For awesome video game art like the featured image here, visit http://la-sera.deviantart.com/art/Southern-Wind-255260996 .
Ever have that feeling something you love is about to mature and spread its wings in all kind of directions? Like, that you feel you’re not the only one anymore that takes care of that special someone? I just finished a game called The Last of Us and I just had that feeling. (I bet a lot of people were actually thinking about their kids, right now) People who are older than me and still game probably have this feeling even more. Of course it was never the case that “gaming” only depended on me or any other individual. But there were times gaming was much less mature and accepted as it is nowadays.
Games weren’t meant to immerse you in deep stories, let you have uneasy feelings when finishing them or let you think about their deeper significance. Games like Pac Man, Pong, Mario, Donkey Kong and Sonic (What happened to you, old hedgehog?) were meant for pure fun. Of course there were occasional games with a story which was well-written and could potentially touch you, but I’m sure few people chose story over game play.
Others might look at this differently. It is possible to look at a game like Super Mario Bros and point out that games like these gained popularity because of their “fantasy world” you got immersed in. Fair point, but I don’t believe that was their main point of remembrance. It’s the style a game needs, a style that needs to be attractive and recognizable to consumers/gamers, but I don’t believe it’s what’s most important to be remembered in the annals of video game history when it comes to deeper significance. Among the first games to shift the focus of game play to story, were Myst, Final Fantasy and Wing Commander. Since I did not play these games at the time it’s impossible for me to immerse myself into them as people did when they initially came out. It’s like listening to Rock ‘n’ roll right now for teenagers: you might like it, but you’ll never actually have the experience people had when it was born.
But back to this game I finished, which can do just this thing for me. The Last of Us. It has been a while since I finished a game and stared at my screen for such a long time. “It’s yet another zombie apocalypse video game”, that’s what I initially said when I heard about this piece of art. “The trailers look good, but I’m still not impressed”, that’s what I said up to the initial release.
“…..”, that’s what came out of me when I finished it.
A story about a man and a little girl
What made this game so brilliant, was not the zombie apocalypse theme. It was a simple relation between a man and a little 14-year-old girl. Joel and Ellie were their names, and their journey was memorable beyond imagining. Naughty Dog is a developer known for their strong storytelling (Uncharted series), but with The Last of Us they went to a whole new level. The game starts off gently and has a tendency to feel slow first, but after the first major moment in the game, it immediately reaches an emotional level which is too much. Some people might even describe it as an emotional catharsis. After this moment, I had the feeling it would go downwards pretty quickly. But time and time again, the game keeps surprising you in different ways and makes the bond between Joel and Ellie – and you – stronger and stronger.
Many zombie apocalypse themed stories are usually about the best way to kill a zombie, how to go around with food or the best survival tips. But few games show the emotional and ethical sides of this “survival of the fittest”. What would you do if mankind was infected with a deadly spore that takes over the body and turns you into a raging monstrosity? Who would you save or warn first? Where would you go? How would you deal with other people trying to survive? How would they deal with you? Could you end the life of a loved one who has been infected by such a thing? The Last of Us answers a lot of these questions, and a lot of the answers are not very pretty. It touches a gray zone of morality not many forms of art can or want to touch. It leaves ethics with an uneasy feeling which moralists most definitely don’t like.
One of the major lessons The Last of Us shows and teaches you, is that when you’re back to basic survival, you’re essentially back to square one when it comes to human evolution. Morals and ethics can get you killed and you will have to make choices which might give you nightmares. It’s the consequence of us human beings having a conscious mind and being able to think further than simple instincts. There are a lot of tragic moments in The Last of Us which make you scream at your screen, wanting to turn it off, yet you don’t. And that’s why The Last of Us is for me a prime example of how the medium video games transformed and evolved. It has reached a level which can be considered art when done right, and can sometimes even top movie or art experiences. (Heavy Rain, anyone?)
What makes games so distinctive from other forms of art
One of the prime reasons why games can be so powerful in their message and story, is the fact that it gives you the illusion you control the main character in a video game. A movie might give you an emotional attachment to given characters and it might make you cry in the end, but the fact that they’re given, constraints engagement. Their paths are set and there is nothing you can do to influence the story. In video games this is different, though. You control the main character and you have direct influence on everything that happens in your environment. If a game is made right, it even gives you different choices to approach your objective or moral dilemmas to think about. A prime example here would be Deux Ex: Human Revolution.
Set in a developing trans-humanist future, this game gives you an enormous freedom where almost every choice has a consequence. Are you going straight for the main storyline, or are you going to branch off for an errand of a friend? If so, you might get scolded by your boss for being late, or even worse. A good example was a mission where you had to save several hostages from a terrorist (You’re working for a private security company). If you chose to branch off, exploring the offices of your company, some hostages could already have been killed when you finally decided to start the mission.
Of course it’s a grand illusion: these “choices” are still pre-made by developers and don’t pop up spontaneously. But the fact that YOU make these choices, and that these choices exist (A game can also choose just to have one set path) makes it that much more believable and engaging. Your action impacts the world in a game and every consequence is a consequence YOU’RE responsible for.
I’m going on an adventure!
Another major aspect which make video games so possibly distinctive and artful, is the fact that video games might let you explore the entire world behind a certain story or universe. Best examples are The Elder Scrolls games, which give you absolute freedom when it comes to exploring the world. Also called “The Lord of the Rings of video games”, you can play this game in whatever way you like after the tutorial. Follow the main quest? Go ahead. See a ruin up ahead you would like to explore? Sure, do your thing. Go into a city nearby and join a guild for some money? It’s your journey, man! Every place you visit answers literature’s old questions like “Who?”, “What?”, “Where?”, “When?”, “Why?” and “How?”. It creates a universe which feels extensive and believable, and tying in to the last distinctive aspect, it gives you the freedom to explore as many or as little as you want.
Everything in these pictures – even the mountains in the background – are reachable and possible to explore in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. This game probably has angered quite some (girl)friends and parents for consuming way too much time of people.
Thirty years ago people probably would not have thought a video game could be nominated for a Grammy Award. They probably wouldn’t have dreamed of games like The Last of Us, Deus Ex: Human Revolution and Bioshock to be possible. But they’re here now and they’ve showed us the form of art video games can bring you. The problem is you have to be acquainted with the medium in order to reach a full, immersive experience. But that’s not so different from other forms of art if you think about it.
How many people are disgusted by contemporary art, while others say you need to open up for it and really take your time to enjoy it? Movies are probably the only form of art which have the added advantage of being able to hang back and enjoy it passively.
Written with much care and greater detail than me in this post, Cracked goes even further in their analysis called “5 Things Video Games Do Better Than Any Form of Art”. It’s really worth the read, although you should be prepared for a rather…distinctive writing style. It’s something you have to open up for. But that’s okay. That’s with most forms of art.