We can draw a lot of parallels between anime and video games. Both have strong ties to the east, sub-universal appeal, comparative youth as artistic media go, occasionally scary fans and, most significantly for our purposes today, ever-improving means of telling powerful stories, often to the surprise of those who don’t believe that such thematic turpulence is possible in them. All narrative art forms start out sort of simple (think about the straightforward plots of early movies or theatre) and grow in sophistication over time. Part of this growth stems from audiences getting better at understanding and appreciating complex narrative structures, and part of it stems from creators getting better with the tools of the trade.
Jane Pinckard recently wondered when games will “disturb” us, remarking that commercial games are still characterized by their fun-ness, and that setting out to create one designed to upset the player might diminish that fun. You’re certainly going to have a hard time getting approval to make a game that’s based around not being fun. But as Jane pointed out, “fun” is pretty narrowly defined in the world of games – so narrowly, in fact, that the definition wouldn’t fly in any other medium. After all, people regularly pay to see movies or read books that upset them or make them sad. Is that “fun?”
While there aren’t any games that are disturbing in the way Titus or City of God are, it would be inaccurate to suggest that they haven’t come a long way, narratologically speaking. They also have some ways to go. Shadow of the Colossus could have been intensely disturbing if the developers hadn’t chickened out at the end; something I suspect they did because they were afraid that… wait for it… people wouldn’t have fun playing a depressing game. Even as it is it’s a pretty deep and serious experience, and one we’d not have seen five years ago.
This isn’t all about making disturbing games. The point is that game narratives, themes and characters are evolving, slowly but surely. Back in the day, it seems that most games were about rescuing your girlfriend from A Bad Guy – just as many 1900s movies involved shrieking girls tied to train tracks by mustachioed villains. It’s an easy story to tell , requiring little from the creator since the emotional hooks are right out in the open. And it may be that the story was told that way so often because the media hadn’t yet evolved to the point where tools of greater subtlety were available to the writers… or understandable to the audience. But now, though we’re still seeing a lot of rescue-your-girlfriend content, more and more we’re also seeing rich themes and characters, often embedded right into the game design. We’ve got villains as layered and complex as SHODAN. Rather than stuff crashing in through the window to scare us, there’s the haunting imagery of Fatal Frame or the skin-crawling dread of Deadly Shadows’ Shalebridge Cradle – both fueled in part by narrative. Indeed, observers can point to thematic maturation in games stretching all the way back to Ultima IV.
No one would disagree that for every mature, involved Sacrifice there are at least a dozen trite Sin Episodes . We’re still a long way from reaching the ideal deep-to-shallow equilibrium. But it’s an organic process. And remember that not everything needs to be deep. Sometimes you want a puddle. There’s space for both James Patterson and Philip Pullman, after all; for Jerry Bruckheimer and Alfred Hitchcock. Sometimes you want to play Warning Forever and not Shadow of the Colossus. It goes back to the whole “fun” thing – different experiences are fun at different times. Developers are thankfully providing a buffet, and while it wouldn’t hurt to have a little more caviar and a little less dry toast, at least both are available.
Do bear in mind that games are not an exclusively narrative medium, and some developers aren’t interested in creating narrative games. That’s perfectly okay. We wouldn’t want games to eschew or minimize the interactivity that makes them unique among art forms. Narrative and interactivity can – and are – evolving symbiotically. Technology also comes into play: it’s hard to get emotionally involved with a yellow block, and not long ago game characters were exactly that.
Media evolve like language. Cave people didn’t have ditransitive verbs and defining relative clauses, they had simplistic methods of communication: “grunt grunt” was as elaborate a pontification as anyone could manage. Then over time language evolved. And from the tools of communication sprang esoteric constructs such as theme and allegory. Those in turn allowed for meaningful stories made out of the nuts-and-bolts technology of language.
I discounted anime because I found it hard to believe that I’d be able or willing to look past the stuff that irritated me, but Elfen Lied had lots of that and I did see past it. It’s similarly easy to discount the potential narrative power of gaming, because we’re still so close to the simplistic roots from which every narrative medium springs. But the truth is we have been making constant, demonstrable strides since the very beginning.