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Analyzing the artistic merits of video games

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Posted by Nick Dinicola on January 16, 2009

Daniel Golding from the blog Subject Navigator recently had a post describing Call of Duty 2 as a “war theme park.” He supported his argument by comparing the pre-scripted events from the game to the pre-scripted actions of  animatronic robots from the Pirates of the Caribbean and Jurassic Park rides. I agree with this description. The Call of Duty series has always been able to make its linearity feel natural through its use of big set-piece battles. Our actions may be limited, but we always feel like we’re a part of a much larger war happening around us. It’s intense, exciting, and fun. But should it be? This is war after all, and should war be fun? How should games deal with a subject as serious as war?

I’ll admit that “fun” is a loaded word as it implies a certain aloofness towards the subject matter, so I’ll stop using it. I think “entertaining” is a better word since it implies enjoyment but without the aloofness; even the most painful of films has to be entertaining in some way  in order to keep its audience. One of my college instructors saw the movie Crash at the behest of several students, and described it afterwards as “The best movie I never want to see again.” I took this to mean that the movie was entertaining enough to keep him watching, but its portrayal of prejudice was so disturbing that it was enough for him to experience it only once. How should a game deal with a subject like this? While a movie may make you squirm in your seat with unease, perhaps even a little disgust, at what’s taking place on screen, a game demands that you participate in it. How do you convince someone to participate in something that would normally make them uneasy just watching? Another way to look at this would be: How seriously should a game take its serious subject?

Neither of those are meant to be rhetorical questions. First off, a game should always take a serious subject seriously. I think one of the reasons Call of Duty: World at War, though well received, didn’t meet with the same critical glee as Modern Warfare, is because it took its subject too lightly (I think Modern Warfare took it seriously, more on that later). While there were plenty of big moments over the course of the story in World at War, all the action was happening around us, and not to us. Dimitri especially went through more than his fair share of tough times but he always made it through just fine, nothing that happened to him had any consequence so it felt like nothing really affected him, and therefore nothing really affected us. It was another theme park, we were never really in danger. The story was also very disjointed: I had no idea that 3 years passed between Dimitri’s first and second mission until I read about it on Wikipedia just now (had to find the name of the Russian). I also didn’t realize that I took control of a third character for the “Black Cats” mission who never appeared again. With its disjointed narrative and theme park-style set-pieces, World at War proves it’s not actually trying to say anything about war. It just wants to give us a fun experience (and just for the record, it is quite fun). This also answers my first question: How do you convince someone to participate in something that would normally make them uneasy just watching? Answer: Lighten it up so it doesn’t make them uneasy. Unfortunately this method kills any potential serious discussion.

I’m not going to start bemoaning the current state of the industry and its lack of “serious” games. I actually feel like things are heading in the opposite direction. There will always be games that are purely fun, even if they’re about something dire, and there should be; I like fun games (heck, the crashes in Burnout are pretty violent if you think about it, but ramming someone into a highway divider at 120mph never seems to get old for me). But there’s also plenty of room for a more serious yet entertaining experience, and gamers have proved that they’re willing to play through some uncomfortable moments. For example, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. This game stayed entertaining by taking those big moments Call of Duty is famous for and making them even bigger. However, these big moments had tangible consequences on the characters; they were actually affected by the world around them, and as a result so were we. I would hardly describe experiencing (spoilers) Paul Jackson’s slow death as fun or even entertaining, and that’s precisely why I’d argue the game takes that serious moment seriously. This also answers my first question: How do you convince someone to participate in something that would normally make them uneasy just watching? Surround it with moments that are genuinely enjoyable.

There are plenty of games about serious subjects on the indie scene, and there we’ll find what is perhaps the best example of a game that forces its players to participate in something unnerving: Super Columbine Massacre RPG! (Though a few years old at this point, there’s a good article on Gamasutra about the history of SCMRPG!) Shooting up a school is obviously not something people would normally do for fun, so how did SCMRPG! handle the subject? It used genre conventions and dated graphics to distance us from our actions. The game plays very much like an old-school Final Fantasy rpg: There’s an inventory system, the ability to equip objects, character stats, experience from battles, leveling up, etc. The enemies are all named after stereotypes or their jobs, such as “Preppy Boy,” “Janitor,” “Religious Girl,” “Jock,” and others; this lack of characterization furthers our emotional detachment from them. The 16-bit graphics turn the whole event into a pixelated cartoon. Despite all this, playing SCMRPG! is still unnerving at the very least. Every battle is extremely one-sided. Always gnawing at the back of your mind is the upsetting idea that perhaps the killers felt the same sort of detachment. The emotional impact comes after the protagonists have killed themselves, and a montage of real photos is displayed. Seeing the real photos of real reactions by real people drives home the point that this is more than a game, this actually happened, and suddenly our actions during the game take on an entirely new and disturbing meaning. (Despite my praise here, I think the hell portion of the game is completely extraneous and besides the point it was trying to make) So to answer my first question: How do you convince someone to participate in something that would normally make them uneasy just watching? Make the action less disturbing while the player performs it, revealing its full consequences after the fact.

There are many more games that take themselves seriously. Hush is set in 1994 Rwanda, during a genocidal Hutu raid on a Tutsi community, where we play as a Tutsi mother trying to calm her crying baby so as not to be discovered and killed. Another mainstream game is Grand Theft Auto IV, which removed the extravagance and absurdity from previous games to tell a serious story of a man stuck in a life of crime, and the consequences of such of life. And looking ahead we have Heavy Rain. As I said before, there will always be games that are just pure fun, and I hope there always will be. But I also hope there will always be games that take on a serious subject with a serious attitude, because I and other gamers (check out that Average User Hype for Heavy Rain on the 1up site) are more than willing to get serious. Seriously.


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