae is a fantastic singer, and does a great job performing the lyrics, but man do they stink:
Dizzy, he was screamin,
Next to O.P. who was beamin,
Monk was thumping
Suddenly in walked Bud, and then they got into somethin’
It sounds fine when she starts off by scat-singing, since that’s the vocal equivalent to instrumental performance. So why do these lame lyrics exist? They self-referentially describe the famous players who theoretically performed in a club somewhere (Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach, Bud Powell), but they’re a pointless nostalgia trip. This melody does not lend itself to lyrics, and even if it did, those lyrics would still be a drag.
A story can be grafted clumsily onto a game just like lyrics can be clumsily grafted onto a piece of music. Look at, say, the difference between Braid and Limbo, two side-scrolling platforming games that I enjoyed quite a bit. Limbo is a story about vulnerability and childhood; Braid is a story about loss and the passage of time. Both games tell their stories through their mechanics—in Braid, you control time, and in Limbo you are incredibly vulnerable and die a lot. They also use more traditional storytelling methods. But Braid’s written story feels clumsy while Limbo’s environmental storytelling feels organic.
Braid is still a great game, even if the story and writing have some problems. A great game can have a middling or nonsensical story and still be a lot of fun—look at, say, Gears of War 3 or Bayonetta. And what do you know, a great song can have crap lyrics and still be great—look at, say, the entire Muse oeuvre. As long as the tune is catchy, and as long as the game is fun, both will still be an okay (or even better than okay!) experience.
Now that we’ve established the parallel, let’s take it one step further. Because you gotta admit, amazing things can happen when music and lyrics work together. Listen to Aretha Franklin’s song “Think,” which I consider to be one of if the finest pop tunes ever composed. Seriously, listen to it again with fresh ears. Goddam! It’s so good! I dare you to listen to this song without moving yourself.
Now, look at the part at 0:45, where Aretha sings “Freedom.” Imagine if that section didn’t have a lyric, if it was just sung as a “Yeah!” over and over. Would it be nearly as awesome? No. Imagine if it had been a saxophone solo. Would that have been nearly as awesome? No. (I can’t believe I just wrote that, but it’s true.)
Now, imagine if Aretha had spoken these lyrics out loud with no music. Like, a poetry reading or something. Same deal. Not as awesome. The synthesis of the driving beat, the layering, ascending chords, the repeating, climbing melody, and again and again, that word: Freedom! Freedom! It’s one of the most balls-out amazing musical moments of all time. And it was achieved via the artful merging of music and lyrics.
The exact same sort of thing is possible when gameplay and story work in harmony. I don’t think I’m ready to say that most narrative video games have achieved the level of artistic unity demonstrated by “Think.” But that’s okay—people had been writing songs for hundreds of years before Aretha wrote “Think.” Give video game developers some time, and they’ll figure out a way to make games that fuse gameplay and story as amazingly as Aretha (or Paul Simon, or Hoagy Carmichael, or whoever) fused music and lyrics.
Oftentimes narrative games wind up as the video game equivalent of Carmen Sings Monk; timeless tunes with awful lyrics. The key is to get the two elements to come together organically, rather than grafting the one onto the other. If you’re lucky, bam! Something happens. One minute you’ve got a piece of music and a poem, and the next you’ve got a song.
In the romantic comedy Music and Lyrics (wait! don’t go!), Hugh Grant plays a one-hit-wonder pop songwriter named Alex Fletcher. He’s trying to stage a comeback, but he’s suffering from writer’s block so he hires a flighty poet named Sophie (Drew Barrymore) to help him write lyrics.
Director Marc Lawrence’s screenplay certainly has its share of rom-com clichés, but Music and Lyrics is often a smart, even surprising film, and one I’ve always found charming. My favorite part is a conversation that Alex and Sophie have about the difference between music and lyrics.
Alex is sitting at the piano, exasperated. He’s urging Sophie to hurry up and spit out some lyrics for him. “They’re just lyrics!” he says.
Sophie: (Disbelievingly.) “Just lyrics?”
Alex: Lyrics are important. They’re just not as important as melody.
Sophie: I really don’t think you get it. A melody is like seeing someone for the first time. The physical attraction. Sex.
Alex: (Laughs.) I so get that.
Sophie: But then, as you get to know the person, that’s the lyrics. Their story. Who they are underneath. And it’s the combination of the two that makes it magic.
I think Sophie is on to something. And just like music and lyrics, gameplay and story, while fine on their own, can come together to form something new; they can become a song.
And that’s when Aretha starts singing “Freedom,” and before you know it, you’re dancing around your apartment, singing along at the top of your lungs.