Wednesday, July 27, 2011

In Defense of the Narrative

I am a gamer, but I’m a lot of other things too. I’m an engineering student, a member of the marching band, a writer, a game artist/programmer, and a whole host of other things. My time is pretty well divided up. This is not a problem in and of itself, and I really enjoy the variety.

Here's the problem: my favorite genre of game is the RPG. I love them and I hate them. I love the immersive storylines, the gameplay I can tweak to my style, the branching dialogues. But I start to hate myself for spending so much time playing them. One of my housemates even started poking fun at me this weekend for playing video games all day. I start to feel lazy when I see the hours played ticking upwards every time I save.
Just one more conversation....

I’ve been thinking about it as I play through Dragon Age: Origins. Every time I say, “Just one more mission,” or “I have to get to the end of this dungeon,” delaying sleep for that much longer, I hearken back to the days when my parents turned out the light and I brought out a flashlight to finish “Just one more chapter.” I still do that, in fact. (No, I wasn't up til 1 AM with a new book on a work night...). So why do I feel more guilty about playing a video game than reading a book? I’ve been shaken by the death of a character, much as I’ve cried when someone goes down on the silver screen. What makes a video game different from a movie?

Books are generally connected with academia, learning, bettering yourself, and other such wonderful things. Movies have a long-standing tradition of epic narrative, insight into society, innovation, etc., all of which are reflected in the Oscars. Video games, on the other hand, are still a young medium and are connected with violence and kids that sit around on the couch so long that all the muscles in their bodies atrophy except for those gripping the controller. Just as there are books and movies out there that exemplify the worst the medium has to offer, there are video games that have little substance to them, offering little to no redeeming value. Now, I’m not saying that kids should be allowed to play video games all day, but I think that the medium needs a second look.
Uncultured killers in the making, undoubtedly.
I was thinking on this topic when I read an article over at Gamespot about whether AAA games like Heavy Rain and L.A. Noire are too long. I was shocked that anyone would even consider that (remember again my favorite genre). To summarize parts of the article, the developers who met talked about how the casual and social gaming market isn’t interested in long stories and wants their games delivered in 5-minute bursts (think Angry Birds). They believe that the industry needs to respond to this, and boil their stories down into those 5-minute bursts, much like soap operas, according to one developer. “By gamers are [sic] paying less money, there's less need to create 10-hour-plus gaming experiences, because consumers no longer feel shortchanged,” the article claims.

We need both. I’ve reviewed on this blog two fantastic iPad games - they delighted me for a weekend when I was burnt out from school and work. But it’s Dragon Age and Mass Effect that I keep returning to, that I talk with my friends about, that occasionally worm their way into my dreams. A small story element in Dragon Age even got me rethinking part of a fantasy novel I've been planning. The so-called “casual and social games” are the short stories and films of the video game genre - they’re the YouTube parties and the comic books. The latter are the sweeping epics - the Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, War and Peace - of the video game industry. (My examples exaggerate, perhaps, and I mean no slight to any genre.)
What video games could be
I think it’s a good thing for developers to recognize the expanding mobile and casual markets and capitalize on that. As the article points out, it’s an open market for indie companies that can easily deliver such lighthearted games. But they shouldn’t dismiss the long-form, story-driven games so easily. One developer laments that people didn’t finish Heavy Rain and get the full impact of the story because they have no attention span. [Haven't played it, so I can't speak to that particular game.]

Movies have been going much the same way - getting shorter, using more explosions and less talking, simplifying stories for today’s audience. We’re blaming shorter attention spans and making movies and games that only encourage that fact. We cannot give up on storytelling - it is one of the oldest traditions we have, and we cannot let new mediums dilute it. A compelling story will engage people no matter their supposed “attention span" - look at the popularity of the Lord of the Rings movies (and books, for a smaller audience) and Harry Potter.

As I said in our choice systems post, video games have a unique advantage over films and books: they are interactive. One of the reasons I love RPGs and particularly adore Bioware is that branching dialogue and stories help me immerse myself in the world. I become attached to characters, much as I do when I read or watch movies, except sometimes even more so, because I am defining my relationships with them through dialogue. I am even more hooked on the getting to the ending because I’m the one driving there. Video games have fantastic storytelling potential that we can’t overlook, especially if we want to propel the industry forward.
As classic as Star Wars?
So do we accept dwindling attention spans and reduce our output accordingly? If moneymaking is the sole objective, then sadly, perhaps. But the core gaming audience cannot be ignored, and that audience can be expanded as games become a more refined art form. Already there’s an Art of Video Games exhibit in the Smithsonian - we can push this medium further. Mobile games may be the fad of the moment - like Charlie the Unicorn and dimestore romances - but it is games with larger stories that will be the ones we pull off the shelf to play with our children. They will become the Casablanca, Psycho, Gladiator, of the video game industry.

When comparing the amount of time I’ve spent on a video game with the amount of time I spend reading a good book, the time investment doesn’t seem so extreme. Granted, I progress through the story slower in the game due to my tendency to die, but they become much more comparable on the whole. How many of us have read books and watched movies and wished we could be the hero? As brave, as suave, as intelligent, and so on. Video games let us step into those shoes and save countries, worlds, galaxies. A good game can make us question ourselves, experience the wrenching sacrifice of a teammate when a choice must be made, and finally overcome all the evils to emerge victorious. It's a very empowering feeling.

So here's to the narrative, in all of its forms, and the ancient art of weaving stories. Let's make sure that we don't lose the sweeping epics in the age of the goldfish attention span. Let's push our growing medium to new heights of experience and exploring ourselves, our world, the human condition, and all those other things that English and media studies majors talk about. (One day, will there be a video game studies major?) Let's truly make games an art form on every level.

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