Gaming by Definition
When I played Uncharted 3 I played it for the story.
That was an example of a bold statement that I wished was true. The story in Uncharted has always been the driving force of the series, but to describe my desire to play as being centred on watching engaging personas complete their character arc would be a lie. I enjoy getting my gun off in a bad guy’s face just as much as the next gamer and I refuse to apologise for that.
If my opening statement was true, however, I’m fairly sure I would have been deeply disappointed by my overall experience, as well as the amount of money I spent having it. Although opinion will vary from gamer to gamer, Uncharted is usually considered to be one of the best written games produced. We’ve all heard how the actors were shoehorned into motion capture suits and told to pretend that the rather grey looking sound stage they were prancing around on was in fact the Atlantis of the Sands. We’ve also heard how Nolan North was allowed to ad-lib some of his parts to add fluidity to the role, but ultimately, how good was it all? If it were a movie, would anyone have flickered an eyelid? Do you remember Nicholas Cage’s performance in National Treasure? Exactly.
Uncharted is still leagues behind Hollywood in terms of script and acting; but I’m fine with that – for now. How far down the rabbit hole will developers continue to dive in their quest for photo realistic graphics and cinematic scripting? More importantly, what will videogames have left with which to define themselves?
Due to technical limitation, definition is certainly something gaming has never had a problem with in the past. Now developers bravely stride forward to engage its audience in complex emotions and conflicting social situations that challenge your brain cells as opposed to you thumbs. Of course, none of this matters if they are good games, does it?
Even the pinnacle of film making can go only so far in moving a human being; gaming, on the other hand, might possess the ability to go even further. When these emotional peaks have been most expressly displayed is, of course, a question that only you can answer, but I commonly find myself more moved by events and instances that can be chalked up as gaming tropes as opposed to direct switches in narrative.
Dropping down a chasm and having to restart the level due to unfair save checkpoints will invoke more emotion in me than watching a character fall in love. Maybe I’ve got a heart of stone, but that feeling of regret and anger at my own mistimed jump is more personal that some pre-rendered tripe some two-bit programmer thought up in his sleep.
This does not mean that I am not moved by games with a good story, far from it, but actions speak louder than words, especially poorly written words, and here in lies the crux. Games like Heavy Rain and Dear Esther were purposely created to tell a story, and by eschewing absorbing gameplay any connection I could build up with characters may become lost in a haze of inactivity and constantly asking myself the question – is this even a game anymore?
Entertainment media is a crowded market; it’s like capitalism’s way of telling us we have too much money in our savings accounts. With the advent of digital media we can pretty much choose how we wish to be entertained from the comfort of our sofa or office chair. Definition is a very important aspect of advertising a new game. Look at the box of any major videogame released in the past twenty years. From the cover art alone you will be able to ascertain what your experience will be because, over a life time of gaming, we have become programmed to understand certain codes of definition within our products.
While this may sound like some devious government conspiracy to brainwash the populace into pattern spending, I can assure you that it is not. Definition is important, it helps us assess our entertainment and limit the number of mistakes we make as consumers. This definition can be seen in a grander scale with regards to defining videogames against other forms of entertainment.
The main defining factor in games is gameplay… beautiful, sweet, solitary gameplay. Without gameplay we would be watching films. So if definition is so important, why do some developers attempt to assimilate cinema as much as they do with their product. Aside from the simple fact that associating one product with another is a quick and easy way for publishers to relate whatever it is they’re trying to sell you, it’s just an easy way to make a game.
Un-tapping the potential of videogames is going to take a long time to do, and without the obvious comparisons to Hollywood, perhaps this could come much quicker if developers gave up the competition and focussed on what makes games great in the first place.
What is certain is that if games want to compete with films on an emotional level, not only will developers have to spend more money on decent writing, but re-evaluate how they make games altogether. I’m certain we will reach a point where games are as well written and acted as films, but the real question is what the cost of this move will be. Maybe in ten years time, when developers have hit the ceiling of graphical capacity (it has to end somewhere, right?) and start to focus on other aspects of gaming, I will be able to say that I play games for the story – just as long as I’m playing something.