Gaming expands boundaries, explores artistic expression with humor, horrorBy Nathan Proctor | 01/09/2013 11:00pm
Much modern media maintains a legacy of providing impactful experiences for their audiences. Film, literature, music and other forms of entertainment have long been emotionally affecting and potentially life-altering vehicles pulling from a wide spectrum of human emotion. While at its best the medium avoids aping its older siblings, gaming is entering a brave new world of expression.
Video games were incepted first and foremost to entertain. Despite early limitations, however, the medium often sought to stretch beyond existing as a novelty. Exemplified best by adventure games of a text and eventual point-and-click variety, strong doses of humor, daring and intrigue – and other less successful tones – were injected into a still largely mechanical environment.
Mechanics have ruled and will continue to rule over the widest of audiences, much as the best or “most” produced films and music and most tightly written selections of print content do because they are so very effective at their base objective: to entertain.
Whether artistic or otherwise, games have developed a keener sense of their place in a narrative and aesthetic environment. Humor-based gaming, though variably successful, still exists, whether through the traditional terms of Telltale’s adventure games or the genre-spanning oddity that is “Frog Fractions.” Horror games have existed as long and progressed significantly from the horrifying design of games like the NES’s “Friday the 13th” or the jumpy scares of the Doom franchise to the atmospheric and psychologically disturbing successful found in “Amnesia” or 2012’s surprise “Slender.” Though reaching beyond the basic foundations of gaming, generating laughs and scares are long practiced and easily mimicked in an interactive format; it’s the more explorative releases of late that are quickly broadening the expectations and definitions of modern games.
The emotional roller coaster contained within “The Walking Dead” sparked me to write this column. The five-part adventure series based in the world of Robert Kirkman’s comics create powerful connections between the cast of characters, and the player, heart-shattering lows and rare emotional highs more effectively than AMC’s acclaimed TV show. This is accomplished on the back of excellent writing and an outstanding cast of voice actors, but what pulls these elements together is simply that it’s a game. It’s a game that is, more often than not, poor mechanically, yet the illusion of player agency created through the series’ (slightly) branching storyline and individually defined relationships creates a notion of compassion and ownership over your companions and story. The result was an interactive experience that had more emotional resonance with me than any piece of media in recent memory.
Though “The Walking Dead” - and perhaps even the cinematic heights of “Mass Effect 3” or heartbreak in “To the Moon” - exemplified trends exciting me most, the ideas a history of poignant indie games working their way into a more diverse mainstream market have the capability of becoming the most impactful. These ventures have gone beyond fitting emotion into their mechanics and/or storytelling, but fitting the entirety of their design around a conceit, theme or simply a mood. “Papa y Yo” does not allude to its theme, but acts as an interactive and painful metaphor for its designer’s relationship with an abusive father. Aside from the tact and beauty of the final production or the pure entertainment to be found in its 3D platforming and high-quality puzzling level design, the existence of a product attempting such a venture, in a medium we call “video games,” is astounding. Though their themes are more amorphous, games like “Journey” or “Fez” endeavor to encapsulate their own powerful tone.
On a larger scale, developments such as the Bioshock franchise or “Dust: An Elysian Tale” tackle mature and thoughtful issues while cleanly crafting them into their more traditional products. As the industry continues to expand its boundaries and developers dare to create more than products simply aimed to entertain, we enter a generation where we may no longer be able to consider gaming a trifle or deny a category of games their place in the world of art.