Click here for Part 1!
Click here for Part 1!
Posted by jayaye1587 on August 3, 2013
Whoa, whoa — video games are an art form now? Well, here’s the thing: The first rule of art is “art is subjective,” and the second rule of art is “ART IS SUBJECTIVE” (the third rule: “If this is your first day at art club, you have to art”), and thus the tiresome argument that video games aren’t art is rather moot indeed. Oh, and video games are an output of drawings, writing, and music put together by skilled humans in a manner designed to entertain/enliven, so there’s that, too.
So with that out of the way, being on the verge of a new console generation feels like a good time to file something of a progress report on the art form in question (if only to desperately justify those 147 hours I poured into Saints Row: The Third). So what the hell can games do that books and interpretive dance can’t?
In a bad video game, you’ll tend to refer to your onscreen character as “him” (or, rarely, “her”) — “Look at him fight that giant crab,” etc. But a more engrossing game inevitably has you referring to your exploits in the first person — “I’m sorry, I can’t join you for 11 hours of tantric sex right now, I have to kill this giant crab” — and this is because games can put you in the boots of someone else, to the point where you might find yourself kinda sorta thinking like someone else. Psychologists have long detailed this phenomenon where you’ll behave according to what your perceived role in life is, and it’s games’ ability to harness this in a fun/harmless way that’s perhaps unique.
As an example, the Mass Effect trilogy of games (does 2.9 games count as a trilogy?) has a romantic side quest for the main character, and playing as the other gender and then finding yourself genuinely evaluating potential romantic matches from their perspective (“YOU SHALL BRING ME THE BIGGEST HUNK ON THE SHIP”) is an experience you can’t really get unless the medium is actively telling you to take on another role. A game that more completely focused on all this could be sociologically fascinating indeed (or at least spread appreciation of hunks).
What makes a good painting? Arguably you’d distinguish a work of intrigue from a mere illustration by the presence of mystery, or if someone painted boobs on it. Thoughtfulness and ambiguity in an image are the starting point, and the audience’s imagination completes the process that we call art. Thus, paintings are cool. But video games can take all this and extend it to the third dimension.
There’s an unusually thoughtful and ambiguous game from Japan called Dark Souls that places you in a strange and beautiful undead land with little real direction as to your quest. You’ll meet a number of characters, but the narrative and exposition are deliberately kept minimal to foster endless discussion (the game’s director loved the process of making up his own stories when reading English fantasy novels as a child and attempted to translate that experience to the video game medium). The game succeeds as a piece of art because the obvious amount of thought and detail that have gone into it subconsciously tell the audience that it’s worth their time to try and fill in its many blanks.
You’re not told everything, just like you’re not told what the hell The Scream is screaming about, only here you’ve got an added plane of depth, and this is what’s known as “taking it up a notch.” About halfway through Dark Souls, you encounter a five-story-high painting in a massive, eerie hall. As you approach, some strange force seizes you, pulling you into the painting, leaving you to wander interestedly around the mysterious world within. This is what’s known as “literally the most convenient metaphor ever.”
The movie Minority Report had some good ideas about the future, but whatever was in there was always gonna be mitigated by the fact that a movie gets made because a star gets attached to it, and thus it’s the star you’re stuck looking at 95 percent of the time. Maybe the movie Prometheus had some good ideas, too, but who the hell knows because the audience was hurtling by them lashed to a mindless, rampaging narrative. The point here is that a linear experience means the audience is largely beholden to whatever the camera is pointed at. It’s a big deal that in video games you control the camera.
What makes a world feel real is the little things — the overheard conversations, the emails, the informative brochures. This is particularly important with science fiction, which generally seeks to present a convincing vision of another reality. A game like 2011’s Deus Ex: Human Revolution presents a complete picture of a world where human augmentation is a reality because you get to hear those conversations and read those emails and brochures — you simply spend more time in the world than you ever could with a movie (Prometheus only seemed like it was eight goddamned hours long).
Sure, you have your mission, but you can easily just say screw it and go around breaking into people’s apartments, and when you stumble onto the apartment with the clandestine human chop shop, bags of artificial eyes and arms littered about, alarming emails on the computer, you realize this is the kind of extraneous depth that makes shit actually feel plausible. Being able to park the narrative for a bit and wander off to take in the details is uniquely immersive, and anyone interested in speculative fiction would do well to go “Hmm …” at this point.
The worst I’ve ever felt about myself was the time I let that dude fall to his death from a bell tower when I so easily could have pulled him to safety. I found out something about myself that day — I was willing to decide that someone I didn’t like should die, and I was mad at that dead bastard, but I was infinitely madder at myself. Fortunately, most of this took place in a video game (2012’s The Walking Dead), and it’s a prime example of something games can do but passive media cannot: They can set you up to do things you assumed you weren’t capable of, in a manner typically reserved for evenings at Stanley Milgram‘s place. A novel or film can show you someone else’s descent into oblivion, but it can’t make you do evil.
Recently in games there’s a mini-trend of examining traditional game protagonists and the way they unquestioningly scythe down waves of enemies because the back of the box says they’re The Hero. 2012’s Spec Ops: The Line directly confronts this with chilling consequences for the psyche (how to play Spec Ops: The Line, Step 1: Return game to store); The Walking Dead tests the limits of how far you would go to protect one implausibly cute kid (pretty far, it turns out); and even Dark Souls is a game where half the enemies you face inevitably turn out to have some heart-breakingly noble reason for trying to dismember you (you who have unknowingly wrought so much evil because you assumed you were the hero of the game). Why is all this worth it? Because evil starts from assuming that you can do no wrong, and games genuinely have the potential to remind us that we can and will do evil if we’re first told how good we are. Plus games keep you off the streets, killing virtual giant crabs instead of real ones, and that’s the way to be.
In the damn-near-impossible-to-make-a-living/impact world of the arts, you often have to go where the audience is, and that’s the biggest advantage of video games right now. Like it or not, that’s definitely where the audience is. Even entry-level indie games can get attention not available to other mediums. 2011’s low-tech To the Moon is basically a short story infused with a frankly microscopic amount of gameplay, but it’s a good short story, and it’s one that thousands of people would never have read if it hadn’t been in game form.
That might sound unfair, but every medium exists merely to fill the unending need for entertainment and stories, and games are in right now (have faith, erotic limerick writers, your time will come again). Most games are not 3D paintings. Artistically speaking, the majority of video games don’t do anything better than a brick, let alone literature or HBO, but most of them are at least fun, and some are legitimately beginning to demonstrate games’ unique potential to be equally fun AND thought-provoking (heaven forbid). An actual diversity of voices, attracted by this potential, is maybe all that’s needed to take things further. And then 30 years from now when games come full circle and become what Hollywood is now, we’ll at least have a golden age to look back on wistfully.
Posted by jayaye1587 on June 23, 2013
Posted by jayaye1587 on June 17, 2013
Posted by jayaye1587 on June 16, 2013
There’s already some easy speculation to play with here. BioWare will no doubt continue to oversee SW:TOR, but the new partnership also now opens the door for a long-awaited return to the KOTOR line of stories. DICE hasn’t even worked on a Star Wars game before, but if the multiplayer shooter Battlefront is going to live on, it will probably do so in the Battlefield developer’s hands. Visceral Games is more of a wild card, but consider a scenario where the Dead Space developer nabs LucasArts’ unfinished work on Star Wars 1313.
Plenty of possibility here, to say the least. This is just the Star Wars that we all know about, however. Assuming the EA studios have free reign to explore the full breadth of the Expanded Universe (and assuming Disney decides to not disavow it all as non-canon), there are plenty of other time periods, locales, and narratives that a new crop of Star Wars games could turn to. Here’s a handful of one fan’s favorites, a “most wanted” wishlist, if you will. Sure, we likely won’t see any of this actually happen, but it sure is fun to think about. A general spoiler alert is in effect for those who haven’t read the books/comics.
One of the longest extended story arcs in the Star Wars novels, called New Jedi Order, saw the galaxy as fans know it torn to pieces as a fighting force of extra-galactic invaders appeared on the scene. The Yuuzhan Vong, as they are called, embrace the worship of pain and the practice of scarification. Their technology is entirely organic and they have a deep-seated hatred of electronics and mechanical constructs.
The Vong stampeded across the Star Wars galaxy over multiple books, overwhelming planet after planet and terraforming any environment unsuitable to their genetic makeup. Some species ended up displaced, others were wiped out completely. Chewbacca was killed. So was the youngest child of Han and Leia Solo, along with countless others. These were the darkest of dark times, and the galaxy-wide conflict provides a perfect backdrop for an action-driven video game.
If you’ve seen the prequel trilogy then you’ve undoubtedly heard Yoda speaks of the Sith Rule of Two: “Always two there are, no more, no less. A master and an apprentice.” The Sith belief has its basis in the distant Star Wars pre-history, chronicled in Drew Karpyshyn’s Darth Bane Trilogy. Karpyshyn is a name you know if you’re a Star Wars fan; he was a key writer on both KOTOR and SW:TOR.
In the Bane trilogy, Karpyshyn recounts the story of how the sprawling Sith Empire was brought to its knees by an all-powerful Force-user who saw a better way. Bane’s story begins with an all-out ground battle between dueling armies of Sith and Jedi, a battle that turns out to be a trap in which both sides lose. Imagine a Karpyshyn return to BioWare that gives players an opportunity to become Bane in an RPG. Or perhaps one of his descendants. The long line of Sith pairings started here, and there’s plenty of fertile narrative territory to cover.
Dark Horse Comics has done incredible things with Star Wars over the years, but one of the publisher’s strongest is the now-completed 50-book series from John Ostrander and Jan Duursema, Star Wars: Legacy. The story is set almost 150 years after the Battle of Yavin, the site of the first Death Star’s destruction. All of the characters that you know from earlier Star Wars stories are gone, but some of their descendants live at the heart of the story.
Perhaps the most intriguing of these is Cade Skywalker, a descendant of Luke’s who gave up his Jedi mantle and embraced the life of a bounty hunter. Needless to say, the comic doesn’t let Cade get away with shunning his family heritage. The distant future of the Star Wars galaxy that Cade lives in is a dark place, with a new Sith Lord sitting on the Imperial throne and the Jedi forced into hiding. Fans learned late last year that there’s more to come for Legacy, with a new story set to focus on the great-great-granddaughter of Han and Leia Solo. A lady Jedi hero to star in an action-oriented video game? Seems perfect.
No one in their right mind will try to defend Star Wars: The Force Unleashed 2. The first game delivered a promising, if somewhat flawed, take on Jedi-infused third-person action, but the follow-up took a step backward. It felt like a game that had been neutered at some point during development, and then rushed to release. The finished product sported an almost offensively short play time.
That said, the writing was a high point. Much like the first game’s plot, The Force Unleashed 2 brought new revelations about some of the key characters and events in the Star Wars universe. Critics almost universally agreed that the story felt unfinished… so perhaps now is the time to finish it? Much like the never-materialized KOTOR 3, fans would like to see where the story of Darth Vader’s secret apprentice might have ended up.
Many fans don’t realize, but there are significant stretches of time separating the events of Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope, Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back, and Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi. Many of those stories have been charted in books, at least as they relate to the three main characters. Yet there’s still a galaxy-spanning struggle unfolding during that time. The Empire continues to oppress and the Rebellion continues to buck against oppression.
What cool directions a game set during this period could go. Many attempts have been made in the past to deliver a strategy-focused game set in the Star Wars universe. None have succeeded in any significant way. No one in EA’s studio threesome assigned to upcoming Star Wars projects is particularly well-suited to a real-time or turn-based strategy game (maybe BioWare), but there’s still plenty of opportunity for another developer to come in and take on a different project. Bring on EA Phenomic and give us some ship- and ground-based warfare set in the Star Wars Expanded Universe.
Posted by jayaye1587 on May 7, 2013
Posted by jayaye1587 on April 23, 2013