Musings on Computer Games as Real Entertainment

I’ve spoken about computer games in the past in various statuses of interesting, both as a giddy childhood blurting of immaturity and nostalgia, and also in serious tones as to how they have changed from those childish moments to a massive entertainment behemoth and the next big thing. Computer games are no longer the bastard child of the entertainment industry, but the next main entertainment medium, and if it’s not already done so, it will take over from the cinema and music in terms of revenue and success.

The industry is a massive money spinner now, worth well over several billion of billion of dollars. This has led to a “hollywooding” of the industry with certain types of games becoming very common and the style of these games becoming even less distinct – sometimes for a good turn, and other for the worse. I say hollywooding, but actually don’t mean the area of the world, as where Hollywood may control the western movie empire, the USA isn’t the hub of the biggest games in the world. The UK, France, and Canada have massive successes in the industry. The advantage that these countries have is that, unlike the movie industry, the game industry is still there for the taking. If you consider that the game that perfectly apes the American Dream, Grand Theft Auto IV, was developed in Britain, and mostly in a set of offices in Edinburgh in the shadow of the Castle, you realise that the infancy of the medium helps it’s self to innovation and geographical orphaning.

This doesn't look anything like Pac Man.

With the increased budgets that these games have obtained we can see a tendency, like movies, to start being more safe. In movies you see the massive money spinning franchises, like Spiderman, X Men, Star Trek and Batman are all bankers – spend a massive budget, make a good movie, and reap the rewards. These franchises are the cornerstone of any studio and this is how computer games have become too. Every main studio needs a money spinner and normally they get it via sequels in a franchise. The most successful games of the last few years have been sequels to previously successful games – namely Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, Halo 3, and Mass Effect 2 (by way of which this post came about). This proves one thing – we like getting into things we are comfortable with, in a sense, but also that the makers are franchise driven and are as focused on delivering what we “want” in a sense.

Strange, then, that when I tell someone that I am going to play my Xbox I am still slightly embarrassed by it. Strange too, then, that when I say I play computer games they recoil and, sometimes, suggest I am childish. It too seems strange that we are still at a strange impasse in terms of censorship of computers games – adults are still buying hypervoilent games for their kids. This is because of lack of education on the parents part, those who still see the Pac Man and Sonic of games as the typical game, rather than the Gears of War realism of violence and fighting that actually appears in almost every major release at present.

The problem also is that games are continually evolving. If we take Mass Effect 2, the recent sequel to one of the best games I have played, I see a type of story telling that doesn’t exist in any other medium. It’s a dramatic space opera, brimming with Geeky sci-fi that might not appeal to everyone. Also, the type of game rewards patience and dedication, and the style of that of an RPG, or a game where you are supposed to become entrenched in the game, and one that is supposed to be immersive. The game its self, at its core, is basic shooter game play – cover, run, shoot, kill, repeat. The game it’s self is actually tightly built, but that’s not the revolution that Mass Effect 2 brings.

My "Shepard", Mark... the commander of the Normandy and my character in the game.

No, like Avatar at the cinema, Mass Effect just does the bread and butter parts of the game okay. The game play is good, the weapons are fine and the graphics are what we expect from a game these days. Where Avatar skimped on the story, Mass Effect is the opposite – it marks a massive difference in computer game story telling, with branching plot lines, characters that are actually different, real back stories, a driving plot, points where you can change the future of the series with massive actions, and probably the best animation of any computer game ever, and you begin to see what Bioware, the developers, have been aiming for – this isn’t a game aping a move, nor a book, and nor a TV series; but this is their vision of what computer games can become. Delivering interactive story telling and a unique experience for every user within a structure of a storyline that is interesting and deep. Computer games are going that way, and fast.

To see this you only have to look at the upcoming list of games that are going to be the big hitters – Heavy Rain appeared on the Playstation 3 and it’s making me seriously consider shelling out for one as it seems like another step in that direction. Alan Wake is coming out too, where the TV show style of game is slowly evolving. Also, Portal 2, a sequel to Portal, shows promise with it’s plan of total player immersion and clever game play thought mechanics. The interesting thing is that whilst these games on the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 are growing up, there are still bastions of the old guard chipping away.

Mario Galaxy 2 hits this year and will probably be a day one purchase for me – the first game was the most fun I’ve had playing a computer game in a long time. Sonic the Hedgehog 4 hits this year too, and it’ll deliver Sonic goodness the likes of which I still play to this day via emulators. These games will still have a place, because they are pure fun and games for being games, but other games like Mass Effect and Heavy Rain show the future of the entertainment industry. The interactive storylines and the thoughts that they bring will be a revolutionary to games as Online and the 3D Polygon were. Forget motion technology, that’s never going to be as interesting as a true, classical, interesting and investible storyline, and therein lies the power of the computer game.

This is a game that I never thought I'd see.

If only I could convince Steve that that’s why I dislike Call of Duty: Modern Warefare 2 – I don’t play games for playing the game, I play the game because I have an interest in the story. When presented with the unimaginable mess that was Infinty Ward’s cluster fuck, I couldn’t be bothered.