Video Games Everywhere, Nowhere

Article written by:
John Oliver Go
Author: John Oliver GoWebsite:
Oliver has a love-hate romance with video games. So much so that all he writes are loving hate letters about his games - or hateful love letters depending on his mood. But he has a love-love relationship with his cats.



A very counter-intuitive and decidedly post-modern article showed up on Slate the other day entitled "Why You Shouldn't Work Less." The primary conceit of the article is that the daily grind makes family time a scarce and luxurious resource, and therefore infinitely more palatable than if we spent less time working. If at once we sought working hard to be the prime recipe for success, and that our values have now shifted to working smart for that same reward, we should at least acknowledge that working hard is still favorable for different reasons altogether.

A second article from the same site is a review on the iPhone 5 heaping tremendous amounts of praise on the smartphone before damning it for being the bastion of our ADHD-addled culture, where  it is "the finest exemplar yet of the phone that can do it all—except for all the things in life that you really need to do."

In movies, we see visuals growing steadily more realistic that we no longer question the imagery on the screen (this holiday, we finally saw Gollum cross the uncanny valley) and yet our storytelling techniques still tug at the same heartstrings with the same cinematic drama that we have honed for a century. If any, films such as Hugo, The Artist, and even recent blockbuster fare such as Skyfall and The Avengers, are celebrations of cinema going back to its roots - with audio-visual illusions that serve subsidiary to narrative trickery, and only for us to discover that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

We no longer question if he's real or not

Perhaps we, as a technocratic-workaholic culture, are moving on to a rather interesting post-modern world where our values are slowly looping back into what was once traditional and outdated, but this time with an informed perspective of what we have learned in modernity. But what happens in this world, if there is but a massive slice of pop culture that is still finding its grassroots for what it may even consider traditional, and therefore, modern and post-modern for itself? In an ever-shifting post-modern society, what happens to a video game culture that steadily grows with our lifestyle but can't even define what it is in the first place?

Video gaming is a most curious entertainment form. It follows current tech trends and has ingrained itself into our culture that it is somehow indispensable to the vast majority of people who, at the very least, have access to mobile phones and personal computers (i.e. everyone you know). What makes it fascinating in this regard, however, is that it is also almost impossible to define. Simply put, it stands out from the other entertainment forms in that each game presents an entirely different interactive experience, wiggling their way into your head from various directions where music, movies, and literature only have one. This also makes describing it a very daunting task because it means different things to different people. Perchance this is also the reason why gamification is slowly trickling its way into the corporate world and into a non-gaming context: it means something to everyone - we just don't know what it is yet.

As we move forward, video games, in its currently massive state, increasingly become disparate in the way they look, sound, play, and ultimately engage us. In the movies, in music, and in literature, we can rest assured that they remain primarily aural, visual, and literal experiences, respectively. But with video games and its inherently co-authorial nature, in trying to court the commuter and the dormer, the seniors and the pre-adolescents, the corporate guy and the ditzy blonde, there has to be different ways to interact and different ways to get its message across.

This is not merely a subjective difference in artistic and technical direction as the other entertainment forms do, video games have branched out and continuously shifted its very foundational designs each time to fit its technological needs: traditional controllers, touch screens, multiple touch screens, phone pads, motion sensors, and various hybrids of any of the above. This experimentation has led to games of various lengths, scoring systems, narrative conceits, visual make-up, and controls, let alone mechanics. After all, Mirror's Edge on the PC is made for the experienced gamer, with death-defying mechanics that require extreme precision. Mirror's Edge on the iPad is made for anyone who knows how to use a touch screen. A film is a film anywhere you take it.

Where, then, do we begin to discuss where games are coming from and where they are headed? It doesn't even know which values to keep and which to invent. On the other hand, perhaps we can still adopt the traditional timeline of iteration and continuous improvement as to be obvious in any other kind of technology (much more than the other entertainment mediums, video games still live and die with current technological advancements), then perhaps we could see into the crystal ball.

Take the evolution of the 3rd-person shooter, for instance. From here on out, every shooter will have been influenced, to some degree, by Gears of War (2006-2011). This is a game series that understands that every action that you do in-game has to feel innately satisfying even if these actions aren't (a) gamified with score systems and (b) related to shooting; such as the crunch of your character snapping into walls for cover, and the chunky aftermath of a chainsaw kill. For the uninitiated, see the game in action below.

1) Into the Future:

Gears of War has steadily shaped Japanese shooters such as Platinum Games' Vanquish, an exquisite and ultra-fast paced shooter from Shinji Mikami (the original creator of Resident Evil) that has your sprint pedaling you 100kph while the game activates a surreal bullet-time so you could take it all in and aim properly in the process, all while having Gears of War's basic cover/revive mechanics and level design. Stateside, we see Ubisoft's own flagship franchises Splinter Cell and Ghost Recon adopt Gears of War's melee mechanic to new extremes while Visceral Games basically merged everything that Gears of War built and jammed it to the brim with Resident Evil's scare tactics - in space.

2) Into its Past:

Before we get ahead of ourselves, Gears of War does owe a lot to Resident Evil. Resident Evil 4 (2005), to be exact - the game that introduced the concept of a 3rd-person shooter with the camera directly behind the character in order to tighten control mechanics and to create a more involving atmosphere. Resident Evil 4 obviously came from the first games grounded in survival horror, which borrowed mechanics from Alone in the Dark and Doom in the 1990's. How devilishly ironic is it that the creator of Resident Evil was also the creator of Vanquish; and how the succeeding chapters of Resident Evil somehow feels like the action movie that Gears of War is rather than the horror roots that they were built upon.

Suffice to say that perhaps video games do follow traditional iteration and improvement that we see in other forms of media, and to popular culture at large. The Legend of Zelda, for instance, was something I tackled earlier that followed the same tenets, chugging out a new Zelda game that basically progresses and polishes the foundations established with each game created. However, what we are seeing in the industry now is apparently not trending towards Gears of War nor The Legend of Zelda.

What is happening is that we are seeing far more experimentation today than we do progression, a fact that is inconceivable anywhere and anytime else. After all, Temple Run was downloaded 170 million times with basic mechanics that only sprung out two years ago (with this game). Gears of War sold a total of just 20 million lifetime sales, and this is with a genre that had its roots grounded two decades ago. Granted that revenues are a different number altogether, but it is quite safe to say that what is considered popular may not be what common sense tells us.

Number of Downloads: A Medium-sized Country

Experimentation abound, we see subversion ultimately taking over the original definition of the video game genre. Take, for instance, Simogo's excellent Beat Sneak Bandit on iOS. Mashing music rhythm action that have its roots with Guitar Hero with basic platforming mechanics having its roots on Super Mario to produce a dangerously addictive game that operates on a single touch of a button, ensuring a target demographic that reaches out to more than its heritage could cater to on their own. On a very essential note, most mobile games are distilled and mostly unrecognizable hybrids of traditional video game design, birthing new genres everyday. On the other end of the spectrum, we have Rockstar's L.A. Noire that functions as a cinematic police procedural that breaks basic game design rules and ultimately coming out as a behemoth that, as Tom Bissell puts it: "...comes closer than any previous digital experience to showing us where the hands are on the clock: half past movie, a quarter past video game, and a quarter to … what, exactly?

Experiential Experiments

What we are seeing here are video game developers, and its outspoken community, giving up on traditional game design as a dead end if we don't create hybrids and new experiences, as if our beloved medium's core foundations can no longer be iterated upon nor bettered by themselves. The primary difference between video games and all other entertainment media is that you couldn't operate within a single framework for the former. It has been said that there are only 7 basic plots in literature and film. If the same rule applies to video game interaction, then we would have gotten bored out of our wits ten years ago with Counter-Strike and Final Fantasy X. Today, we can't even define what a good shooter and role-playing game truly is.

The developers, themselves, are trying obviously hard to keep up with such an entanglement, as they churn out high definition remakes for almost every modern video game franchise in a bid to cater to gamer nostalgia (nostalgia gives credence to such a dynamically-changing environment, as we already feel it in so young an industry): Metal Gear Solid HD (2001-2004), Devil May Cry (2001-2005), Resident Evil (2001-2005), The Legend of Zelda: The Windwaker (2003) have all been treated, which seemingly goes back to our roots quite too literally. Even Nintendo has perhaps thrown their hands into the air with the Nintendo Wii U, a device that functions as a traditional home console merged with tablet gaming: it's them saying they don't know where the industry is headed anymore. And if this is the future of video games, then perhaps nobody really does as well.

We should even begin to wonder if we should call them "video games" in the first place.

The basic conceit of my question now is how we should define something like Temple Run in the same page as Gears of War. It is a question of how we should define what a video game is and what its terms - its values and foundations - are. And unless we answer that question, perhaps we, as gamers, are truly lost in post-modern society. What have we learned in our decades of gaming, what stories have we of creating the best experiences possible with our heritage? Or are video games merely oft-kilter entertainment that shouldn't even follow these trends at all, going more and more volatile as our technology progresses, one part going back to basics and the other part branching out everywhere in a bid to merely... entertain as many people as possible?

I have to repeat myself - unless we answer these questions, video games could be going everywhere and nowhere at all.



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