[In this editorial, originally printed in Gamasutra sister publication Game Developer magazine, EIC Brandon Sheffield suggests that video games and their developers should start looking to a wider breadth of influences and themes -- and it looks like the market is ready for it.]
Games need to grow up. As this medium follows that inevitable path toward mainstream social acceptance, the limitations as an art form become more apparent.
The focus of our work is still far too narrow, or more correctly, our narrow focus is pointed in far too few directions. As the medium that will lead youths into the next generation, I feel that we have a social responsibility to represent a diversity of views in terms of our content.
Every other mainstream media, from books to theatre to movies to comics, has major genre or thematic derivations. Narrow focus isn't a bad thing in itself -- I think it can actually help people identify strongly with a given subject. But we greatly need to diversify the themes and subjects we tackle.
In video games, the vast majority of content is still combat and competition-based. This isn't a problem; after all, most games -- electronic or otherwise -- are about good-natured competition.
The trouble is that due to the common theme, the message is often quite simple: there are good guys, there are bad guys, and maybe the bad guys aren't who you thought they were at the start, but really you don't care as a player. You just want to keep shooting, smacking, or otherwise subjugating whatever's in front of you.
Games have been dealing with social issues for as long as they've had narratives. Unfortunately, they usually have very shallow messages to impart. War is bad because it killed your family. People should understand each other, because your character used to be poor.
The intentions are good, but generally the message is told to the player, rather than shown to him. If you want to be told
that war is horrible, play Metal Gear Solid 4
. If you want to be shown
, play Call of Duty 4
. If you want to be told
about the dangers of capitalist extremism and its dystopian results, play Final Fantasy VII
. If you want to be shown, play BioShock
These examples are a bit trite, as these are the games everyone trots out when they want to praise the future of narrative. But my point is only further validated by the fact that better examples are still very difficult to find.
Entertain to Inform
If games are going to be tackling social issues, which most narrative games seem to strive toward, there needs to be more outside influence. I don't mean outside the industry -- I mean game developers need to draw more from their daily lives and other media for inspiration.
Right now, games are too influenced by other games. People know games, and they're safe. We need to move outside the comfort zone if we're to make any impact. BioShock
's reflection on Ayn Rand is a good start, and games like Civilization
do a good job of simulating real-world economies and warfare, but we need more examples to point to.
A Dickens- or Fitzgerald-inspired game, properly handled, could yield amazing results -- and what about taking inspiration from an original video game work like Braid
? This sort of thing is usually relegated to the Experimental Gameplay Sessions panel at GDC, but these sorts of games should actually be made.
Who Needs It?
Really, most games don't need complex narratives or themes. We insert them because we want our games to have an "awesome story," but most games fall horrifically flat here, and would be better off with simple objective screens.
In games like Halo 2
, where you sometimes can't even understand what the characters are saying and the plot is needlessly convoluted, wouldn't the experience be better with no story at all?
One of the large problems is the lack of a true director or auteur. The compartmentalization of leadership in Western game companies has its serious advantages in terms of workflow, but one thing Japan still has over us is singular vision.
One person truly directs the project and has the final say. This yields both astounding successes and spectacular failures, but if nothing else, helps to point a game in a specific direction.
I think most current games, even the hardcore ones, appeal too much to the mainstream in terms of their themes. Just as the movie 300 appeals to frat boys, so too does God of War
. Our blockbuster games are designed to be mainstream, even if they do only appeal to the hardcore by and large (see my previous editorial "The Hardcore Niche
I want to believe that game developers care about more interesting things. We should be showing more of this in our games. We need to present a diversity of viewpoints, themes, and gameplay styles to the people who are absorbing and internalizing our content (when we do it right).
Last year proved that games with vision can actually be popular. So now, the only limiting factor is our own creativity.