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Gaming and the Future of Entertainment Media

Posted by on March 6, 2017.

The Identity of Gaming

In January of this year, one of the leading figures of the gaming industry, Hideo Kojima, predicted that video gaming would merge with other forms of entertainment – novels, cinema and music. While he did not elaborate on by what means or to what degree these media would integrate, the prediction has sparked widespread discussion and comment, and calls in to question the identity of video games as a form of entertainment.

Kojima himself has seen both praise and controversy in response to his approach to game design. The Metal Gear Solid series is noted for its cinematic storytelling, and has trail-blazed the use of cutscenes to provide exposition since its first entry. Many players do still turn to video games for gameplay and interactivity however, making Metal Gear Solid 4’s approach to game and cinematic integration especially controversial. The game holds two separate Guinness world records for cutscene length — one for the longest individual cut-scene, at twenty-one minutes, and another for longest combined cutscene time. When edited together, including pre- and post-game non-interactive scenes, MGS4 has more than eight hours of cutscenes.

Any comment on video gaming and its future identity as a form of either art or entertainment always creates discussion, and it often seems that no two gamers can agree on what gaming is, what it should be or what it will be. One thing is clear simply by virtue of the medium’s popularity though—gamers want to do more than just watch a movie. Any combination of gaming and filmmaking must accommodate the uniqueness of video gaming or it will lose any distinction from other forms of entertainment.

Kojima’s prediction is somewhat at odds with the famous opinion of Roger Ebert that “video games can never be art”. While the highly-respected film critic later moderated his statement, he did stick to this view without relenting, despite the notoriously argumentative gaming community making concerted efforts to persuade him otherwise. This reaction from the gaming community was perhaps more interesting than the comment itself. Ebert inspired analysis and refutations both from players and gaming industry professionals, and was likely a contributing factor to the rising popularity of independent and experimental game design.

If we are to take Kojima’s perspective above Ebert’s, we are left with an art form set to assimilate other art forms. This is already partially true; writers, actors, concept artists, animators and musicians must come together to create a game, much like movies themselves. However, we are yet to see any full merging of the two media, although the earliest signs of it may already be in circulation.

Early Experiments

A few games have already experimented with the combination of cinematography with gameplay. 2016’s Quantum Break is a fairly straightforward implementation of this idea; the action adventure game offers the sort of gameplay to be expected from a modern big-budget video game, but comes with a unique selling point—a fully-produced live action mini-series is offered as a companion to the game’s story, using the same characters and setting in an attempt to enrich the plot.

Quantum Break is a bit of a shaky start for the merging of games and films. Both the gameplay and mini-series have seen a muted reception from audiences, and while both are considered ‘competent,’ neither of them has significantly impressed their audience. There is a technical issue of file-size as well—if players want to install both the game and the series on their device, they need 121GB of free space. For console gamers, this is a monstrous amount of hard drive space to sacrifice, but the options of streaming or reading from disc are less desirable solutions.

Furthermore, Quantum Break’s attempt at merging two media is somewhat heavy-handed and disjointed; the live action aspect is superfluous in the end, because it is by design not intrinsic to the game’s plot. Rather than any real challenge to the gaming paradigm, Quantum Break has simply produced a typical video game side-by-side with a typical TV series, with only a superficial connection between the two.

More successful attempts at merging gameplay and cinematography – at least conceptually – have come from the indie gaming scene. Much like smaller-budget art house movies, independent games are often much more experimental and ambitious than AAA ones. A fairly recent example is 2015’s Her Story. A very unusual game, Her Story makes use of a real-life actress delivering lines to camera, presented as a police interview. Players are given nothing but a simulated database search application, the objective being to use key words gleaned from certain interview clips to search for more footage, gradually piecing together a murder mystery story and eventually identifying the culprit.

Despite its bare-bones gameplay, Her Story gained significantly more critical success than Quantum Break, with a Metacritic score of eighty-six to Quantum Break’s sixty-six. In terms of user reception, Her Story is still more favourably received, though it seems to polarise opinions and most consumer reviews are either strongly positive or strongly negative.

While the cinematography in Her Story is just as spartan as the gameplay, it does succeed in that it is directly and intrinsically tied to the experience of play. The actress’ dialogue is not just a performance, but also a resource for the player; the police interview is not just a framing device for the story, but also a central mechanic of gameplay. In this way, it is a much more direct and successful merging of game and film than Quantum Break.

Games, Stories and Interactivity

Roger Ebert’s definition of a video game seems to have been limited to ‘something you can win’, but the approach of developers and analysts is more and more gravitating towards a broader perspective of ‘interactive storytelling’. The last ten years or so have seen gaming grow from a sophisticated form of solitaire to a multimedia platform with almost infinite scope for multiple means of expression. Movies and games are both a visually-oriented means of telling a story, and this leaves only one distinguishing factor: interactivity. If the two mediums are to merge, then that aspect must be somewhere in between a game’s full interactivity and a movie’s non-interactive nature. But this has been an increasingly grey area for games for a long time.

The point-and-click adventure genre of games is old enough that its popularity had time to wane and then wax all over again, but even in the mid ‘90s creators were crafting a more cinematic gaming experience, using a less direct method of interaction between the player and the game world. While these games still involved that aspect of ‘winning’ – solving every puzzle to see the ending to the story – titles like Broken Sword played down any sense of competition in favour of visuals, characterisation and plot.

More recently, a new genre has emerged to occupy that grey area of interactivity. The once derisive term ‘walking simulator’ has been embraced by its intended target; a genre of gaming in which the player is offered some non-violent level of interaction with an environment, with only the implicit objective of exploring the surroundings or discovering a story. Some of these games require various degrees of puzzle-solving skills, but are often criticised for a lack of player agency — the player is only able to explore and examine, and not influence the environment in any way.

Even more so than point-and-click adventure games, these walking simulators take the game experience away from the objective-oriented idea of winning and more into the sphere of pure storytelling. Certainly a more passive experience than other genres, these games have shown that gaming technology and design has far more potential than first thought.

What these two genres demonstrate, along with Quantum Break and Her Story, is that there are two aspects to gaming’s future identity: one technical and one abstract. As a mode of storytelling – the abstract – video games have already begun to evolve their own identity, and while unpolished and often artistically crude, are even now able to stand alongside novels and films as a way of expressing ideas. What is more difficult is the technical side – the adoption of techniques and devices from other media. Quantum Break’s attempt was clumsy, and Her Story’s was rudimentary, but these early attempts point to a future with games and films providing mutual enrichment never seen before.

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Submitted in: Expert Views, Josh Townsend |