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Would You Like to Play a Game?

or

Better Yet, Let Me Tell You A Story

or

Even Better, Let’s Do Both.

The video game studio Electronic Arts formed in 1982.  That year, they took out full page ads in magazines, the most popular of which featured the question “Can a Computer Make You Cry?”  (And anyone who has used Windows Vista will tell you yes, it can.  Am I right?)  Seriously, though, it was an apt question for the time, and perhaps even more so for today.  The idea of video games as an art form is doubted even by many people in the year 2013, let alone 1982, when the genre was in its relative infancy.  EA answered their own question, saying:

Right now, no one knows.  This is partly because many would consider the very idea frivolous.  But it’s also because whoever successfully answers this question must first have answered several others.  Why do we cry? Why do we laugh, or love, or smile? What are the touchstones of our emotions?  Until now, the people who asked such questions tended not to be the same people who ran software companies.  Instead, they were writers, filmmakers, painters, musicians.  They were, in the traditional sense, artists.  We’re about to change that tradition.  The name of our company is Electronic Arts.

The whole ad is pretty incredible and definitely worth a read.  It has answered, for me, the question “Can a bunch of software developers bring tears to your eyes with their sheer courage and audacity and vision?”  (In case you’re wondering, they can).

EA and other visionary companies blazed a really extraordinary trail, elevating video games from mindless, children’s diversion to artistic media.  It’s highly unlikely that Tennis for Two ever made someone cry, but as the medium has gotten more and more advanced, more potential for emotional investment and connection in video games have become available.

If you haven’t played Fable II, and you don’t want the first ten minutes of the game spoiled for you, then skip down a bit.  The game begins much like other role-playing games: with a brief introduction of the world and gameplay mechanic, presented through a series of simple tasks.  You learn how to pick up and wield objects, how to fight, how to get around, etc.  You (the player) also meet your two NPC (that’s non-player character, for all you non-gamer types) companions: your older sister, and a stray dog that you have taken in.  You and your sister are orphaned and homeless, and other than your new furry friend, have nothing in the world except each other and whatever scraps you can scrounge up on a given day.

And suddenly, the opportunity of a lifetime is thrown into your lap.  You wish on a magic box that you lived in Castle Fairfax, home of Lord Lucien.  In the middle of the night, a guard comes to escort you to the castle, and Lord Lucien greets you, asking you to stand in a circle on the floor.  The circle is apparently also magic, and turns blue upon your entry.  When Lord Lucien tries to enter, the circle turns red.  Lucien is infuriated, because this means that you and your sister are chosen (the details are not extremely important for what I’m getting at here) and he is not.  Infuriated, Lucien confines you inside the circle, pulls out a gun, and shoots your sister.  He then turns the gun on you and fires, knocking you out the window to the grounds below.

For me, it was one of the most significant moments in my video gaming career.  I don’t even like RPGs (role-playing games, sorry) that much, and I still remember that moment before he pulled the trigger like it was part of one of the most moving stories I’d ever read or seen on screen.  I was trying to run toward them, beating against the magical force field with my feeble, little wooden sword, utterly unable to move.  I’m not an idiot; I know about drawing people in with a story.  I knew that her death was a part of the narrative of the game and could not be changed, that no amount of pounding on that force field would get it to yield.  In that moment, it didn’t matter.  I had to save my sister.  When he turned the gun on me and shot, knocking me out the window (you survive the fall, obviously, or it would have been an impressively short game), I remember thinking one thing:

He shot my sister.  He shot my sister.  I am going to find him, and I am going to kill him.

Ok, let’s be real for a minute here.  He didn’t shoot my sister.  He removed a blob of pixels from the screen.  Even if we’re going to make the leap from “blob of pixels” to “character,” I had known my “sister” for all of ten minutes.  And yet this case says something interesting about what I think is one of the genre’s greatest strengths for storytelling: immersion.  In the ten minutes since I’d met the character I would so tenaciously avenge the death of, I formed a bond with that character.  Now, I’m not saying that the bond is as real or as strong as the one I have with my actual sister, but the fact remains that in that moment I felt both the loss of and the need to avenge the blob of pixels that the other blob of pixels removed from the screen.

That’s really impressive.

And that sort of thing is all over video gaming nowadays.  As the medium matures, it is becoming another theatre in which to tell good, compelling stories.  Take the Halo series:  We have the Master Chief, a superhuman warrior charged with defending his home against an invading army that is vastly more powerful.  He is assisted by Cortana, an artificial intelligence who by her nature is both very powerful and essentially limited.  Now swap out “Master Chief,” “Cortana,” and “artificial intelligence” and replace them with “Achilles,” “Athena,” and “goddess.”  Yep, it’s the Iliad.  In other games, the Chief is stranded, far from his home, which has already been occupied by the Covenant.  Master Chief, aided by Cortana has to get home and drive out the invading force.  Swap out “Master Chief,” “Covenant,” and “Cortana,” and replace them with “Odysseus,” “suitors,” and “Athena.”  Surprise, it’s also the Odyssey.

But it’s not just that, it’s better.  (Slow your roll, Josh.  You just called Halo better than the Iliad and the Odyssey).  I don’t mean that it is inherently more valuable, but that video games can offer us the same kinds of stories that we treasure, and they also have something to offer us that other media can’t give us in the same way.  I’ll go back to EA’s question:

Can a computer make you cry?  I say that it absolutely can, and here’s why:  it has all the same potential for storytelling as books, movies, poetry, or any other medium, and it has a greater potential for immersion.  You portray a character in a game, and the struggles, dangers, and triumphs of that character become your struggles, dangers, and triumphs.  I’m not trying to say that no other media is immersive; when Harry is fighting Voldemort in the final, ultimate battle to save the world, I felt it.  I felt Harry’s fear.  The key difference is this:  I got attached to Harry Potter, but I am the Master Chief.

Maybe I should create a category on this blog called “Nerd Rants.”

Seriously, though, thank you to Dylan Holmes, author of A Mind Forever Voyaging: A History of Storytelling in Video Games, which is where I ran across the EA full page ad.  The book is excellent so far, and I’m looking forward to finishing it.  You can check out the writings of Dylan Holmes on his site augmented-vision.net, and follow him on Twitter @Aerothorn.  Thanks also to video game programmer and commentator Chris Hecker, on whose site I found a full transcription of the ad.

And as always, thank you to all of you for reading.  More to follow.

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