The Maturity of a Medium
The gaming industry has a stigma attached. As an ever-growing and fundamentally diverse dispenser of entertainment, the video game is still yet to convince a vast throng of people of its expositional potential; some still chalking them up as simple play things. Often viewed from behind a lens full of tabloid-exacerbated viscera and pointless shovelware, video gaming has much to prove, and to some extent, much to flaunt. In recent years especially we’ve witnessed some of the most visually complex, conceptually articulate and seemingly adult content ever to be rendered on a home console. But as I stand to justify my hobby sincerely to friends and family, I have the nagging feeling; the knowledge that, despite the great leaps and bounds, we’re not there yet, not by a long shot.
The issue is that we view through a lens also. We subconsciously bind cutting edge gaming to its own context. Recent games, as far as narrative and thought-provocation are concerned, impress by the medium’s own standards but fail to grasp the lofty heights of film, or even television in this regard.
The industry at large is simply not a mature one.
Still, a selection of games in this console generation are heralded as bastions of a maturing space, lauded as able to deliver adult content to an adult audience. Whilst certainly aiming in the right direction, when examined closely, they still stand testament to something lesser than their aim. I’ll only address a few here, feel free to provide yours in the comments below.
I’ll begin with an easy one, Heavy Rain. Now, anyone who knows me is likely aware of my profound, unjustified and irrational loathing of David Cage, head honcho of Quantic Dream, Heavy Rain’s developing studio. Strangely enough this isn’t actually linked to the quality of his games; instead just a result of the intense pomposity he exudes during press conferences. As a matter of fact, I have loved both of Quantic Dream’s unique children. Fahrenheit, known more now for jumping the shark than the strides it took in gaming narrative, had me completely hooked. Heavy Rain looked poised to fix the follies of the past by delivering a purely grounded story, rooted firmly in realism. Choices would matter, deaths would be permanent, events would be quick-time, but more importantly, affecting. Fine, all but the latter were achieved.
Looking back now it’s easy to see the plot of Heavy Rain for what it really is: a broken, plot hole-filled, childish tale that simulates real relationships about as well as the original Resident Evil. Madison and Ethan’s foray into love is especially poorly handled. Madison’s motivations are somewhat justified by her journalistic career, but this doesn’t really account for the inexplicably bad sex scene, both in its timing and execution. The character’s reactions barely fit the context at all, likely as a result of Cage shoe-horning romance into an otherwise desperate situation. I won’t go on at length about Heavy Rain, as I think the general consensus has somewhat turned toward this anyway.
Next, Metal Gear Solid, a franchise heaped heavy in narrative. There must be something compelling to the storytelling if players are willing to indulge in it so readily, sitting through vast cut-scenes at every turn. Unlike Rockstar’s games, where story is somewhat streamlined to accommodate gameplay, Kojima takes his complex (convoluted) ideas and does whatever necessary to get them in there. The problem I’ve always had is that he’s tried to cram too many big themes into one coagulative mess. He himself has admitted that, given a second chance, he’d drop the cloning sub-plot entirely – much of the basis of Solid Snake’s character. And whilst many of the concepts – information control, what makes up a hero, fighting without a cause – are intriguing, they’re played out like some kind of narcissistic pantomime.
Everything is so thick in over-explanation that character subtlety is an impossibility. If I’m honest, I love Snake because I love Hayter’s voice work and his hard-ass demeanour. As a character, he’s pretty much nothing. Big Boss is slightly better, but even then, his surroundings are so full of cheese, actual progression is difficult to come by.
Rockstar provide a different challenge. The latter stages of the Grand Theft Auto series are parodies of sociological phenomena, which, for the most part, are executed well. With Red Dead Redemption, LA Noire, and to some extent Grand Theft Auto 4, the bent has changed somewhat towards seriousness and realism. Sure, caricatures still remain, but the messages seem altogether more sobering. For me, Red Dead Redemption contains the best yarn. Founded upon well established Western tropes, the characters were engaging and crazy in equal measure, helping to build towards one of the most poignant final scenes the industry has to offer.
I don’t begrudge Red Dead Redemption any of that, but there are elements that we as players let slide. For starters, most, if not all, characters are relatively two-dimensional. Marston himself is the Western archetype, seeking blood-fuelled revenge but hiding the need for family and solitude. The McFarlan family of strong, kind-hearted individuals and, of course, Nigel West Dickens, the well-written but ultimately flawed con-artist, all play their parts admirably, but alter little. As somewhat of a receptacle for the player, Marston is expositionally thin beyond his primary motivations, and Rockstar’s compartmentalised, mission-focus means that almost everything feels tangential.
In fact, Red Dead Redemption helps stumble upon the problem. Video games are not films, or television shows, they’re an entirely different beast. Metal Gear is a good example of something that’s crudely attempting to be both and failing, whilst Heavy Rain is trying to be a playable film and is let down by the story itself not being up to snuff. Perhaps games don’t hit maturity standards because they’re emulating too closely something they’re not. A good counter-point is Thatgamecompany’s Journey, a linear experience that leaves much of the story to the player. You become invested via a level of pure interaction and discovery that only video games can provide. Even at its most basic, it’s entirely successful, revealing a necessary amendment:
The industry at large is simply not a mature one, against the paradigms laid down by film and television.
Its biggest narrative successes, to me, seem to be those that are exuberantly unique to the medium itself. On the outside looking in, video games are judged by the parameters of those its aping and ultimately that’s to its detriment. I wonder whether in the end, David Cage is looking in the wrong direction.