The Problem with Videogames, and the Solution

I’m a huge videogames fan. I’ve been playing console games since I was 5, and I played PC games throughout my teens. When I used a PC I played games 3 years behind the curve, because we grew up poor, and I couldn’t afford the high-end PCs which would let me play the latest stuff. I’ve never been one of those high-spending wealthy twentysomethings who have all the latest stuff (y’know, games publishers’ target market)

But let make it clear: I’ve played many video games in my time, and I’ve played huge numbers of console games. I also watch films, read books, play sports, watch television, go to the theatre watch and perform comedy and occasionally twist my ankle in the street for no obvious reason.

I believe that video games are the next paradigm shift in entertainment. I still believe that even after the 49th Call of Duty game is awaiting release in a month or two. Just as the wireless shifted the way we consume performance art away from theatre, and the cinema from the wireless, and the TV from the cinema, I believe that videogames have the potential to completely re-engineer how we consume media.

This is not to say that videogames will kill television or the cinema or radio. After all, the fears that TV would kill off the cinema experience ended up being wrong. Instead, I think we’re looking at a new generation of media-consumption – one in which interactivity is central and where our interface with our media is active rather than passive.

The Problem with Videogames

The problem with videogames is this: we are not creating media. The word media means in the middle of, but what is a videogame in the middle of? A film is the telling of a story from the point of view of a director. The director may not have written the story, but he or she is the one telling it. A book is the same thing, but for an author. The best media that we consume is, at its heart, personal and individual. It’s why the best films can touch us all differently and why nobody likes the TV that feels like it has been designed by committee.

Every AAA or top-tier videogame I’ve played recently suffers from this problem. There may be a story, but who is telling it? What is the message? How should I feel when the credits finally roll? There are indie games that do this very well, and these are exceptions that prove the rule. With fewer people on staff it is easier to produce something with a unity of purpose.

But in the film industry, this sort of success happens at all tiers. Small independent films all the way up to big-budget summer blockbusters get the ingredients right, and across all genres. Granted, there are some flabby messes along the way, but my point is that there’s nothing about the budget of a film or the genre that determines whether a director gets this right. Instead it’s up to the skill of the auteur.

The Solution

When a film gets the cocktail of elements right to produce a classic, it is because every element, every individual part of the film is subsumed in service to the artistic vision. If a fight scene is not a part of the artistic vision of the director, it does not appear. If the fight scene is important, then not only does it appear, but every shot and every piece of choreography is in hock to the message.

Go away, right now, and watch the skyscraper fight scene from Skyfall (as long as you promise to come back). In it, a Bond trying to recover from a career-ending fall, is trying to prove his relevance in a world where technology is making him obselete. Watch the use of light, and shadow, and music to tell us as audience this. The film ends in rural Scotland for a reason – it is the culmination of a story about the interplay between the old and the new.

Skyfall is not perfect by any means. But it is as AAA as films can possibly get, and yet they still make the individual elements of production synchronise with one another. You might think that this is simple for videogames. After all, if you don’t need a story to make your message, you don’t need one (and how many films can say that?) You don’t need actors, you don’t need to think about lighting and you don’t need to think about about sound if you don’t want to.

Games producers need to be only using the elements that they need to to make their impact. If something appears in a game, it needs to be a part of that game’s artistic vision. And the best largeish-budget example of this I’ve seen in the last couple of years is Spec Ops: The Line. For those of you who haven’t played it, I’m not going to spoil it if I can help it. But this is a game you all need to play. It’s a third-person shooter with a vision: To show the reality of war and violence to an audience who are used to the cartoon hoo-rah patriotism of modern AAA gaming.

Spec Ops is an attempt to answer the idiocy of the Call of Duties and Battlefields of this world with a game that circles around the madness and cold, hard reality of extreme violence. It is at once compelling and sickening, and is as brutal an expose of the military complex as any film on the subject. More so, at times, because we the audience are not mere passive observers of violence – we are the perpetrators of horrifying atrocities.

One example of how every element of this videogame services this message lies in its loading screens (yes, its loading screens). The loading screens begin with the standard FPS tips. Use cover to avoid enemy fire!

As the madness sets in, however, they start to reflect the actions the characters are taking under your command:

“The US army does not condone killing unarmed civilians. But this isn’t real, so why should you care?”

“To kill for yourself is murder. To kill for your government is heroic. To kill for entertainment is harmless.”

This game had to have loading screens. They had to be there. And therefore, as with any good art, those loading screens simply had to be a part of the Spec Ops message. This is the kind of thing we need to be seeing from the gaming industry. Games with higher values than mere time sinks or lowest common-denominator entertainment. Games whose primary selling point is how it will affect its audience rather than the new item-collecting mechanic. For games to truly become a creative media games makers need to behave creatively.

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