Games and art: looking at how the games of 2010 fit into the larger cultural landscape.
The "psychological thriller" Alan Wake raises interesting questions about the relationship between storytelling and interactive gaming. Games certainly self-categorize themselves into genres, and sometimes echo the stylistic sensibilities of other forms of media (for example, the horror movie or the detective story)--but can a video game truly adhere to a literary style?
The heavy-handed allusions to the pop culture worlds created by David Lynch ("Twin Peaks") and John Carpenter ("In the Mouth of Madness"), combined with a B-movie-like insistence on improbable coincidences, all feel a bit overly pulpish. But, upon further reflection, the construction starts to make more sense. Alan Wake is himself a writer of popular horror fiction, hence the world his writing brings to life is itself a distillation of the basic tenets of pulp drama--the perfectly timed crossing of different characters' paths, the improbably motivated villain, the Doubting Thomas sidekicks, and the ultimate deus ex machina.
America's expansion into the West. A popular enough meme for much of the 20th century, the Western itself has been out of favor since the '70s, perhaps not coincidentally the same era that birthed the first generation of digital natives. That makes it doubly interesting that the freshest take on the Western we've seen in decades comes in the form of a video game, Red Dead Redemption.
To this day, our perception of the Western owes much more of its DNA to Sergio Leone and Franco Nero than to John Ford and Gary Cooper. Those Italian/Spanish/French/etc. international co-productions looked at 19th century America through an international lens, an idea never more important than in today's hyperconnected, essentially borderless world. Though Red Dead Redemption was developed by an American creative team, the American West it presents is one filtered through that international view of the Western genre, with its twangy guitars, religious iconography, and dark antihero operating in a moral vacuum.
The starkly beautiful Limbo chooses bold minimalism, and relies on a narrative created through atmosphere, color, and sound (or the lack thereof), rather than filling the screen with needless exposition. Silent filmmakers learned the same lesson a century ago. Limited to plot points and dialogue delivered through occasional title cards, some chose to paint a picture in the mind's eye through the negative space of stark black-and-white silhouettes, which along with (sometimes deliberate, sometimes accidental) use of focus, film grain, fog, and lighting, create silent dreamlike tableaux that are still affectingly eerie today.
Limbo carries that same dreamlike feel (the polar opposite of the crisp Hollywood dreamland of "Inception," for example). The edges of the screen flicker and shift, looking very much like the iris masking techniques of the early days of cinema. For a far more striking example, look to this frame from the 1922 film "Haxan" about the history of witchcraft. Is there any more universally recognizable setting when presented in monochrome silhouette than the unsettling mysterious forest?
What is Heavy Rain? A visionary interactive experience, a too-clever experiment in video game storytelling, or a fuzzy tachyon transmission from the future, giving us a glimpse of things to come? It's perhaps easiest to say that playing Heavy Rain is like experiencing the first "talkies," (such as "The Jazz Singer"). That transition was not an entirely smooth one, and those early examples awkwardly mixed silent film conventions with some (at the time) groundbreaking examples of synced sound.
Heavy Rain is likewise a peek into one possible future of interactive entertainment, and even though it misses the mark, it misses on levels that more mainstream games don't even aspire to.
Mass Effect 2 nails that elusive mix of highbrow and lowbrow (as the terms apply to game mechanics). Yet, there's still a nagging feeling that we've hit something of a wall in terms of game design.
Though overflowing with characters, conversations are possible with only a handful, and even then, much of it is the kind of stilted basic exposition that even beginning screenwriters try to avoid. Rather than a real, interactive world, you're often left feeling like the only person in a fun house full of automatons--which may be a tough hurdle to get over, as that's what a single-player video game essentially is.
The sophomore slump can be a killer for any pop culture franchise, whether we're talking about a band, a movie series, or a video game. BioShock 2's biggest challenge is overcoming the very high bar set by the original game.
Back in 2007, that game's creators dressed up a familiar story-driven shooter with groovy retro-modern visual details and somewhat oversold references to objectivism and a shadowy Howard Roark-like figure lurking behind the plot. The result was greater than the sum of its parts, and became the kind of video game that garnered widespread interest outside of the insular game universe.
Though the Inferno portion of Dante Alighieri's epic poem "La Divina Commedia" does indeed take its narrator into the various circles of hell, meeting with historical figures and frightening creatures, the game veers sharply from the established narrative. Dante is recast as an ass-kicking Crusades-era warrior, rather than a poet, and the quest to save a lost love seemingly kidnapped by old Scratch himself is straight out of Genre-Plotting 101.
In practice, the end result is akin to making a game inspired by "Moby Dick," but actually about a cybernetcially enhanced bounty hunter whale who rides a turbo-charged speedboat called the Pequod.
The twisting passions and alliances of Greek mythology have been mined for video game fodder surprisingly infrequently over the years. Perhaps its because the industry shies away from anything that smacks of schoolwork (or example, Civil War games are few and far between), or just that modern armies and sci-fi fantasies are easier targets for creating a shopper-friendly "product."
But there is clearly a thirst for the particularly brutal brand of adventure told in these myths, as evidenced by the success, both critical and commercial, of the God of War games. It shouldn't be surprising--this is the same source material referenced by Joseph Campbell as the archetype for the classic Hero's Journey (also known as the monomyth)--the basic pattern for narratives across every culture, era, and genre.
Splinter Cell, and other games of the "stealth" genre, are unique in that they directly address one of the great challenges of virtual worlds: situational awareness. No matter how good the graphics, gameplay, or presentation of a game may be, it's still very difficult to achieve the kind of visual hypnosis one gets from a good film or television presentation by driving an avatar with a plastic stick through a 2D environment on a computer monitor or TV screen.
The subtle clues we use to navigate the real world--peripheral vision, depth perception, etc.--are stripped away. Of our five senses, we get about half the benefit of our sense of sight, and a decent amount from our hearing (at least if one has a good 5.1 surround sound setup). Force-feedback controllers that rumble in the hand may add a tiny bit of touch to the mix, but that's about it--at least until they start making games in taste-o-vision.
The game is typified, like most modern Mario games, by a kind of cultural infantilism. Characters speak in nonsensical gurgles and grunts that sound like baby talk, the onscreen dialogue embraces juvenilia, and the design palette is made up of bold, primary colors that would not look out of place in a nursery. Even the first boss fight is against a just-hatched baby monster that seems to wear the remnants of its egg shell as a swaddling cloth.
But this embrace of youth may be the key to why Mario remains relevant while anthropomorphic rivals from Crash Bandicoot to Sonic have faltered. Rather than trying to hip up the franchise, it remains true to that original '80s NES experience; we all get older, but Mario and pals stay the same.
The visual language of video games has long been limited by a prime directive that everything must be designed to "read" clearly, and eliminate any chance of player confusion. But much as the sonic studio precision of the '70s and '80s made way for lo-fi music, high-definition television and film have also experienced a visual revolution by embracing digital video, shaky handheld cameras, and unusual color palettes. Video games are finally feeling free to adopt these lo-fi visual standards, as popularized in films such as Michael Mann's "Collateral" or "Cloverfield."
Like the YouTube-style handheld camera aesthetic the game mimics, Kane & Lynch 2 distracts, confuses, and at the same time immerses with blown-out video, oversaturated colors, skipped frames, and other hallmarks of the Flip cameras, mobile phone video, and security cam footage that have become such a big part of the language of online video.
The team of Czech developers responsible for Mafia II largely came of age in the final hours of the Cold War, and their perceptions of American culture were shaped by our most iconic cultural exports--the brutal urban crime syndicates of the "Godfather," the suburban muscle car angst of James Dean, and, of course, the music--caught in the transition from swing to rock and roll, and literally broadcast to an entire nation through the car radios popularized by the post-war explosion of America's automobile culture.
This is a '40s/'50s America as imagined through the bars of the Iron Curtain. All the big beats are there, from the corrupt police to the black market economy, as well as the story of first-generation immigrants struggling, but also thriving by creating their own destiny--a key part of America's mystique for those who had lived (or whose parents had) through Czechoslovakia's Prague Spring movement.
In so much as you can become intellectually or emotionally involved with characters who spend 90 percent of their time under masks, Halo: Reach works--but, there's also a reason Peter Parker gets more screen time than Spider-Man. An interesting byproduct, perhaps intentional, is that players rarely feel the absence of iconic series hero Master Chief, who has now been out of as many Halo games as he's been in.
But the real reason fans will wait out in the drizzling rain for the midnight release of a Halo game isn't the Tom-Clancy-meets-George-Lucas space opera; it's the full-contact multiplayer. The social utility derived from players around the globe having a shared experience, even if they're doing it at different times and in different places, mirrors the best aspects of social networking, with Xbox Live as the modern equivalent of the office water cooler.
What makes Civilization V something of an anomaly is that the game strikes a blow for an endangered concept in interactive entertainment: complexity. It's become a cliche for core gamers (a more polite term for those super-hard-core gamer types) to complain about the dumbing down of games for casual players, citing things such as assisted aiming, for-purchase unlockable extras, and even Nintendo's Demo Play feature, where games literally play themselves for a few minutes if you get stuck on a hard part.
But there's some truth to the complaints, with game publishers forced to walk a very fine line between keeping traditional customers happy and attracting new audiences. Don't forget that Zynga's FarmVille, arguably the most popular PC game around, is built around a sort of anticomplexity, engaging users in Zen-like repetitive motion instead of brain-taxing strategy.
Imagine we come to a fork in the road. Down one path is a school of thought that equates interactive entertainment with film, television, and other forms of traditional entertainment; down the other path is the idea that games are essentially a set of mechanical challenges, and must retain gamelike qualities, such as high scores and bonus points, no matter what characters, scenarios, and art styles we use to dress them up.
The undercurrent behind that fork in the road is concept of self, and how the player psychologically engages with the game's characters. In most Western games, the protagonist is a largely generic blank slate, who literally becomes the player--a concept further enhanced by the trend toward games with moral choices and branching dialogue trees that reshape the game according to user input. The Japanese default is more about setting up a distinctive, often over-the-top character (such as DR2's extreme motorcycle racer Chuck Greene), and taking the player along on a predetermined wild ride.
Every year seems to feature at least one major video game content controversy. This year's version is the explicit reference to Taliban forces in Medal of Honor, a series formerly restricted to the relatively safe historical confines of World War II (although even that may still be a cultural third rail in some cases).
As often happens, this is one of those cases where both sides really do have a legitimate, reasoned point of view. Those who opposed the game in its original form (based largely on the ability to play as Taliban fighters in the game's online multiplayer matches) have a point about how real-time current events are portrayed, whereas defenders make no distinction between games and films, such as "The Hurt Locker" or "Generation Kill." After all, it would be unthinkable to mark even still-brewing current events as verboten in any of the so-called serious art forms. Still, it's also easy to be sympathetic to the argument that passively watching or reading something about the Taliban is markedly different than being put in their shoes as part of an interactive experience.
If anything, we live in an era of post-apocalypse-chic, with "The Walking Dead," "The Road," "The Book of Eli," and others reflecting a world worried by economic, political, and social upheaval (although the roots of socially conscious apocalyptica go back at least as far as 1959's "The World, the Flesh and the Devil"). After all, is there a more fitting metaphor for our tension-filled world than people literally eating each other?
Because if there's one thing the Fallout universe teaches gamers, it's that survival in the wasteland requires more selfless cooperation and less tribalism. And the game's greatest strength is in creating a sense that those relationships need to be nurtured (unless you're playing the game as an insensitive jerk, which is an amusing, but more difficult, option). Despite the sometimes oppressive grimness of the proceedings, it's that ultimately uplifting underlying idea that stands in stark opposition to the go-it-alone vibe of many games.
It seems obvious that Fable III is an experimental sandbox for the concept of nonverbal communication. After all, much of the game is spent dancing, singing, or otherwise showing off for other characters, and the game's early hours may be the world's most advanced handshake simulator.
But it's actually not nearly as abstract a concept as one might think. It turns out that the vast majority of video games are essentially concerned with nonverbal communication in one form or another. Sometimes it's wordlessly shooting down waves of enemy soldiers, other times it's getting a basketball from one end of the court to the other by reading the body language of teammates and opponents, or even retelling famous stories through mime-like Lego characters.
The Fable series makes no attempt to disguise its deep fascination with the topic, and the end result is more of an elaborate puzzle box than a traditional narrative; players are trained to think more about gaming the system for extra widget points than truly interacting with virtual people.
With a mighty stroke of the virtual pen, the Call of Duty series has single-handedly brought everyone's attention to the Cold War era. But this is not the Cold War of John le Carre or James Bond; instead, the brutal small-arms firefights and squad skirmishes feel more like today's unconventional warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan, just redesigned for a different decade. It's modern warfare, just in a slightly less modern package. Not that there's anything wrong with that. Often, the most effective way to tell a story is through time-shifting and indirect symbolism; it's pretty much the foundation of the narrative experience.
In comparison, this is no "Apocalypse Now" or "Platoon" (or even "The Green Berets"); it's Cold War action in the Michael Bay mold, as big and explosive as games get, with all the telltale signs of big budgets and focus groups. At the same time, one has only to see a brutal torture scene early in the game to feel its connection to current events. Unlike the black-and-white patriotism of the WWII-era Call of Duty games, there are shades of gray here that, though historically appropriate for the era, also clearly reflect current-day sensibilities.