FROM RIO LIANG: “Whereas in movies, novels, songs, short stories, etc. we can only be presented with an ‘edit’ of life, a video game can provide a life nearly in full

If you’ll indulge me as I step onto my soap box. I just read this interview “Show me the Games of Your Children and I’ll Show You the Next Hundred Years” in The Believer with Heather Chaplin, video-game journalist, by writer, Tom Bissell, about video games as cultural enrichment (it currently isn’t).  I’ve always been biased toward a good-storied role-playing game and have always been willing to stick up for video games when warranted–and this piece bolstered my defense of the form.  I do believe in video gaming’s eventuality as an art, but it’s hampered by so many factors:  that its “artists” are mainly non-writers who are emulating the blockbuster movies they see or are writers who are writing genre fiction and mainly sticking to formulae; that it aspires to be cinematic but has not a clue as to cinematography; that it’s too currently military-oriented; that it’s generally looked down upon as a destructive pastime.  In my experience, video games, at least the ones I’ve cleaved to, have largely been a positive and potentially enriching force.  I’ve played several games whose stories have just floored me–this small sample of story-oriented games unfortunately are overlooked in critiques of video gaming as a whole.

Exemplary games with strong narratives are unfortunately few and far between, but they do exist.  The Final Fantasy series has consistently delivered great stories, depending on the writers.  Final Fantasy IV, VI, VII, VIII, and X stand out as milestones in video gaming narrative in that they boldly invested so much in quality of story in such a way that rendered all previous games even more childish and simplistic.  I think of the times I cried through Chrono Trigger,” a game which plays with the idea of time and loss.  There’s the controversial “Xenogears” and the Xenosaga series, which deals with religion, daring to ask questions video games are not expected to ask.  Also, there’s Planescape Torment, which is essentially one epic philosophical quest; I believe there is only one actual required battle in that.  I’ve lately lately playing on-and-off a game called “Lost Odyssey,” which incorporates actual short stories throughout various points of the game (yes, the player has to read through them; the translation was actually done sorta well by the Harvard guy who translated Haruki Murakami’s stuff).  “Lost Odyssey” is unfortunately an imperfect game (victim of an unseasoned writer), but my point is that there are video games out there that defy convention and move outside the boundaries of typical gameplay, and actually dare players to use their brains and more importantly to be emotionally involved.  These games dispute the interviewee in the Believer article who decried the lack of psychological empathy in video games.

Overall, I think video games (or the interactive arts, if I can steal that term from elsewhere) can potentially offer something new:  Whereas in movies, novels, songs, short stories, etc. we can only be presented with an “edit” of life, a video game can provide a life nearly in full (a game can go on for hours on end, 20 hours, 40 hours, 30 hours, weeks, months, etc.).  As such, a viewer/player can truly dive into a character’s life in a way that the aforementioned formats cannot.  I think in this regard, video games have the potential to better reflect life itself.  Life is long, protracted, unedited; video games can excel at depicting this (while still adhering to a fixed storyline).

In the end, I just hope the artistic elite will not be too quickly dismissive of video games and go the way of early critics of film or photography, or even novels!  (Now we dismiss THEM, ha!).  Video gaming truly is in its infancy stage, with still a way to go (it has to reconcile its past as mere pastime with its increasing progression toward actualizing itself), but it will ultimately mature. I wonder if video games (or whatever more sophisticated name it dons in the future) will go the way of photography and eventually transform into an art.  Or I suppose it’s not a matter of whether it will, but rather when…

For more tidbits on gaming evolution, check out NPR’s coverage: “Video Game Grads Open Up the Industry” and The Guardian’s Blog, “Are computer games a literary genre?”

Got gaming thoughts on your mind? Let’s hear them!

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