Video games are art.
They may have started out as entertainment media, but gaming has evolved into an audio-visual platform that, in many ways, pushes the envelope of art. Evidently, the greatest strength of video games lies in their interactivity; the ability of the player to experience fictional – sometimes fantastical – worlds, and the interface between player and game actions is unparalleled by any other media form.
Of late, there has been a surge in video games that stand out with nuanced gameplay, storytelling and characterization, that goes beyond “good guy must kill all bad guys”. This experience – oriented breed of games has been led by the redefinition of traditional “adventure games.” There are those, such as the Walking Dead series by Telltale, that follow classical “point & click” gameplay norms (with their own USPs), but there are several others that simply cannot be pigeonholed into a genre. Games such as Journey and The Vanishing of Ethan Carter employ well-known game paradigms, but defy most generic limitations.
Now, for gaming to truly grow out of this box, we must acknowledge that these games are the future, rather than the Call of Duty’s and Assassin’s Creeds of the world. Let me explain in terms of the big 3 gaming criteria:
The most common charge levelled against this new crop of adventure games, is that they aren’t really ‘games’, that they lack ‘real’ gameplay. However, while many of these games pile on the buttons and moves, the play itself may get repetitive and shallow, as evidenced by the saturation of First Person Shooters.
The gameplay in these narrative-centric games may not be nearly as complex as others, but complexity is far from the intended goal here. There are enough actions programmed in to ensure that the player remains in control of the in-game persona, yet not too many as to detract from the inherent simplicity of these games.
A perfect example of this balance are the multiple games from Telltale, such as TWD and The Wolf Among Us. Although the gameplay might seem limited, in my opinion, it is used sparingly and effectively to convey the brevity and tension of the moment, such as a critical conversation or a heart-stopping action.
In doing so, these adventure games ensure that the game play is uncluttered, and does not detract from the core of the games, which is the narrative.
This is where the new wave of games set themselves apart. Where too many mainstream games use story as a mere vessel, it wouldn’t be too far off the mark to call the current crop of adventure games the pinnacle of interactive storytelling.
Here is where games leverage their trump card: placing the player in the shoes of the character makes him or her empathize with, and feel responsible for every action taken, every word spoken. While this may be true of any other game, one that emphasizes immersion in the environment and story makes the emotions and atmosphere seem that much more authentic.
Further, there’s games like Dear Esther and Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture that don’t restrict themselves to any structured narrative. The player is, often literally, left to his own devices, allowing them to build their own narrative perspective. There is little to no explicit goading by the game’s design for the player to follow a linear or sequential path to the endgame. As such, you are as clueless as a real person dropped into the game world, the anxiety to make sense of it as much yours as the characters’.
So, you have player choice, vicarious emotion, and unorthodox storytelling meshing into an interactive experience with a level of genuine connect unparalleled by your ‘hardcore’ action driven games.
The wonderful thing about a game that defies genres, is that its visual style is wholly reliant on the atmosphere and tone it wants to set. Some games rely on the player’s immersion; using gorgeous, realistic visuals such as the open vistas and eye to detail of The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, interspersed with surreal visual cues. On the other hand, games such as To The Moon undercut the heavy themes they deal with, with a simplistic art style, that helps maintain the emphasis on the story being told. While AAA games bloat themselves with shiny textures and lens flare, these adventure games focus on the appropriate visual style, rather than bells and whistles.
When you’ve got these great video games that score exceptionally on the Big Three criteria, while also reinventing the very idea of a ‘video game’, I can bareley contain my excitement at this future of gaming, and by extension, art. Critics (including the legendary Robert Ebert) entrenched in more orthodox art forms may dismiss this movement, but there’s always going to be dissenters; every evolution of art does.
For gaming, an all-encompassing, yet narrative-driven experience, is the next big leap.