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With films going the way of all action no plot and a lot of modern art so inane, perhaps it is time for video games to become the art form of the 21st century. Films combine storytelling and character analysis with a stark visual styles that have the power to astound, but this type of cinema is becoming rarer and increasingly not told in English. Thought provoking cinema is shunted away from mainstream audiences to make way for the likes of Transformers 2, Prince of Persia and Clash of the Titans and while many critics point to blockbuster movies being nothing more than video game plots, this misinterprets almost entirely what video games are. In the art world, six hundred years ago paintings lacked visual perspective and art was mostly concerned with religious iconography. As time progressed movements came and went, reality crept into what artists depicted and visual styles evolved. And yet no admired artist in the 21st century is painting landscapes like Turner once did with the form relegated to that of a mere hobby practiced by old men sitting on cliff faces with their water colours. While art like cinema has the power to astound, its authored hand has become so mannered that without it almost all modern art becomes a total joke. In this year's Turner Prize Angela de la Cruz exhibited a three legged chair placed on a stool. Another was a basic orange plastic chair that had collapsed. These things, taken as they should be from a clearly objective point of view are pointless and yet that does not stop critics opining about the deeper meanings behind the supposed art. For there has to be a meaning and these critics must find it, or the emperor's new clothes will be truly exposed. For the art world to continue to exist both the critics and the artist must find a narrative from somewhere to elevate the art on display from being an arbitrary object in a room to that of esoteric value. More often than not, to understand a piece of modern art, you will need to read a blurb explicitly telling you what you should be thinking and feeling whilst viewing, whereas previous works like the Sistine Chapel simply astonished with its majesty; Michael Angelo never once left anote.
Twenty five years ago video game characters were pixelated dots that, because humans personify everything, were deemed to be representative of the human form. With the unprecedented advancement in technology developers can almost create a lifelike face and some, like those behind L.A. Noire are trying to include facial nuances into their work to make models even more believable. Visually video games surpassed traditional art forms long ago, photo realistic landscapes available for over a decade but games aren't limited to a canvas, they are much broader in scope for they create worlds. And yet in their ambition the problems developers encounter allow critics of the form to dismiss video games out of hand as an art form. What seems to be holding video games back more than anything are the narratives contained within the games both in terms of quality and execution.
For many years, and indeed still today, stories in video games are told in sequential order. You play for a bit, trigger a part of the story, play more, get more story, fight a boss, have a revelation, complete the game and witness the climax in a generally longer cut scene. This is the traditional form of telling a story that has been wedged into games and for some observers it is both antiquated and no longer an acceptable form of storytelling. In his seminal book Extra Lives Tom Bissell explores the dissonance between the challenge of games and the need to tell a story. Narrative can only go forward, but games in their nature fight progress offering a challenge that must be overcome and often this requires repetition that detracts from a literary standpoint.Stories are linear and in the 1990s games could be too, but witnessing the reaction to Final Fantasy XIII we learnt that those days are over, gamers like art enthusiasts demand innovation.
To address this discord between storytelling and interactivity video games have introduced dynamics that allow gamers to go down various paths towards the game's end, often pitting the outcome on moral choices taken within the game. This device has been received well and is becoming increasingly subtle. One of the creators of Heavy Rain commented that play-testers found the game seemingly too easy and without challenge because they didn't lose a life or restart from a checkpoint if, for instance, they let a bad guy escape. The game would just carry on but, unbeknownst to the gamer, the game had logged the event only to manifest the consequence of that failure later. Likewise in the Mass Effect series moral choices underpin the narrative in such a stark way that any number of outcomes are available and watching the result of other gamers' playthroughs on YouTube is fascinating.
Yet these are two games that have been lauded for their attempts at placing a strong narrative at the heart of the experience to the possible detriment of what a game is and what its supposed to do, i.e. be fun to play. Many players bemoan the combat of the Mass Effect games and the jerkiness of the control system epitomised by the way in which in order to climb over a waist high object you need to take cover crouching beside it before hopping over. In a game where the story is the focal point gamers complained that the shooting parts felt somewhat tacked on despite its involving real time point and shoot mechanics merged with R.P.G. turn based spell casting. Along with Heavy Rain these games at times felt like interactive movies, which for developers creates a real problem as their game is then held up against traditional narrative forms like movies.
What many critics of video games fail to realise is that the narrative scripting of the game is often created at a much later stage in development. With deadlines looming words are hurriedly typed, actors hired and lines jammed into games. Game developers primarily have to make the game play well, as they know that gamers will forgive them any multitude of retarded characterisations if the game plays well. Super Street Fighter IV is the pinnacle of the fighting genre but for its latest release the developers attempted to add a little backstory as to why the incredibly varied cast are entering a fighting tournament. Abel, a French grappler wearing shorts, shin pads and the upper half of a karate kit is found crouching in the street. It's raining and he's holding an umbrella. The camera pans down and we see he's protecting a puppy from the rain. "Hey there little guy. Let's see if we can't keep you dry for a bit. Where's your mother? [said with a tone so ambiguous I'm not sure whether he wants to punch her or make love to her] I don't see any other dogs around. Hmm. No collar either. All alone, are you?" We then cut to a shot of Abel looking toward a balcony with a military man holding the puppy. "I'll be back as soon as I figure out what Shadaloo is all about. Take care of the little one while I'm away." The final shot has Abel walking across a bridge, "I'll return once my journey is complete. Then I can give him a name, buy him a collar and I…Then I won't be alone any more." The ending is also similarly risible as is the case for the twenty four other characters. When writing is bad, it really sticks out grinding against what people would say naturally. Gamers know this, and put up with it, because they are playing the game, but to an observer the words and the acting is the only experience they are privy to. Whilst playing Final Fantasy XIII, the narrative is devoid of any substance, but being Final Fantasy one has to sit through hours of meandering cut scenes that are intended to pose questions of morality and love. My girlfriend, sitting next to me while browsing the internet on her laptop, would often pause, look at me, look at the screen then back to me and just shake her head questioning how I could play such nonsense. The answer is that games are so much more than the story alone. Books require the reader to imagine a world, lead by the author to come up with their own interpretative meaning of the prose. Films give us a fully realised world in which a story is augmented by pacing, tone, music, cinematography and emotional resonance that approaches a true to life depiction of reality. Yet games can go further and put you at the heart of the story in a way no other medium can.
Whilst people like Tom Bissell rage against the quality of the writing, and he has every right to, perhaps because he is an author he demands too much from games. He appears to want the frantic emotions gleamed from playing with something acutely intellectual that can be held up the light of critical thinking. However to make this kind of game, with a story appreciated by educated adults and yet have the dynamism of a first person shooter is nigh on impossible. Maybe games should no longer be considered against movies at all, so different are they that the dissonance will never be resolved. Perhaps it is better to set video games against books and music instead. Last week I got an email from a friend who said he had finally read Mikhail Bulgakov's, The Master and Magerita, ten years after I recommended it. He said it was unbelievably brilliant and thinking back it is a truly magical book. However there is no way that I could describe the plot of the book at all, aside from a brief outline. The joy that reading brings is our feeling about the work once we've read it. The narrative fades quickly away but the emotions felt when thinking about a book stay with you forever. I can recommend dozens of books from my university days but if asked detailed questions about any I would struggle. Music is the same. The lyrics are merely a guide, the emotion is all tied up in the song that can produce timeless classics that evoke within us an unlimited range of emotions. This too, is what games create. In Extra Lives Tom Bissell recounts a single match of Left for Dead that will stay with him forever. As gamers we've all had these moments, from getting a nuke for the first time on Modern Warfare 2, to defeating Ragnaros in World of Warcraft, a gamer experiences emotions so powerful that being compared to a movie cannot begin to get close to the video game experience. Every single gamer has their own indelible moments ingrained and it is this experience that elevates video games to an artform.
Still though people try to draw a narrative out wherever possible. If you watch a game of football and a striker goes passed four players then strikes a 30 yard screamer with the outside of his foot he will undoubtedly be asked about it after the game and how it felt scoring such a goal. Putting that raw feeling into words is incredibly difficult and any attempts will fall short. More often than not, the player will utter things like, "Yeah, as I say, I took the ball well, and just set off really, then I was lucky with the shot, but it's more important that the team won and secured the points on the board." Narratives try hard to get at emotion but dramatic real life experiences can never be emulated by words. While many are dismissive of games and the merits of their worth you cannot take away the fact that playing games is extremely enjoyable. And as technology improves, we move closer to a point where games take over from real life as the driving force of emotional enrichment.
One game in particular that has had more press than any other as regards the detriment of real life is World of Warcraft. In the game the multitude of things the player can do is almost limitless and yet its gameworld is surprising confined. Players have no choices to make, no narrative paths to choose and defeated foes simply respawn to be killed and killed over and over until the next instance is released. There is also very limited interactivity with the non-playing characters the computer controls, providing one line responses at best. However the quests in the game where the authored narrative exists, despite many protestations, are surprisingly good, with witty asides and pop culture references at almost every turn. What World of Warcraft does better than any other game is create a user experience unparalleled in terms of challenge, teamwork and enjoyment. Gamers are not genre specific in the way that a kid who likes Superbad is highly unlikely to rent a retrospective of Polanski's work. The only criterion a player cares about is whether the game is good and WoW is amazing. Player versus player matches create so much tension, fury and elation purely because the player knows the opposing model is a real player not an A.I. bot. On the flipside twenty five players can team up and coordinate intricately to develop strategies to defeat seemingly insurmountable A.I bosses. Then there is the crafting, professions, itemization, every day duties your character can do, quests, smaller dungeons and exploration, lots of exploration. WoW succeeds because it puts the emotional experience first and foremost in its lists of priorities. The graphics are nearing woeful given it is running off an engine that was released in 2004, and despite graphical overhauls to the spells, the world and character models are simple with the limited musical score looped repeatedly forever.
Yet these failings never detract from the experience, partly because WoW has a reward system in place that will never fail to get gamers begging for more but also because of the relationships players form with each other. These relationships develop quickly, out of mutual interest and are required to succeed in WoW's gameworld. This is why questions of authored narrative need not be applied to games where human interaction supersedes the framework put in place by the game's creators. The world within Warcraft is every bit as real as everyday life, because it is populated by real people.
Both Grand Theft Auto IV and the Assassin's Creed series have sought to create believable life like game worlds and come very close but despite their valiant efforts once you have experienced a massively multiplayer world populated by thousands of real people no manner of well written scripted narrative can hide the fact you are playing a game, designed by people with the intention that you experience exactly what they had in mind. There is nothing in these games you could go to a developer with and say I did this and it was incredible, without him or her knowing that was what you were supposed to be feeling. When you play a single player game, you are constrained by the boundaries of the developer's world, which is why these worlds feel so ultimately empty. It won't be long before all games are online, with the single player experience cosigned to the past and this is to the benefit of video games. Humans need to communicate, need to tell stories and by closing off games to a singular perspective the emotional experience is reduced exponentially. To illustrate this point one only needs to play Angry Birds. The game is a challenge, but there is no point to it. It is addictive because of its challenge but once completed there is no reason to play it again or remember it. The frustration felt while struggling through trying to get three stars on each level disappears once achieved and is not replaced by any lasting feeling of satisfaction. Contrast this with a game of Battlefield: Bad Company 2 where you single-handedly storm a base in your quad bike, lay anti-tank mines around the enemy base, stealth into a building killing defenders, before out-flanking another three, demolishing a building while watching an enemy tank explode before your team arrives to back you up to capture the base. For that moment you feel godlike, like you have achieved something special and tangible that rates as highly as a real life achievement all because everyone around you is human. Were this against a computer, the feeling created would never reach the heights of unbridled joy that can be attained when playing online.
To even question whether video games are an art form is asking from an outdated criterion. Video games are the result of thousands of hours of creative work to produce something so unique with scope to become the true mirror to real life in the way books, films and music aspire to be. By combining strong narrative, incredible visual and aural 5tyle with emotional resonance, video games will surely become the medium of choice for the 21st century. One final example of how far games have come in making players invest emotionally and completely believe in the game worlds presented to them comes from my friend who played Championship Manager. In this game you take control of a football club and are in charge of signing players, implementing training regimes, overseeing tactics, off-field stadium redesign and contract negotiations. At a certain point in his 15th season one of my friend's players who had started as a fresh faced 18 year old was now a creaking has-been unable to make any sustained impact in the first team. My friend could never bring himself to sell a player he had grown so attached to after investing hundreds of hours into the game and kept the virtual player virtually employed for reasons of nostalgia. He waited until the Champions League Final was all but won by his team and gave this player a ten minute run out at the end of the match as to give rhim a way to go out on a high, to win the big cup one last time and say farewell to the fans. According to my friend, "it almost brought a tear to my eye as I subbed him on thinking, 'he'll appreciate that.'" To put this in context Championship Manager was at the time, entirely text based with no images or player models to speak off. He had created the narrative on his own with the aid of the developer having mimicked what it means to be a supporter so well. No medium existing today can get close to what video games offer their players.
(there were more pics but i over-ran the character limit)
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