I’m going to be trying something a little different with this article and, if you will graciously allow me, I’ll explain why (I apologize in advance if you get no enjoyment out of this or find it altogether terrible).
I take my job as a critic seriously. As a result, I have a tendency to read/watch/listen to criticism of not only games, but also of other forms of media. My basic college education focused heavily on literary analysis, which proved early on in my career to be surprisingly applicable. I say “surprisingly” because one of the sentiments I often read in comment sections or hear in conversation whenever a topic compares mediums is how diverse storytelling mediums are too different to have common traits. I am probably simplifying to suit my needs here; however, I can agree that it may seem a bit odd that literary criticism can be helpful when looking at and making sense of video games. But that background is what shapes my perceptions and ultimately shaped how I think about games. To me, video games are another vehicle for narratives.
The medium itself has its own language, but it is a Frankenstein’s monster of a language made up of disparate elements from other mediums. For example, have you ever thought while playing a game with fancy, new-fangled graphics, “Why is there a lens flare?” Why do we call them “camera controls” instead of something more blunt, like screen adjustment controls? The answer is because video games often borrow from film. The language isn’t what is important, though. My main point in bringing up the example of film is to be able to segue into the fact that I love reading criticism of all kinds, especially of film, because I find that it often deepens my insight into the medium that I have chosen to involve my life with personally and professionally. In other words, to better understand video games I think it is important to look at what other mediums can teach us about video games, even if it is often an indirect education. There is one critic in particular that I would like to call out as someone who, though primarily focused on film, routinely delves into issues that plague narratives in a way that I find particularly helpful when approaching video games. I am, of course, referring to Film Critic Hulk.
Now, I’m not going to go into much detail about who Film Critic Hulk is or his credentials or anything like that, primarily because doing so isn’t terribly important, but also because this person writes anonymously under a pseudonym. Suffice it to say, that this individual is both incredibly smart, eloquent, and someone who can articulate what makes stories work and what makes them buckle or break.
The reason I bring up this particular critic goes back to what my first paragraph outlined; namely, I enjoy reading other criticism focusing on other mediums because it broadens my knowledge of those mediums while also shedding light on the one toward which I find myself most attracted. Several nights ago, I found myself reading an older article from back in January of this year about a documentary called The Act of Killing* (which is seriously a fantastic film and an important one, though not necessarily enjoyable or pleasant). In the article, Hulk doesn’t provide a review, but instead dissects how the film succeeds in truly moving an audience to achieve something that can truly change society for the better. I’m afraid that my meaning in the previous sentence was a bit vague, so let me rephrase: Hulk dissects how the film reveals an honest truth about life to the audience. The article is great and I highly recommend that you both read it for yourself and go on to read some of Hulk’s other writings about movies and the film industry.
Now you might be wondering about the purpose of all of this preamble. While I was in the process of reading through Hulk’s article, I made numerous connections between the world of video games and the world of film. As I was in the process of making those mental leaps, I thought of how neat it would be if I could give readers a way to arrive at the same conclusions in a similar manner. To that end, I encourage readers to follow me on a small mental excursion to examine video games through (if you will pardon the parlance) the lens of film criticism.
And so, we begin.
(Note: The writing style of Film Critic Hulk is all caps. I apologize in advance if that irritates you.)
To begin his essay on The Act of Killing, Film Critic Hulk uses a quote from Andrei Tarkovski:
The allotted function of art is not, as is often assumed, to put across ideas, to propagate thoughts, to serve as an example. The aim of art is to prepare a person for death, to plough and harrow his soul, rendering it capable of turning to good.
Now, people can debate the definition of art and what art is capable of and how it functions until the end of time, but what Tarkovski seems to be getting at here is that art, all art across all mediums, functions as a way to challenge the soul and mold it into something that can do good in the world. In other words, art reveals an honest to goodness truth about human nature, which is a topic that often leaves people staring at their feet. Real truth is something that forces us to confront reality, an experience that can often be unpleasant, and motivates us to change for the better. Hulk then goes on to say in the essay proper:
THE BLUNT TRUTH IS THAT MOST PEOPLE DON'T EVEN THINK OF MOVIES AS BEING VEHICLES FOR IDEAS... OR EVEN AS ART. TO MANY, CINEMA IS A SOMEWHAT DISPOSABLE THING. A WAY TO PASS TIME. A MODE OF ESCAPISM. A LARK.
This is where video games come in. You can replace the words “movies” and “cinema” with “video games” and the same blunt truth that applies to film also applies to games. I’d argue that even more so than movies, most people don’t think of video games as being vehicles for ideas, let alone vehicles for truth or something that could be capable of ‘harrowing’ a soul. I’d argue that the average person considers video games to be power fantasies, time sinks to while away youth, or a mental escape from the daily grind of life. Perhaps I am doing the average person a disservice by giving only three very narrow ways of looking at video games as a medium. I think a more accurate statement would be that the average video game player views video games as something trivial. The truth is that many people view video games as 'just games,' a train of thought that the very name of the medium both implies and reinforces. While I do think that there are games that have important ideas to convey and that the medium is capable of revealing human truth, many, many, many video games do their utmost best to be indulgent, escapist, power fantasies. Don’t get me wrong; I don’t think there is anything inherently wrong with a game being an indulgent, escapist power fantasy, but I do think it is easier to carelessly transmit a message that could be harmful through a project that is trying its best to be devoid of narrative ideas.
Hulk gets at one of the powerful aspects of stories in the second paragraph which is that, “STORIES CAN TAKE THAT DIDACTIC THING WE CALL ‘ADVICE’ AND RENDER IT INTO EXPERIENCE; MEANING IT CAN MAKE US EXPERIENCE THINGS BEFORE WE ACTUALLY HAVE TO DEAL WITH THEM AND GUIDE US IN THAT PURPOSE.” Empathy is one of the most powerful motivators for human beings and it is empathy that allows us to learn from the experience of others. Video games in particular are suited to learning vicariously through others without having to live through the reality first hand due to how strongly people bond with in-game characters. Or rather, people have a tendency to insert themselves into video game narrative. I’ll approach that previous sentence a bit backwards: Of those of you who played Telltale’s The Walking Dead, which of you talked with friends about the decisions you made? I’m going to take the liberty and assume that it was most of you. Strictly speaking, however, “you” are not a character in the The Walking Dead universe, but that doesn’t seem to matter so much, does it? It still feels like you are the one responsible for whatever befalls Clementine because you were the person making Lee Everett’s decisions. If people can empathize with a character to the extent that they consider the decisions they made for how that character should act as their own actions, that goes far beyond the amount of empathy typically experienced while watching film. We feel as if the challenges and problems faced by the video game protagonist were actually our own.
While none of us are likely to live through a zombie apocalypse, the sad truth is that every one of us will at some point struggle with very real issues like depression, hatred, domestic violence, or death. In recent years, there has spring up a small subset of games that explore some of the more deeply tragic and personal aspects of being human. The currently-in-development That Dragon, Cancer puts players in the shoes of a father whose son is going through cancer treatment. Zoe Quinn’s Depression Quest attempts to convey what it is like to exist with depression. Papo y Yo deals with alcoholism and abusive fathers. Papers, Please puts players behind the desk to deal with the paperwork of an immigration officer. Cart Life asks players to try to live as one of three street vendors on a small budget. These are games that use stories and mechanics in an effort to promote understanding of and empathy for these various situations. As time goes by there are more of these games being released and concepts outside of “shoot bad guy” being explored. To me, that means I can hold out hope that one day video games will inspire the type of social and societal change that The Act of Killing seems to have produced in Indonesia. Hulk puts The Act of Killing alongside movies like The Thin Blue Line (which gave a man his life back after being wrongly sentenced to life in prison) and Harlan County U.S.A. (the filming of which prevented violence and allowed the coal miners of Harlan County to live better lives without dying from the black lung). While I can rattle off a dozen games that have revolutionized game development or inspired social change within the gaming community, the fact is that, outside of Nintendo’s Super Mario Bros. catapulting Mario into cultural ubiquity, I can’t think of a video game that has had an impact on society at large.
I believe there are four reasons for this. First, video games are the newest storytelling medium. Film and photography have had over a century to mature and hone their respective crafts, while widespread video game development has been around for less than half that time. This puts video gaming at a severe disadvantage when trying to enact change outside of the core gaming community. Second, though photography and moviemaking both rely on technology for their arts, video games are the most technologically reliant medium. As technology has progressed, the ways games are both presented and played have drastically changed. Compare Pong to Missile Command to Super Mario Bros. to Chrono Trigger to Ocarina of Time to Halo to BioShock to The Last of Us (I know that was a long string of _____ to _______’s. I apologize). Yes, the graphical differences are plainly evident, but generally speaking the advances in technology have affected how well games could tell their stories. In fact, the improvements in graphical fidelity have allowed games to draw upon film for language cues that people new to gaming can more readily understand. Third, though 58% of the American population plays video games, that still leaves 42% who don’t have anything to do with gaming. Gaming probably needs to be as ubiquitous as music and film, or at least close to the level of consumption, in order to really bring about a widespread change that everyone can see and understand. Finally, it is hard to for anything to be taken seriously when its own definition trivializes its importance, which is exactly what the term “video game” accomplishes. According to Google’s dictionary, the definition of a video game is, “a game played by electronically manipulating images produced by a computer program on a television screen or other display screen.” Google then defines the word game as, “a form of play or sport, especially a competitive one played according to rules and decided by skill, strength, or luck.” There are numerous problems with these definitions, but for the purposes of this essay the primary difficulty is that narratives aren’t strictly won or diversionary and the games we are ideally talking about here are the ones that make use of effective narratives.
I am convinced that video games will one day move society, but they just aren’t quite there yet.
Imagine that the following quote from Hulk’s essay replaces the word “cinema” with “narrative” to illustrate how far video games have left to go:
WHAT CAN BE SUGGESTED IS THAT THE ACT OF KILLING IS AN ATTACK ON MITIGATION ITSELF. ONE THAT ZOOMS IN ON THE SPECTACULAR COGNITIVE DISSONANCE AND REFUSES TO RELINQUISH UNTIL WE ACTUALLY FACE IT. AND WHAT THIS FILM IS DOING IN INDONESIA IS SO MAGNIFICENTLY REAL; PRECISELY THE KIND OF REAL-LIFE EFFECT THAT IS SO UNIQUE TO POPULAR CINEMA THAT, QUITE FRANKLY, IT RENDERS ALL THE OSCAR TALK KIND OF SMALL.
The plain and simple truth is that video games, for as heartrending, adventuresome, fantastic, and magnificent as they can be, are still in the stage of development where the industry struggles to have award shows. It is an environment where the prospect of putting on an award show with some semblance of dignity is a goal for which many strive. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing either, a quick look at any part of the VGX award show from 2013 proves those people have their work cut out for them. But it is important to remember, especially in a medium as new as video games, that awards should not the end goal. When we are talking about video games that hit the world straight in the gut; games that grab onto a truth and refuse to let go until we collectively face said truth and are changed by it for the better… well, games like that haven’t been made yet, but they are worth waiting for. It should be noted that I am not saying that the narrative-focused video games that we have now are rubbish or that they don’t have great stories or messages. I mean to say that there is nothing like The Act of Killing in video games. The Act of Killing gives its audience something that they need. In fact, most games strive for the direct opposite of need and merely try to deliver what their players want. There is a very large difference between what people need and what people want. Most games cater directly to what people want: power, escape, excitement, puzzles, etc. But very rarely do video games aim to give players something that they might need; video games that present hard truths in a way that we can accept. For that very reason, the number of games that have personally affected me and changed the way I look at the world seems to be miniscule compared to the number of games that I have played. For the record here they are: Shadow of the Colossus, The Stanley Parable, BioShock, BioShock Infinite, The Last of Us, and Mass Effect 3.
*Spoilers for Mass Effect 3 in the following paragraph*
In fact, many of the points I’ve been getting at so far can be perfectly summed up in going back to Mass Effect 3 and how people reacted to its ending. Now, there are certainly a lot of people out there who felt the original ending didn’t seem to fit with the rest of the narrative (and also that the “extended cut” of the ending didn’t go far enough). I never really felt that way either before or after BioWare released the patch which clarified several lingering questions. The internet threw around the term “entitled gamers” like a slur as tens of thousands of players expressed their dissatisfaction by petitioning BioWare to change the ending of their game. At the time, I questioned why people had the unprecedented outrage that is usually reserved for angry mobs or human rights violations. Let’s be honest, many games have unsatisfactory endings or laughable writing, but even the most disgruntled of gaming communities don’t usually file complaints with the FTC. With the distance of a couple years, it seems obvious that this is a potent example of players inserting themselves into the story; they felt responsible for the actions that Commander Shepard was taking and that gave many a sense of ownership toward the narrative of the Mass Effect franchise. I’d guess that there were a lot of people at BioWare who actually wanted players to feel like the story of Mass Effect was really theirs, but the nature of the story they were telling wasn’t conducive to a satisfying ending catharsis. Mass Effect 3 requires that the Commander Shepard that players have developed and bonded with throughout the course of three games released over five years sacrifice his/her life. That is a huge amount of time and effort put into this story and the ending!
While perfectly sound in a traditional narrative sense, it clashed so much with what people wanted from the story that people felt slighted; they felt wronged. The outrage was very real, but so were the other emotional reactions to Mass Effect 3 which at the time were largely overshadowed by the ending controversy. It made people laugh, cry, and rage. It motivated tens of thousands of people to band together for a common purpose. Now that I think about it, Mass Effect 3 could very well be the best example we currently have of how video games can enact change on a large scale. The pressure from the gaming community eventually caused BioWare to buckle and release the extended ending DLC (something that has never sat right with me). It might not be an example of motivating change in a positive or productive direction, but it did unite people to a collective cause on a scale that I haven’t seen in the video game community.
Perhaps all of this talk about video games being anything more than fun distractions from real life seems ridiculous to you. But, then, why do we tell stories in video games? Are they just to add texture and context to the gameplay? Why do developers like BioWare attempt to tell nuanced stories dealing with weighty issues in video games?
IT WAS A QUESTION ABOUT THE EXISTENTIAL HEART OF WHY PEOPLE WANT TO DO SOMETHING SO TRIVIAL AS TELLING STORIES IN THIS MEDIUM. IT SEEMS SO SILLY IN A WORLD FULL OF PEOPLE WHO DO REAL THINGS. TEACHERS. DOCTORS. FIREFIGHTERS. THE KINDS OF FOLKS WHO FILL THEIR DAYS WITH MUNDANE HEROISMS AND GET LITTLE TO NO RECOGNITION FOR IT (AND OFTEN, THEY GET OUR DISDAIN). BUT THE REASON THIS INDUSTRY CAN FEEL SO HOLLOW AT TIMES IS THAT WE ARE ACTUALLY MESSING WITH SOMETHING INCREDIBLY POWERFUL: THE AFOREMENTIONED LETHAL COMBINATION OF IMAGE AND SOUND. AND IF WE HAVE MADE SOMETHING WITH THE POWER TO MAKE PEOPLE CRY IN 30 SECONDS, THAT CAN MAKE PEOPLE OPEN THEMSELVES UP AND LEARN TO WALK A MILE IN ANOTHER MAN'S SHOES, THEN WHY DO WE JUST KEEP USING THAT INCREDIBLE POWER TO MERELY INDULGE PEOPLE? […] [WHEN WE ASK THAT QUESTION] WE ARE WRESTLING WITH THE FACT THAT WE ARE USING ONE OF THE MOST POWERFUL TOOLS ON THE PLANET FOR TRIVIAL PURPOSES. OR WORSE, WHEN WE THINK OF ANWAR RECREATING HIS FAVORITE GANGSTER SCENES, WE CONTEMPLATE THAT WE MIGHT BE DOING SOMETHING THAT COULD EVENTUALLY LEAD TO GREAT HUMAN COST IF NOT HANDLED RESPONSIBLY.
Gaming is still at a place where, for all of the digital bullets, death, and games about war, the game that most effectively understands violence is a post-apocalyptic zombie narrative. Seriously, have you ever taken a minute to think about how weird it is that compared with The Last of Us, the Call of Duty or Battlefield franchises feel tame and sterile? The main difference there is that The Last of Us shows us the human costs of taking a life, both in the brutality of animations and in the way the characters are affected by their own violent actions. In comparison, our digital war games approach their topic with all of the nuance, depth, and seriousness of a group of second graders on the playground pretending to have a shootout. I’ve never been a person who thinks that video games inherently make people more violent, but I do think that video games can influence how we think about the world when we accept them without thinking. It isn’t wrong to have dumb shooters set in times of war, but I think there is something wrong and perhaps even irresponsible when almost all war shooters that approach the topic are silly, empty, and fangless. For all of the emphasis Infinity Ward puts into making Call of Duty look and sound authentic, how is it that Valiant Hearts captures the humanity of war better than the last six Call of Duty games? The video game industry is capable of great things, I know it in my bones. Why do we keep using that incredible power to merely indulge people?
We have seen through Extra Life that people uniting around their common interest in video games can save lives and change their communities for the better. Imagine if that passion was backed up by games that could inspire a similar revolution in the world.
Let us know in the comments if you found this type of writing helpful/interesting or if you weren't to keen on the idea. We'd love to hear from you either way!
*The Act of Killing is available on Netflix Instant if anyone is interested in checking it out for free, and a variety of other services for around $9.99.
**The image of the sunflower is actually not a real sunflower. It is from Mass Effect 3. Anyone remember where?