"I have just smashed a dragon in the face with a church. In
That was how I responded a couple of years ago when a friend
e-mailed to ask if Bayonetta was as good as it looked. She immediately
understood what I meant. Because in gaming we can have conversations like that.
We can matter-of-factly throw out such abstract descriptions of ludicrous
events and know that, if our audience is savvy enough with game genre, they’ll
immediately recognise it as naught but the highest plaudit. See also instances
of chainsawing through the guts of a giant worm in Gears of War 2, or kicking a
rocket-powered masonry drill up a boss’ arse in Bulletstorm.
I love that about games. They’re a medium utterly unique in
the way that they can be flagrantly silly on the most extravagant levels while
also remaining utterly cohesive as narrative experiences and mechanical
structures. I think it stems from their origin as context-free playthings. Back
in the days when the average game looked (and sounded) like the nappy contents
of an unattended baby eating Lego, story was just there to add basic context to
the act of manipulating the graphics. The blue blob? He’s a space ranger. The
red blob? An alien. And that was fine. Games were formed of the basic
interactions that developers could create. Everything else came afterwards.
Thus, story was a secondary consideration. Game design teams
didn’t attract aspiring Nobel lit. prize winners, because they were a
ridiculous medium to try to write for. Gameplay remained the dominant driving
force of their content, and story remained a silly sideline. And over several
decades, that seems to have developed into a culture of playful silliness in
even the most serious of games.
Thus, a game like Bayonetta can contain serious moments of
pathos, including one Hell of an existential downer towards the end, and not have
any of it clash with its angel-punching, pole-dancing disco excesses. One of
the most critically lauded, philosophically concerned action games of 2013 can
seamlessly task you with fighting clockwork Terminators dressed like George Washington.
Grand Theft Auto can tell a thoughtful parable of modern disaffection and the
search for purpose via the medium of stoned hallucinations, geriatric celebrity
stalkers and using the inside of planes as runways for smaller planes.
And that’s great. It makes games a richer, more dynamic
experience, and it provides a stimulating, refreshing narrative tone that you
just won’t find in any other medium. Because in any other media you just
couldn’t make this stuff hold together. There’s an accepted unreality to the necessary
game mechanics underpinning any video game--all regenerative healthy, 20 foot
jumps, super-powered combat and gigantic guns with no respect for the laws of
physics--that adds an implicit, abstract unreality to the game’s world as a
whole; a sense that normal rules do not apply, so anything goes. That’s the
reason that most video game movies fail to satisfy. You just can’t do most
games in live action without them appearing ludicrous outside of their own
But as great as all of this is, I lately can’t help
wondering if it’s hindering games’ perception as a medium out in the wider
world. Speaking to Rock, Paper, Shotgun this year, journalist and games
advocate Charlie Brooker hit the problem on the head.
"My theory is
that video games are like speaking Esperanto. Video game players are like
people who learnt Esperanto years ago. We all learnt Esperanto. And there’s all
these brilliant Esperanto-language films available, to use a metaphor. They
only make sense if you know Esperanto, they don’t have subtitles – but they’re
brilliant. And we keep telling people how good they are. But there’s this
learning curve which is that you have to learn fucking Esperanto. Because you only
have to sit down with someone who doesn’t play video games to understand how
high the bar to entry still is"
ostensibly talking about the internal rules of gameplay mechanics, but I think
his sentiments can also be applied to the rules of game worlds and their
narratives. While I’ve spent the first part of this article espousing the
delights of gaming’s silliness and the openness with which we can discuss it,
the key part of that second paragraph at the top of the page is the phrase "if
our audience is savvy enough with game genre". Because I feel that games have
becomes so much a product of their own unique workings that those workings are
perhaps a little impenetrable to those who are becoming intrigued by games as
an increasingly prominent medium.
After all, with the mechanical interactions of games still
the highest barrier of entry to non-gamers, story is the most powerful tool we
have for hooking in newcomers. Narrative is a completely universal language.
All human beings understand it. Storytelling is how people comprehend and make
sense of the very world around us. Without applying an implicit narrative
structure to things, the world is just a collection of stuff happening all over
Some games have caught major mainstream interest and respect
by leveraging that universality over the last year or so. The Walking Dead was
a massive hit as a result of its focus on gritty, human interactions. Gone Home
has been picking up accolades all over the place due to its grounded exploration
of family drama. But ask more hardcore gaming advocates about the games that
show our medium at its mature, creative best and they’ll throw out suggestions
like Metal Gear Solid, Assassin’s Creed, and the recent work of David Cage.
For all of their aspirations in the fields of story and
world building, the above games are also--intentionally or not--very silly
indeed. Metal Gear blends heavy political discourse with poop jokes and scenes
of the protagonist uncontrollably wanking. Assassin’s Creed tempers smart,
oh-so-earnest alternative histories with ludicrously contrived, disjointed
sci-fi conspiracies and apocalypse-touting holograms. Heavy Rain is tonally
great, but has more plot holes than a justification for government spying
processes, and a seriously juvenile attitude towards character nudity.
Maybe I’m worrying over nothing. Maybe the mass adoption of
consoles over the course of this passing generation is going to see the game
aesthetic understood and accepted in large enough numbers for a much diminished
loss in translation over the next few years. In a generation or so, maybe the
general populace will be game-literate enough that the confused dissenters will
become a marginalised fringe group. But I’d rather they didn’t have to. The last
thing I want is for games to lose their lunatic brilliance, but I also that
hope next-gen developments bring more stories that aren’t flat-out bamboozling
to the ‘normals’. I think that’s pretty important, and something we’ll all