Thursday, May 13, 2010

Introductory Remarks

Well... where to begin? My name is Eric, and I'm a person who's both passionate about videogames as entertainment, and as a medium for expression and exploration of topics central to contemporary human issues. I have had a lifelong involvement with games, and they are something which hold profound emotional value for me.  I firmly believe that games represent a more compelling form of storytelling and narrative than traditional modes, such as literature and film, primarily because games are able to adapt the strengths of those mediums, and compensate for their weaknesses.  To me, games aren't merely idle entertainment or a means for socialising with others; they allow for us to experience places, situations and people that are fundamentally different from what we are normally able to, while at the same time, linked to the things that we know and hold dear.

One particular deficit of gaming as a culture, however, is the lack of any real analysis of games from a critical standpoint. This is reflected in the popular culture surrounding games, as well as in the sorts of coverage the industry receives from its own major news sites and journalists. Much of this is centred around what I like to call the "reviews industry", which serves as, effectively, a means of marketing games by using an artificial and highly compartmentalised system to grade titles in relation to others. This has resulted in a myriad of problems that have been well-documented elsewhere, but ultimately has led to a culture of gamers who ask what I believe are fundamentally the wrong questions about games.

The prevailing question in the gaming sphere is "is this game good?" The problem with such a question is that it takes the emphasis off of the things we really need to examine in games, if we want them to go beyond the rather juvenile state we find them in now. In evaluating things like "quality", we emphasise technological and mechanical factors. While such things are important for games - they have to be playable, engaging, free from bugs, etc. - at the same time, it leads us to be ignorant of the incredible capacity for expression and commentary that games have.

Part of this can be blamed on the fact that the games industry is an entertainment industry. Like film before it, games are caught between appealing to wide audiences, and having artistic integrity. The two are not incompatible, nor mutually exclusive, but it can be difficult to achieve both goals at the same time, especially given the soaring costs that come with high production value, marketing, and testing. Yet with technology at the level it is now, we need to move beyond questions of "how do I make this look better?" or "how can I improve the controls?", and focus on creating experiences that resonate with people in new ways.

One of the ways we can accomplish this is by getting rid of our binary separation between things like "story" and "gameplay". For years, story has been something largely cordoned off from the player's own interactivity. While sandbox gaming has achieved certain levels of player freedom, storyline tends to be either nonexistent, non-interactive, or separated into discrete units rather than presented as a cohesive whole. That old Atari games often have more compelling stories than modern games, created entirely out of gameplay elements, is telling of the problems that come with separating the story from the game.

Certain titles in history, such as Deus Ex, Planescape: Torment, and Fallout - all role-playing games, notably - have offered up immersive worlds where the player's own decisions have lasting effects on the course of the story, the progression of events, and the gameplay itself. Most importantly, in these games, there is no "story versus gameplay" distinction; the player's own actions constitute narrative. By tapping the strengths of this framework, designers can discuss questions more fundamental and more specific than the vague allusions most "depth" in current games constitutes. Fallout is a game in particular which is able to transcend its highly dated interface, visuals and so forth, on sheer strength of its universe, gameplay, themes, and narrative. Can the same be said of modern titles designed with mere entertainment and mass-market sales in mind?

As I stated earlier, we tend to examine games on a relatively superficial level: we evaluate how much fun they are, how much of our time they can suck up, how good the graphics, audio and controls are, etc. By constructing games that transcend the technological and mechanical aspects that gamers have been so enamoured with, we can move beyond mere evaluations of quality, and instead look at something altogether different: meaning. The question changes from "is this fun?" into "what significance does this have?" and "what is this game trying to make me think about?"

This is what I mean by being critical about games, and it is the basis for this blog of mine. I don't profess to be an expert. My writing is serviceable, but I am not a literary scholar. This is just a blog, and these are just my opinions - the opinions of someone fresh out of university, no less - and so they can't be taken as authoritative. They can, however, be taken as genuine. The goal of my writing is to interrogate games through a critical lens, and ask not how good they are as just simple entertainment, but how good they are at making us think about things that are important to us as humans, rationally, emotionally, and existentially. Of course, as a blog, my more general thoughts on games and the game industry might show up as well!

To any potential readers: by merely choosing to read what I have to say, you are taking part in a discourse that is more important than the sum of its parts. For that, you have my thanks.

3 comments:

  1. Your argument about video games rarely being taken for their literary value and primarily as a means for entertainment are very astute, but address an issue with the overall popular culture as a whole, and not just in respect to video games. Too often are things taken to be entertainment and solely that, literary criticism is simply overlooked. It seems in popular culture all of the attention to any media, television, film, video games, novels, magazines, and more is entirely devoted to their entertainment value- what these things communicate is swept under the rug in order for them to say "well it was boring and I stopped watching it halfway through to go play CoD."

    ReplyDelete