In lieu of any sort of robotic assimilation that may or may not be taking *GZZT* place, I came to a realization as I was walking out of The Help a few minutes ago. This realization of mine was made possible by the tears I fought to hold back as the movie ended. I understood that what I had watched was not merely entertainment, but a form of art, a film of a higher order that taught me something and changed me because I watched it. That is what art does, and something I don’t think video games have quite achieved yet. Now, I don’t want to start the “Games as Art” argument here (*GZZT* contradiction detected! *GZZT*), but I want to describe why I think the whole argument takes place.
Dead horse engaged
It’s in the name. Video game. We enter into any interactive experience on a PC or console as a form of entertainment, escapism, a journey into a world like but apart from our own. We know we’re “playing a game,” some kind of extension of the playing we did as children, the make believe with no deeper meaning; a fantasy of something we may never be but wish were so. When we go to a movie we’ve heard or know is trying to send a message, or read a book whose purpose is to show us something about ourselves, we go in with no preconceived notions of play. Oh, yes, thrillers and formula fiction are certainly nothing to ponder over, but books like The Road and Dhalgren and Heart of Darkness are labyrinthine, suffused with a meaning that etches itself in our consciousness. I don’t think the same can be said for games, because we think of them as something to entertain and little more.
The phrase “interactive story” is cumbersome, but I think adequately describes the single player experience. The problem is, unfortunately, semantics. “Movie” and “book” and “video game” roll so easily off the tongue because of the syntactic simplicity of the words. “Interactive story” is anything but simple to say. What we need to take another step and allow “games” to be that fourth form of art is the discarding of the word “game” entirely. The word in itself inhibits deeper analysis of the material contained within the experience.
Assumptions engendered within words
When I think about this topic now, and the idea that the best books and movies force us to rethink something about ourselves, I go straight to Deus Ex: Human Revolution (which I will *GZZT* be reviewing in the future while the Failspy human is away). The problem is this: While the endings of books or movies force me to re-evaluate myself and my world, the ending to DXHR only reaffirmed my own beliefs. Now, I can’t say I watched every ending and maybe I should to make this a valid argument but bare with me. I think DXHR is as close as I’ve come to playing a game that made me think long and hard about something, make me walk differently around certain people, or even have my beliefs altered. The problem, of course, is the idea of the “game.” I’d spent the majority of my time in the world walking through air ducts, hiding behind boxes and fighting really bad boss fights. More than that, my mind was set on the idea that what I was doing was an entertainment, an aside that didn’t apply to real life in the way I experienced it. Sure, the people were those I might meet on the street in sixteen years, when I’m Jensen’s age. And sure, their problems were much like those I might expect in my own life. If I suspend my disbelief and accept Jensen’s metal arms, cloaking device skin and X-Ray eyes, the issues he often wrestled with are those of a person in an excellent novel. What does it really mean to be human and, if we change that by our own hand, are we doing something we shouldn’t or simply taking the steps we were always meant to? Questions like these are ones no author of merit would toss aside. But I was given the ability to teabag the corpses of strippers, dance up against walls and throw around dumpsters because they were there. In a book, no character would act so silly; in a movie, no plot would have such inane attitudes towards how one behaves. This is the third and most prevalent problem we have. It’s a sad one.
The gaming community needs to take its medium seriously. Everyone from developers to publishers and that eleven year old kid who kicks your ass at CoD every night. The problem lies, ultimately, with all of us, myself most certainly included. Sites like Halolz, made solely for the purpose of laughing at games and characters in them, are part of the issue. I love the site and visit daily, but it has no counterpoint. I don’t know of any high-profile site dedicated to the purpose of critically analyzing games, writing essays showing why such and such a series shows us some deep image about humanity or society or what have you. Yahtzee Crowshaw’s Extra Punctuation is a good start, and Extra Creditz is certainly a very nice introductory course on game criticism. But we need more. And again, the problem is the gamer culture.
Let me say that again. It’s too young. The average age of your typical PC “gamer” is what, early-mid twenties? The average console gamer is maybe 16? The average novelist is maybe thirty something (if they’re successful and up and coming), and your rising movie screenwriter/director is maybe mid to late thirties? This alone shows that there needs to be time spent just developing the medium, as it itself exploded in only the mid ’80’s. Only now, as the “video game” reaches maturity, can it begin telling the stories it was really meant to tell. Human Revolution is an early sign of something great, as is a game like Limbo or something Amnesia: The Dark Descent.
The video game and its culture is becoming that first great novelist with its formative years slowly winding down and its best years to come. I’ll put an end to nothing here, but I’ll still say this. I don’t think the debate needs to start or happen right now. Let more Deus Ex’s come out, more Limbo’s and their ilk. Build a powerful library and dive in. Swim in the experience and then dissect it. Remove “difficulty levels,” “boss fights,” giant explosions and needless special effects. Pare down the game to its most basic but with the powers we can now imbue it wish. I think then, with that pure interaction between the player and his extension, we’ll reach something approaching an Old Man and the Sea, The Road, and Beloved. Maybe. I’d love to see it.
I of course don’t want to open the whole “the industry is stifling creativity” argument. That’s a whole other article, and one I might write in the future.