To continue my thread of posts on games. As you can see the debate is hotting up, and Deepak has weighed in with his considered opinion. Deepak Sharma, for those of you who don’t know him, is the artist of Kalpa as well as a dedicated gamer, and he shares my conviction that games aren’t just jumping pixels with raspberry sound effects. He says that the best games are now on a par with cinema. I haven’t played any of the really new games, in fact none of the ones on his list, so I can’t comment from my own knowledge. But I do agree that one can feel for the in-game characters, whether playing or non-playing, as if they were real, provided the story gives you the scope to do so. The crucial element, the factor that raises the game (or the film or the graphic novel) above the status of perfect but soulless shell is the story.
if you look at the trajectory of cinema (or the graphic novel for that matter) you’ll see that both forms very quickly attracted master storytellers, much before they acquired technical gloss and refinement. With games, development has happened in the opposite direction: technical gloss has arrived ahead of the stories. You can see why if you look at the history of the form, especially at the communities that gave birth to the gaming world. The comparatively slow catch-up by four-colour printing and cinematographic technology was determined by the general rate of development of world technology at the time.
But technology did not drive the evolution of cinema: conceptually cinema grew out of photography which grew out of figurative classical painting. Till the modern photographic camera arrived on the scene, artists trained themselves to produce realism, or hyperrealism, on canvas. The moment photography became widespread, you got a revolt against realism in the arts, because there was no longer any glory in doing what machines could do. The same thing happened to song lyrics. When music became a mega-industry, the written lyric or poem (as opposed to the sung one) immediately tried to disappear up its own ass. Hence most of what passes for poetry these days, with a few heroic exceptions, is plain shit.
Because cinema and the comic book, as art forms, came out of ‘high’ art, they could draw on the narrative traditions and resources of the older aesthetic. The philosophy of epic poetry isn’t so far away from the Hulk or Wonder Woman (the latter traces her lineage to ancient Greece). Frankenstein’s monster is David Bannerman’s brother. But the gaming world grew out of a substrate of scientific experiment, statistical modelling, military intelligence and machine coding, with a smattering of Cold War-era sci-fi and Commando-type sojer-stories, most of which promoted a simple, Manichaean worldview in which the White Hats battled the Black Hats until the White Hats won or at least destroyed the world trying (Game Over/Play Again?). It had no older tradition of art which it could cannibalise, react against, transcend or re-form.
So the gaming world grew out of a technophil community that understood the how much better than the what. The expertise of gamers and game-makers quickly pushed the tech horizon far out into hyperspace, but the stories were neglected. Storytelling isn’t easy: you have to have natural aptitude honed with brutal training, just like coding. (Remember: code is poetry.) The gaming community weren’t trained in telling stories, and if they did come from a background in the arts it was more likely to be in the graphic or the plastic arts rather than literature. So because it wasn’t what they did, they thought it was easy, boring and not worth wasting effort over (don’t ask me why, but techies always think this about things they can’t do. It’s a major mystery.) Hence the rather pathetic excuses-for-stories you sometimes get in games. To be fair, there are plenty of B-grade movies which display exactly the same defects, for the same reasons.
But the question isn’t why games have bad stories, it’s whether they can have good ones. The short answer to that is: we don’t know. No one has definitely proved this one way or the other. However, there seems to be a definite upward curve in the complexity and sophistication of the stories in games, if only because individual game-makers want to give the competition a black eye, and the arms race with the physics and the gameplay is starting (perhaps) to slow down. Also there are new kinds of customers out there, such as my seven-year-old niece who has now completed a respectable percentage of the Barbie games and is playing Pyjama Sam (no relation to Serious Sam). Little girls, by and large, don’t like shooting things and are unreasonably addicted to pink (actually all kids like pink but the girls take the rap.) What sort of games will she want to play as she grows up? She already talks to her characters. She also writes stories and has made a comic strip using a rubber stamp set of bird pictures, so she doesn’t seem to see any genre disjunct between the three (or four) modes: games, graphic novels, books and cinema. She’s the first generation for whom all four modes are equally present and available.
So will the market, as it diversifies and changes, drive a hunger for more and different stories? It will if people listen to it, as late capitalism likes to think it does. (But does it really? can you really buy the products you want? Ad hype aside, do the manufacturers really care what you want and will they really sell it to you?) Storytellers are generally underpaid whether they work for print, film or pixel-crunchers, and it may be cheaper to hire one than to get another state-of-the-art 3D wraparound theatre or hydroponic Venusian wonderworld for the quicktime stimulation of your creative team. These lowly proletarians of the artistic world will then drift about looking dreamy or lock themselves in the staff toilet and after some time and toilet paper, come up with the narrative skeleton for a genre-breaker. If they can then push it past the sphincter of the company’s editorial board, we might just see the game that will change everything.
Until then, all bets are off.