Thank Christ that E3 is here again; now we don’t have to wonder about what the next batch of games will be like. Instead, we can bask in the glow of next-next-gen graphics and insane cinematics. Video games are definitely a unique form of entertainment.
Back in the days of the Atari 2600, though, games didn’t seem that much different from the other things that I had: I either played a board game with my brother or we played Combat. I either played with my Transformers or I played Empire Strikes Back. There wasn’t that big of a difference to me. It was all just, well, playing.
Now it couldn’t be any different.
Skylanders comes along, blurring the lines between video games and action figures, and we have iOS boardgames, video game competitions galore, and MMOs replacing pen & paper games. But we still have action figures, boardgames made of boards, and pen & paper games; they’ve just lost some of their marketshare.
If I were to play the part of a reductionist, I’d probably say that games are all either time-wasters or time-sinks, bringing up the differences between hardcore games and the smaller ones (downloadable and mobile). I think that doing so could be detrimental to what games can be.
As with any medium of expression, experiences are usually limited by the technology. Cave paintings were made from crushed flowers, oils, blood, and rocks that worked like chalk. Dynamic color and shading weren’t an option for those early pieces, and as such, they feel flat and dull these days. As our tools grew more complex, we could use paints, pastels, photoshop, inks, and oils on paper, computer, and canvases, bringing to light even more subtle expressions of humanity and emotion.
The same with narratives. Our first stories weren’t written down, and our brains had to contain the stories themselves. Early myths were often assisted with pseudo-pneumonic devices where phrases were repeated with subtle changes, making it easier for people to remember what part came next. With the printing press, stories could be widely disseminated, and our ability to consume creative content grew right along with that technology (it might be too philosophical to get into the dynamics of this specific chicken/egg relationship. Which was first: the craving for books or the excess of books?).
Music followed a similar path, and prior to the phonograph, the real musicians were the ones who wrote the music, as it was difficult for performers to reach a wide audience. Yes, word of mouth has always been a part of marketing, but hearing a recording of a great performer was always more impactful and meaningful than hearing about a great performer. Don’t get me started on how technology has impacted music over the last twenty years; there’s not enough space on the internet to contain all of those thoughts.
Some people like to think that the narrative aspect of video games is simply its story. Others would disagree. The story doesn’t have to be the script or even the narrative architecture; it can simply be the story that arises out of the gameplay itself. The current iteration of video games might seem a lot different from the games of chess played a thousand years ago, but when you’re playing against someone online in Starcraft, you are still worried about strategy, forward-thinking plans, and bait & switch tactics. And the stories that you tell your friends are usually about the tactics that you employed—the story of the gameplay.
What is the real difference between Solitaire with a deck of cards and Bejeweled? Not much, right? Well what about the difference between Solitaire and Skyrim?
Skyrim isn’t necessarily comparable to pen and paper games in all ways, but it is compared to them. I played Rifts and D&D because of my friends as much as I did because of the stories. It was a communal act for a group of nerds that didn’t always get invited to the cool parties. Even after a couple of us broke our way into the cool groups, we still got together with our real friends on the weekends, running around Ley Lines as a Glitter Boy, Tattoo Master, Ley Line Walker, and a D-Bee scout (I always enjoyed Rifts more than D&D, and I was depressed when Rift came out, because it wasn’t the Palladium-owned intellectual property).
But Skyrim, Fallout, and other single-player games like them (I could list the good ones, but any list I made would leave out a great title or two) actually do go beyond a simple game like Solitaire, in more ways than can be counted. And while they may not be cooperative experiences, I have spent many nights talking with friends about what our characters in Fallout were doing and how different our experiences were within the same game.
Video games are a medium unlike any that we as a culture have ever been able to experience. It isn’t simply art. It isn’t simply story. It isn’t simply play. It transcends those mediums, while still being able to retain much of what makes those other things worthwhile to begin with. The music in Fallout makes it a much more compelling story. Imagine what the game would be like if the ambient music wasn’t from the 40s and 50s, but was 80s hair-band rock. What would Halo be like if that, well, it’s hard to describe, isn’t it? That ohhhhmmm sound-thing. You know what I’m talking about. It gave it gravity. Seriousness.
The same is true with art direction. How does Ratchet & Clank differ from God of War? They’re both action games with RPG elements, but the art and design (and mechanics, story, and sound, etc.) set them apart as much as anything else. Imagine everything else being the same, except Kratos is a colorful animated demigod and Ratchet is a dark and ominous furry creature. Same game, much different experiences. Much different story-telling capabilities. Here you have a truly integrating medium, one that brings previously-segregated forms of expression into a single package.
I hear from people in my other life how games are ruining children’s brains (I’m a teacher by trade), but what is so intrinsically different from some kid reading 4 hours a night, by himself, in his room, shut off from his friends and family, and that same kid playing games online with his friends for 4 hours a night? One makes the parents proud, and one makes them send the kid off to re-education camp.
Yes we can be habitual with games, making bad life patterns and decisions because of an obsession. We can do that with anything. But it’s high time that we stop lumping all video games into one category. Do we do that with television? Maybe, to an extent, but watching a Ken Burns documentary on PBS doesn’t carry the same social stigma that Jersey Shore does. Battleship is no Citizen Kane. Justin Beiber is no Jimi Hendrix. Farmville is no Fallout.
As the E3 mania slowly fades away over the next few weeks, it’s always good to remember that we shouldn’t just champion games, but we should champion quality games, the good games that give us what we want, while still challenging our brains, thoughts, and expectations.
A saying from Way of the Zen Guitar went something like this:
If you play guitar, play guitar. If you noodle on the guitar while not thinking, noodle on the guitar while not thinking. If you want to play, play. If you don’t want to play, don’t play. Connect your will to your actions.
With that in mind, if you want to play Bejeweled, play Bejeweled. If you want to look for bobbleheads in Fallout, look for bobbleheads in Fallout. But don’t play if you feel you should be doing something else.
Games are capable of carrying us away into another world, escaping our mundane existence. Games are also capable of reinforcing our habits.
Games are what we make them to be. So go and play games. Try out different genres. Go play Counter Strike online. Go play Skyrim offline. Go play Angry Birds. See what you like.
But for god’s sake, don’t play a shitty game.