Well all know what a story is, don’t we? A stream of words or ideas, whether factual or fictional, that come together to reveal the tales of other lives, objects or ideas. They are, culturally, probably one of the most important things with regards to making human beings what they are, and go hand in hand with our need to communicate, and with our development of more complex forms of communication. I don’t know whether other apes, even so closely related to us as chimpanzees, come together and grunt sounds that somehow make up the tale of an ape from generations before; but the general biological suspicion is that they do not. Man’s ability to form narrative, and retell it is as essential a part of us as our ability to reason, and to create tools. Indeed, stories themselves are little more than cultural tools, utilised often to shape our morals, ideologies, or thoughts.
Why, then, am I talking about them? Well, because recently I have been doing something which has brought to my mind some thoughts on stories and how they are told. The thing that I have been doing is playing the Playstation 2 videogame Final Fantasy XII. Now, I am a huge fan of the Final Fantasy series, although I certainly have my grips about the way the franchise is currently being handled by SquareEnix, and what is more FFXII, to me, has possibly one of the finest storylines in existence; let alone in gaming. Had it come 300-400 years earlier in the form of a book, it would be considered one of the classics. As it is, in terms of narrative structure, it is quite simple fantasy Sci-Fi - Standard good v bad fare, political intrigues and betrayals etc. etc. But the characters are so well written (well, except Vaan and Penelo, who are purely there to be ‘relatable’ to a young audience but who just come across as annoying) and their stories so intriguing that the narrative is just enrapturing to me. Obviously all these things are subjective, and some may not like the narrative but, I have to say I find it thoroughly engrossing. And this was what got me thinking about the notion of storytelling.
You see, to begin with, at its most primitive stages, narratives were told. They were spoken. The person who knew the story conveyed it to a usually younger generation via word of mouth. Thus, the individual experience was one of listening, and so in order for the message to get across, the individual telling the story would have to be entertaining or it just would not get listened to.
As time went on, mankind developed language to include the symbolic form of speech; the written word. This allowed stories to be written down and thus, a reader would have a much more subjective experience of the story, as it would be told in their own mind, by themselves. This subjectification of the narrative experience allowed individuals to broaden their minds and become less reliant on others for their knowledge; and indeed, with the development of the printing process, and presses etc. the written word became more easily available to a wider audience.
And this is where the ‘my opinion’ part of this piece comes in to discuss the relationship of storytelling in the modern world. You see, the sad thing about today’s world is that we have developed new methods of storytelling. These, in turn, are rendering the written word obsolete in the minds of a lot of younger generations.
Movies, for example, are an adaptation of the the ‘word of mouth’ storytelling. Someone else is telling the story and the audience is there to listen to it. What makes this most depressing is that books are made into movie adaptations. Thus, there are some people who have seen movies, but never read the books that inspired them. This is sad for a few reasons. One reason is obviously a decline in the standards of literacy. The other is that it removes the subjective element of the idea of a book, The core part of creative being; the imagination. While a writer will give descriptions, and a good writer should make those descriptions seemingly sing worlds to life, what they cannot ever do is tell you how to interpret it. That is the job of your own mind, and the imaginary world that lives within it. It can produce far greater wonders than special effects or CGI ever could. Yet we have been made to forget that. Instead of spectacles of the mind, conjured up from the ether by our own thoughts, we are far too often impressed by spectacles of computer trickery, conjured up by a director paid to make you like the movie and pay money to see it. There is dishonesty in this path or creativity. The director has to take his or her subjective interpretation and make you believe it is yours also. It is false.
Gaming narratives, on the other hand, are an adaptation, I feel, of the written word. You are immersed into a new character and made to interact; thus you experience it yourself subjectively. However, like movies, gaming narratives, too, are depriving you of that most treasured experience of imagination. Indeed, the dishonesty in a game is greater than that of a movie in that, with a movie, the director merely has to make you believe in their vision. With games, the director not only has to make you believe in their vision; but they want to make you believe you are part of it. As with movies, huge amounts of money; absolutely vulgar budgets are spent to make you believe this. All the while your imagination lies tucked away in a forgotten corner of your brain summoning worlds of endless, unimaginable beauty, and just as quickly rending them from existence with savagery.
You see, playing Final Fantasy XII really opened my eyes to something. I have recently started a new game of it, and look forward to reliving the narrative. But, even from the first breathtaking CGI I was left with one little pang, one lingering thought in the back of my mind. A small voice echoed through my brain. It was my imagination; and it said “My word, I would really like you to read this. If you think this is pretty, wait until you see what I could do with it.”
As much as I wanted to relive the storyline, my brain was telling me I would much rather read it. Because reading is so personal, so subjective, so pure. Because even reading words of descriptions that go down to specific minutiae - You still have to imagine what that thing looks like. Instead of relying on fancy graphics, directorial vision and instruction, special effects or camera trickery - Your imagination comes up with something that is pure, and real, and only for you.
So what do I want you to take from this? Well, this world is a strange one. While we are living in the present, many things seem futuristic. We worship the new, the intricate, the improved. And in doing so we neglect the old, the time-tested and, in some cases, the better. A movie is all well and good for keeping your children quiet and entertained while you’re busy doing other things. But when you’ve got time, tell them a story. Whether you read to them, make it up as you go along, or relive a memory of your past. And while a game is fantastically immersive and interactive, don’t forget to take some time to read a book. A director of a videogame may be very skilled at making his subjective vision come to life, but your imagination is infinitely better. I’m not saying don’t enjoy movies and games. Far from it, that would make me a hypocrite. I’m saying also enjoy reading a tale or two, or even telling them yourself.