Videogames and their evolution.

27 Mar

Videogames have existed for over a quarter of a century now, and boy have they grown from the days of bleepy-bloopy score attacks. Now instead of a pixelated plumber murdering mushrooms and trampling tortoises we have jarhead trigger happy gung-ho space marines, wizards, goblins, zombies by the bucketload and enough badly told, po-faced stories to make even the most patient person baulk with pressure. Despite this, the videogame industry is now bigger than either the music industry or the film industry, a staggering achievement especially when considering the mismanagement of the medium by greedy executives over the lifetime of the industry and the disasters which have occurred such as the crash of ’83.

The videogames industry is now at an impasse. It has reached a point where it is too large to ‘fail’ as such, there is now a market that is well established and who will continue to buy games irregardless of quality. However the question of quality is not relevant to this article and so will not be analysed. Needless to say videogames that range in quality from excellent to abysmal exist and always will do. These games are rated by the restrictions of the ratings system that the games media have imposed. Games are defined by graphics, sound, story, gameplay and so forth. But are these ratings restrictive?

Take for example the question of Grand Theft Auto. Grand theft Auto is no doubt a name that many of you know from the mainstream media, those Conservative nincompoops who cluck their tongues at the slightest hint of adult content in the medium. ‘The Murder Simulator’, it was dubbed. It heralded the downfall of decency and the ultimate destruction of the minds of our youths, just as rock music, horror films and oreos did. I don’t know about you, but this author has certainly not witnessed the murder by claw hammer of prostitutes constituted en masse by frenzied teenagers or anything of the like. Asides from being amusing this is irrelevant however, as Grand Theft Auto enters the discussion because of the message that it spreads to the industry. In 2001 Rockstar Games produced Grand Theft Auto 3 and the world was impressed. What they had seen was the birth of the sandbox game. However although the game was very innovative it suffered from the merciless rating system, for although it accrued impressive scores it did not achieve the critical acclaim several years later that its successor, Grand theft Auto 4 would. GTA 4 was an excellent game on its own merits. However it did not advance the open ended world in the slightest. Nor did Vice City or San Andreas. Every game that followed on from GTA 3 in the series failed to innovate to the same degree as the original.

In the same sphere we must also consider Bioware. Bioware are a company who have produced consistently excellent and well-crafted games, however, in their repertoire have they produced anything that is significantly innovative since the first Knights of the Old Republic? The only things that are changed inbetween Bioware games were the combat systems. Or consider Valve. They pioneered the interactive scipted set-piece instead of the cutscene, yet have their games changed since then. Epic Games churn out Unreals and Gears of War, Infinity Ward churn out Call of Duty, EA churn out sports franchises along with 2K and THQ etc. The industry is dominated by sequels, there are no new IPs on display and any true attempts at innovation are brushed aside.

Flower, Ico, Shadow of the Collosus, Okami, Psychonauts, Grim Fandango, Perimeter, System Shock 2, Mount and Blade and others are all well known names in the games industry. They are all innovative games that have failed commercially. They are both the formulas that the videogames industry attempts to mimic whilst also simultaneously being the reason that titles which differentiate from the status quo are shunned by publishers. They allowed the industry to advance whilst also being allowed to sink without trace of their achievements.

Thus we have seen that quality is separate of innovation and that the two do not necessarily coexist peacefully. Now I will attempt to answer as to how the industry might move forwards.

Quality is synonymous with fun. Fun is what holds the videogame industry back. Fun is both what defines the videogames industry whilst also being the factor that restricts its movement. Think of it in this way, think of silent movies. Silent movies were considered all well and good by the audiences that watched them. They watched every movies of every genre that exists today. They watched such auteurs as Chaplin, Keaton and the Marx brothers at the top of their games. Throughout the period technology was advancing and so picture quality improved, sound was eventually introduced as was colour, thus the experience changed entirely. Silent movies were no longer silent, they were movies. Now consider the games industry in the same light. At the moment we are advancing our technology to the point that we can achieve a similar evolution. What was key to the advancement of cinema was the abandoning of its roots. Silent cinema was considered by many at the time as an inferior substitute to the theatre, tickets were a similar price, films were shorter and more incoherent. It was like watching an strange silent play, this was the case however as the film industry at the time couldn’t do things that the play did or could only do the same. The industry truly came into its own with the movies such as King Kong. The play could do many things, but it could bring you to an ancient island in the pacific populated by giant gorillas and dinosaurs whilst making a detour at the Empire State Building.

This is where the games industry gains one over the film industry. As can be seen, the film industry mimicked the stage industry and eventually gained enough confidence in itself to move onwards. The games industry is nearing this point in its relationship with the film industry. It has emulated it consistently, but now it has found an advantage over it. Movie games pale in comparison to the movie, but truly special games such as Freedom Force are a blast. This game for example allows you to craft your own universe of comic book superheroes, something that a movie would never allow you to do. The key word: interactivity. In a movie you watch the journey of the character as filmed and imagined by someone else, in the game you craft a path of your own. Games are far more involving experiences than movies and it is interactivity that is the key to advancement in the industry. It is here that the notion of fun also comes to a head. What is fun is defined by tradition. We find fun in familiar activities: shooting nazis, jumping on mushrooms or playing a sports game which mimics a real life sport. What we desire is escapism within the limits set by the real world. Enemies must die, goals must be beaten. These are boundaries that are also encountered by the film medium, however the film medium has advanced to the point that it contains innovative experiences that are rewarded, well watched and copied, for example is the Michael Haneke film, the White Ribbon. This film is not fun but is engaging in other ways. If videogames are to evolve beyond their characterisation as toys by the majority of the adult public then they must learn to entertain in ways that are not restricted by the notions of fun. Children require constant fun to keep them going, adults do not, they need reassurance among other things. As soon as games can cater to other needs they will evolve from the rather simplistic position that they exist in at the moment.

If they do this then the previously mentioned media frenzy will dissipate. Conservative adults tut with disdain at the notion of being able to murder a protistute with a claw hammer. This is indeed possible in the Grand Theft Auto series, however not once is they player required to undertake such an action. To perform this action requires considerable input from the player, all that the main character does is what he is told to do by the player. This revelation would shock the media more, however they would not be interested. An act of violence in a movie has less significance than an act of violence in a videogame merely because violence has existed for longer in films than videogames. Videogames need to be able to portray violence, sex and the like in a less cartoonish and childish manner than is currently the case in order for videogames to be properly accepted as a proper medium for adult entertainment.

So, to come to a conclusion of some manner, the videogame industry needs to evolve before it can be accepted as a true entertainment medium. What we have seen is an industry driven by technology, now that technology will soon be at an equal level, soon it will be driven by true creatives. Innovation, combined with quality is needed to as a catalyst to drive the industry forwards.

Then those judgemental bastards in the media, Keith Vaz and Jack Thompson will get what’s coming to them!

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