Everyone is aware of the ongoing debate about video games legitimacy as an artform, and it’s not hard to see both sides of the argument. That said, we are certainly seeing a lot of really adventurous and provocative titles in the gaming industry right now, as developers continue to push the boundaries of what is acceptable/profitable. For me, there have certainly been stand out moments of artistic integrity in the gaming world, the Oddworld series in the late nineties invited players into a vast, beautiful landscape that was as thought provoking and emotional as it was playful and humorous.
One of many beautiful landscapes in Oddworld: Abe’s Exodus.
2005′s Psychonauts was a gaming experience that allowed players to infiltrate character’s minds, battle their demons and attempt to weave their sanity back together. Each level was a different mind, and the visual style changed dramatically depending on the personality of the host. For example at one point you enter the mind of a mutated fish monster, and become a Godzilla-sized behemoth, as you make your where through a city inhabited by terrified fish civilians. Later in the game your own mind becomes mixed with that of your host, so that the environment becomes a bizarre circus inhabited by horrific butchered animals.
A suburb gets twisted into a surrealist nightmare in Psychonauts.
In Shadow of the Colossus, which also came out in 2005, there was a total of sixteen enemies throughout the entire game, but they were so big you had to scale their bodies to defeat them. A portion of the game was taken up with the player travelling through this vast, lonely world, on horseback, armed only with a sword and a bow. As you explored this environment, the only suggestion of other life, aside from the birds and lizards, was the immense architecture of some forgotten civilisation. The Colossi felt very real, everything from the way they moved to the detail on their huge bodies, they looked ancient, as if they had risen from part of the landscape, and when defeated would return to the earth. There was an incredible grace, beauty and even melancholy to the creatures, and you felt genuinely guilty for destroying them.
One of the smaller creatures in Shadow of the Colossus.
It is wonderfully easy to have empathetic connections with characters in games, because we actively make decisions that affect them. The interaction of the player is the most important attribute of a game, and separates it from other mediums. The very fact that we must intervene in order to ensure a happy ending, gives the game weight, it creates tension and motivates the player. Humans can form emotional attachments to anything, from animals to inanimate objects, so it’s not such a great leap to care about the characters the player interacts with throughout the narrative of a video game. Recently, games have been more and more daring with how they tell their stories, most notably Heavy Rain, which attempted to create a mature game for lovers of narrative.
Taking your son to school is just one of many adventures in Heavy Rain.
Personally I don’t think Heavy Rain is a step in the right direction for the future of games, because it seemed to emulate the narrative structure of a film, when it should be celebrating the attributes of a game that makes it a unique medium. Naturally, game developers still have a long way to go before the medium can be properly defined, because at the moment it’s still a bit up in the air as to what a video game actually is. However, games are evolving at a much faster rate than any other artform, so there’s certainly a possibility the video game medium will finally find it’s identity in our lifetime.
A welcome new branch of gaming can be found in the downloadable titles, which are very much the equivalent of the short film movement. Downloadable games are much cheaper to make, and so are afforded the luxury of experimentation, while the blockbuster titles such as Modern Warfare have to remain as diluted and bland as possible, in order to appeal to a wider market.
One such downloadable title is Papo & Yo, scheduled for a 2012 release for the PlayStation 3. Papo & Yo is an adventure game, and the debut release of a studio called Minority, financially supported by Sony’s Pub Fund. The game was conceived by Vander Caballero, the Creative Director at Minority, and tells the story of a young boy called Quico who lives in the Favelas in South America. His best friend and protector is ‘Monster’ a large pink beast that loves Quico but is unfortunately addicted to frogs, and when he eats them he transforms into an evil creature, full of fury, that attempts to destroy everything in his path, including Quico. If you’re thinking this story sounds oddly metaphorical, then you’re quite right, because Papo & Yo is really the story of Vander Caballero and the relationship he had with his alcoholic father.
Your best friend is also your worst enemy in Papo & Yo.
The idea is quite powerful, but only because of the unique interactive quality of a video game. Players will have the opportunity to experience, on some small level, Caballero’s life with his father, as they enjoy his friendly, placid nature up until the point he turns into an evil beast. And when that happens, there is an instinctive desire to cure Monster, to save him from his illness. There are indeed fruits that you can give the beast, to sober him and return him to his placid state, at least until he finds another frog. The relief the player feels when Monster is subdued is supposed to emulate that same feeling Caballero himself would have when his father was no longer in his monstrous alcohol fueled rage.
The point of Papo & Yo is to attempt what so many good children’s stories (and recently, Pixar films) have achieved, by telling a dark, but necessary fable that is accessible to a family audience. The theme may be dark, but the game doesn’t need to be, indeed the whimsical environment the game is set in is itself a world created by Quico as a way to deal with the darkness in his life.
Although it will be a while before Papo & Yo is available to play, it’s existence certainly bodes well for the gaming community, whether or not the gameplay will live up to the concept, it is certainly a step in the right direction. Unfortunately, the video games that make the most profit are usually the soulless, generic blockbuster titles, as is the case with the movie industry. However that is not to say that all games should be measured by these few, as indeed Transformers is not representative of the medium of film.