Gaming 0.1

From Hub_121, May 2010

Video games aren’t just “games” anymore, there’s more to it all than that. Nowadays they can be interactive storytelling devices and often, through that, a continuity of canon in various franchises. They are widely classed as viable storytelling methods. Yet another reason to stay glued to the goggle-box… or computer screen or handheld device!

Back in the day, I’m thinking early 80’s, the video games we played left a lot for the imagination to fill in the blanks. Take a classic like Space Invaders, for example. We don’t know why we’re being attacked or where these invaders have come from. We just know we have to shoot them, destroy them, wave after wave of the blighters. Our imaginations automatically filled in a storyline for us, helped keep us going, to a point. Well my imagination did, anyway.

Nowadays the videogame development budgets are much bigger. Professional writers are hired to give, or try to give, the games substance and backbone. Warren Ellis (Transmetropolitan, Global Frequency, Gravel) was hired to write the “…groundwork, back-story and structure” for 2008’s sci-fi/horror romp Dead Space, for example. Antony Johnston (Wasteland, Spooked, Stealing Life) was then hired to write the prequel comic book and Wii game. Stories in video games can unfold very much like in a book, comic, TV show or film. However, unlike these more traditional outlets, games are interactive by their very nature.

We push or drag the character through their quest and learn more, develop the story, at our own pace, making our own mistakes and claiming the character’s victories for ourselves. The story could be relatively short, like in recent hit Shadow Complex, or vast and sprawling like in Oblivion or Fallout 3. More often now, there are games appearing that stray from linearity, with various intertwined storylines and arcs dependent on our choices, our actions, either at certain points or through the whole game. Even how we’re choosing to play the game itself can alter our character and the story, such as in the Fable games – reckless, devious and uncaring or honest and protective actions can physically affect how the character looks and how other people respond to us. Choices can matter.

“How does this fit in with Hub Magazine?” I hear you cry. “Is it genre relevant?” Well, yes! Sci-fi, fantasy and horror genres have been catered to pretty much since video gaming began. Let’s look at some of the big guns of the past few years. For fantasy we have one of the biggest selling, most successful games of all time that is still head and shoulders above all its competition, World of Warcraft. A “massively multiplayer online roleplaying game” (MMORPG) set in the wonderfully stylised fantasy world of Azeroth. It is followed by Everquest, Lord of the Rings Online, Warhammer Online and Dungeons & Dragons Online in the online fantasy stakes and Eve Online, which is a sci-fi RPG that some see as a natural progression from the old 80’s space-trading game, Elite. Fantasy doesn’t just lend itself to RPGs, of which there are many, but also to fighting games, such as SoulCalibur. Even the Professor Layton series on the Nintendo DS, which is a puzzle solving game at heart, can be considered fantasy through the fantastical story that weaves the puzzles and mysteries together.

The expanded universe of Star Wars has been repeatedly explored in various video game forms. In 2008, The Force Unleashed looked into a period of time set between episodes 3 and 4, closely following Darth Vader’s secret apprentice in a tale which leads to the founding of the rebellion we know and love from episodes 4 to 6. Oh, and Big George says it’s canonical, too! Vin Diesel’s “Riddick” character and the universe he inhabits have currently been expanded upon in two games, Escape from Butcher Bay and Assault on Dark Athena. The aforementioned Dead Space is a sci-fi horror fusion that has you fighting the un-dead on a giant ship in the loneliness of outer space… with your living-room lights on, surely. Then there’s Doom and it’s sequels as well as Beyond Good and Evil, Psychonauts, Beneath a Steel Sky, Shadow Complex etc etc ad infinitum!

There is also plenty to look at in the horror genre. The first horror game dates back to 1972, pre-dating what some regard as the first fantasy game, Colossal Cave Adventure, by 4 years! Okay, calling Haunted House on the Magnavox Odyssey “horror” is pushing it a bit but a lot of people class it as the forerunner to today’s “survival horror” games, honest. However, another Haunted House appeared on the Atari 2600 in 1981 which had far more familiar elements to today’s games: puzzle solving and action elements. The horror genre of gaming grew up through the 80’s, though most folk don’t count anything until the appearance of Sweet Home on the Super Nintendo in 1989. However, in our house the game of the movie Aliens was horror as far as we were concerned. It was the first game I had experienced that, intentionally or not, relied on the environment and fear of what was around the corner to scare the player rather than giant two-headed zombie vampires wanting to suck out your brains.

The early 90’s saw the arrival of CD-ROMs as a commercial medium which gave developers more to play with when it came to graphics and sound. This resulted in some downright terrible games, reliant purely on video and audio effects and forgetting about game-play almost entirely, such as Sega’s controversial Night Trap. At the time, Night Trap appalled many people because of the “violence” it contained. I owned that game and I wouldn’t class it as violent. Over-hyped? Yes. Badly acted? Certainly. Poor gameplay? Definitely. Violent? Nah! Well, ok, each to their own. Mary Whitehouse was still doing the rounds back then and it was still a time when “games were just for kids”, obviously. However, because of the content and use of interactive video in the game, Night Trap carried a BBFC 15 rating. Soon after this, to cover games not classified by the BBFC, a voluntary age rating system was set up in the UK in 1993 which further developed into the age ratings systems we see on games today.

1992 also saw the arrival of the Alone in the Dark series, initially a PC game and another early adopter of the CD-ROM medium, it employed ground-breaking 3D graphics and relied heavily on puzzle solving in a Lovecraftian environment. The Resident Evil and Silent Hill series have been around since the mid-nineties and helped define “survival horror” gaming, with strong influences from the Japanese horror film genre. The Fatal Frame/Project Zero games, from 2001, further developed and enhanced this. It’s not all about puzzle solving, though. We also have first person shooter type games such as F.E.A.R and the rather excellent and atmospheric BioShock; a game I’m not ashamed to say I won’t play in the house whilst on my own… To continue the “movie to canonical-interactive-storytelling medium” thread, we have a Saw video game, which continues Detective Tapp’s story from the first Saw film. There’s even a survival horror game for the Wii, Cursed Mountain, that’ll have you shaking your Wiimotes in fear!

Speaking of which, the invention of the Wii, and the Wiimote controller device, further helps to make video games not just more accessible to casual players but also gives more varied and original story-telling opportunities and immersion in the gaming environment. An example being, in The Force Unleashed, that the player can use the Wiimote to directly control the main protagonist’s lightsaber in the game. In Cursed Mountain, the Wiimote is used, in combat, to free the souls of your enemies. In Dead Space: Extraction the Wiimote is simply used to aim and fire at onscreen enemies in much the same way as the “light-guns” of old, while the nunchuk controller is used for melee attacks. With the addition of the Wii MotionPlus device, which basically increases the Wiimote’s sensitivity, as well as rival systems coming up with their own similar controllers I think it’s safe to say that the best, most original and intuitive uses of the Wiimote are yet to come.

Then there are the huge numbers of alternate reality games (ARGs) that can spread over various formats across all media, be it the internet, TV, newspapers, playing cards etc. It’s a tenuous link as they’re not strictly video games, sure, but what could be more sci-fi than alternate reality gaming? Employing the “This Is Not a Game” ethos and “existing” briefly in the universe of, for example, our favourite film, book or TV program in a way that is, sometimes, more encompassing and on a much bigger scale than just looking at something on a screen. Narrative and puzzle-solving are central to alternate reality gaming, no matter which medium they are delivered in. They are mostly free to play so it’s no surprise that the biggest, most publicised, ARGs have tended to be related to advertising or promotion of a product in some way yet others, the numerous Lost ARGs for example, often expand upon the universes which they are set in. The first ARGs I experienced were advertising based; one for The Blair Witch Project in 1999 and another by Nokia in 2000, which was sprawling and confusing. Nowadays there are far more safety nets for the casual gamer with the most important being the various forums set up to chart the progress of the multitude of games currently in play. They have a lot in common with role playing games but ARGs are on a much bigger scale and, in most cases, there are no rules to learn or conventions to stick to. They’re a massive phenomena that encompasses much about the social aspect of gaming and collaborative processes.

Ever since the early days of video games it’s never all been about Pong clones and sports simulations. Defending the earth from alien hordes and rescuing treasure from goblin infested caves have, pretty much, always been there. Although video games are still not as accessible to most people as books, TV and radio programmes or film, they are now, more than ever, every bit as important and viable where story-telling is concerned.