For a while, the trajectory of video games curved toward cinema.
Technology’s advance allowed characters and scenes that were previously composed from rudimentary sprites (Super Mario’s porno moustache, for example, was grown because people found it difficult to make out an unadorned mouth on a 16-pixel-high character at the time) to be newly rendered in full detail. Hollywood actors and artists began to lend their talent to games. The Oscar-winning film composer Hans Zimmer provided the score to Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 and Beyond: Two Souls, a cinematic game that stars Ellen Page as both the face and voice of its protagonist. In this way video games began to look like and sound like films and, in turn, through the use of point-of-view camera angles and stentorian set pieces, films began to look like video games.
The gap was closed in function, as well as form. Video game storylines began to adopt three-act structures (even if, in many cases, they were: “man shoots big gun”, “man’s gun is taken away”, “man exacts revenge using new, bigger gun”). Video game scriptwriters started to force dollops of exposition on players through non-interactive cut scenes and, if the player strayed too far from the set narrative path, some unseen director would often return them to the straight and narrow. This kind of filmic game-making remains popular (Sony’s Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, the Indiana Jones-style blockbuster, complete with rugged, quipping matinee hero, launches in April after five years of development and millions of dollars of investment) but it no longer feels like the future of video games, or even much like the present.
The appeal of video games has always been in their ability to cast us in the role of an active participant, with a certain amount of free will. It is the power to choose one’s destiny (or, at the very least, what colour dress one runs about in while pursuing one’s destiny). The kind of finely authored plotlines found in film run contrary to all that, often leaving players feeling bound and restricted. The rise of YouTube and Twitch, where many video games go to find an audience today, has also caused problems for the cinematic video game. Viewers (and those who play them in front of the camera) quickly grow tired with a “text” when exactly the same things happen with every playthrough. Value in this strange new entertainment economy is found in the unexpected. Routine is anathema.
This is, in part, why Minecraft has been such a seismic success. It offers a blank landscape on to which players can express their personalities and imagination, building a lifesize model of the Taj Mahal, for example, or a sky-scraping penis. Many of 2016’s forthcoming games will attempt to marry YouTube-friendly variety with the kind of formal authorship that’s often needed to tell an affecting story. Firewatch follows the story of a volunteer fire lookout (played by Mad Men’s Rich Sommer) in the aftermath of the Yellowstone fires of 1988. Within the broad framework of the plot, you will be able to alter the protagonist’s relationship with those around him. Similarly No Man’s Sky, the much-anticipated space exploration game, offers players the run of a galaxy that’s home to 18 quintillion planets. Every player is headed toward the centre of the galaxy. But no two players’ journeys will be alike.
The tussle between agency and plot within the medium is far from settled. In one camp there are proponents of game systems that are designed to enable emergent storytelling and player agency. In the other, there are those who advocate authored and possibly more impactful, filmic storytelling. The most interesting video games are likely to be those that successfully marry the two.
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