Before I get into this post, the first thing that must be addressed is the debate as to whether video games are art if we are to compare them with mainstream films. The short answer is yes. Yes they are. If anyone disregards video games under the classification of ‘art’ then all the films they watch aren’t ‘art’, all of those novels and plays they read aren’t ‘art’, all the music they listen to isn’t ‘art’, and all of the paintings in art galleries aren’t ‘art’. The very definition of the word ‘art’ is as follows:
Both of those definitions apply to the creation of video games as it takes the application of creative skill and imagination to create a video game. It also culminates in the player’s own skill and imagination based on a visual form. And if anyone still isn’t convinced, video games are making an ever noticeable move to the visual style and medium of film. In order to decide how video games could be improved both technically and creatively, I will be looking at both the narrative and gameplay side to a collection of my all time favourite games, discussing elements of spectacle, power and memory, whilst comparing them to the certain types of film we see at the cinema, how the trends have merged and influence each other.
God of War series
As an action-adventure game, the God of War series is loosely based on Greek mythology and deals with the themes of revenge, betrayal, bloodlust and loss. Although the first game had a clear story and tragic motivation to the character whilst balancing the highly violent action set pieces and story well, the series nevertheless lost touch with the humanity behind the protagonist and began to rely on the violence and gore aspect and spectacle of the boss fights and environments. All of the games in the series follow the same hack n’ slash style gameplay which has never been drastically altered since its original release in 2005.
If we were to compare this to the medium of film, the trait ‘style over substance’ would most certainly be applied, and as a lover of strong story and rich and complex characters, the series (albeit from the first game) really does not cater to this. Nevertheless, the series remains fun from a pure action standpoint. In this case, the game would compare to mainstream films that are solely focussed on action rather than complex characters or story, such as the Fast and Furious series. In terms of aesthetic look, the recent films that it shares its visual quality of are probably the latest Conan the Barbarian remake or the recent Clash and Wrath of the Titans (both of which feature very loose elements of Greek mythology).
In terms of how the series could be improved creatively, I would change up the gameplay style after 8 years of it being exactly the same in order to add some much needed variety to the experience, as well as bringing in some good writing talent to pen a solid character story to make the audience actually care about Kratos, the protagonist. This again goes back to my previous post on screenwriting and the ability to still make us care about characters who are not inherently good people. Anti-heroes are always the most complex kind of characters and I think there is ample opportunity to really get into the nitty-gritty of the character and deliver a game that still retains the game’s high level of action, but also bring in a lot more emotional moments for a better all round experience.
Metal Gear Solid series
When arguing the point that video games are becoming more like movies, the Metal Gear Solid series is certainly the first that comes to mind. Metal Gear Solid 4 holds a Guiness World Record for longest single cutscene sequence at 71 minutes in length, and a combined cutscene time of around 8 hours. The Metal Gear Solid series is revered for its cutscene length which has been an element in all of the games. The entire blu ray disc was filled with content on Metal Gear Solid 4 which shows the enormity of the game through its story telling. The amount of cutscenes in this game add up to around 3 full length feature films, and that’s not even counting the length of gameplay time to add on to that. Metal Gear Solid to me is a playable movie. Although each game has contained some pretty genre redefining gameplay mechanics (such as a psychic boss battle in the original game that read the memory card slot in the console to tell the player what games they have played, and forcing the player to switch controller ports in order to break free of the boss’s psychic powers) and creating an incomparable complex tactical stealth mechanic, the game’s rich story and unbelievably enormous cast of complex characters is impossible to put into words. Metal Gear Solid 4 marked the emotional end to the series (although a later game Metal Gear Rising was made which is set 4 years after) and it is probably the most effective example next to The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King to an emotional farewell and resolution to the characters I have ever seen. It was genuinely moving and poignant and is one of my favourite viewing experiences of all time – comparable to that of any film I have seen. This just goes to show what a phenomenal writer and game director Hideo Kojima is.
In terms of how it could be improved, I am very torn. Whilst the cutscenes help to develop the characters and craft the epic story, they nevertheless force the player to watch them with no interactivity on their part. In this instance, the game looses its main goal of being a game to be played. It essentially becomes a film. A game allows you more freedom to make things happen that you perhaps couldn’t do on film, but with around 8 hours of video content, sometimes you question as to why the series isn’t just a collection of animated films. To suggest an alternative way of handling the heavy amount of cutscenes, see the game below.
Quantic Dream, another game developer, is renowned for its rich storytelling on a solely visual basis as the game is essentially one single cutscene, but the resounding difference between games that Quantic Dreams produces and the likes of the Metal Gear Solid series is that all of the cutscenes are interactive. The player makes the decisions for the characters and decides how the game unfolds. In the case of Heavy Rain, every single action that the character makes is made by the player – even down to picking up objects with the analogue sticks.
Where the strength of Heavy Rain really lies though is in its murder mystery storyline and its cast of characters. Each character’s emotional and personal stake are shown throughout the game and a classic murder mystery story which keeps the player guessing as to which character is the culprit. Aside from being a very well written game and dark storyline, the use of motion capture on the characters makes them act more realistically and feel like real people. As a game, it also has a lot of replay value, as there are about 20 different possible endings based on the decisions the player made throughout the game, allowing the player to go back and alter the storyline and events.
In terms of how it could be improved, without giving anything away, I wished the revealed killer at the end had the ability to change on multiple playthroughs. Although you can change the events leading up to the reveal of the killer, the surprise is taken away on all subsequent playthroughs, so it would have been nice to see a random killer selector every single time a new game is played; thus keeping the player constantly guessing.
Grand Theft Auto: Vice City
In terms of how it could be improved creatively or technically is very difficult as its shortcomings mostly come from the graphics which haven’t aged particularly well. As the game is around 10 years old, that is to be expected as it was from the PS2 era. The game manages to blend spectacle, power and memory all from the 80s decade. Spectacle in its design, power from the intense attitude and carefree lifestyle of the time, and memory by sparking players’ nostalgia by remembering a decade that was the good time era. The most recent game to do this was probably Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon – a love letter to the 80s and predominantly 80s action movies.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
The word ‘spectacle’ doesn’t even begin to describe the visual originality and beauty of Okami. Set in a type of Japanese mythology, Okami delivers its visuals through a beautifully detailed and coloured brush artwork style. If anyone says this game isn’t ‘art’, based completely on the visuals, then they disregard brush art in general as a form of art. All of the characters speak in a fictional distorted and mumbled language with subtitles providing the translation. The object of the game is to overthrow an evil force that is trying to consume the land in darkness. As a demigod, Amaterasu, in white wolf form, armed with a weaponised brush, must paint colour back into the land and defeat the evil force. Very simple stories like this always work, whether it be in Eastern or Western culture as they are shrouded in mythology, legend and fantasy which makes them appealing. The game also features, in my opinion, one of the best and most breath-taking soundtracks in a video game ever and has a distinctive charm about it. The game is most certainly memorable due to its visual style and beauty and is easily defined based on a single screenshot. It is able to evoke emotion from the player by the sheer beauty of the storytelling, soundtrack and visuals which allow the player to breath in the experience. In terms of how it could be improved creatively, I believe the game should have been completely voiced in Japanese. The sound used for the speech in the game is very irritating and in my opinion detracts from an otherwise perfect game. I also believe it would have made the game a lot more bolder in being a completely Japanese mythology game in the original dialect.
Kingdom Hearts series
The genius of Kingdom Hearts is generated from its very idea of genre clash thus creating a hybrid game, yet still retaining its own identity. Kingdom Hearts blends the worlds of the highly popular Final Fantasy series and the world of Walt Disney, mixing characters and situations from both series, set against a brand new storyline with original characters. The very idea sounds ludicrous but the two worlds compliment each other very well. The character is transported to different Disney worlds and play alongside the most famous Disney characters. The game therefore is incredibly memorable as it takes two well-known series and creates its own universe, giving the player nostalgia and familiarity as you uncover characters that influenced your childhood. In this way, the game also becomes a spectacle to behold all of the famous characters on-screen again (with most of the original voice actors returning) as well as providing its own spectacle in its story. Kingdom Hearts also boasts a very powerful story that is both exciting, complex and moving. Through many prequels and midquels that were released alongside the main series, the characters have become even more fleshed out and a whole history and backstory was developed to further enhance the core story and to make it more understandable. In terms of how it could be improved creatively, I would just make the characters appear more like real people. None of them have particularly real sounding conversations and most of it sounds incredibly scripted. This would make the player care more for the characters, rather than just focussing on the brilliance of seeing Disney worlds and characters appear.
As a smaller developed game, Journey still gained critical acclaim and game awards to rival even that of a mainstream title. Without a single line of dialogue throughout the entire game, Journey is completely based on visual storytelling and creating an atmosphere. Journey is definitely the best game I have played this year so far and it is only about 2 hours in length. The whole game serves as a reflection and metaphor of life, with an ending that I still think about and find moving after playing it about 5 times. The genius of the game stems from the lack of dialogue or headset capability with people playing it online with you. The game automatically pairs you up with someone else in the world who is also playing the game and you play through the game together as you complete your journey. As no verbal communication is offered, the players must work together and signal each other with a form of a tuneful noise. As a result, you grow attached to your companion on the game who is going through the journey with you, and you look out for them and help each other through the levels. The game is memorable and powerful as it deals with the theme of life itself and ends with probably the most poignant and thought-provoking ending I have ever experienced. The soundtrack is eerily beautiful, and moves between ethereal ambience, rousing strings, and triumphant full orchestra. Every level in its own way is a spectacle to behold and there are times it almost moves the player to tears from its sheer beauty. In terms of how it could be improved creatively, I have no changes that could be made. The game is perfect in every way.