Gaming is not really a young medium any more. Yes, there are millions alive today who grew up without it, but by 50 years into development, I think it’s safe to say we’ve got it mostly figured out.
But at the same time, it’s still clear that video games aren’t held in anything like the same regard as older, more established media. It’s still common to see games marvelled at like a quaint oddity by those who don’t enjoy them, or when they do achieve something solid in the narrative department, treated as a rare deviation rather than the minimum we should expect.
I suspect it’s a problem of technology, at least partly. Shakespearean actors didn’t have sets, and were expected to tell reasonably complex stories by their actions and voice alone. Similarly, books can exploit the inherent power of the human mind to illustrate and immerse the reader.
As we move through the technological prowess of media, the expectation for high-quality narrative diminishes. While there are films and television shows which earn quiet reverence from fans and critics alike, the bulk of content is not afforded this luxury. Most TV shows are treated as an escapist form of background entertainment, not a legitimate art form in their own right.
So it is with video games. Because games engage players on levels other than their dialogue, setting, plot and characters – i.e. gameplay – it’s easy not to cotton onto those occasions where narrative is the focus. When games do decide to focus specifically on storytelling, it’s often forced on the player by stripping away the gameplay.
Good examples include the walking simulator genre, a fairly derogatory name for a type of game characterised by its lack of real interaction and focus on decision-making and writing (some famous examples include Gone Home and Dear Esther). The genre is an offshoot of an old example – point and click adventure games – which featured gameplay seldom more complex than a jigsaw puzzle, and which lived or died on their ability to tell tales and create worlds.
These genres aren’t ignored, but they aren’t heavily pushed either. They require a subtle palate, which isn’t well suited to a market which favours the loud and brash, the instantly accessible and the easily translated.
Good storytelling isn’t even what all the fans want, often seen as more of an optional extra than a necessity in its own right. In a way, they’re right – you can have a game with no real plot, but it’s much harder to do the same with a work of literary fiction or a film.
Some people ask the question of when gaming will be afforded artistic merit in its own right. Such people, I think, miss the point. Video gaming isn’t ever going to be treated the same as books or films – or at least, not for a very long time. Its very vocabulary – games, play – suggests a lack of seriousness which will forever turn off critics. Those games which do have moderate literary value are treated as triumphs, when by any other standards they’d be modest successes simply because a short man is a giant when among hobbits.
Video games should not try to be books, because books are a niche already filled. There are methods of storytelling which can involve the player through gameplay, neither stripped back for naked amygdalae-firing action or rammed in the player’s face at the cost of interactivity. There have been games which have pulled it off – Spec Ops: The Line and Mother 3 spring immediately to mind – but they are just the vanguard. Play it right, and there will be many more to come.