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A Demand for Deeper Video Games

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Let’s talk about video games! As a gamer I know well enough the pressure of defending the habit. I’m well versed in all manners of excuse — they’re cathartic, it’s escapism, it’s just fantasy. But I’m tired of defending video games. I think our excuses have either fallen on deaf ears or, more likely, the argument really means nothing at all. But I’m going to talk about one defense of video games that I’m not just tired of hearing, but am now demanding the video game industry live up to. That excuse is that video games are fully capable of tackling tough subjects just like any other media. So far? That’s not a complete lie.

Not every good or great game has to address social issues or have a deeper meaning to them but if we’re going to successfully use this excuse more of these games need to exist than currently do. There have been really well made games that address such issues, for instance, in the current console generation we’ve seen Assassin’s Creed use religion as a back drop and BioShock critique Objectivism.

The Third Crusade is at the core of Assassin’s Creed as three groups battle for the future of the Holy Land. However, developers Ubisoft shied away from saying anything meaningful about the warriors on any side. This may be out of fear of criticism yet the final twist of the game is likely more inflammatory than anything they could have done by adding character depth to opposing sides. In BioShock a man named Andrew Ryan sets up a fantastic underwater society with the world’s greatest minds … and it quickly descends into hell. In that regard it’s a belated, but fun, rebuttal to Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged where the world’s greatest minds pulled out of society which then collapses without their wondrous presence and guidance. BioShock shows how arrogance, greed, and ultimately naivety lead Ryan’s ideal society into a broken rusty horror show.

The current generation isn’t the only generation to have games that strove for intellectual meaning. To my right lies Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath, a game whose big ideals dealt with capitalism run amok, environmentalism, commercialization, and not being ashamed of who you are. In fact, all the Oddworld games have messages to them partially obscured by kooky almost kiddie art design. Which brings us to aesthetics!

Surely no one will doubt that Grim Fandango, Psychonauts, Okami, MadWorld, Shadow of the Colossus, Black & White, and the like are visually arresting pieces of art. And then there’s the well-written video game, which is rare. As a comic and video game fan, I just accept the over the top utterly blunt dialogue. In a film or book you wouldn’t stand monologues about how a character feels, but in comics and video games? It’s par for the course. The best written games I can think of right now are: Mass Effect, Psychonauts, and Grand Theft Auto IV. So does that means video games can be art in that respect?

Yes, I believe they can be and have been art. Does that in turn mean that video games can successfully tackle the tough subjects? No. Bare with me a little longer.

So what’s this about me demanding more from video games if I believe they’ve already achieved art form status and there have been a handful of thoughtful games? The problem is presentation and gameplay. While the above games have reached for a lofty goal, and we’re certainly all better for it, none of them mastered the way to go about it. Again, I believe BioShock got closest but your mileage may vary. For instance, Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath suffers from a key mistake — when you attack the commercial culture perhaps it’s best to not sell your game for 60 dollars. Of course gaming is a business, and I don’t begrudge a company making money, but when you attack the very culture you profit from… then that’s hypocritical, is it not? Stranger’s Wrath also gets derailed along the way, becoming awfully preach, which one never would have picked up from the advertisements.  Personally, I dug the game throughout but more than a few gamers disagree. Grand Theft Auto IV‘s storyline about searching for redemption, revenge, and the American Dream feels fatty. Large portions of the game feel completely unnecessary, which is not what you want when it aspires to be a deep personal story about one man’s emotional downfall. It should be riveting and deeply moving where we feel every setback and cheer for every victory! And it’s hit or miss in that respect.

On the gameplay side of things, we've got games that really try to tell a good story and fall short due to technical details. To some extent, the way games are set up (rules, consequences, and rewards) are sometimes at odds with storytelling. You can't have a slow tension building scene in a game. Whole narrative tools are stripped down or abandoned entirely for video games. This tends to lead to the aforementioned over-written dialogue instead of a more traditional version. It's also directly tied to the massive use of cliche characters in games — the developers don't have as much time to make them and it's more important to convey what the character's about instead of creating compelling arcs.

I’d like to end by saying that I love that video games have attempted to touch deeper subjects. I love how moral dilemmas and the illusion of free will are major themes in many current games. But the medium’s still immature and its attempts are often haphazard, as is the case when pioneering any field. One day video games will have their Watchmen or Citizen Kane and I honestly believe we’ll get it as long as the industry moves away from gimmicks and try to deepen their gaming experience and characters.

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About Tim Rainey

  • Well said Tim, I’m all for thoughtful video games. Those are the ones I remember at the end of the day!

  • Mike John

    I love Tim Rainey, he writes lotsa crap and doesn’t afraid of anything.

  • Either Bioshock actually supports Objectivism or they completely missed a very important point.

    Objectivism advocates RATIONAL self interest. In Bioshock’s case, the reasons for Raprture’s downfall are because of irrational and over-the-top self indulgent ideas. Ideas that are extremely ludicrous and have the potential to harm others. A true Objectivist would not RATIONALLY pursue ideas that would potentially harm anyone else. If a person were to do that, then they are NOT Objectivists. The people of Rapture get carried away because they are irresponsible with their ideas. They had no self control or discipline. Human error is what lead to the downfall. Not Objectivism.


    Besides, later we find out that Andrew Ryan was NOT responsible for Rapture’s destruction. He was a pawn of Atlas and so are you as the player. Andrew Ryan was not allowed to live out his dream. Atlas snubbed that.


    That’s like saying, oh you created this basketball. Let’s see you make this amazing half-court shot you claim you can make then. But then the ball is stolen from you and thrown at an old lady instead. Then you’re told what a terrible idea it is that you created that basketball that knocked out the old lady and that because of how bad of a person you are for doing that, there is no possible way you would have made that three pointer anyway. Because bad people aren’t good at anything.

    Either there is a giant hole in Bioshock’s anti-objectivist philosophy or Rapture’s downfall is a mockery of anti-objectvists who create ridiculous fantasy worlds to combat the notion of an ideal Objectivist society.

    All of that aside, I do completely agree with you. Video games while technically sophisticated and I believe to be unarguably the most strenuous and demanding art form on the planet, they are certainly stuck in their story telling and emotional infancy.

    Bioshock, whether I’m right about it or not is perhaps the only game to go to the extremes it has of exploring philosophical boundaries. Games generally are 10 hours of the same monotonous button presses and actions that were only cool within the first hour of play. Characters are terribly thin and unlikable. You rarely feel connected to anything or anyone, therefor making it daunting to get through 10+ hours of action with no emotional fuel to back your involvement or feel you are truly making a difference in your digital world.

    Gaming I rarely partake in because of these facts. Gaming is stuck. I’m growing older and needing more sophistication in my escapism while gaming remains in it’s childhood where I first picked it up. It’s only evolving on a technical level, which is totally cool with me. But the moral choices I make in gaming should really start testing me as a person. My theories and ideas on life should be challenged. Gaming is perhaps the strongest medium to test the idea of why we are who we are, and developers don’t care. It’s so sad, but so true. Video games have the power to teach us so much. To be able to act out our fantasies, but be met with realistic consequences. Developers, wake up!

  • Billy Houston

    I don’t play games much anymore because I’m usually disappointed in them, but there is the occasional game, like some of the ones you mentioned, that gets me playing again.

    You should play Batman Arkham Asylum, it’s one of the better games I’ve played recently. Good game play, good story, and or of course Batman.

  • Eric Findlay

    You know, I thought that Endless Ocean was a VERY deep game.

    Okay, but seriously, you have a point. The last game that I played with a deep, complex story (and coincidently didn’t have to do with a political or social issue – bonus) was Starcraft. And that story was so good, they recently started a comic series to continue it.

  • Tim Rainey

    Andrew Ryan’s ideals were never tested and untested ideals are worthless. His dreams were lofty and naive.

    He wanted a place where the artist could create without worry and the genius could experiment to their heart’s content. And things went well for a few years. But Objectivism is a very selfish philosophy, not as selfish as Anarchy but still selfish. The idea that society will be better off through sheer self-interest is impossible just like the opposite you have to preserve the self to help the whole. An inbetween is the correct course. You help yourself and help bolster those around you.

    As the years went on the people of Rapture cared less and less for others and they became more selfish. They started shirking their responsibilities to others because it did not directly and immediately benefit them to help. Because of the Doctor’s not maintaining the pipes of Rapture the whole place started to freeze over and flood.

    But it’s bigger than that. Atlas’s rise to power was because of that selfishness. The top of the world moved to Rapture and then the top of the top pushed the others around. Like Atlas says, ‘they forgot that someone has to clean the toilets.’ He started to help people with his own selfish agenda (creating an army to take over Rapture). When his ideals were seen used against his wishes what does Ryan do?

    He betrays his beliefs. Easily. Objectivists abhor the State telling them to do anything. Ryan uses pheromones to control the populace so he can maintain control of Rapture. But then he uses fear tactics such as public executions (which Ryan thinks nothing about but a true Objectivist would never think of using that tactic). As Atlas’s powers grow Ryan betrays himself and his ideology easily. He ends up creating a sort of Adam arms race and because of their selfish ideals the people of Rapture turn against everyone as they get their fixes. Atlas creating on new tonic and Ryan creating others.

    That’s why it’s against Objectivism. It shows that system purely about self-serving is hypocritical and doomed to failure. Which it is, because eventually there will be only two classes: haves and have-nots. And the Have-nots will eventually kill the Haves. But the damage would be done because the have-nots would not have the same education, appreciation for the arts, or general understanding and all of society would be dealt a terrible blow.

    Objectivism is an extremist belief (there is likely no values, one must do whatever to make one’s life more, and the complete shirking of social responsibilities) and all extremist beliefs are ultimately destructive. It’s just a way of justifying one’s high-class life style without feeling guilty about it. If such a society rose it would collapse in two generations because humans are by nature social and we feel better about ourselves when we help others. A society of ‘me me me me mes’ would make us unhappy, unhealthy, and people would start killing their way to the top of the rubble heap.

    The rest of your post I agree with. And where BioShock really fails is with its morality choice. It’s not morality choice at all. “Kill a little girl or don’t” and if you don’t you get more Adam and Tonics anyway just over a longer time. There’s no real choice there. It’s in your best interests to save the girls. That’s not big enough of a choice. However Mass Effect had a nice moral choice with the Rachni.

    The Rachni Queen swears her brood has turned away from their fierce ways but can you trust her? They nearly wiped out the galaxy once upon a time….do you wipe out a whole race or set them free and hope it doesn’t come back in generations to the universe’s detriment. You get nothing out of either choice. It’s completely morally your choice. Do you believe in redemption and individual choice that their race should have the choice of their behavior…or do you wipe them out because the future could be at stake?

    It was a great moral choice with no right or wrong answer because you can’t know what the future will hold with the Rachni either way.

  • Tim Rainey

    To Eric Findlay, StarCraft was great! I love that game. Sarah Kerrigan’s rise to power was so sad, twisted, and evil that I’ll never forget it.

    One of the joys of that game was how many sides were being played. Sons of Korhal, the Confederacy, the Zerg, Tassadar and the Dark Templar, the Protoss Enclave, and all the other militias. It created the feel of an actual living universe where it wasn’t just one race against another.

    It lent believability to the game. Which was rare as all hell back in 1998. It hasn’t aged that well but it’s story is still more compelling than a lot of current games.

  • To be very clear, I am not an Objectvist.

    The fact that the Doctor’s didn’t maintain the pipes is irrational self-interest, which is not Objectivist at all. Not maintaining the pipes is something that would affect their lives and their work negatively later. Hence, irrational and not Objectivist. Ryan using pheromones to “control” people is also not Objectivist. Objectivists believe in the same free will this country was founded on. Control is absolutely nowhere near their agenda.

    Remember, RATIONAL self interest is the Objectivist staple. Objectivists encourage helping, assisting, and bettering someone else’s life if it directly contributes to a greater rational goal for anyone and everyone including or sometimes excluding themselves.

    In the Fountainhead, Howard Roark decides to help a snaky terrible person (Keating) who has wronged Roark on many occasions, because helping him will help architecture as a whole. Roark does a “selfless” act to benefit the art that he and thousands of others love most.

    No offense, but like telling a friend they have something on their upper lip, I hear this ill informed attack often and I have to suggest you look into wiping it off. People accuse Objectivists of somehow being against helping others because of their proud use of the term “selfish.” The problem is, we as a society are scared of that word because of arrogant irrational fools that make it look bad – and a lot of these fools like to label themselves as Objectivists. It’s exactly like how pedophile Priests ruin the reputation of the Catholic religion.

    I find hypocrisy in other areas of Objectivism, but in this particular regard, with all due respect, you’re understanding of Objectivism is completely backwards. It’s perhaps the most common misunderstanding of the Objectivist philosophy and it’s very easy to misinterpret. Hey, I misunderstood this for a while as well. But I did my reading and found the real holes in the philosophy were anything but their selfish ambition for their ideas and goals.

    If the Bioshock devs were truly going for an anti-Objectivist message, they too, are sorely misled and have a backwards and extremely shallow understanding of the Objectivist social ideal.

    I, again, agree. The element of choice in Bioshock has no real moral consequence. I had this discussion with a friend of mine a couple months ago. I didn’t commend Bioshock for its moral complexities. I commended the fact that it is the first game that I have played that had the balls to dig very deeply into a highly criticized philosophy.

  • Tim Rainey

    Then can self-interest with a hatred of state regulation, censorship, or anyone else telling them what they can or cannot do ever lead to anything other than corruption and dictatorship?

    The ideal itself is an optimistic pipe dream. It expects the best of the people, and people rarely show their best. Any society, such as Rapture, based on that ideal will likely be doomed to corruption, corporate sabotage, and massive rise in crime.

    As for Roarke, he was Rand’s idealized man. Not only was he brilliant, charming, and agreed with her political/social ideals he was also honest and hard working. How many people who would rise to power (and Objectivism is about power and control. They want no one to tell them how to run their businesses and life which is power and power is control. Control over them and their business leads to them controlling their employees. See how the system’s essential flawed?)

    Andrew Ryan reacted like a human being when HIS business was under threat. Notice in BioShock it’s never referred to as nations or countries or governments. Ryan and Atlas had opposing businesses in the same area and that lead to a destructive war.

    When faced with an opponent, Ryan broke his ideals. Atlas never had ideals. The two are both the villains of the game, Ryan is just more sympathetic because you can understand where he’s coming from, he thought his system would work and wanted it to. But it lead to the same things he was escaping.

    War. Communism (Atlas’s public works). Religion (in Arcadia there’s a cult of splicers worshipping a forest deity and drinking wine). And eventually he became worse than any of them. Atlas never betrayed who he was. Ryan became a controlling Big Brother figure always on television sets, speaking over the radio, and using pheromones to control people all in an effort to maintain control over his business because no one would tell him how to control his life again.

    BioShock’s a great counterpoint to Objectivism. Because it WORKED in Rapture until Atlas showed up about 3-4 years into its history. When it was just Ryan they were happy, they were creating, and the system worked…until someone who didn’t care for the same ideals rose in power and competed with Ryan.

    And that’s true to real life. There’s always people who will disagree and in any system someone will abuse it. Objectivism’s lack of government oversight is a key flaw that will lead to rising evil and one of the reasons why Objectism fails to gain momentum in real life.

  • Dr. Elliot McGucken

    Great article!

    Check out the Gold 45 Revolver/Ideas Have Consequences/Moral Premise videogame technologies:

    A video game method and system for creating games where ideas have consequences, incorporating branching paths that correspond to a player’s choices, wherein paths correspond to decisions founded upon ideals, resulting in exalted games with deeper soul and story, enhanced characters and meanings, and exalted gameplay. The classical hero’s journey may be rendered, as the journey hinges on choices pivoting on classical ideals. Ideas that are rendered in word and deed will have consequences in the gameworld. Historical events such as The American Revolution may be brought to life, as players listen to famous speeches and choose sides. As great works of literature and dramatic art center around characters rendering ideals real, both internally and externally, in word and deed, in love and war, the present invention will afford video games that exalt the classical soul, as well as the great books, classics, and epic films–past, present, and future.

    Read more.

  • Power or control over another’s free will is not in the Objectivist agenda. I’m not sure where you get that from. What is so wrong about power and control over oneself? Because that’s the power and control Roark sought and achieved. He never once told a competitor how to do their job and never once suggested an interest in steering them from their efforts. How are you arriving at these conclusions? So, no I do not see how it is “essentially flawed” in this regard. Especially since his employees CHOOSE to work for Roark, knowing full well who he is.

    Ryan using media for egregious propaganda and pheromones to control the free will of his people is virtually the most un-Objectivist thing he could have done. So, again, the inevitability of Objectivism leading to these things because of human error is another debate. I am simply arguing true Objectivism versus the many arrogant fools who tout their dedication to the ideal in lieu of a narcissistic and vain pursuit at the cost of others. The latter which is NOT Objectivist.

    True Objectivism could be successful and IS successful on many levels in positive and socially beneficial ways. Arguing inevitable corruption/or dictatorship spawning from Objectivist pursuits is another argument. But once a hypothetical Objectivist society gets to that point, it is no longer Objectivist, it is fascist. And fascism is damn near the complete opposite of the Objectivist ideal.