Issue 27 07.15.2011

Issue 27
Cinema of Video Games

Video games are a¬†multimedia¬†mosaic in their approach to storytelling.¬† Video game artists incorporate elements, in varying degrees, from literature, illustration, theater, and film in all games with a narrative. Games have the¬†potential¬†to¬†merge¬†a number of strengths¬†from¬†these various formats without being bound by their individual¬†limitations. As with literature,¬†video game artists¬†use prose and language to describe worlds, characters, and events.¬†When the need arises, they can¬†also¬†render a world¬†visible, give a character voice, and¬†actually cause a specified trajectory of¬†events to happen. As with illustration, artists can compose a single frame that speaks volumes about¬†a historical moment¬†and the entities that are present within it. Yet, gaming technology also makes it possible¬†to expand a composition into choreography, transforming an implied scenario into an explicit one. As with theater, video games situate¬†players¬†in¬†real-time relation with unfolding events by placing them, via their avatar, at a calculable and palpable distance away from the virtual¬†action. However, games are interactive and thus¬†rid of the literal¬†“fourth wall,”¬†or the boundary between the audience and the scene on stage, that creates, in some ways, a more convincing narrative reality. Finally, as with cinema, video game artists can create illusions of worlds and characters using the storytelling techniques conceived with motion picture film and video cameras. Moving beyond that, interactive virtual cameras offer players a roving viewpoint, unlike the fixed frames of film and video. This freedom of whim¬†enables¬†those players to observe a story and, if they so wish,¬†direct the narrative¬†in their own way.

That video game artists are becoming more and more capable of emulating these other modes of narrative storytelling is technically astounding, but considering the potential to generate new and unique formats from these borrowed techniques, mere emulation is not impressive. Storytellers throughout history have succeeded at depicting fixed narratives, in lieu of making something dramatic happen and in a variety of ways. Video games push storytelling even further, offering genuine simulations of causal events. They can be approximations of what it is to exist within indeterminate stories, to gain a better understanding of how they unfold, better than what is possible from passive observation. Currently, however, video games neglect to explore these possibilities and this is dissatisfying.

An early milestone in the evolution of video game narratives was the transition from lo-res raster images and text to fully cinematic sequences with sets, stunts, choreography, acting, lighting, and cameras. During this maturation period, both players and storytellers developed a new understanding of and taste for the medium. Proper terminologies developed from critical discussions, and the discourse on gaming technology commenced. Today, it would seem that video games have long surpassed that initial nascent era, given the proliferation of games that are examined within academic and artistic contexts. Now, serious exploration of new conceptual frontiers has not only been proven possible, but also necessary if video games are to continue evolving into a more respectable and culturally significant artistic medium.

Confronting¬†video games as more than a compilation of elements from other¬†established¬†modes of storytelling raises the more complicated issue of defining those¬†frontiers that are worth exploring. Genuine simulations are one possible area of games worth exploring, and among the most straightforward; they are a logical progression from storytelling, given the opportunities granted by new technologies, such as real-time interactive virtual cameras. Interactions between player-characters and non-player-characters, even those that are hard coded–that is, those that occur for every player that experiences the game–are immensely more effective than¬†interactions observed. To see a story element carried out onscreen details the natures of characters and sets precedents for the relationships between interacting parties. If a character involved is an avatar,¬†a player-character, then the act that results ultimately happens due to the decisions that player has made that have, in turn, brought their avatar to a particular point¬†in the game.

Relationships in¬†simulated¬†game stories belong to players in addition to their characters. Players must take some degree of responsibility for their avatars’ actions, as they themselves are the entities who propel the story forward. It is only through the input of players that game stories¬†progress. Everything that occurs is the result of decisions made by¬†players. This responsibility, this sense of ownership, makes events much more emotional and personal as players are not ultimately detached from the story. Whatever connection players have with the avatar is¬†within the story; it is the bridge by which they effect events inside the game as much as they are affected by those events. If storytelling is a way of teaching¬†significant¬†lessons,¬†addressing¬†morality, or¬†simply¬†a means to entertain, there is no greater method of impacting an audience, no greater way to raise the stakes, than to¬†position the audience as players who¬†have direct emotional investments in the story.

A video game story that is¬†effected by its audience raises a number of questions as to how it might be crafted. Instead of constructing narratives alone, game designers must also consider¬†environmental conditions. Whereas previous storytelling mechanisms¬†embraced¬†the presence of the author‚Äôs guiding hand, well-crafted video game narratives are guided by an invisible hand. Narratives “told” in games invariably contain more elements than the central plot line. It is even possible to omit a central plot altogether, to instead build worlds that are stocked with a number of interesting¬†stories, each with the potential to have numerous outcomes. As plot progression moves away from a single fixed idea presented by a single author and branches out into a wider array of possibilities that depend on player input, the genre of emergent video game stories begins to materialize.¬†In this way,¬†video games transcend other media because¬†they¬†move beyond the¬†singular story with one title and invariable message and introduce¬†crafted possibilities of numerous stories. To discuss a video game with other players is, in some cases, to call to mind a particular story¬†about¬†which you may¬†collectively¬†reminisce in a manner similar to discussing a film or book. In other cases, discussing a game with other players may be an opportunity to share any number of possible stories that occurred within a limited¬†contingent¬†reality. Certain plot points, themes, characters, and sets may or may not be similar,¬†creating¬†journeys that are¬†unique and personal.

Leading video game artists¬†have established¬†a¬†storytelling¬†spectrum much broader than¬†other¬†mediums–their own specialized craft, yet still much more limited than reality. Their video games share many features and require much of the same skill sets to produce as the other established modes of storytelling, but they also have exclusive¬†and distinct¬†characteristics. On one hand, it is worrisome that, given all these unexplored frontiers of storytelling in video games, so much of the money within the commercial industry is focused on¬†emulating¬†the quality of other narrative mediums and then reconciling those facets of production with interactive elements to make a seamlessly packaged¬†product. On the other hand, the video game is still a young medium that, while no longer in its infancy, is certainly¬†struggling through its¬†incipient phase where both players and developers are operating within cultures that are only just acknowledging the potential¬†for exploring new conceptual conceits.

By Michael Tucker