One of the common themes of the so called ‘games criticism’ is the idea that video games as they are right now are simply immature power fantasies which exist purely to appeal to the lowest common denominator. The medium itself has the potential—there’s nothing in there that makes telling serious, intelligent stories through the games less viable than telling them through books or movies—but everyone but a few, under-appreciated visionaries prefer to focus on forgettable stories about heroes shooting villains. Things need to change if gaming is to be treated seriously.
That way of thinking is, of course, wrong, and demonstrably so. Sure, looking at gaming and seeing only Call of Duty preceded by a long series of proto-Call of Duty titles growing from the root of simple, nearly plotless arcade-style games might be a useful way to make a point about capitalism, modern culture, or whatever it is that those people want to make point about. There’s just one problem: it’s superficial, at best, and willfully ignorant at worst.
It’s true that video games can be used to tell many different stories, and it would be extremely limiting to use them only for what basically can be equated to summer blockbusters (that is, of course, not to say that blockbuster-like games are worthless). But it’s also true that games started telling many different stories not long after they began to introduce narrative elements. Today, we’ll take a look at a few of those ambitious titles from the gaming world’s unfairly dismissed past.
Rebuilding the world
Imagine the most stereotypical plot for a role-playing game (computer or console, it doesn’t matter) you can think of. Chances are it will involve a sort of ultimate villain that needs to be defeated at the end of the game. It might be a dragon that kidnapped a princess, a cruel king, an evil wizard, a forgotten, evil or maybe something that came from space but it will be there—a final boss that waits for you in his lair, threatens the whole world, and commands an army of enemies for you to overcome.
One of the ways of making things less cliche and giving the players something to think about would be to create an RPG that has no final boss, maybe even writing about a world in which all the major villains have been already defeated. This offers the possibility of a game that isn’t really about the good guys fighting the bad guys but about good guys proactively making the world a better place.
While the first three Ultima games were mostly about the usual fight against evil (combined with not entirely logical puzzle-solving and many out of place sci-fi elements, but that’s something for a different article), the fourth one was all about ending the Age of Darkness and creating an Age of Enlightenment. To do this, the hero from the previous game must embark on a spiritual journey, become a paragon of eight virtues, achieve the status of the Avatar and retrieve Codex of Infinite Wisdom from the Stygian Abyss. The virtues are most important here: the game can’t be won by simply defeating all the enemies, leveling up, and finding powerful items. The player must follow the game’s moral code: sparing the lives of the enemies who flee from battle, helping the poor, etc.
Of course, the more cynical readers will try to deconstruct the ideas of Ultima IV the same way Ultima IV deconstructed the RPG genre. What if someone forced people to follow strict, tyrannical laws based on the virtues? What if the Codex of Infinite Wisdom wasn’t just retrieved from the Abyss but stolen from the original owners? But that has also been done … in Ultima V and Ultima VI.
Cold war games
American popular culture from the 1980s is often considered jingoistic and militaristic—it’s all about brave, freedom-loving Americans fighting against those evil communists. The same (minus the communists) is often said about modern gaming. As is often the case with stereotypes, it’s a big oversimplification. The way Cold War era video games handled typical Cold War themes is proof.
Even something as simple as the arcade classic, Missile Command, was far from the common vision of mindless violent entertainment. In this game, the player is tasked with defending a city from nuclear attack. It’s an oldschool arcade game, so the question is not if you are going to lose but when will it happen. Missile Command has no victory condition, and will repeat endlessly until everything is destroyed and the dreaded words appear on the screen: ‘THE END‘. And while it might not look or sound too scary today, the game managed to give nightmares to everyone who worked on it.
The idea of stopping nuclear war was carried even further by the strategy games from that era. In Balance of Power, the player was supposed to avoid the escalation of existing conflicts, and actually lost the game if he caused nuclear conflict. A few years later (released after the fall of the Soviet Union but developed before it), Shadow President allowed those who played it to just nuke everyone. The results were never pretty, however, and usually amounted to mutually assured destruction.
The interactive fiction genre was the predecessor to adventure games (the genre still exists but it’s even more niche now than the more well known point-and-click style, which suffered a major drop in popularity after the end of the 20th century) so it’s quite obvious that it had a big focus on storytelling. As those games were text-only, they could also ignore many technical limitations that other games from that time faced: after all, nothing had to be shown, just described.
Interactive fiction games could be about anything. They could be generic fantasy or science fiction stories used as an excuse for puzzle-solving. They could also be something like A Mind Forever Voyaging, a game which focuses on concepts such as artificial intelligence and simulated reality, which plays completely different from other games of the genre due to the main character being a computer, and which simultaneously has a political message that is so heavy-handed and devoid of nuance that it would surely make most video game critics happy. Or they could take the idea of being text-based to the extreme, and ditch the usual puzzle-solving in favor of puns, spoonerisms, and wordplay.
There is more
Video games didn’t stop having intelligent storylines or attempting to tackle serious themes after the 1980s. The next decade gave us titles like The Last Express, Xenogears and Planescape: Torment and the 21st century brought games like Ico. There was never a time when games were purely immature and nobody attempted to create a masterpiece.
The popularity of gaming in recent years is responsible for the market being saturated with certain genres, for example the modern first-person shooter. While the popular titles aren’t always the most interesting ones, tha’s not unique to this medium—after all, bestselling books and high-grossing movies are not always the most worthwhile ones. And while there are many things that can be criticized about the modern video game industry (I still wish turn-based RPGs would become popular again), the idea that nothing worthwhile is being produced outside of the indie scene is based on lazy research, judging a medium as a whole based on a handful of AAA titles. To form an opinion, one should first learn the long and fascinating history of video games, delve into regional development scenes outside of America and Japan, and look at games with smaller sales figures but larger cult following. Without it, any analysis will be too shallow to matter.