Friday, November 30, 2012

Video Games

Where I came from, it was considered shameful to be an adult male who still played video games. You locked yourself in your room with the blinds down and a towel shoved under the door to keep light from escaping and mouse-clicked your way through Diablo until the break of dawn.

A couple years ago, I swallowed my pride and bought a PlayStation3 along with copies of Arkham Asylum and InFamous.

Ahhh, heaven.

Also: Games have come a long ways.

But do you know what's interesting to me about video games? They're two different experiences in one.

Experience one is what I traditionally think of when I think of storytelling--compelling characters, an interesting story with unexpected twists, and most importantly, walking away from the experience with a FEELING. The best stories resonate in our minds and our hearts long after its over. They bounce around in our hearts while we're lying in bed, inspire us to discuss or come up with inside jokes with our friends, and breaks the ice with strangers.

Video games have made huge leaps forward in this regard. I left Heavy Rain feeling a sense of sad futility. LA Noire found me imagining life as a man trying to uphold the law in a city where the appearance of justice is more important than justice itself. I can't rave enough about the pacing Spec Ops: The Line. It slouches towards Bethlehem like Yeats' rough beast, a slowly evolving descent that feels simultaneously unexpected and inevitable.

Experience two is a game's playability. Can I figure out the controls? Do they what they're supposed to? Does the action on the screen respond to my hands on the controller.

Is it fun?

What's interesting how a game can provide this without being what I would call a good game. Prototype 2 is a great example. The story and characters remind me of a 90s comic book. It looks great. There are cool ideas. But the story itself is incoherent and the characters are caricatures of caricatures. It tries to do grim and gritty. Instead, there's gore and F-bombs, badass ethnic stereotypes and huge m*****f***ing monsters. It's less story and more a thirteen-year old boy's power fantasy.

But it's fun to watch and fun to play and so long as I skip the cutscenes, I enjoy playing it even if it doesn't engage me emotionally at all. It's like Spider Solitaire with tentacles and exploding helicopters.

So is this game good?

I don't know.

I want to say no, but on the other hand, as much as I loved LA Noire's story, I found the process of playing the game--especially the shoot-outs and car chases--frustrating. Playing Spec Ops: The Line was okay, but if I wanted to shoot things I would pop in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 even though I actually find everything about that game's message, story, and politics deeply disturbing..and not the good kind of disturbing.

Fortunately, some games do a little of both. InFamous. Dead Space. I found the stories and characters interesting the first time through and I enjoyed playing the game enough to pull them out again.

But I've become really aware of the way video games have a foot in both worlds when it comes to active and passive entertainment. With movies, books, and other storytelling you experience the story as an observer. With other games--chess, poker, even sports--you're creating the story as a participant.

Video games contain elements of both. And sometimes the demands of one element put shackles on the other.

That's why I really find distinctive games interesting. It tells you what the developers thought was important. Is the way a game looks as important as the way it plays? Are more choices for the player better or should we guide them along in the story. What do we call attention to? When it comes to making a memorable game, what is important?

The exciting thing to me is it looks like a lot of developers are still finding out. It's going to be fun to learn along with them. I look forward to deeper stories, more realized characters and motivations, more profound insights, seen through a prism of connection that shows every color of human emotion.

Also, more exploding helicopters.

That never gets old.

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