Many critics will argue that video games are nothing more than a useless little past time that rots the brains of today’s youth. Yet somehow, many gamers I know happen to be successful college students; that “rotting-your-brain” argument is instantly null and void in my world. I myself am a student at UC Berkeley, yet I’ve been playing video games for as far back as I can remember — I still have vivid memories from back when I was three years old, so that should say something about how long I’ve been gaming.
Setting aside the brain rotting argument, naysayers continue their criticisms, labeling video games as a shallow experience, something that bears no meaning to the player other than just providing a cheap thrill. That may have been true back in the days of the Colecovision and Atari 2600, but these so-called critics have not been keeping up with the times. Either that, or we are clearly not looking at the same set of games.
In addition to the amount of time I have invested into video games, I have also invested much emotional involvement. Someone claiming video games provide nothing more than a cheap thrill is ludicrous and that person needs to re-evaluate their perception of video games with some good old-fashioned research.
I watched in sympathy as Cloud Strife’s very world was shattered, realizing everything he ever knew was a lie. My heart was racing as Phoenix Wright had to justify defending a clearly guilty criminal to save the life of poor Maya Fey. I spent ten years watching Solid Snake battle to help avoid the coming onslaught of nuclear war and the cruel reign of the Patriots, only to see him used as a tool every time. To be completely honest, the ending to Metal Gear Solid 3 nearly had me in tears (and not because of its sub-par voice acting).
Video games have slowly started coming into their own as an art form, which requires something more than just good graphics and gameplay. It requires something more in terms of a narrative structure and many developers have risen to that challenge as games begin to incorporate a more narrative approach in their gameplay. And why not? Shooting anything that comes onscreen is fun. But it eventually becomes very, very, very, very repetitive. Why are we shooting down these objects? What is the meaning of what we’re doing? Are they enemies or are we just killing them because we can?
The idea of telling a compelling and well-told story within a video game world is significant for that very reason. It gives the player more emotional involvement with what is going on. While it’s sometimes fun to have a main character that isn’t all that well-developed (as is a common occurrence in many FPS’s), a well-developed main character works more seamlessly. While the nameless FPS protagonist gives players an opportunity to transplant themselves into the role, a well-developed character offers the player a better motivation for going through the game and seeing what happens next. If the character is developed well enough, the player will want to keep going through stage after stage, seeing what becomes of the protagonist. If the storyline is compelling enough, it may even excuse a few gameplay issues, unless they’re too glaring to ignore.
It is only natural for gaming to have reached this point in its evolution. While many might have said in the early days of video games that gaming was mostly a kid thing, those gamers have grown up and many, though admittedly not all of them, have kept their interest in video games. But like most things in life, gamers’ tastes in games have matured and (speaking personally as someone that has been gaming practically his entire life) story-based games are the primary reason why I continue to invest time into my gaming lifestyle.
Regardless, there are many people who see gamers as shallow, something that probably explains the fact that for every intense, artistic gaming experience, there are dozens, maybe even hundreds of games that are total crap. But the gamer has grown beyond the standard slacker mentality that most people associate with video games. There is an intellectual quality about gaming that pushes developers to make emotional and thought-provoking games. I feel many naysayers ignore that.
Back in 2001, there was a lot of backlash when Metal Gear Solid 2 was released, mainly surrounding its overly convoluted storyline and heavy focus on plot as opposed to gameplay. Although criminally short, the gameplay for MGS2 was quite on par with what the hardcore Metal Gear fans were expecting, evidenced by the overwhelming enthusiasm from the gaming community. However, the game itself had a hefty amount story sequences and lengthy radio conversations, some of which were very complicated and difficult to understand.
None of this is more evident than the last hour of the game. At this point in the game, there is a difficult battle where the player must fight against waves of Metal Gear RAYs, thought the total number of RAYs battled is dependent on the difficulty level. After that, the player is treated to a roughly 45-minute-long cut scene before the final boss fight in which many truths about what is really happening in the game are explained to the player. While I’m sure many a gamer skipped through everything after the first 10 minutes in order to just get through and face the final boss, I sat through and watched everything, completely immersed in what was being said as my then-14 year-old brain tried to decipher just what exactly was going on. To this day, when I reach that point in the game, rather than skip through it, I watch it completely as I still attempt to wrap my head around everything.
Which brings me back to my point. The storyline of MGS2 was so engrossing and so involving that the length of time I spent watching rather than playing didn’t matter. What mattered was not only fighting my way through an enemy stronghold but finding out exactly what was transpiring in the narrative world of the game. And that there is a point I have been trying to make all along.
A compelling narrative within a video game can be so much more rewarding than a game that gives the players new items and game modes based on their skill level. The game’s story is the reward, watching things in the game world unfold as the player helps affect what happens. It helps to make the game so much more impactful and, by extension, more satisfying to the player as they grow attached to the world and its characters, watching them grow and develop. Many will say that nobody ever cried at a video game character’s death. Try telling that to the fans that were bawling when poor Aerith Gainsborough died.
(And before any of you try to correct me, Aerith was mistranslated as “Aeris” in the original FFVII and further installments in the Compilation of Final Fantasy VII have stated her name as Aerith.)