Shadow of the Colossus shows us the cost of our selfish actions, but Andrew Smith asks why don't games show us more
Videogames are a young industry, but in the short time we’ve been entertaining each other we’ve done an amazing amount of new, interesting and envelope-pushing work.
Game are bigger than movies, they will be the dominant form of entertainment for the foreseeable future, and frankly we are the most satisfying, creative and downright fun industry to be a part of. I’m proud of that.
But I feel we’re missing something. There’s a hole in our output, and it needs to be plugged. Now and then a game comes along that does its best to fill the gap, but ultimately they’re too few and far between for my liking.
Let me take a step back – I do not want to appear too high-minded here, but there is one thing that resonates with all people, of every culture, and it is the one thing that gives all human endeavours that certain something that raises it to a work of importance.
In our case we’re sometimes so obsessed with making something purely fun that we forget to include a little bit of it in our games. Fun comes first, sure, but we’re at the point now where it should be relatively simple to make a game fun.
We rarely put any truth in our games.
Writers of all kinds seek for the truth. Journalists seek out the literal, factual truth as it is their lifeblood, the reason they write – the truth will out, and the public have a right to know. Fiction writers look for a different truth, one that informs the basis of everything they write, that keeps their works seeming believable and authentic in even the most extreme flights of fantasy – and this is true for novels, movies, poetry, comics and songs.
When I talk about truth, I’m not talking about the factual truth but rather the one that speaks to our souls. The truth that says being lonely can bring you to realise something important about yourself, or that striving for a goal can come at a greater cost than you are willing to pay, or even the old chestnut that with great power comes great responsibility. The kind of truth where we as human beings can instantly relate, believe and become emotionally involved with the story that explores it.
Shadow of the Colossus shows us the cost of our selfish actions, and does so through a myriad of techniques, all of which feed in and out of the gameplay. But crucially the empty environments, unstable frame rate and sometimes-clumsy climbing mechanics would all falter and fracture without that unifying truth behind it all.
The systems become more than the sum of their parts because they are all bound into a singular experience, following the main character as he pays any cost to bring his lover back to life. The spell we are under as we come to terms with what we’re doing and why, and try to balance that in our minds, weighing it against our own experience and finding out a little bit about ourselves as we do so – that is what makes the game truly special.
Freedom Bridge would be a pretty ugly, sparse, pointless and brief experimental game if it wasn’t about the situation in Korea.
But through simple presentation, accessible gameplay and sudden ending it gives us real room to consider what exactly is going on, as well as an endpoint when we are forced to come to a conclusion. We as players have to fill the black and white, almost void-like play experience with our guesses, conjecture and suppositions without many clues as to what exactly might be just beyond the next line of barbed wire.
It’s our search for a truth in this game that sets it apart – think of it as a canvas for your preconceptions and experiences. You paint your own picture with it, and get out of it what you put in.
But again, the truth we choose to explore and talk about with our games doesn’t even have to be that easily conceptualised. Sometime it is enough to create a single true feeling.
Summoning the essence of something that is somewhat less than a memory in your audience is incredibly powerful – if through imagery and experience you can make someone recall the smell of cut grass on a summer’s day, or that cosy feeling you get inside a warm tent when it is pouring down with rain outside, then you’ve truly done something wonderful. Something worthwhile.
I recently sat down and watched a Studio Ghibli movie I’d missed until now, called Ponyo. It’s the touching story of a small boy who finds a goldfish, and how love can span different worlds. It’s also about growing up, from the perspective of both the child and the parent. It’s a little odd, exuberant and wild, and very entertaining – of course beautifully realised and animated – but it wasn’t really the story that left me emotional. It was the feeling that it summoned within me (one that Studio Ghibli seems to be able to pluck out of me with enviable ease in most its output) which really made an impression.
It’s the sense of childhood curiosity and wonder, where the whole world is vibrantly coloured and alive with motion and possibility. There are interesting things around every corner, and life is a happy mix of adventure and contentment.
Even the ‘bad people’ aren’t bad, just misguided, impatient or driven. I was sitting there, absorbed in an animated movie that summoned within me a strange, heady mix of apprehension and cosy safety that tends to characterise my memories of playing as a child.
That feeling I got when I would run just a little bit too far away from home in the fields – of looking in one direction and being hypnotised by the gloom of the unexplored woods, and then looking the other way and seeing the bright pink of the cottage I called home across a sun-baked field of green crops.
Of course not everyone will have that exact mix of memory and imagination, but I hope people reading this still know what I mean – and this is a kind of truth we should strive for to. It’s a really powerful kind of truth that almost defies explanation, and is also so inherent to our lives that we know when it happens without having to think about it. And knowing that movies, books and music summon these kinds of feelings within us so easily, while games are ripe with potential for far more powerful experiences by virtue of their interactivity makes me incredibly optimistic for the future of our industry.
We’ve begun to master our tools – this generation looks to be the longest in a while with Kinect and Move pushing the 360 and PS3’s lives well over the traditional 5 year mark and Nintendo are happy to keep selling the Wii, so let’s take advantage of that. Let’s build some games with a little truth in them, and start touching people’s lives in a more significant way than the pure competition of leaderboard chasing and deathmatch killstreaks, fun though they are. We have the tools, now we just need the truth.