A life of their own
It's in rich settings, infinite interactivity, and palpable ambiance that video games are truly hitting their stride.
It takes a while for me to spot the campfire amidst the clump of trees, as the sun still lingers over the mountain. I hear four men's voices, their broken English framing Russian accents. They must've been responsible for the gun shots earlier, probably to scare off the pack of feral dogs I was warned about. I turn my flashlight back on and, after shouting out a warning, the men invite me over. One of the men is working on figuring out a folk song on a small nylon-string guitar; his assault rifle rests near him on the ground next to a foothill of cigarette butts. Two of the other men chuckle and share a joke, and the final stands guard near the line of trees, his worn and weathered sidearm resting gently in his hand. I pause and crouch down, trying to let the soft conversation replace the reedy whipping sound the radiated wind makes as it courses through the trees.
Having soaked this in, I hit the quicksave on my keyboard and exit the game.
I'm playing S.T.A.L.K.E.R., a Ukranian game based loosely on both Andrei Tarkovsky's film Stalker and its source novella, Roadside Picnic. The game is set in Ukraine, in the near future: two Chernobyl nuclear disasters have created a large "Zone" that encompasses the power plant and its nearby towns and rural areas. Bandits, explorers and mercenaries hazard the Zone to make a buck. While the game's plot is often disconnected and incomprehensible, the minutia in the setting's environment is something to behold—and it's what has brought me back to the game again and again. It's incredible how much care went into all of this. This interactivity opens up a host of questions that I won't get into here (including one of the biggest, that of violence in games—since the line between spectator and participant is blurry).
That said, many game designers—"creators" might be more apt here—are using the medium to build rich settings that hum with (digital) life. It fascinates me to no end that I, if I had the necessary patience, could ignore the game's plot and follow these guys around the wilds of the Zone, especially since they're (to a degree) interacting with the character I control.
Film critic Roger Ebert has stated several times that "video games can never be art," most recently several months ago. The backlash in every case has been immense: the comment sections of Ebert's blog posts have become bloated to the point of unreadability, and gaming fans around the globe have elaborately deconstructed his argument. Is he right? I don't know, and building an articulate counterpoint isn't my intention.
But near the end of the article, Ebert asks an honest question: "Do [gamers] require validation?" Most do, I think, and they often point to a game's functionality—"I get to control this guy, see!" or "The graphics are so good!", and so on—as the primary reason a game is worth something. And honestly, that makes sense; people don't buy a game just to turn it on and not do anything, just like folks don't rent a movie just to leave it paused on one frame.
But where video games can excel—and raise good questions and conversation, at the very least—is in all the little things in between. Building a palpable ambiance, the subtle construction of narrative through context clues—creating and sustaining a shared atmosphere, in a way, is where I think video games are most remarkable, and where I suggest people interested in video games as something more than jittery escapism begin their study.
Some games use their narrative to build and flesh out a well-developed history for their settings. Looking Glass Studios produced two titles in the late 1990s that did this quite well: System Shock 2 and Thief: the Dark Project. Both games are fairly geeky (science fiction horror for the former, Dickensian steampunk mystery for the latter), and are relatively linear in how they unfold. But, like S.T.A.L.K.E.R., the mood and atmosphere are persistent, and how the games' plots are revealed is a big part in this. System Shock 2 uses audio entries left aboard a ravaged spaceship to keep the game moving (with passcodes for doors and more), but it also introduces a tragic, increasingly creepy back story for the ship and its crew, one that unfolds as your character continues to listen to audio logs and journal entries as you make your escape. (The fantastic voice acting certainly helps, too.) For instance, your character keeps finding recordings that two young lovers leave for each other as they search the ship for one another. The first time I played the game, I was so concerned for their characters that I would mull it over long after I shut the game off. Thief also does something similar—Garrett, your protagonist, overhears lots of conversations and can page through notes and scrolls in the buildings he robs.
There's much to laud about both System Shock 2 and Thief, from the plot development of the former (which has, in my opinion, one of the most devastatingly effective twists I've seen in any medium) to the sociological questions and worldview-based architecture of the latter.
It's the oft-ignored nuances like these that make me love video games and have hope for what's to come. Like fiction or film or music, there's a lot to wade through, but moments like these make it worth it. I tend to agree with my friend Ryan, who commented that video games are like digital installation art. I also think that video games can use these little things to echo the surprising beauty in Creation, something Calvin Seerveld has said art can do. So, art or not, at least we have some (digital) catalysts for further conversation.
Eds: We asked the author, and his above-mentioned friend Ryan, for video game recommendations building on the narrative above:
Ryan Cerbus (email@example.com, twitter.com/ryancerbus):
World of Goo for the Nintendo Wii. World of Goo is one of the best social/party games I've ever played. Building structures out of goo isn't easy, but it's surprisingly fun. The greatest joy comes from watching new players for the first time as they struggle to cooperate. When each player tries to do their own thing, it's impossible to win.
Jason Panella (firstname.lastname@example.org, jasonpanella.com):
System Shock 2 for PC. System Shock 2 is both terrifying and emotionally engrossing thanks to its subtle approach to horror, atmosphere and storytelling. And these elements are still fresh after nearly 15 years.