Will This Age-old Argument Follow Us Into the New Year?

Will This Age-old Argument Follow Us Into the New Year?

I occasionally converse with an old friend who is an artist. We often discuss our goals as creators as well as the artists, musicians, writers, and filmmakers who influence us. Because my friend is an artist, I was interested to know his opinions about games as an art form, which he says they are. And because he’s not a gamer but is interested in literature, he asked me a question, one that I’ve been pondering for a few weeks: will there be a game that English courses will teach like a novel? I don’t know, but I believe that this won’t happen until we learn to appreciate games for being what they are: games.

A few years ago I attended an English literature course where one day my professor devoted an entire week to comic books with an emphasis on Maus by Art Spiegelman. I never expected to study comic books in an English class, but that didn’t stop her from teaching us a bit about the terminology of comic books. Specifically, I remember learning about the white spaces between panels, or gutters, as tools for pacing, as without them readers would have a difficult time discerning the events happening on the pages. While I might have instinctively picked up on this from reading the few comic books I’ve had the pleasure of collecting, the well-planned lecture has since allowed me to describe the techniques with words–not just have an instinctual understanding of comics.

During this lesson, I thought about the mechanics of video games, and how they can be used to deliver stories unique to the medium. For instance, as annoying as they can be considering how beautiful the skyboxes of modern gaming are, invisible walls help us stay on track in a linear game, making it easier to drive the plot from point A to point B. Cutscenes are used to reward players for completing the obstacles, which represent the struggles of the main protagonist, and reveal major plot details.

These are some of the most conventional designs in games, and they too can be used correctly; Silent Hill 2 is one of my favorite games, and it delivers dialogue primarily through cutscenes (although some might say that the real experience is observing the town through James’ perspective). However, cutscenes often are overused, giving weight to a criticism about games: they try too hard to emulate Hollywood. They take players out of the game for a few minutes – maybe even longer if the cutscene is part of an RPG – and then expect you to carry on as if nothing had happened. God help you if you’re stuck in an area, because chances are, whether you’re playing an open-world game or a linear shooter, you’re going to hear the extras repeat the same line of dialogue over and over again. There’s a reason that the line “arrow to the knee” became a hit meme.

The latter Final Fantasy games, for instance, tend to tell compelling stories through their incredible CGI cutscenes; however, the dependence on these cutscenes also creates a disconnect between what the players see and what they can actually do. Final Fantasy VII features a scene in which Cloud and Zack make their way to Midgar City to start new lives as freelancers, but they’re ambushed by a few Shinra soldiers, resulting in Zack’s death. When the prequel, Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII, was released, Zack showed off moves in the intro sequence that indicated he would have completely overpowered the few Shinra soldiers, so Square Enix tailored the ending to have him face off against an entire army. This discrepancy stayed with me long after I completed the game, even while revisiting the original Final Fantasy VII.

Again, these conventions aren’t always bad, but the more interesting stories remember which medium they’re a part of, and tend to not break the unique spell of immersion that games cast on players because, in a sense, they are part of the story.

Although I may have dissed Skyrim over its arrow to the knee line of dialogue, but the game truly allows players to feel like they are the chosen one. People semi-jokingly discuss how they haven’t taken part in the main campaign, mostly going on sidequests and joining factions. However, by taking advantage of the freedom Skyrim allows them, they end up creating their own story.

Half-Life 2 doesn’t tell a unique story; it borrows from the best of science fiction, and blends them together. However, for the entire duration of the game you play it through Gordon Freeman’s perspective. You’re always allowed to move during major plotpoints, and there’s never a cutscene that serves as a transition between levels. The result is a game that truly feels like a journey.

Will This Age-old Argument Follow Us Into the New Year?

My favorite video game story is Thomas Was Alone, a game that stars quadrilateral characters that are more human than most popular video game protagonists. For instance, Thomas, the main character, is completely average; he’s a rectangle that can get by most of the time, neither specializing in jumping high or moving fast. My favorite character, however, is James, a green rectangle approximately the same size as Thomas with a unique ability: he can fall upwards. While normally James’ old peers made fun of him for his gravity-defying traits, he comes through for Thomas and his team, and it’s with them he finds acceptance.

Of course none of the rectangles actually talk; a charming narrator gives life to these geometric shapes, but because of his contributions and the quadrilaterals’ unique abilities, they all feel like three-dimensional characters. The narrator also speaks while you’re playing, at the beginning of each level, so Thomas Was Alone never needs to stop gametime in order to tell its story.

All of these examples I’ve listed have design elements in common–they rarely break the flow of their narrative. They remember that even in the most linear game, players have a large degree of choice, and the best stories tend to remember this, as players might grow bored and try to do something that damages the impact of an emotional scene just to see what’s possible. Half-Life 2 anticipated this, so it tried to use the first-person perspective to counter such possibilities; however, at any point players could observe everything around the room while ignoring the characters as they discuss urgent matters. Regardless of whether developers rely on cutscenes or strictly gameplay to tell their stories, just about every one of them faces this challenge, but that isn’t necessary a bad thing. In fact, it gives us all the more reason to study game design, or at the very least assign a game as required reading for an English course.

So let’s revisit my friend’s question: will we ever study a game like we would a piece of literature? Will our education system ever assign our students required games to play, much like the required summer reading students receive in high school? I still don’t know; however, we have plenty of mechanics to study. We’ve only recently begun to study comic books in college after all.

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