Friday, February 29, 2008

Narratives in Video Games

Regarding this Panel Discussion on Narratives in Video Games

Selling a lot of games is the key to their sense of success. "It is empowering. It makes you honest about what you're making." My sense, at least for Bio-Shock, is that what makes people gravitate toward it is the hellish blackness of the concept, along with the gritty horror of the artwork. It is telling that the creator of the Bio-Shock story in reminiscing about his original story line calls it "fucking insane".

To me it raises the question: If the motive is to sell games, then at what point are you selling out your artistic integrity for the sake of sales?

Perhaps that sounds like a cynical question, but then again, I note, perhaps irrelevantly, that the stage was black, the chairs were black cloth directors chairs, and all of the speakers were dressed in black. Why? Because black sells games? But why is that? Because kids want and will buy blackness? But why? Because they hate the world as it is and they want it destroyed? But why? Was it always like this? I think that more and more this has become a vicious spiral downward where the best selling video games sell *because* they are dark, and they add to the darkness by projecting an even worse, more horrible future (Bio-Shock) to be hated.

What was not asked at this conference is this question: What is it about your narratives that sell your games?

I think they are selling because kids feel angst and frustration and hate for the world as it is because we just see so much incredible hypocrisy and stupidity in our society, and it makes us mad, and drives people crazy and so people want to vent their rage, and a good dark killer video game with awesome graphics is an engrossing and mesmerizing way of venting. You can run around and blow away tons and tons of people, and monsters and slime things, and whatever without any consequences (other than a shriveled spirit). The games reflect that, but they also, I think, feed the cycle. Personally I'm not that impressed with the trends in gaming, and I think the artists who contribute to it don't have very much moral integrity. Why should games be held accountable to any kind of moral standard? Well for me, its because they contribute either positively or negatively to our culture. And whatever has an influence should be held accountable for that influence. Games have always had an incredibly strong influence on the development of the individual, and video games are now becoming a predominant form of gaming experience. And therefore they need to be critically assessed for impact and overall effect, and part of that critique should cover the moral dimensions of the game's Narrative.

Well, that's my take on it. I'm going to continue working towards my World setting that is not all about the death of hope, as much as that may totally uncool, and against the contemporary grain of things, and regardless of whether or not I ever sell my world to anyone at all. That's what my artistic integrity demands of me. I must go with my vision of what I believe is right.

Not that I'm saying that Bio-Shock isn't fun to play or successful, or challenging or electrifying or shocking or whatever. Or that the other games aren't the same, or different. But for me, games have a specific role to play in the evolution of the individual human psyche, and that has very much to do with role playing. All games, as they mention in the panel discussion, ultimately, are about role playing. The next step to ask is, What kind of role DO you want to play? And what kind of roles would you want the people you rely on in life to want to play? I think this is important to understand. People who want to play heroes may learn something from that experience and become more heroic in their real lives. And people who want to play destroyers may also tend in that direction in their real lives. Now you might say, well each person heads in the direction they are predisposed towards, right? But then again, isn't it possible that people are influenced also by the ideas and concepts that they encounter? Concepts which they may encounter while playing a game, even?

The next question for me is: Does the world setting of the game you're playing allow you play the kind of role you admire? Or does it instead head you off at the pass and prohibit you from role playing your dream of who you wish you could be? I find that in a lot of dark games, the answer to that is a flat, perfunctory, No. You are not allowed to be a hero because the premise of the dark nihilistic game is There are no such things as heroes. I have this impression, btw, of some people's Paper and Pencil RPG Worlds, as much as I do of some video games. But that's just my impression and that's how I've come to think of the Dark Game Genre. It started with DOOM, and has gone on a downward spiraling rampage ever since into darker, more hopeless and corrosive World settings.

One of my purposes in the LRPGSW has been to talk about how to make games Literary in quality. And by Literary I include those aspects that make classical literature uplifting and inspirational. Thus, my tag line remains "Aspire to Inspire" for that reason. However, with the world getting as dim and grim as it is, I have my doubts that I shall be able to spark even a moment's notice amid the horror stories being trotted out from every direction. Nevertheless, I frankly don't give a damn about what the Dark Lords do, and will continue as ever to shine the little rays of light here and there as I am able. And who knows if that might ever lead somewhere brighter than the world the Dark Gamers are creating? I don't know. Time will tell.

- Mark

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