Did I get your attention? Good.
Unfortunately, you’ve been had. This isn’t about sex. Or rather, this is not all about sex – I’m not that Freudian. This is about raising the discourse, in a way. Improving these games we play. Enriching the narrative.
The question is simple: Why is it that the vast majority of the games we play, and have played, are so thematically shallow? It seems to me that, sure, of course, games must have a clear mandate to entertain. There’s no escaping that, and it’s as it should be. But, should that be all? Here we have this medium, one of the most versatile ever created, but somehow we can’t seem to be able to look past its mere entertainment value. We do nothing else with it. What can we do with this, and why are we not doing it?
What can we do with electronic gaming? Do we even have to ask? We can do whatever we want.
It seems to me that every artistic expression, over any medium pretty much, is to a large degree an extension of the expression of its authors. That is, we have rightfully come to expect from our books and literary works, from our music and plastic arts, and even from some of our films and TV shows to have something of that author permeating it. We buy them and consume it because of their value to us, but also because of the author and the things he or she is trying to say – in a nutshell, art and the artist.
But games? They don’t seem to be created with any other purpose than to try and entertain. Most other art forms or communication mediums are happy to take on the author’s visions, feelings and ideas. They are vehicles to express anything. Art as such, an expression of sadness, joy, melancholy, thoughts, opinions, etc. Are we comfortable then with having games doing nothing but to entertain? Can’t they do anything else? How do we stop and change games, from mere entertainment products, to artistic expression? Do we even want to?
The reason I say all this is because, to put it bluntly, games are generally barren. I mean, they entertain, and that’s all they do. When a writer does his work and finishes his book, a piece of him is there. He’s trying to communicate his feelings and thoughts. His opinions on subjects, carefully disguised or not. Same with film – different directors and actors can take the same thing and manifest it differently. Same with music. But where is this kind of narrative in games? Where’s the intelligent stuff? Am I supposed to accept that the people who create all these games are not humans? That they don’t have feelings, thoughts or opinions that they want to integrate thematically with their creations?
Why aren’t there any games, clearly destined for adults of course, that treat and deal with adult subjects? For example, where are the MMOs that pit, not factions, but viewpoints against each other? Where are the clear explorations, in narrative if nothing else, into subjects like politics, war, sex, art, drugs, economy, ecology, etc.? Is that why most of these worlds we play ultimately end up feeling flat and barren?
My thought is that we’re not seeing all this, and we’re simply playing gamey games (to coin a phrase), for a lot of little reasons.
– Games are formulaic by definition, and it’s hard to deviate from what’s been proven to entertain in the past. If you’re a publisher, criticals against you are worth 3x when you’re hit with originality.
– Video games are (still, even after all these years) generally thought of as ‘something for the kids’, therefore not deserving or even considered to be able to incorporate heavier intellectual stuff. This is slowly changing, though, as gaming becomes broader.
– In the same vein, there’s the constant fear of creators and publishers of minors getting ahold of their content which is meant for adults. In our sue-happy society, why tempt fate like that?
– Many creators don’t see their creations as anything more than a vehicle to entertain. Many don’t feel they have any mandate to elevate the narrative, or to tackle other thematic subjects that are not directly relative to gaming or fun. One’s art is another’s trash.
– Games are a group effort, particularly these modern games of ours that take small armies to create. Collaborative works can be hit or miss, and individual expression gets inevitably drowned in group efforts. Is the solution to just empower the right designers with the right freedom of theme, then? Would we still listen to Mozart, or even know who he was, if he had only been Team Composer #23 in a few symphonies? No, I think designers need to take a lot more personal ownership of their creations, to imprint them with their own individuality. And we need to let them, for good or bad.
– Gamers don’t demand it. It’s not that gamers are not demanding (ha!). It’s just that they don’t demand this at all. Or at least, not massively enough for publishers and creators to take notice.
In the end, I don’t think that all games should be about important philosophical issues, vital matters of the day, deep views on life or things like that. Some games are just meant to be fun distractions, and sometimes all we need is that to unwind. Still, I’m one of those that remembers those games that left me with some things to think about after I was done with them. Not necessarily its graphics, gameplay or fun. Sure, wonderful if all that is there of course. But isn’t it much, much nicer when you realize you just played with art?