Look at how video games work and how they could be improved both technically and creatively

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:

Art

Noun
  1. The expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture,…: “the art of the Renaissance”
  2. Works produced by such skill and imagination.
 
Synonyms
craft – skill – artifice – science – workmanship – knack

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

God of War 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

metal-gear-solid 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.

Heavy Rain

heavy rain

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.

The Walking Dead

Walking Dead

 As a viewer of The Walking Dead TV series, I was skeptical when this game was released as it was a completely separate entity from the show and the graphical style made me believe it would be a more kid-friendly version of the zombie hit. How wrong I was. The Walking Dead by Telltale games is one of the most gripping and emotional gaming experiences I’ve had. The game very much follows the style of the aforementioned Heavy Rain game as it allows the player to choose how the story unfolds and make life changing decisions under tense time limits to make you feel like you are really having to make that call in real life. In terms of mainstream Hollywood films, the whole zombie outbreak premise is nothing new, but where the real strength of this game lies is in its characters. Everyone in this game feels like a real person, and you grow attached to characters as well as making enemies along the way. The world it creates feels lived in and you really understand the desperation and futility of the whole situation. When members of your group fall you really feel it emotionally and when you have to choose between two people out of which one you save, you feel like you are really dealing with the real-life repercussions of that decision. Once again, this all boils down to great screenwriting, and The Walking Dead never feels scripted. All the lines in it feel like real spontaneous conversations which makes the game much more powerful and memorable. The game’s script and story feels very much like Stephen King’s point on screenwriting in that you write by situation rather than plot, and as The Walking Dead game is split into five 2 hour-long episodes, it feels exactly like that.
In terms of how it could be improved creatively, I guess the graphics could be made to be realistic like most modern games. If the characters looked realistic such as the characters in Heavy Rain or the recent zombie outbreak game The Last of Us, then maybe we would have had an even bigger emotional reaction to it. This again is where I am torn though, as Telltale games are a relatively small developer team that create episodic games, with each episode released every couple of months with cell-shaded graphics. This therefore cuts development time and keeps cost down a considerable amount, as they don’t have to programme highly expensive and complex graphics systems and can programme each game between the interim months between the next release. The style of the graphics also lends well to The Walking Dead as it is based on a graphic novel series with the same kind of artwork. I would also make the point that the game was successful in what it set out to do anyway and was incredibly emotional in its own right even without the use of almost photo realistic graphics.

Grand Theft Auto: Vice City
gta vice city
Without a doubt my favourite game on the Playstation 2 system. Never before have I seen a game perfectly capture the atmosphere, life and style of a decade. The 1980s is my favourite decade of all time. Music, fashion, film, lifestyle – I am obsessed with the decade. Rockstar games pulled out all the stops for Vice City and created a fictional US city based on Miami, Florida. Going back to one of Stephen King’s points on the importance of side characters, never before has that been more prevalent here. All of the side characters are memorable and quotable through their distinctive looks and personalities. Dan Houser, who wrote the script, is one of my favourite writers in the business. He has written more or less every Rockstar game title and this is most certainly my favourite of his work. There is not a wasted line in the entire script with each character bursting with wit and tongue in cheek hilarity. The game was actually inspired by the 1983 film Scarface, much in terms of the plot, certain locations and feel. Yet despite this it was able to make it its own and create a new environment that was both new yet familiar to those who lived through the 80s or know a lot of the decade.

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

Skyrim
Continuing on from my point about Grand Theft Auto’s ability to create a fully fleshed out world that feels lived in, Skyrim, and The Elder Scrolls series in general is probably the best example of this. The Elder Scrolls has created its own universe and history comparable to that of even Tolkien, with richly detailed histories from each different race, landmark, region and even creating many of its own languages. Skyrim is without a doubt the best fantasy game to ever be made just purely by its sheer scope. The game deals with complex themes of conquest, civil war and civil unrest which make the game a cut above the rest in terms of story. You become invested in your character as you get to create your own and pick whichever race you wish to be. The game gives you complete free-reign to go wherever you want, be whoever you want and do whatever you want. In many ways, you get to make your own adventure. The game does have a set of story quests though which is a very enriching and complex tie of warring factions fighting for dominion of Skyrim; a clash of a new regime against old traditional descendants of the land. Skyrim is a spectacle to behold with its beautifully detailed world and picturesque setting. There will be times you will literally place the controller down and just admire the world around you, and for a game to be able to do that, you know it has done something right. Skyrim is both memorable and powerful, which will take the player into a fictional realm for them to explore and become engrossed in. To complete everything in the game takes 300+ hours, and there is always something to do as Skyrim serves as a great source of escapism.
In terms of how it could be improved creatively, it could perhaps offer a more varied appearance to certain regions on the map. The entire colour palate is mostly browns, greys, blacks and whites as the game is set in the far north. Passed this there are no glaringly varied locations within the game. Skyrim is only one region out of an entire map though, and these other regions are explored in the previous Elder Scrolls games.

Okami

OkamiThe 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

Kingdom-Hearts1

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.

Journey

journey-game-screenshot-1-bAs 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.

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