I’ve been playing video games for 28 years, and I’ve been finishing games for about 25 (those first few Infocom games proved too tricksy for my impatient early adolescent brain.). Though it may not seem so to the casual observer, many games are finishable. That is, they have a narrative arc–a beginning, middle and end. Clearly that’s not the case with Pacman, Angry Birds or most sports games, but many games for the PC and consoles want to tell a story where you control the hero.
Until recently, finishing any game provoked a slight sense of satisfaction, accomplishment and relief. Even when my friend Albert and I spent six solid hours beating the Stygian Abyss on his Apple II, I recognized it as a trifle, an unworthy chore. It feels about the same as winning at a recreation sport (assuming you’re not a testosterone-rich toss-pot). It’s worth smiling about and raising a glass to, but that’s about it.
In recent years, though, I’ve finished some games and felt like I’d just finished watching a great movie or play, or reading a good book. You know this feeling. It’s as if you’ve been changed by the work of art, like I’m a slightly different person after experiencing it. Pauline Kael wrote that “good movies make you care, make you believe in possibilities again”. The Greeks called that feeling catharsis. This is a recent and radical change in my experience of games.
Maybe Games are Art
Though this feels like a tectonic shift in narrative games, I believe that it’s the result of many small improvements in storytelling. These changes, in aggregate, push certain games across a kind of event horizon. What games evoke this feeling for me? The most recent was Mass Effect 3. Before that there were the Portal games (I previously wrote about Portal as the perfect short story of a game) and Half Life 2: Episode 2.
What do these games have in common that are different from others? Great voice acting, for one. The Mass Effect games, in particular, are peopled with legitimate mainstream actors like Martin Sheen and Carrie Anne Moss. You feel the difference. By the standards of games, the dialogue is excellent as well. There are legitimately funny jokes, and, rarely, lines that cut to the bones of a scene. While I do think better ‘graphics’ has something to do with this shift, it’s not really a question of verisimilitude. It’s more that these games pay closer attention to mise en scene. They’re more tonal, in some way, and manipulate mood better.
Like good acting performances, these games have a soul, and there’s truth in them.
Roger Ebert–I mourn his passing–infamously argued that games weren’t art. In truth, I mostly agreed with him. Most games are awful juvenile reveries; I almost never see a sophisticated treatment of a theme in a game, and I’m rarely surprised by how a game’s story plays out. I recently watched Minecraft: The Story of Mojang, and Chris Hecker had a great observation about games. I’m paraphrasing here, but he said something like “nearly all games are about power fantasy, which is pretty cheap and predictable. What would a game be like if the objective was to fall in love?” (More on this theme from Chris).
Comparing the history of movies and games, I’d say that games are barely into the ‘talkies’ era. I look forward to the era where being moved by a game is the rule, instead of the exception.