Storytelling – Form vs. Content – Why don’t we have both?

So I’m going to delve into the argument of form vs content. If it must be a matter of ‘versus’, then my answer will be content every time. If someone has a great story to tell then I’m going to enjoy it regardless of its form – music, novel, poem, film, video game, doesn’t matter.


I think it can be pretty special when the content complements the form. When consuming stories, I like to ask myself, depending on the form, ‘why am I reading this? why am I watching this? why am I listening to this? why am I playing this?, rather than…etc’. Quite often the answer isn’t really clear, which indicates that the content is not exactly complementing the form. However, there are many examples of stories that would only work in their chosen form. Adaptation, a film about writing a script for a film, would not translate nearly as well to a novel. Atonement, a novel that features the idea writing heavily, whilst also actually being a novel within itself, would not – and in fact, did not – have the same impact if it were a film.


Personally, I feel that the idea of form and content complementing each other is best demonstrated through video games. If you’re not really up to date with video game storytelling, (which realistically my audience might not be – or even more realistically, do I even have an audience? Probably not, but that’s uh, not important) then let me tell you that most of the innovation in storytelling is coming from this medium. I do feel that that is the case.


There are recent games like The Last of Us, Tomb Raider, Alan Wake, and some of the Assassin’s Creed and Call of Duty games, that manage to tell some really great, sometimes amazing, and engaging stories. And they should be fully appreciated for that. But these are all extremely cinematic in their presentation (just note I’m only talking about story telling, not gameplay or anything else like that), which tends to make me feel that the narrative might not lose much from being a movie. Now these are examples of really great stories, and they deserve to be enjoyed for that, but they just don’t contribute a lot to the idea of ‘video game storytelling’ – which I don’t feel a game necessarily has to do at all, as I said earlier, if someone has a great story to tell then I’m going to enjoy it regardless of form.


So while there are several examples of incredible cinematic narratives in video games, there is just something more interesting, and certainly more innovative, about a video game story that incorporates itself into the video game medium. Games like Bioshock, The Stanley Parable, Portal, Gone Home, Braid and Spec Ops: The Line, are all able to take aspects of gameplay and just basic game tropes in general, and create a story that just wouldn’t have the same effect in another medium.


Bioshock and Spec Ops: The Line both use the way in which one typically plays or is encouraged to play a shooter game: shoot who the game tells you to, ask questions never. Not only does this lead to intelligent commentary on violence in video games, but it also manages to provide simply great narratives, that not only engage the player, but also makes them question themselves – Spec Ops: The Line is widely known as a game that makes you hate yourself. These are examples of very serious takes on the combining of form and content, but there are several comedic, often to the point of parody, examples as well.


Perhaps the strongest example of this is The Stanley Parable, which essentially tells the story of a man who works a mindless office job, who one day notices that everyone in the building has disappeared. This is where the game begins. Accompanied by a narrator commentating your every move, the game plays with the illusion of choice given in many games, while also recognising the ways in which many players go about exploration in games – which often  involves attempts at exploiting or basically doing things other than the game seems to suggest you do. Along with this hugely intelligent satire comes genuinely hilarious moments that will be appreciated by anyone with some experience with games. These stories, just like the examples of films and novels I mentioned before, would not have anywhere near the same impact in any form other than the one they selected.


So I suppose ultimately, content is what I’m most interested in, but I do think it is worth asking before creating a story, ‘which form would best suit what I’m trying to convey?’.


Charlie Kaufman(writer of Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) talks about that very question and more in this speech from the BAFTA Screenwriting Lecture from a few years ago. (it’s pretty long, but also pretty great)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *