Arnold J. Toynbee
Posted on Monday, October 5 2009 @ 12:23:05 Eastern
Normally I don't do this, but frankly i'm tired and I figure if you guys like me, you can share in my pain.
For the past three weeks I have been preparing for writing an annotated bibliography on one Arnold J. Toynbee, a contemporary historian, philosopher, and what some consider a religious prophet, for my Grad class on the theories of history. The entire goal was to create an adequate and credible source on our given author, and let me tell you lucked out with this guy! Not only are his ideas on history and the world are almost "other worldly" as some scholars said, but he also wrote a plethora of works that spans his entire lifetime.
The goal was to tie his major work to the fall of the Roman empire, but with Toynbee it was definitely not simple. He also wrote on other subjects, but his primary work, a Twelve Volume Monstrosity called The Study Of History, is where the meat of his own philosophy comes from. I had to basically skim all of the works I can find, journals and all, write a small synopsis of the work in a bibliographical format, and this coming Wednesday I need to give an oral presentation on my findings in the "grand scope of the fall of Rome according to my historian."
Needless to say, i'm tired. I just spent three hours writing up all the research I did, and trust me, I cut some stuff out at this stage too just to make it shorter for my class! Needless to say, I hope you enjoy this piece of scholarly prose, and if you wish to make comments, go for it. I like critcism, I swear!
HST 701: Historic Methods
Assignment #1: Historians of the Fall of Rome
Arnold J. Toynbee (1889-1975): Academic Profile
Arnold Joseph Toynbee was born in London in 1889. The son of a tea importer and the nephew of Arnold Toynbee, the economics historian, Toynbee was educated at two colleges, Winchester College in Kent and Balliol College at Oxford, focusing on the study of the classics and ancient history. He received his first post, a teacher at Balliol College, in 1912, and a year later was married to Rosalind Murray, with whom he had three children before their divorce in 1946. Toynbee served during World War I in the Political Intelligent Department and was a delegate to the Paris Peace Conference. It was after this time he began collecting various materials for his most famous work, A Study of History, which would Span 12 volumes and be written from 1934-1961. Toynbee also wrote other works, mostly surveys based on other countries until he retired in 1953. Toynbee’s work polarized different opinions on the subject of history, some saw him using false assumptions and vague explanations for his arguments on society, while others saw his work as a revelation in contemporary history. Over time, the views and influence of Toynbee’s work would change, making him an important scholar in the study of history today.
Toynbee can be described as a comparative historian, as in most of his works he compares and evaluates multiple civilizations and cultures with each other. He is philosophical in his ideals, however, often showcasing a higher thinking as to the reasoning behind the fall of Rome or any other civilization. His work is less about the fall of Rome, and more about the fall of civilizations. While he discusses how Rome fell, he uses a model for every civilization that has collapsed. His influence goes beyond the fall of Rome, but rather touches upon every facet of society, from environmental difficulties, to the use of science and technology, to the erosion of societies in what Toynbee refers to as a civilization committing suicide. These ideals were put into a universal model system created by Toynbee to help him decipher the reasons behind not only the collapse of Rome, but the falling of ancient Egyptian, Sumerian, Aztec, even Arabic civilizations. His work is more influential on the philosophy of history, over the event in question.
Major Work On The Fall of Rome:
Toynbee, Arnold J. A Study of History, Vol 4. London: England, Oxford University Press, 1939.
Thesis On The Fall Of Rome
For Toynbee, the primary topics asked regarding the fall of Rome pertains more to the overarching thesis in his major work, The Study of History. His primary thesis is that all civilizations can be traced through a cycle of prosperity through a rise, until the civilization self decays, breaks down, and falls, all in a recurring pattern according to Toynbee’s model. In particular to the fall of civilizations, Toynbee’s theory was that civilizations cause their own downfall, in affect committing suicide due to internal problems, nationalism, and other suicidal tendencies a civilization may have. These tendencies, in Toynbee’s model, are not caused by foreign invasion or environmental disasters, but rather manifest through the “dominant minority,” a group that once fostered creativity and prosperity in a society, becomes complacent and prideful of their actions, and through this, they fail to meet the next challenges a civilization may have, instead creating a “universal state,” which the dominant minority attempts to hold onto even if doing so is irrational.
Rather than asking how Rome fell, Toynbee clumps Rome with other civilizations, and shows how these suicidal tendencies manifested in all fallen civilizations using his model. His model of rise through challenges, decay through suicide, and the universal state is applied to each civilization in Toynbee’s narrative, employing a philosophical approach combined with comparative historical studies to create his thesis. He uses classical sources, along with maps and cartography, contemporary scholars, and statistical graphs to help augment his thesis.
Book Reviews of the Above Publication(s)
Ault, Warren O. “Review: Toynbee’s Study of History.” Journal of Bible and Religion, Vol. 23,
No. 2 (Apr., 1955), p 119-122.
Warren O. Ault’s reviews the latter four books in Toynbee’s work, part’s VII-X, and goes through the significance of his thesis between them all, one at a time. He also goes into the opposition of Toynbee’s work, citing historians such as Pieter Geyl, while criticizing Toynbee by noting that he is too articulated in his arguments, uses repeating footnotes too often, and copies passages in several different languages word for word in his text. Despite these reservations, Ault praises Toynbee for his work. He states “Toynbee’s spirit is so kindly, his motivation so deeply religious, that we cannot but admire even when in doubt.” Ault’s review is more mechanical in its approach, but his praise reflects the view of the religious inspiration that Toynbee’s work inspired.
Catlin, George. “Review of Arnold J. Toynbee’s A Study of History, Vols. IV, V, VI.” Political
Science Quarterly, Vol. 56, No. 3 (Sept., 1941), p 420-422.
Geroge Catlin’s review of parts IV, V and VI of Toynbee’s A Study of History are remarkably tame when compared to most critical reviews. Catlin focuses primarily on what Toynbee’s overall thesis may be, considering that the body of work is incomplete during the 1940’s, by focusing on Toynbee’s method more than what he has written. He disagrees with Toynbee’s method, albeit giving him more credit than contemporaries of Toynbee’s methodology such as Oswald Spengler, and also calls into question the solidarity of his method, noting how Toynbee’s use of tables to support trends across the globe became less predictable and precise as the discussion of modern civilizations began. But Catlin’s conclusions point to Toynbee’s contributions in other areas besides historic philosophy, such as human psychology and the role of Christianity. As Catlin surmised, “After reading these three subsequent volumes, this work still seems to me of fascinating interest, not so much as a philosophy of history, as in pressing to an issue the question of the significance of Christianity….” It is clear that even when his work was incomplete, Toynbee was already creating differing opinions from scholars as to the interpretation of his overarching thesis, and scholars reviewing Toynbee’s work, like Catlin, offered these interpretations.
Feiss, Edward. “Review: Toynbee As A Poet.” Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol 16, No. 2
(Apr., 1955), p 275-280.
Edward Feiss’s review attempts to treat Toynbee’s work more as a literary masterpiece over a treatment of historic philosophy, instead focusing on vocabulary, style, structure and the rhythm of Toynbee’s writing. Feiss also compares Toynbee to historian Edward Gibbon at points, relating the two based on their style of writing and the beliefs that they presented in their work. He even goes as far to say Toynbee did not write about history, but rather wrote a polished work on theology. Despite some problems Feiss has with Toynbee’s theory, he generally praises Toynbee’s work as more than historic prose.
Geyl, Pieter. “Toynbee The Prophet.” Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol 16, No.2 (Apr., 1955),
Pieter Geyl is quick to say that Toynbee’s work is not a piece of historic writing, “Toynbee’s thinking is revolutionary, “metaphysical” in the sense which Burke used the word abstract. To my view, this is as much to say, unhistorical.” Geyl claims that Toynbee is just a prophet with a Christian message, using the guise of a historic work to do so. He cites specific examples in Toynbee’s writings to springboard his argument, saying that Toynbee used more conjecture than historical fact to create his claims on his theory. In particular, Geyl takes offense to Toynbee’s prediction of the fall of the Western Civilization, which Geyl takes as a personal attack and “….consider(s) it base treason to accept with acquiescence this sentence of ignominious extinction which Toynbee, wrapt in his dream of world unity, passes over with so light a heart.” He uses the remainder of his review to compare Toynbee to a prophet, stating that his work has no real historical value, but rather as a religious leader who made the mistake to be blasphemous towards the west. Geyl is sharp, almost denouncing criticism of Toynbee’s work, focusing on his methods. Geyl is perhaps the most scathing critic on the views of Toynbee’s thesis.
Montagu, M.F. Ashley, ed. Toynbee And History, Critical Essays and Reviews. Boston,
Massachusetts. Extending Horizons, 1956.
This edited volume contains essays and reviews of Toynbee’s work, offering differing opinions and outlooks on the interpretation of Toynbee’s thesis. Pieter Geyl, George Catlin, Edward Feiss, and other historians each leave a contributing article, covering gamut of themes and constructive criticism from the methodology that Toynbee used, Toynbee’s impact, to his use of archeology, theology and philosophy of history. Toynbee himself contributes to the work, offering three articles, one explain what he attempted to do with his work, one explaining how his book was written, and the last a comment to Pieter Geyl and Edward Feiss’s critical articles found in The Journal of the History of Ideas. The entire volume is overall a great manuscript to see the praise and criticisms of Toynbee’s A Study of History through various means and interpretations.
Toynbee. Arnold J. “The Growth of Sparta.” The Journal of Hellenic Studies, Vol.33 (1913),
Here Toynbee goes into the rise and fall of the society of Sparta, using maps and textual information to essentially write a story about the Spartan existence, from its growth to its destruction. It is interesting to note that Toynbee’s style of writing, and his subject on Sparta, would be repeated in A Study of History, as Sparta is one of the many “civilizations” that Toynbee discusses.
---------- Nationality and the War. New York: E. P. Dutton & Co, 1915.
In one of Toynbee’s first published manuscripts, he attempts to discuss the problems of nationality in Europe before and during World War I, which has already began at the time of his writing. Toynbee discusses how nationalistic pride was a cause of the great war, again echoing a later sentiment that is a building block to his overall thesis on A Study of History.
---------- The New Europe. Some Essays in Reconstruction. New York: E. P. Dutton & Co, 1916.
This small work is a collection of essays written by Toynbee to augment his arguments in his previous book, the first six essays cover issues presented in the previous work, including the ideals of nationality, historical sentiment towards nationalism, and the effects of nationalism on culture. There is also a seventh essay on the Ukraine, which Toynbee uses as a device to show how hi theory can be applied to a country which is struggling with issues of nationalism.
---------- The German Terror in Belgium, A Historical Record. New York: George H. Doran
This work deals with the subject of the German invasion and occupation of Belgium and other European countries and the effects of the occupation on the people. This is Toynbee’s attempt as using primary documents, maps and charts from both sides of the conflict to decipher how the invasions took place and what effects they had on the populations as a whole.
---------- The Western Question in Greece and Turkey: A Study in the Contract of Civilisations.
Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1922.
Toynbee’s work on the Greek’s and Turk’s was an attempt to show the current and hopefully future trends of their current “historical setting.” That is, Toynbee hopes to show that the Greeks and Turks are more than just adversaries or unimportant to the Western world. Toynbee was one of the first to look at the crisis of Greece and Turkey, and again, both would play a much larger role in his Study of History.
---------- “The East After Lausanne.” Foreign Affairs, Vol 2. No. 1 (Sept., 1923), p 84-98.
Toynbee here discusses the effects of the peace treaty signed at Lausanne, treading ground he has explored for the past eight years by discussing the strengths and weaknesses of nationalism and the reconstruction of the Eastern world, in particular looking again at Greece and Turkey as the primary examples.
---------- “A Problem of Arabian Statesmanship.” Journal of the Royal Institute of International
Affairs, Vol. 8, No. 4 (Jul., 1929), p. 367-375.
The article focuses on the economic and political stresses in the Arab states. Toynbee focuses on one Arab ruler, Ibn Sa’ud, which he believes to be a great Arab statesman, leading a conquest of the Arab world in an attempt to unify the land, goring through exploits of the past twenty years of Sa’ud’s mission.
---------- “The Present Situation in Palestine.” International Affairs (Royal Institute of International Affairs
1931-1939), Vol. 10, No. 1 (Jan., 1931), p 38-68.
In this fairly controversial article, Toynbee discusses the tensions between the Jewish and Muslim faiths in Palestine, which came about due to the creation of the nation of Israel by the British. Toynbee even criticizes the British involvement in the conflict, believing that, all good intentions aside, the British would be responsible for mending their own mess if the conflict escalated.
----------“World Sovereignty and World Culture, the Trend of International Affairs Since the War.” Pacific Affairs, Vol. 4, No. 9 (Sept., 1931), p 753-778.
Toynbee here deploys a model to help him synthesize his belief that international affairs have become associated with human affairs since the end of World War I. He goes through many aspects of the countries involved in the war, from economics’ to cultural changes, applying his model to help him argue his point, that the world can be unified humanely due to the War. Many of these sentiments would again echo Toynbee’s words in A Study of History.
---------- A Study of History, Volumes I, II, and III. London: Oxford University Press, 1934.
The first volume of Toynbee’s groundbreaking work deals with the “Genesis” of civilizations, how they came to be and how they met or perished through challenges that would lead to their initial prosperity. Toynbee outlines that potential civilizations need to overcome difficult but not impossible challenges to grow and become prosperous. If the challenges are too simple, or too harsh, that said civilization would either become “frozen” in their place (he uses the Inuit’s as an example) or obliterated all together.
---------- “Impressions of the American State of Mind.” International Affairs (Royal Institute of
International Affairs 1931-1939), Vol. 13, No. 3 (May - Jun., 1934), pp. 343-360.
Toynbee’s article discusses his travels across the Eastern seaboard of the United States, and his thoughts on the current trend of American thought, reflecting attitudes on the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and international affairs.
----------“The Next War: Europe or Asia?” Pacific Affairs, Vol. 7, No. 1 (Mar., 1934), p 3-14.
The article written by Toynbee is actually one based solely on his own opinions, using historical evidence and current events to point out the coming paths of War that may occur in either Europe, between the British and the Germans, or the East, between Japan and the United States. Written in 1934, Toynbee’s article would become somewhat prophetic with the oncoming World War, which would break out by 1939.
---------- A Study of History, Volumes IV, V , and VI. London: Oxford University Press, 1939.
The next three books in Toynbee’s major work, he looks as the eventual fall of many civilizations, including the Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, and others, through a model he created. Toynbee’s views on the fall of these civilizations created his “dominant minority” theory and the belief that civilizations commit suicide and illustrate “suicidal tendencies” through the actions of the people. Toynbee’s previous works, both articles and manuscripts, can see inklings of their subjects in the decline and fall of various civilizations.
---------- “A Turning Point in History.” Foreign Affairs, Vol. 17, No. 2 (Jan., 1939), pp. 305-320.
In another prophetic article, Toynbee discusses how the events of September, 1938, which include Hitler’s speech at Nuremberg and the concession of Czechoslovakia to the Nazi party by Britain, Toynbee criticizes how British foreign policy has changed, and how the current state of events would lead to a possible conflict and even the possible destruction of Great Britain.
---------- “The International Outlook.” International Affairs (Royal Institute of International Affairs 1944-),
Vol. 23, No. 4 (Oct., 1947), pp. 463-476.
Toynbee compares the aftermath of World War II to World War I, and offers a contemporary view of the state of the world, offering his belief that the world will be unified politically in the future in the form of a single government. This sentiment would come to be a major aspect of his overall thesis in the final parts of A Study of History.
---------- “The Present Point In History.” Foreign Affairs, Vol. 26, No. 1 (Oct., 1947), pp. 187-195.
Toynbee reflects on the current climate of the world in 1947, looking at the fears and uncertainties of communism, how the West’s use of technology over the natural world is generating this fear, and that the message of Christianity may be the key to overcoming the uncertainty of the emerging Cold War. Again, this would become a prominent part of Toynbee’s overall thesis in The Study of History.
----------Civilization on Trial. New York: Oxford University Press, 1948.
This book is a collection of essays by Toynbee which carry a theme of his own historical philosophy, which is that history moves in a near irreversible pattern. Many of these essays touch upon themes in A Study of History, both in terms of what was published, and what has yet to come from his major work. There are also themes of Christianity and theology present in many of the articles, an indication of Toynbee’s growing spirituality that would garner him much ire and attention in the final parts of A Study of History.
---------- Greek Historical Thought, From Homer to the Age of Heraclius. London: England. J.M Dent &
Sons, Ltd. 1952.
Toynbee explores the philosophy of the Greeks as it pertains to history, looking at the beginnings of historic writing and the purpose of historic writing during the time of the Greeks, using translated passages, primary and contemporary sources, and a mixture of his own philosophical ideals.
----------“The Siege of the West.” Foreign Affairs, Vol. 31, No. 2 (Jan., 1953), pp. 280-286.
The article explores the Russian “siege” of the Western World, which Toynbee attempts to put in perspective for the West. Toynbee looks back over 250 years of history, about the domination of the Western world across the globe, and how the Soviet Union of Russia has turned the tables on the West, in their own way conducting a siege of their own. Toynbee is quick to mention, however, that the Western domination of the world was something exceptional, and that the West should not be fearful of a long or dangerous conflict.
----------A Study of History, Volumes VII, VIII, IX and X. London: England, Oxford University Press, 1954.
Printed around the same time, Volumes VII, VIII and IX of Toynbee’s work deal more so with the philosophical side of his thesis, discussing universal states, the role of Christianity and other religions in the world, and the unification of the surviving civilizations. There is also discussion on the theories of archanism, futurism, and the idea of transcendence, which is the meeting of challenges out of a decaying civilization. With heavy overtones of Christianity and theology, these passages are where Toynbee gained his reputation as a prophet over a historian. Toynbee finally discusses the future of the Western Civilization, offering two scenarios; either the West will decay and die like all others before it, or it will merge with the other surviving civilization to form a unified civilization. Part X is the index of citations, footnotes, and extra appendices that encompass the entirety of his study.
---------- Christianity Among the Religions of the World. New York, Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1957.
This work by Toynbee discusses the views of Christians towards the other religions of the world. Toynbee attempts to show the current views of the major religions of the world, and offers what he believes Christians should see, which again echoes many points in Toynbee’s own philosophy, including a unified civilization, the ideas of transcendence and the use of theological studies to give his arguments credence.
----------East to West, A Journey Round the World. London: England, Oxford University Press, 1958.
In perhaps one of the more unusual contributions by Arnold J. Toynbee, the book deals with his travels around the world with his wife. Written mostly like a travel guide and a journal, Toynbee relates his sights and experiences of his travels, going from East to West, and stopping in countries such as Vietnam, Hong Kong, Ecuador, Australia, and finally into the Middle East. Toynbee uses his previous knowledge of history, and the new discoveries that occurred on his adventure, to create a rather exciting read that many, at that time, may not even be interested in studying.
---------- Hellenism, The History of A Civilization. London: England, Oxford University Press, 1959.
A book commissioned to be written in 1914, Toynbee finished the project in 1959, due to new developments that were uncovered over the Roman society, as well as no World War impeding the progress of its publication. Toynbee himself admits that the work is incomplete, but nevertheless, he attempts to look at the entirety of the Roman society, from its rise, to it’s fall, and in doing so it becomes an off shoot of the themes and thesis of A Study of History, with the only difference being the outreach of Roman society in areas such as Africa and the Middle East.
----------- A Study of History, Vol. XI. London: England, Oxford University Press, 1959.
This books acts as an Atlas for the whole of Toynbee’s A Study of History. Toynbee hand selected maps of the ancient and contemporary world, along with a Gazetteer of important cities, people and countries to help readers in referencing the events in his entire volume.
---------- “Jewish Rights in Palestine.” The Jewish Quarterly Review, Vol. 52, No. 1 (Jul., 1961), pp. 1-11.
Another article exploring the conflict in Palestine, Toynbee argues for the human rights of the Jews in Palestine being a priority in protecting. He argues for human and religious rights of not only the Jewish community, but also the Muslims and Christians who are interlinked in the region. Finally, Toynbee argues against the Muslims who have attempted to block Jewish people from attaining these inalienable rights.
---------- A Study of History, Vol. XII. London: England, Oxford University Press, 1961.
The final volume of Toynbee’s master work, volume XII of A Study of History deals with “reconsiderations” of his entire thesis. He goes through each volume of his work, through each society, and makes corrections, changes or clarifies the major points of his own arguments.
--------- “Surviving the Future. New York and London, Oxford University Press, 1971.
Published a year before Toynbee’s death in 1972, one of his final works is a series of individual articles about the future of humanity, looking at the positives and negatives of issues such as technology, religion, education and the impact the next generation will have on the future with these pre-requisites to work with. The entire work is based off of a dialogue with Professor Kei Wakaizumi of Kyoto Sangyo University, which Toynbee chose to synthesize in his own format.
Toynbee, Arnold J. and Veronica M. Toynbee, eds, The Initial Triumph of the Axis. London: England,
Oxford University Press, 1958.
This edited work by Toynbee and his wife deals with the initial successes of the Axis powers during World War II, before discussing their eventual failures at the hands of the Allies. It focuses primarily on the early years of the war, from 1939-1942, going through all military operations before going into the involvement of the Western powers of Britain, France, and the U.S as well as the involvement of the Soviet Union, both pre and post occupation of France during the war.
 Ault, Warren O. “Review: Toynbee’s Study of History.” Journal of Bible and Religion, Vol.23, No. 2 (Apr., 1955),
 Catlin, George. “Review of Arnold J. Toynbee’s A Study of History, Vols. IV, V, VI.” Political Science Quarterly, Vol.56, No.3 (Sept., 1941), 422.
 Geyl, Pieter. “Toynbee The Prophet.” Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol 16, No.2 (Apr., 1955), 260.
 Ibid., 263.
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The Narrative of Video Games, Part 1
Posted on Friday, September 18 2009 @ 09:11:53 Eastern
Today it is hard to imagine a world without video games, let alone the style of games many newer generations have become accustomed to. Like in “Back to the Future, Part II”, the scene where Marty McFly plays “Wild Gunman” in the Café 80’s, a young kid exclaims “You use your hands?! That’s a kid’s toy!”
It’s stranger still to think that video games have essentially been perfected to the point where innovation is now more about control over graphical upgrades, something that is actually new in the industry, if you really think about it. When many of us were young, innocent children, the “Bit Wars” was raging, and the birth of fanboys blossomed into the intellectual masturbation that we see now on the internet. We have seen 8 turn to 16, 16 to 32 and 64, and 64 cartridges to CD technology, and finally CD’s to Blu-Rays, on the PS3, at the very least. The progression has been rapid and fruitful for all.
But in this shuffle of technology improving graphics, sound, and controls in various ways, one thing has always stood as a problem in video games; and that is adequate narrative structure, or storytelling, if you want to be less pretentious about it.
Going back to the 8 bit days, video games with stories were about as common as a surfer in Utah. That is, as obscure as you can get. The reason? Well, I don’t know. Perhaps it was graphical limitation or more about the gameplay in those days. Hell, some of the most successful and addictive games have no true story to it. Look at Donkey Kong, Pac-Man, even Guitar Hero in the modern day; it was all about improving yourself to go that extra mile that one time to make it count, building skill and coordination.
Now a disclaimer I guess is warranted at this point. A lot of the following has been discussed ENDLESSLY on various forums, be it videos, articles, other Vox Pop entries myself and others have made, and so forth. So if I’m regurgitating something said before, without giving credit to that person, I’m sorry. But in the end, were all fighting in the same corner for the same cause.
Video games began getting stories back in the day through exposition and minor text quips. RPG’s primarily led the way to this, with Final Fantasy and pretty much everything done by Square and Enix being an example. It was simple at the time, minor stories that drove characters, usually a group chosen to save the world and what not, and the rest was made for you to follow in a linear fashion.
Other methods of storytelling were usually through the game manuals and text, such as “Legend of Zelda” being a prime example. Everyone who read the manual knew that Zelda was the princess and was taken by Ganon, and our hero Link was there to stop him. It gave a small, sufficient backstory that has pretty much anchored the entire franchise to this day.
It wasn’t until the mid 1990’s that stories began to become somewhat complex. Characters emerged to become emblems of adult themes, like Lara Croft (before she sold out), Duke Nukem (before he disappeared) and Sonic (before he sucked.) The simple stories of save the world, find the macguffin, and so on pretty much existed, but were still well masked thanks to well done gameplay. Even a few of the more elaborate stories, like those found in Ocarina of Time or Final Fantasy VIII, had simple objectives, but were fleshed out with characters that can be personified more easily than previous generations.
But one thing is still lacking, and some people tend to get touchy when this is mentioned. Most stories in video games are pretty generic at best, and at worst, rejected plots to B-movies Ed Wood would blush at. Now I’m not implying that games like Halo, Gears of War, Final Fantasy XII, or even Super Mario Galaxy have bad stories. I’m downright saying they have them!
If you really think about it, storytelling is more of an artform, like everything else in video games. And telling a story that is interactive, productive, and let’s players control the protagonist’s fate, is hard to accomplish. A lot of it is the art of telling a story in general, narratives, plot, characterization and other literary constructs can be added to a game, but so can havoc physics and motion controls. Just because it’s in there doesn’t mean it will work. Conversely, a well written story can be a poor game, because while the writing may be similar to the works of Mark Twain or Edgar Allen Poe, the gameplay can suffer for being repetitive, bland, unresponsive or uninspired.
It is hard to strike a balance between these two seemingly polar opposites. For example, look at “Legend of Zelda, Ocarina of Time”. Some would argue that the story in “Ocarina of Time” was actually decent, and I would be among those to defend it. It had an epic feel, enough twists to keep us interested in the narrative, had little exposition and overall was told really well. But, in hindsight, what was really new about it? It was generic fantasy, taking cues from Lord of The Rings, old mythology, including Greek, Roman, and Japanese, and even a bit of surrealism from the likes of Lewis Carroll and J. M. Barrie. It blended it well, but it was still cliché and compared to great epics, not as memorable. What was memorable was the gameplay, being a powerhouse and innovation for 3-D adventures even to this day.
Tim Schafer’s Psychonauts is the antithesis of Shigeru Miyamoto’s Zelda. It was well designed yes, but had poor gameplay elements, old school platforming and generic combat. But its narrative was complex, creative, and it made the game stand out, in gamers eyes at least, more than it did in the general public. It has become a cult classic that deserves recognition because of its saucy banter and clever design, a true pillar of art like Ocarina of Time is. (but that’s another story.)
While both games I have mentioned each were great games and will always be so, what they lacked is a problem that affects even lesser games out there. Games heavy on design but light on story can have appeal as what they are, obvious, B-movie romps, like “God Hand”, “Madworld”, or the upcoming “Wet”. When these B-movie games take themselves seriously, like say….”Halo”, then it becomes hard to really enjoy the experience.
“Halo” is a decent game; don’t get me wrong, but anyone who says its story is amazing either never experienced something like “Moby Dick.” It is laughable frankly to see it compared to the “Star Wars” by some fanboys, because “Star Wars” was at least a great story that had depth, characterization and a real sense of tension and release. “Halo” is like a 5th graders interpretation of a massive franchise, more comparable to the riveting dialogue of “Predator” over anything else. It’s not good writing to make paper-thin characters. If anything, Halo revolutionized the FPS with it’s design over it’s story, both on and offline, but it hasn’t done much to draw people into it’s narrative. In fact, a lot of the excess, the novels, machinas, and other little tidbits created around the Halo games have fleshed out the story more than the games themselves.
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