Let’s start with a question: what’s the largest entertainment industry out there? Go on, guess. I’ll wait.
Did you guess videogames?
If not you’re a big Johnny Wronger. Bigger than film, bigger than the world of literature, bigger even than the mighty reach of music, the videogame industry is the largest and most lucrative consumer entertainment business on planet Earth. So why then do I feel so awkward when discussing my deep, slightly unhealthy love for it?
I mean, it’s not really something you bring up on a first date is it? Talk about your love of obscure French films* or obscure French jazz quartets** but your love of popularist Japanese RPGs***? No. Just…don’t. But why? Few are tarred and feathered for being music or film geeks, but game geeks? Fetch the chickens, there’s plucking to do.
It’s one of society’s little double standards that has yet to be normalised. It could be because games are a relatively recent phenomenon and society always takes time to adapt to new trends. It could be that the games themselves, full of macho men and busty women, still pander largely to the immature. It could be the implicit connotations of the word “game” itself. But delve a little deeper and you’ll find games that ask questions every bit as profound as the best of cinema or literature with some going even further and utilising the medium itself to touch the player in ways other outlets simply cannot.
Games are interactive. It’s sort of mandatory. A game of any kind, video or board, without player input would be as entertaining as a ball to the man with no feet (not that some don’t try: Metal Gear Solid 4 for example). Because it’s the player propelling things forward they’re inherently invested in the consequences. It’s all very well watching Harry meet Sally, but what if you’re the one telling them what to say? Involvement = empathy. Simple. The most popular games, mainly shooters and adventure games, rarely exploit this player involvement unless it’s to enhance the occasional cinematic device: a character death or unexpected twist. It’s like buying a prize racehorse and using it to placate your smelly 2 year old with trips around the garden. Only once in a blue moon do you find a game that absolutely understands its medium and exploits it entirely to sucker punch the player.
The ur example of this is BioShock, a first-person shooter which I will now proceed to spoil entirely: you play a silent protagonist literally thrown into the underwater and utterly hostile city of Rapture. You are guided by a helpful sort named Atlas who helpfully helps you via a handy radio found at the start of the first level. He wants you to save his wife you see. When this goes horribly wrong he asks you to kill the chap behind his new widower status, Rapture’s mad dictator Andrew Ryan. With his help, you eventually find your way to Ryan’s inner sanctum.
What happens next is hard to describe but I’ll give it a shot: when you first arrive in Ryan’s office you find a wall covered in photos with the words “Would You Kindly” messily daubed across them. A few audio recordings can be listened to which depict a young boy breaking a puppy’s neck under duress: “Would you kindly break that little dog’s neck?” the teacher instructs. And the boy does. So far so confusing. In the next room you encounter Ryan himself. He’s not scared, he’s not even surprised. In fact, he taunts you. You, armed to the teeth and he with nothing but a fancy suit and golf-club. He opens his door and all but invites you to kill him. But then…
“Stop, would you kindly.”
And you do. Control is taken from you “Turn, would you kindly.” And you do. “Run. Turn. Kneel.” And you do. You, or rather your avatar, is completely under Ryan’s control. Suddenly you’re presented with flashbacks of Atlas’ helpful guidance from earlier in the game: “Would you kindly pick up that radio?” “Would you kindly head to Ryan’s office and kill the son of a bitch.” “Would you kindly…would you kindly.”
Ryan reveals that you, or your character, has been brainwashed, programmed to respond to a particular phrase and that Atlas hasn’t been helping you; he’s been controlling you. You, this time the real you, had of course been following Atlas’ instructions to the letter until this point. You had no choice in order to progress through the game. But neither did your digital counterpart. You and your avatar were both bound by the same rules the entire time: obey or fail. What BioShock does is to merge the illusion of choice presented by the medium of videogames into the narrative structure itself. You are no more free in a linear, path-based videogame than a brainwashed man unconsciously responding to a control phrase. By overtly presenting you with this comparison the game provides you with as close an experience to being brainwashed as possible. In this pivotal moment you feel exactly what anyone in that situation would: Used. Helpless. I don’t know about you but that’s some canny as fuck storytelling. No other medium could place the viewer, reader or listener in exactly the same boots as a protagonist in that situation but BioShock, through the inherent interactivity of videogames, does.
I don’t know about you, but that’s certainly not a hobby I want to be ashamed of.
The game that inspired this mini-rant is a recent third-person shooter branded with the shockingly bland moniker of Spec Ops: The Line. Sounds like a Tom Clancy novel. The preview screens were of sweaty looking white men shooting angry looking brown men in dull, sandswept locales with the occasional bloodstained wall. The trailers did little more to excite and it was only until the Apocalypse Now comparisons began to emerge that the game appeared on my specially honed Games I Want to Play Radar(tm). Of course the immediate reaction is one of dismissal. Comparing a game to one of the cinema greats could only lead to inflated expectations and disappointment. But you know what, I wasn’t disappointed. I was hugely, massively and incredibly pleasantly surprised.
Dun dun duuuun…
* La Samourai
*** Final Fantasy VII