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.