“In the outside world, I’m a simple geologist, but in here… I am Volkorn, Defender of the Alliance! I’ve braved the Fargodeep Mine, defeated the bloodfish at Jerod’s Landing….’ – Randy, South Park (Make Love, Not Warcraft)
Cinema has been plagued by the film snob for decades. It is the one true pitfall of loving the silver screen. The only other people who share your passion seem solely interested in asserting their dominance. I go out of my way to avoid being introduced to those I probably have the most in common with, such is my objection of cinematic confrontation. It is remarkable how aggressive some film enthusiasts can be, even when feigning affability. I have only ever encountered anything like it in the gaming community, a society unbridled by the chains of face-to-face interaction.
I am a gamer to the extent that I know Assassin’s Creed 3 came out this week and on the day I bought Skyrim last year, I played it nine hours in a row on my projector with surround sound. To some that may sound pretty hardcore (although I probably have way better gear than those people and my blacksmithing level would be higher), but my interest in games is at best eager. I do not play online games very often, but when I do I’m always killed or knocked out immediately by far more skilled opponents. My real interest lies in action/adventure games and RPG games.
I have noticed, especially over the past year, an increasing drift in the gaming industry toward the cinematic. There has always been a strong relationship between film and games. Licensed video games like Tron or the infamously crappy E.T. (both 1982) have been around for decades, while films based on video games have become progressively present (and remained steadily shit) since the 1993 flop Super Mario Bros. Artistically speaking, there has never been any real cause for making films more like games. By and large, games have always been less emotionally involving, the plot often existing only to serve the action or atmosphere. I understand this is a generalisation, but I think it is a fair one.
But the limitations of cinema are beginning to show, and concurrently games seem to be hitting their creative stride. The main culprit for highlighting the disadvantages of cinema is television, and the rise of the high-quality production television that has been gaining momentum since The West Wing and The Sopranos were released in the late 1990s. Although television has limitations of its own, namely budget and time, on the question of pacing and character development, television is second to none.
Twelve years ago television was something to help pass the time or have a laugh, as were video games. Now I feel completely out of it if I haven’t seen the latest episode of Breaking Bad. Computer games, like television, are not burdened by the time constraints of a film. Unlike television however, computer games allow the audience to dictate the narrative. I know this is a bad example, but how amazing would it be to control Walter White?
It may be hard for the purists to accept, but video games are becoming a viable form of storytelling. This is fact, regardless of whether you agree or not that they will become the dominant creative medium. There are two key factors in this; technology and creativity. Remember that animated film Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001)? I can remember seeing it in the cinema and thinking ‘Wow, one day computer games will look like this.’ Well, that happened ages ago. There are some game environments nowadays that look almost photo-real.
I played a game last year called L.A. Noire (2011) and became convinced that it was the beginning of a new era for games. The companies behind the game, Rockstar and Team Bondi, used motion capture to animate actors’ performances, including their faces. L.A. Noire ended up being a fairly flat game and the story wasn’t very compelling, but for the first time in my gaming life I was completely invested in it. It didn’t feel as though I was watching game characters, it felt as though I was watching real performances. I could recognize actors, such as Aaron Staton from Mad Men (2007-2012) or Keith Szarabajka from The Dark Knight (2008). The gap between crappy game animation and genuine performance has been bridged.
And then I bought Batman: Arkham City (2011). If you are any sort of Batman fan, there is no reason not to play this game. I think both it and its predecessor Arkham Asylum (2009) are Batman experiences worthy of anything Christopher Nolan has offered over the past seven years. There are moments in Arkham City as gripping as in the most polished of Hollywood films, the only difference is that you are part of the story. Why the hell would I want to watch Batman when I can be Batman? There is such an impressive amount of creative talent being poured into these games that it would be crazy not to pay attention to it. I have given so few examples here in a world full of games such as Heavy Rain, Mass Effect 3, Uncharted, Red Dead Redemption, Catherine etc….
The geeky stigma attached to video gaming needs to be shed. Yes there are 400- pound guys with huge beards who only eat McDonalds, play the latest World of Warcraft expansion all day long and get stuck into noobs, but look hard enough and there are assholes in every community. I’m not talking about some sort of video game takeover of the entertainment industry here, I’m just talking about being more open to the idea of genuine art and creativity in video games. I know so many people who talk about how they don’t understand sitting in front of a screen and playing games for hours, but these are the same people who will watch a season of The Sopranos in a day. The video game industry is ready for us. There has never been a better time to embrace what they have to offer.