Sunday, February 15, 2015

Are Video Games Art? Part 2: The Best Narratives in Video Games


Video games have come a long way from Pong and Pac-Man and with the ever evolving technological innovations in the medium comes the power to craft steadily more robust and inventive narratives. Gaming may not primarily be a storytelling art but its unique capability to put players directly into the story and the role of the protagonist is itself groundbreaking in the history of spinning yarns. Roger Ebert has said that there is no game that can stand alongside Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn” but gaming is still a very young form of expression and is blossoming at rapid rates. In fifty years, when the kids who played the games are the old, grey denizens of Earth who establish cultural norms, who is to say that they won’t remember Final Fantasy 7 or Metal Gear Solid 2 as formative cultural artifacts in their upbringing?

Grand Theft Auto IV
Despite the bad rap the Grand Theft Auto series gets in headlines and on the news for its mature and open-ended gameplay, the franchise has always leveraged its enhanced stature in the mainstream to thread surprisingly solid and contemplative stories. The series has a penchant for poking at relevant cultural and social topics and examines the big questions of life - like fate, death, and destiny - as thoroughly as any other work in the field. Grand Theft Auto IV is a masterfully presented tale of revenge, redemption, and the American dream.

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time may not boast a revolutionary or incredibly complex plot but for what it lacks in depth it makes up for with timeless and imaginative fantasy charm. The game’s broad and epic quest of good against evil is ordained with magical locations and memorable characters. The series’ protagonist, the iconic “hero of time” Link, has never uttered a single syllable (other characters in the game talk plenty), yet is championed as one of the most beloved and popular characters in the history of games. This itself is a testament to the creative ways that, through their special capacity for immersion, video games can produce inventive methods of storytelling unique to their strengths as a medium.

The Last of Us
The Last of Us has become the de facto champion of the narrative power of video games and with good reason: it is one of the most original, emotional, and fantastic yet realistic fiction works in any field. The plot is high grade science fiction/horror and the presentation is professionally artistic, like a Hitchcock film. The Last of Us may in fact lend credence to an “auteur theory” in gaming, as its presentation - from the writing, to voice acting, to visuals - is verifiably a work of inspired artistry.

Mass Effect
The Mass Effect Trilogy is to video games what the Star Wars Trilogy is to film. The sweeping, bombastic space saga courts elements of action, drama, romance, and light-hearted fun as ably as its big screen big brother. In addition to featuring an entire universe of alien races, cultures, and strifes, Mass Effect delivers a powerful and sometimes heart wrenching story of little decisions and big consequences. The Trilogy is also notable for allowing nearly unprecedented continuity between installments, as players can transfer their specific character from one game to the next. This again is demonstrative of the special narrative powers inherent to games.

Super Mario (series)
Okay, so Mario may not be literary gold in the way of Mark Twain or Ernest Hemingway. Mario may not feature complex characters, deep themes, or contemplative stories about the intricacies of life. Mario may not feature much to speak of in the way of a plot at all, and may be guilty of repeating the same basic story for decades now. However, like the greatest children novels or classic fairy tales, the Super Mario series has impressed its fantastic and imaginative world and characters on generations of gamers and non-gamers alike. These simple and idyllic expressions of wonder and fun are among the most known and loved in modern pop culture. Mario is gaming’s Mickey Mouse or Bugs Bunny, and through a nearly flawless record of titles that nearly always raise the bar for the franchise while breaking ground for the entire industry, Mario has proven to be a worthy frontispiece for the medium and champion for the power of expression in gaming.

Check back next week for Part 3: The Best Productions in Video Games.

Posted by Terry Pierson, Library Clerk