When Halo:Reach was a released back in September 2010 it made almost 200 million dollars in a day. Over an extended weekend (Wednesday-Sunday), the biggest blockbuster can only muster $125 million. These figures, combined with growing attempts by the video game industry to become more accessible to the general public (Wii, Xbox 360’s Kinect), make it a medium on the rise. The only problem is we have yet to see a truly great story told by this technology.
I’m not going to take the Roger Ebert stand (“video games aren’t art”); it would be insulting to look at the stunning visuals and not call it art. As someone who casually plays video games and has many friends who love their games, I have a respect for the medium: I have nothing but good memories of playing Spider-Man 2 for the Playstation 2. The physics of web-swinging between skyscrapers and climbing the tallest building only to launch yourself into the void made it incredibly relaxing. Of Half-Life 2, the sound design is what I remember best, as I blasted Combine soldiers and heard unique gunshots silence their coms.
However, after playing Bioshock and Alan Wake, two of the most critically acclaimed video games in the last few years, and they were disappointments. Both present intriguing, well designed worlds, but they stop short at this design stage. With both games I performed the same tasks over and over, in a hurry to get to a new piece of story. At that point the medium has gotten in the way of the message. If it’s annoying to play a game to get your story, you should watch a film or read a book because the game designers have not done their job. It seems then that the criteria for any game is to at least be fun; at their best, they should be compelling storytellers.
But why hasn’t there been a good story told through video games? There is no Godfather or even a decent drama (don’t talk to me about Final Fantasy VII, it’s derivative melodrama). One problem might be the issue of control. Whether first person or third person, the player tends to be always in control of a character or group of characters, and perhaps this control prevents our character(s) from receiving the best development. Or, since we are in control, maybe we are meant to automatically Avatar ourselves into this digital figure and the game designers leave it at that (“I am this character, so the designers don’t have to do development work). Or maybe the medium is still just trying to find its sea legs. Considering it’s the first form of entertainment that puts the audience in the driver’s seat (sure, the game designers guide one down a set path or paths, but it’s up to the video game player how long it will take to reach the conclusion), figuring out how to reach your audience with this technology is a whole new undertaking.
This is where some games succeed in surpassing the experience of seeing a film. In the first section of Alan Wake, for instance, I find myself in a shack being instructed to perform a certain task before being gobbled up by the darkness. I am panicking to figure out the controls, hearing ungodly sounds pouring out of my speakers, my screen is going dark around the edges, and my controller is vibrating as the shack convulses.
This scenario involves a complete assault on the senses: visual, physical, aural, mental. This effect is what video games are all about. The crux of the situation is the player feels: I am responsible for freeing this character. In books and films, the author/director is in control of saving or killing a character. But in Alan Wake, my guy/I am screwed if I don’t do such and such. The assault of the senses and the sense of agency in getting free of such scary situations is why the horror video game might be the best suited for the medium.
Roger Ebert takes the absolutist standpoint that video games will never craft a story worthy of calling “art,” but I have enough faith in the medium to say that someone eventually will – we’re just not there yet.
Having thought about this a bit further, two other thoughts come to mind:
1) Videogames as they are now occupy a space between traditional storytelling and activities/sports, the latter being connected to the participatory aspect of gameplay (which is why competitive game play seems a natural fit). It gets difficult to peg our expectations: Would we call golf, basketball, or soccer art?
2) I mentioned the disconnect between player and the character being played and after a conversation with my wife and realized there could be an alteration that could completely change the shape of gaming: If you could believably speak to the characters within the game. Imagine using your headset to speak responses to a videogame character’s inquiries (instead of selecting a response). All of a sudden you’re deeply invested since you’re connecting to the game the same way we do with other human beings.
This of course would require a major leap in computer intelligence (if not flat-out creating A.I.), but if we ever achieve it, videogames using the technology could bridge the storytelling gap.