It’s Time For Games To Offer Us Solid Food

By John Walker on April 3rd, 2012 at 5:30 pm.

My nephew demonstrating the consumption of games.

When a 35 year old is in nappies, there are one or two questions to ask. (Like, “Would the big boy like his milky-wilky?”, before the spanking begins.) It’s usually a sign. So why does the 35 year-old video gaming still feel like it’s in its infancy?

We’ve been using the excuse that the medium is so young for as long as I’ve been in this business, and since my career couldn’t be considered youthful any more, gaming sure doesn’t count either. Certainly, the first few films might have been people falling over, but 35 years in and they were making All Quiet On The Western Front. We’re making Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare. So why is that? Does it matter? Is this how games are supposed to be? And who am I to be making such rash generalisations?

Well, I’m a gamer who loves playing games, and I’m a writer who loves writing about games, and there’s something I’m increasingly self-conscious about. It’s the sense of desperation with which we cling to the faintest glimmer of maturity in our game content. Just look at the Mass Effect series. I’ve still got an article perculating in me about how it was the first game to give me a genuine sense of a relationship, with my self-generated-ish arc between Shepard and Garrus. But good heavens, in an industry now as large as the film business, I have one stinking example of that? In 2012 it stood out to me? How is it that I’m not brewing a feature about how disappointing the ME romances were, in light of the complexity with which other narrative-led games approach the matter?

For goodness sake, even Jennifer Aniston movies have more to say about love than all of gaming put together, and what Jennifer Aniston movies have to say about love is, “Durrrrrrrr.” Where is our commentary? Where is our criticism? Where is our subversion? Where is the game that questions governments, challenges society, hell, asks a bloody question? Let alone issues. Good heavens, imagine a game that dealt with issues!

Gosh, Rusks are delicious.

Of course, right now there are many angrily thumping at their monitor, scrawling hate mail to me with their own faeces, for asking games to be those things. And here’s a thought – perhaps, at least to some extent, they’re right. Look at where games began. Games. Ask a writer like the esteemed Stuart Campbell and he’ll angrily (and swearily) point out to you that a game is exactly that: something you play with. Not something that tells you a story. The arcade cabinets of the 70s and 80s didn’t entice you insert coin because you wanted to know whether the priest would recover from his crisis of faith, or if the girl would learn the truth about the balloon’s meaning. You did it to carry on winning. Sure, there are a dozen other articles to be written about whether progression counts as a narrative experience, but even that sentence is enough to cause the Campbells out there to pump red steam from their angry ears. You don’t play Scrabble to spell out a story (but wouldn’t that be brilliant?!), and Kerplunk’s denouement is written from the start. Why should a video game be any different?

Well, because they’re more than that, right? No matter how much it may annoy sweetie-loving Scots, games, however poor the nomenclature, have become more broad. And just as films have the variety to show us John Cena kicking over a building, games can tell us intricate stories about characters and their lives. They’re just, well, awful at it.

Of course there is an excellent, deserved place for your big budget action games. They should exist just as much as big budget action movies should exist. I’m arguing for more, for as well as. I want those, and then I want these, too.

I can list games where I’ve genuinely cared about the characters, and their fates. Beyond Good & Evil, Deus Ex, The Longest Journey, To The Moon, all feature characters whose motivations and destinies meant something to me. And many more. But I still think we’re compromising when we embrace these as our examples of the most meaningful tales, the deepest characters. When we say, “Look, look at this, aren’t we doing brilliantly!” No, we’re not. They’re great games, and I love them, but we can reach far further.

Then there comes the other argument against me: in games, you’re the player. This is never directly analogous with film, and in fact the constant comparison with this strikingly different medium is somewhere between obtuse and lazy. From choosing where to look, to opting to go left instead of right, no matter how illusionary, games possess the possibility for us to tell our own stories, even if it’s along the same set-piece-laden corridor as everyone else. In my playing of the game, I struggled here, died there, and breezed through that tough challenge. You did otherwise. But we all watched the same film, and none of us were challenged in ensuring it continued to its end. That direct, visceral contact is unique, and perhaps it’s enough merit that means games are achieving what they’re intended to achieve. Perhaps games aren’t any more infantile than a set of fridge magnet words in the hands of a poet.

Oh, but they are, aren’t they? If they were mature, or perhaps more so, if it were perceived that the audience were en-mass mature, it wouldn’t seem so impossible and uncommercial for a game to have a gay protagonist. It wouldn’t seem the madness of a maverick loon to have a game that ends in the empty suicide of its main character. We wouldn’t consider a game an indie-art-obscurity for tackling issues of loss, or mental illness, or childhood.

Before the angries do what they do best, I am not, ever, arguing that all games should be like this. I understand and embrace the significant role games play in people’s lives as a source of distraction-entertainment, and I enjoy shooting cans off walls as much as anyone else. I don’t always want that fun to be interrupted by the woes of the anonymous grunt holding the guns up for me, and can get frustrated by needless cutscenes interrupting the experience. Sometimes I want a platformer to just be Dustforce, not bothering me with a motivation for why I’m sweeping up leaves. Sometimes I just want to smash fences in Burnout Paradise, and would pay an extra tenner for a version where DJ Atomic was vapourised into his titular state.

But I also want other games to grow the hell up. This baby food we’ve been eating for the last three decades tastes great – it’s sweet and delicious, and can be eaten through a straw. But dammit, I want to chew. I want a game that’s too difficult for me to understand. I want a game where academics argue over the meaning. I want a game which makes me reconsider a previously well-engrained opinion. I want games to be a medium that merits the mainstream coverage we constantly claim they deserve.

Am I calling games immature? Yes. Am I calling gamers immature for enjoying them? No. Not at all. Nor am I calling those who make games immature. But I think we need to take stock when we find ourselves acclaiming an enormously enjoyable series like Mass Effect as our flagship narrative, and then inevitably cite the twelve-year-old Deus Ex. The youth excuse is over now. Video games are roughly as old as I am, and while I fully intend to continue to be ludicrously immature for the rest of my life, I also find room for greater depths, meaningful experience, tragedy and love, joy and envy.

I want there to continue to be Call Of Duty games. But I also want there to be gaming’s All Quiet On The Western Front. It’s our 1935, and it’s about time it happened.

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263 Comments »

  1. Yor Fizzlebeef says:

    He’s eaten her!
    And now he’s going to eat me!

  2. 0rpheus says:

    Hear bloody hear!

    • rockman29 says:

      Preach it, Walker, preach it!!!

      I think gaming is victimized by the internet, and this is causing stunted growth. Without the internet, and Google, and Top Ten lists, and big advertisers, and big money so many years ago, movies were able to be art first and cash cows later.

      Maybe gaming would have grown up faster if it didn’t expand so fast just at the time where the internet and social media became everything.

  3. philbot says:

    Oh, Gamers just wanna have fuh-unnnn!

  4. MaXimillion says:

    But we do have games that question things and handle complex issues. Just not in mainstream gaming, but it’s not like you get much of that in blockbuster movies either.

    • Swanky says:

      The history of cinema is full of mature mainstream films – it wasn’t until the advent of the blockbuster in the late 70′s that mainstream felt the need to dumb down.

      • MaXimillion says:

        And the current mainstream gaming is trying to emulate hollywood blockbusters, which is precisely why most of it is such bulldung and full of “cinematic experiences”.

        • lurkalisk says:

          Pretty much.

          Though the bigger problem is trying to emulate any sort of movie at all. Games aren’t movies, and trying to mimic the strengths of another medium is probably the worst way to go about making one. I understand that people want more from games than what… I don’t know, Scrabble, can offer, but it seems everyone’s looking at it the wrong way.

          “Well, because they’re more than that, right?”
          No, absolutely not.
          They’re altogether different.

          • BenLeng says:

            Actually the early movies tried to emulate theater instead of playing to their own strengths. Mainly beacause early directors (and audiences) still had to figure out, what the strengths of movies were. I think it’s natural for a new artform to try to emulate an more established one.

          • lurkalisk says:

            But that’s just the problem, videogames aren’t new. We might have gotten somewhere by now if not for the big players in the game, who just keep trying to put ‘winning formulas’ to work, often where they don’t belong.

        • petya says:

          and thus begins the Bulldungsroman of the Video Game

          • N'Al says:

            I hope Bulldungsroman is a deliberate typo – cause it sounds awesome.

    • DuddBudda says:

      I’d say DX was a mainstream game, and there’s a funsies, tongue-in-cheek tale there exploring both Republican and Comskian questions about what Freedom’s value is and just how free we really are in the first world

      ofc, there’s nothing else in the mainstream that attempts a social commentary of that depth; DXHR being comparatively vapid, even if it is unique in tacling actual ‘issues’

  5. Bhazor says:

    For me it’s that games still don’t understand what they’re supposed to be. In particular we have every game trying to be a film to differering degrees. They’re trying to cram a film into a game and it’s the game that suffers with all its interactivity and agency being cut away so that we can have a cutscene of a really cool thing happening. Well cool if you have the mental age of 12 and still use the word cool as a metric of quality.

    To me its like making films that consist of one person reading a book out aloud. Though in many cases that would be an improvement.

    • Thirith says:

      @Bhazor: Not sure your point makes all that much sense to me. “What games are supposed to be…” – I don’t think any medium ever benefited from a blanket statement of “This is what medium x is supposed to be.” Give me such a definition for the novel and I’ll show you novels that completely break with the definition but are still fundamentally important for the medium; same with film. I doubt it’d be different with games. I just don’t see anything worthwhile coming out of normative statements along those lines.

      • Bhazor says:

        Ok. Give me a book intended to be a great dance song.

        • Thirith says:

          Don’t twist my words into something I didn’t say, ‘kay?

          Edit: In terms of interactivity and agency, both Dear Esther and To the Moon are severely limited – yet neither would work the same if transposed to a different medium. If you can give me a good normative definition of what games are supposed to be that addresses cases such as those two, you’re a better man/woman/hyperintelligent shade of blue than I am.

          • MaXimillion says:

            Dear Esther would work the same, or better, if transformed to a film. There’s no meaningful interactivity.

          • Bhazor says:

            @ Thirith

            I don’t see how I’m twisting your words.

            You say there are no limits on what a medium is capable of. I say otherwise.

            A thought experiment:
            Imagine the greatest book ever written. Everyone loves it. It’s everything to everyman. Now imagine a film consisting of that book being read aloud by one guy in front of a featureless wall. That should be the greatest film ever made, right? It isn’t.
            You could read sheet music of the greatest piece of music ever made but that isn’t as good as listening to it being played.
            Lyrics are poetry right? So me reading out the work of Wyatt in a flat monotone is the best song writing there can possibly be, right?

            When you go against the strength of your medium that’s when you truly limit it. In the case of vidjagaymes that involves removing interactivity to turn it into a film.

          • Thirith says:

            @Bhaelor: You’re twisting my words in that you say that any- and everything should be possible. That’s not the case, but you’re talking about specific examples that don’t work. What I’m saying is that there is no general “Games should be X” that doesn’t exclude games that work *as games* but that break those rules, and that therefore fails as a useful definition.

            I’ve asked before: can you give a “Games should be X”-style definition that is concrete enough to be useful but that doesn’t dismiss games such as Dear Esther or To the Moon, both examples of highly limited agency and interactivity?

          • Mman says:

            “Dear Esther would work the same, or better, if transformed to a film. There’s no meaningful interactivity.”

            While I think there are games that have pulled off similar (and better/more varied) things while being more mechanics focused, I wouldn’t have gotten anything out of Dear Esther if I was a casual watcher. I agree with the analysis’ of it that don’t even consider the narrative very important in itself; it was just a way (among several other methods it uses) of portraying a certain aesthetic to the player. Being able to look around the environment on your own terms and go at your own pace is an important part of that, and having no control would have completely removed anything I found interesting.

          • Bhazor says:

            Would Dear Esther be as good if it was a film? Probably.
            Would Dear Esther be better if it was more interactive with genuine exploration instead of walking along a corridor? Definitely.

            As both a film and game the thing is has as much interactivity as reading a book. The only control you have in Ester is when you turn the page.

          • Blackcompany says:

            Never, ever dare someone on the internet to do something you think might be impossible.

            They will, and it isn’t.

        • iainl says:

          Jeff Noon’s Needle In The Groove.

          What?

          • Mungrul says:

            @iainl:
            I absolutely adore Needle in the Groove. Not my favourite Noon book, but damn near close, and as an experiment in portraying melody and rhythm in literature it’s superb.
            And why has the man not published anything recently?

      • field_studies says:

        I tend to agree, and I think John’s been very careful not to suggest anything normative. I also suspect we’d all of us to a (wo)man defend the idea that games can/should be all things. We want racing games with only the thinnest veneer of narrative, and Minecraft-ian games that are abstract and empty and give us building blocks to create our own stories (or just sculptures). And shoot-em-ups too, for when we want an equivalent experience to an afternoon of paintball.

        I think it’s actually the median maturity of gaming that’s at issue here. Yes, we need more new ideas for game design and emergent storytelling, but the situation could also improve a lot by just putting more thought into structures we already have. To the Moon, by all appearances, could have run on the NES, and didn’t do anything structure-wise that wasn’t done in Final Fantasy 1. But here you had a writer who wanted to tell a complicated and morally ambiguous story, and he created something very special.

        I’m a bit behind the times, playing Skyrim right now. I keep seeing glimpses of inspired design. I know this game’s been talked to death, so let me just say that for every immersion-breaking bit of AI behaviour or moments when the world seems not to respond to my choices and actions, there glimmery bits that please me. The dialogue often seems to want to veer into philosophy, sociology, anthropology, even archaeology to name a few. It seems to be telling me that it wants me to think carefully about its embodied world, like I would about the real world.

        My suspicion is that if new technologies are part of the answer to John’s call, then they’re only a very small part (just look at the games he fondly listed). A greater variety of people creating games, perhaps particularly writing games, and with greater talent could make a world of difference.

        And I’m actually quite hopeful. I was deeply into comic books in the mid-nineties—reading, writing and drawing them. There was a lot of mainstream trash, and a slowly growing alternative scene. This moment in gaming feels very much like the mid-nineties in comic books did. If this parallel is apt, then I’ll be looking forward to the next ten years and maybe seeing some of the same things happen, like important games getting more mainstream attention (Pantheon publishing some of the Fantagraphics catalogue), smart and post-modern games that acknowledge the medium’s past and then create something breathtakingly new from it (e.g. Dylan Horrock’s ‘Hicksville’), and in general a medium that gains in confidence—both in its ability to engage a wider and more discerning audience, and in there being an audience who will respond supportively and with critical faculty.

        I think John’s perfectly right to call out games for what they predominantly are, but my gut sense is that we’re near the beginning of a trend that will see (some) games move precisely in the direction he’s hoping they will.

    • Reapy says:

      Was going to make this point as well. Often when books and movies move us emotionally with a mature story, it is because we are sidelined, watching as characters die or take crazy actions or risk everything for something. The characters can be in danger, you can get into their situation of how hectic it was, and more importantly, when something bad happens, you can’t take it back and can’t fix it, it is permanent.

      In a game you are in control. A person is talking to you but you are bouncing the character all over the screen. If something bad happens in a cut scene you feel ripped off that you might have escorted this character all over and now one stray bullet after you have dodged thousands, kills them. Or if you die, after you had just mowed down waves of bad guys, it feels a rip off, not real.

      Worse what if you die mid level, they build tension, the climax of the story is rising, the level starts getting hard and frantic (no difficulty, no threat, no tension) and then you die. Whoops, quick load. Suddenly the threat is gone, it just now is a challenge to overcome, a game, i’m no longer trying to save someone desperately, because I have decided to succeed, because I want the story that way, it will end that way, that heartwarming moment doesn’t exist.

      Gameplay and narration are tugging opposite directions.

      One of the parts of all quiet on the western front that I really remember was how he traversed between bunkers finding them shelled out as he went from one to the other, both times avoiding death by random task. I think games do try to put these sorts of scenes in them, but they are often scripted, and by now we can tell when ‘script mode’ takes over and it doesn’t move us quite like it did when we first saw the technique “mastered” in half life.

      But yeah, the more I think about it, games aren’t grown up, they still think they belong to 14 year olds. The problem with us growing up is that we start having kids and want to share them with our kids, which again limits the market. So while they might have difficult subjects, they are tackled like a hollywood blockbuster, rather than giving the topic its just due.

      So maybe that is really it, not that we lack the scripting tools to tackle topics, but just the will to take the risk on something unproven. At this point I think people should go google the dragon speech and watch Chris Crawford in action. I only saw this I think when it got linked here a little bit ago, and it really moved me, especially at the end, was just beautiful, especially when I think how the industry did get going like he feared. Though sad to follow up to see how his projects turned out.

      • Mman says:

        “In a game you are in control. A person is talking to you but you are bouncing the character all over the screen. If something bad happens in a cut scene you feel ripped off that you might have escorted this character all over and now one stray bullet after you have dodged thousands, kills them.”

        While your other points are potentially sound (I don’t personally agree as, unless the game expects otherwise, I treat saving/loading as something entirely outside of the game and therefore it generally has no impact on my immersion), why are bringing up plain bad writing as some sort of point against games? If gameplay lets the character ping-pong across the screen and dodge bullets then design the narrative in such a way that danger in cutscenes and similar isn’t entirely contrived. Or, hell, put the character in a seemingly “impossible” situation then allow them to fight their way out using their awesome capabilities and tailor the narrative to fit with if they manage this (Deus Ex is an obvious example of this, even if it did end up using a contrived invincible enemy).

      • Lycastus says:

        I see your point about saving/reloading breaking immersion, but at the same time I see that being games giving the player the experience of being the storyteller, as well as the reader. People who create stories don’t stop enjoying them because they know there were other ways it could have played out, the ideas they brainstormed but eventually didn’t use – they enjoy the process, and find satisfaction in choosing the most stimulating option.

        This is, in some ways, one of gaming’s more unique virtues. I look back on my Shepard’s Mass Effect story fondly, both as a personal role-play experience I had in-character, and as a story I wrote for her. I was both actor and director, and it was fun to be both.

  6. Swanky says:

    In order for this to happen you need make games with engaging characters and not just rock-hard space marines/pouting dominatrixes. (Dominatrxi? Dominatrixes’s? Someone here will know)

    • Bhazor says:

      Dominatrixeseseseses

    • yabonn says:

      The world was young (or was it me?) , and Prince of Persia had just reborn, in 3D. Strangely -and I am nearly sure I haven’t hallucinated this – it had witty dialogues.

      The world was young and they said PoP 2 would be more ‘mature’. I waited. I was interested. It came out : the mature was more steel thong and less funny funnies. Then I understood that games are dumbasses, for ever.

  7. cqdemal says:

    Fantastic piece, couldn’t agree more. But that last picture of the kid is terrifying.

    • John Walker says:

      It’s my favourite pic I ever took of Wil.

      • Saarlaender39 says:

        I have some similiar pics of my little boy. The whole face and the hands covered in chocolate…and this happy smile on his face…”Look, Daddy…you see I can eat all alone?”
        (Not to mention the chocolate stained table, chair and wallpaper) ;)

        • Bhazor says:

          Uncomfortable truth of parenthood no parent wants to acknowledge:

          Your child is indistinguishable from any other child who has ever lived.

          • HothMonster says:

            Not true, some people have particularly ugly babies.

            That statement is not meant to apply to that baby he looks either cute or menacing depending on the picture.

      • katinkabot says:

        Is he wearing a White Sox bib??? Because…uh…represent!

      • deke913 says:

        I still look that way after I eat.

    • Perjoss says:

      It’s ok, I think its just chocolate

  8. HermitUK says:

    Empty suicide of the main character? Sounds like Call of Cthulhu to me. The bonus being that the later levels of the game are so awful, they actually drive the player mad right along with the character. Genius.

    • Phantoon says:

      When you say it that way, you make it sound like that was all intentional!

  9. Muffalopadus says:

    Hmm. I recall reading something about this recently somewhere else.

    If you haven’t yet, go learn how to play Dwarf Fortress. There’s a game that’s worth chewing on.

    • Dozer says:

      Dwarf Fortress is chewy in the same way that concrete is chewy. I love it.

      • Mungrul says:

        FUUUUUUUUUUUU
        I just submitted a massive reply to this supporting the message that DF does so much right and then offering my own idea for a mature game, but the bastard comments system ate it with no chance of recovery.
        Basically, game idea:
        Anyone out there with the inclination to make this a reality, take it and run with it. I don’t have the ability to make it, but I’d love to see such a thing exist.
        The idea is to have a hyper-violent, reasonably short FPS where the player infiltrates a building in order to steal something. The shooting and killing is fun, with lots of lethal toys made available, but the twist comes after the credits when the game picks one of the player’s victims at random and forces the player to play through the events of that day leading up to their death, such as waking up grumpy and barking at the wife and kids, eating breakfast, enduring the commute to work, joshing with colleagues, then finally meeting an end at the hands of the player.
        It’s a one-shot twist, easily spoiled, but I think that due to the nature of games, it could have an impact that just wouldn’t be possible in any other medium.

        • Mman says:

          “but the twist comes after the credits when the game picks one of the player’s victims…”

          The game “Nier” does something very close this, although saying much else is a major spoiler.

        • terazeal says:

          I like the idea of jumping between different characters for each section of the game, which each character being mere background in the story of the previous one. Giving each of the sections different gameplay would also be cool.

      • Ralphomon says:

        DF is so chewy, it’s still alive, and has claws and fangs, and menaces with spikes of iron (on it is carved the image of a cheese in petrified wood), and in order to start chewing it you have to hunt it down, wrestle it to the ground and throttle it to death.

  10. Drinking with Skeletons says:

    The problem is that experimenting doesn’t often yield results. I postponed playing Dragon Age II for so long because the player reception–not the critical reception–was so toxic. I started this past weekend and, while the game could certainly fall apart before the end, I’ve been incredibly pleased. I like the voiced protagonist, I’ve enjoyed the meandering story that emphasizes characters over plot, I like the new art direction, I’ve been incredibly pleased with the characters, and I’ve been impressed by just how confident the game is.

    It is deeply flawed as a game, though. The combat just isn’t as good as in Origins, largely due to the wave-based combat, which is highlighted by the rare instances when the game throws an honest-to-goodness pre-made encounter your way (a lone ogre in the Deep Roads managed to ruin my day without any backup because they put him in a good spot for an ambush without feeling cheap). The lack of companion inventory management is bizarre; I can name plenty of other games that keep characters distinct while allowing armor adjustments, so their excuse is weak. The skill trees are far less accessible than in Origins; it looks like they loaded them into a shotgun and blasted them onto the leveling screen.

    Yet those flaws are what sank the game in the eyes of players, and I’m sure that fan reaction is what put the kibosh on the expansion. What will Dragon Age III be like? Will it iron out the wrinkles? Will it reflexively revert to Origin-style, well, everything? Will the developers be bold again or will they give us a generic fantasy plot–a la Neverwinter Nights–because they think that’s all their fans want?

    • HermitUK says:

      Without giving much away I did feel that the narrative folds in on itself in the final act. It still has some really clever moments, but they’re undermined by silliness elsewhere. My big disappointment was how little the storytelling mechanic was used; the draw was supposed to be seeing the long-term impacts of the player’s choices on the world around him as time progresses, giving the player choices with delayed consequences (Something The Witcher pulls off very well, for instance). But outside of one or two decisions nothing you do actually changes how the city evolves.

      For instance, in act 1 there’s a quest where you can end up pissing off a councillor who threatens revenge. I was expecting him to block my family’s request to reclaim their old estate, or something. But no, he’s never mentioned again.

      It’s a game with choices, but little in the way of consequences, because the significant events of Hawke’s life are already scripted in all but detail – DA2 felt like one long Origin Story.

      And you’re spot on about the combat. It felt like such a step back because you couldn’t consider fights tactically at all; you just had to rush in and let the respawns surround you.

      • Kent says:

        Roleplaying were never supposed to arrive to the computer at all. All good roleplaying happens only at the roleplaying table where the players can make choices and see logical consequences for their actions. Games can make choices and consequences but it is always in prepackaged forms.

        The Witcher’s format worked because Geralt were his own character and couldn’t do more than the prepackaged choices because that would stray from his character.

        In games such as mass effect, the character: Shepherd is much less well defined because BioWare wanted his traits to be chosen by the players and as such the developers of Mass Effect struggle with making meaningful decisions and outcomes.

        Dragon Age II is in the middle of these two games, where Hawke were supposed to be his own character as well as allowing his traits to be chosen by the players. Of course this were like having the cake and eating it too and didn’t work at all.

        Personally I think Dragon Age II were rushed and doesn’t live up to its intended concept at all, and that was where the game ultimately failed. But still: Games are not made for working with consequences and even tabletop players are often incredibly pragmatic and immature, so often they don’t like consequences to their actions – but the only medium that has the consequence strength is the tabletop gaming.

        Computer gaming is about presenting challenges and puzzles towards the player and little else. You can cram a Shakespearian story into it if you got good enough writers but few developers are willing to let this story hinder the gameplay. And that is understandable. Try to run a standard D&D game on a forums and see how well that goes. I tried and the game sucked. Then I did it more like how an choose your adventure book would have been written and it worked much better.

        I’m not finished but this got a lot longer than it should so I’ll stop here.

    • InternetBatman says:

      It isn’t the experimentation that is the problem. Most people praised the Varric parts and the idea of a city and narrative over time. The problem is that the innovations weren’t fully or even partially executed. There are very few Varric narratives, and the city never changes.

      Also the narrative suffers as many flaws as the combat design. There are too many times when you are gated into an outcome no matter what you decided before. It’s a narrative of meaningless choice with no consequence. The game isn’t good enough to create even the thin illusion that you’re in the world or part of the story.

    • Brun says:

      I wouldn’t even call Dragon Age 2 experimentation. It was a moneymaking device rushed to market in 12 months to exploit the popularity of the Dragon Age IP.

      • HermitUK says:

        I think BioWare had some really good ideas they planned to incorporate, but it’s clear EA’s schedules are doing their games no favours. It’s a shame they’re not in the Blizzard position of being able to just say “it’s done when it’s done”.

    • Bremze says:

      No, paper thin characters straight out of a fanfic, horrid plot with more holes than swiss cheese and “choices” that don’t matter one jot sank the game. Terrible combat, encounter design and a single dungeon, that you have to visit for most side quests, albeit from a different enterance was just icing on the cake.

      The idea itself was decent, and the female guard, that joins your party early on was comparitively interesting what with not being a horrible stereotype and not having daddy issues afaik, but the rest is… yeah.

  11. Captain Loco says:

    “Where is the game that questions governments, challenges society, hell, asks a bloody question?”

    I think Red Dead Redemption’s narrative was extremely thematically mature, and the narratives of most Rockstar games serve as counter to their seemingly immature trappings.

    That said, it’s nothing that hasn’t been done on film before. In most cases, “narrative in games” usually means the film that’s been mashed together with the game.

    • Perjoss says:

      Speaking of Red Dead Redemption **and major ending spoiler incoming** thank you R* for having the balls to do what so many games designers never will and kill off the main character, it was both a shocking and tearful moment for me and reminded me of one of my favorite things I get from gaming, which is emotion.

      • thegooseking says:

        It wasn’t just the death of the character, though. That was what was so good about it. All throughout the game you’re hearing about how this Old West way of life is dying (I think it’s no accident that it was set in 1911 rather than in the Old West’s 19th century heyday). What Marston’s death represents is the tragic triumph of gentrification. Marston’s titular redemption was a conversion from a life of crime to honest work, and the tragedy is not so much that he died, but that his redemption came too late, because urbanisation and gentrification were seriously threatening that honest way of life.

        • Reapy says:

          Wow yes very well said. I often wanted to go back and find his quote where I believe he was talking about how he didn’t belong in the world anymore and the time for people like him had passed. Then take that quote and put it right on top of those fucking barn doors being opened.

  12. arccos says:

    Good points, but to me it’s the equivalent of asking 35 years in why movies weren’t in 3D yet. The technology doesn’t yet exist to experience a story in a way that you can actually influence it outside of what is hard coded. Maybe we won’t have it until some real strong progress in artificial intelligence. Facade and the Sims are stand outs in this area already, but they seem to be prototypes of where stories in games need to be, rather than an end point.

    As far as stories in games simply being good stories, there are a few. Very few, but then there weren’t a dozen All Quiet’s coming out every week, either. They’re generally adventure or IF games, since those can get away with a narrative that has its pacing controlled and have minimal branching.

    • Muffalopadus says:

      Absolutely not. Movies can be mature within their own media, without the aid of high tech devices. There were compelling special effects before CGI, and there can be complicated games before this supposed future-tech thing stuff.

      • dreadpirateryu says:

        The only problem with what you are saying, is that games are a completely different medium with completely different requirements. In order for a game to truly respond to how a person interacts with it, there does need to be more advances in technology, specifically artificial intelligence, to facilitate that. Games can’t understand what you’re doing until someone comes along and teach it how to understand, which is a difficult question many intelligent people have been trying to solve for a very long time.

        The only other way for a game to be highly interactive is purely through volumes and volumes of writing with triggers that bring that writing out. The more interactive the game is, the more writing has to be done. This can even be done to the point of basically writing multiple stories. In any game that has any decent length, this would take an incredible amount of time to write, edit, re-do, etc. Normal books take long enough. The content creation to do that is staggering, and one of the reasons that games tend to be so linear.

        If you look at some older games, such as Fallout or Baldur’s Gate, you can see this extra work being done. For example with Fallout 2 at the very least, under certain circumstances you can change the dialog trees of your character for the entire game, as well as dialog trees of other people. You can have large events happen that change the world. But these require lots of writing, lots of scripted events, triggers that chain into separate paths. It is technically still feasible to have this level of interactivity, but it is difficult and only rarely demonstrated.

        • dysphemism says:

          But John’s asking for deeper, more subversive ideas from games — he wasn’t so specific as to say “games need more interactive storytelling.” A game doesn’t have to react to your actions deeply in order to offer up thought-provoking scenarios.
          For instance, take Call of Duty. Add no dialogue trees, no interaction besides what it already has (i.e. bullets). But throw a mission in there where you switch perspectives, where you’re the one with the AK, pounding across the dust to rush a heavily-armed special forces operative. Would you add a cutscene that might humanize this character? Might the role-reversal highlight the technological superiority that the player once wielded and the relative powerlessness of this individual combatant?
          Obviously that would be an incredibly controversial move, even if it was treated with an even hand to humanize without being political propaganda. That would be a Big Idea, easily implemented. Games are afraid to do that now.
          (Note: No political agenda here. I really only ran with the CoD thing because that seems to be used as the zero point for “games with ideas.” I would argue CoD does have ideas, albeit they’re so ubiquitous they tend to be dismissed as not being “ideas” at all, and that a game of the same format can be challenging and subversive without hugely altering that format. All you have to do is defy expectation, and at the very least you reveal the ideas that were implicit in the thing all along. And that’s powerful.)

          • John Walker says:

            Actually, what I didn’t mention above is that the original Call Of Duty got closer to actually saying something than most games.

          • dysphemism says:

            I actually have always felt the same way. The intro and the “I survived a nuke… wait, no I didn’t” scene come to mind, but ESPECIALLY the AC-130 mission, which was thought-provoking and more than a little chilling. Really underrated moments in gaming history, I think.

            Shame it came completely and utterly off the rails in the sequel (I assume it’s remained so, but stopped playing after 2). I really was deeply saddened by that shift in its underlying message about war.

            (EDIT: Wait, did you mean original Call of Duty, or original Modern Warfare? Either way, I agree. However, I do think the AC-130 mission of MW1 wins out as it was one of those rare instances where a game conveys meaning more effectively than a movie; it really highlighted the disconnection and the videogame-likeness of killing in the era of smart-bomb and drone warfare.)

          • Ringwraith says:

            The first Call of Duty game (no, not Modern Warfare with its nuke, that was no. 4) was great, it really had some nice moments which were merely about soldiers being put in insane situations, like driving a car they found lying around through enemy lines just to relay a message to their HQ.
            The Brothers in Arms games possibly picked up the character-driven war story better than it did afterwards.

    • DrGonzo says:

      I disagree simply because a few games do/have had more mature stories where you care about the characters. I’m sure it can get much better with superior technology, but what we need more than anything is better or more ‘mature’ writing in games.

    • thegooseking says:

      I tend to feel that the barrier is not so much technological as it is theoretical. Film grew up quicker because there are clear analogues between a film and a stage play, and identifying how film differed from stage was a much easier task. Likewise with television: television began as “visual radio” and grew into its own medium from there. Like Marshall McLuhan said, new media always use old media as content until they find their own forms.

      We need to identify how videogames differ from… what, exactly? What is the antecedent medium of videogames? There aren’t any clear analogues. You could say film is the antecedent, because meaning is conveyed in a mimetic, audiovisual way (though not in all games), but that’s obviously flawed, since interaction (and, importantly, not just in the sense of agency) plays an important part. You could say board games and sports are the antecedent, but that’s somewhat reductive since videogames are obviously very different from those.

      One thing that occurs to me, and the reason there may be some difficulty here, is that videogames might not be a medium; maybe they are a collection of distinct media. I think this is the reason the concept of ‘genre’ in games is so different to the concept of genre in other media: It’s actually encompassing medial differences as well as genre differences. So there might not be a one-size-fits-all definition of how videogames differ from their antecedent medium, because different videogame media might have different antecedent media.

      • Brise Bonbons says:

        While I don’t have a firm answer (re: game antecedents), my initial attempt is: Game-simulations. This is a broad category itself, (if a category at all), encompassing everything from tabletop RPGs to war games (reaching back to chess, but also including the simulated exercises carried out by modern generals, and training simulations), perhaps even some sports (where they simulate or mirror another activity through abstract rules: Jousting, biathlon).

        I don’t think that “game” encompassing multiple medias is a problem. Comics integrate elements of literature and drawing. Animation straddles drawing, painting, and film. 3D animation brings in elements of sculpture, etc.

        Personally, I think games will eventually drop most of the baggage they’ve brought after their trip to Hollywood. Once simulation and AI is powerful enough, cutscenes will seem passe compared to a virtual world that is just as bombastic, but responds to you in real time.

        Until technology allows for such emergent narratives through true simulation, I see the best intimation of the future of games (and their core “muscle”, trimmed of the film, TV, and literature fats) can be found in narrative-spawning “simulations” like Dwarf Fortress, Crusader Kings (perhaps? I have not played it, but mean to), and sandbox RPGs such as EvE. Personally I think the fixation on cinematic experiences, dialog trees, and dialog in general is a distraction. Narratives can be fully explored without obsessing over every word said by every individual; word-sparse but emotion-rich spaces are ignored to our detriment.

        Attempt 3 to post this comment – now edited greatly for wordiness.

  13. Bluerps says:

    I hope someone finds a way to create such a game in the mainstream. At the moment, I fear that the people with the money can’t be convinced that a mature game will sell.

    • TheWhippetLord says:

      But surely, since The Second Coming of Schaefer, the people with the money are the gamers. Therefore the problem, is us, man.

      Edit: Serious point btw : I think kickstarter-esque thingies are a great opportunity for the maturity of the industry to be controlled outside big sweaty boardrooms. The effect can be overstated, but giving money to people who make deeper games is surely good, if we wish such things to be.

      • Bluerps says:

        Kickstarter projects are great, but they do have their limits. I don’t think that they will become much bigger than what Double Fine already got – and that money would not be enough for a, for example, second Psychonauts (according to Schafer).

      • Skabooga says:

        Speaking of Schafer, going to throw in some love for perennial favorite Grim Fandango and its thematic maturity. Looking past the humor and style, the narrative does revolve around some pretty heavy ideas on death and fear and greed.

  14. dysphemism says:

    Bravo, Mr. Walker. And thanks for this great piece.

    I know there are many who will cry out that the complexity posed by player-choice makes what you’re talking about a difficult proposition. But I think:
    a) If companies were as interested in narrative (or, even more broadly, “meaning”) as they are in graphics, this problem wouldn’t seem so insurmountable;
    b) We need to recognize that games always convey ideas, so it’s silly to think that conveying Big Ideas is an onerous burden when, at its most basic, it might only require a shift in focus. We simply need to think more deeply about what messages we’ve been sending (over and over and over again), and consider what else might be worth saying. That is, the challenge you’re posing need not be a technical one so much as it is a challenge to be more thoughtful and fearless in design.

  15. ColOfNature says:

    We’re getting there. The medium isn’t as young as it was, true, but the barriers to entry have always been higher – or at least they’ve been perceived to be higher, and perception is everything in this (ha!) game. It was never as easy to play a game then sit at the keyboard and make your own as it was to watch a film and then get hold of a camera and shoot something. And while the standard of storytelling is still pretty poor, at least it’s heading in the right direction: gaming is (arguably, perhaps) a more populist medium than film – the non-gamer still generally views it as a pastime for children – but our stories are gradually evolving while much of film is, I’d suggest, heading the other way.

  16. Dervish says:

    How many of these “It’s time for games to be… more” articles have we had by now? I wouldn’t mind so much but they never seem to say anything substantial.

    You don’t play Scrabble to spell out a story (but wouldn’t that be brilliant?!)

    It’s funny because you just mentioned Peter Molydeux here on RPS and this idea would fit right in with his. No, it wouldn’t be brilliant, because no one has bothered to think through how it would work (take it at face value and you can play this right now with your friends–it’s the same game with more annoying word restrictions). And you can say, “Oh well it wasn’t really a serious suggestion,” but that’s the best we ever get out of articles like this: question marks that are supposed to “start a discussion” or whatever without any serious consideration for how games function and the implications thereof. That’s not worth much, and it’s just lazy, especially considering you’re calling everyone else out for not trying hard enough.

    Incidentally, David Jaffe (of all people, right?) took a stab at the “player” problem and did a better job at actually providing some analysis.

    http://criminalcrackdown.blogspot.com/2011/03/trouble-with-being-batman.html

    • John Walker says:

      While I obviously have to apologise for popping over to your house and taking that shit in your kitchen drawer, thus your being so remarkably angry with me, I’m not sure my making a throwaway silly remark about an impossible Scrabble game is *quite* the nub of the article.

      The extension of your argument is that in order to comment on the current nature of games, I have to go and make a better one. That’s entirely fallacious.

      Let me explicitly put in the tacit bit you think is missing:

      “Developers should work harder on stories, and have character arcs that are meaningful, with depth and honesty in their dialogue and motivations, with more carefully established worlds, histories, and consequences. They should comment on reality, ask questions about the present social norms, and expand our knowledge and ambitions.”

      • Blackcompany says:

        Well said, though I did sort of think this (now explicitly stated) message was implicit in your article from the first, Mr. Walker.
        .
        Well said all round.

      • Dervish says:

        I’m not angry at anyone, just faulting all of these articles for being unspecific. It’s easy to make vague, nigh-inarguable statements like “Writing in games could be a lot better!” Even if you say that you want games to question social norms, do you just want speeches or cutscenes that deliver those messages in essentially the same way books and movies do?

        Suppose you say “Well that’d be a good start.” Okay. You can fault me for not grasping that tacit position, but there’s still a big difference between the idea of a game having serious themes/messages and what on Earth the game version of All Quiet on the Western Front would be like. Better writing, better world, better characters may simply not be enough to get there from here due to issues like that of player interaction, which Jaffe discusses.

        I think this article, like many others of its type, conflates a fairly straightforward issue–lack of unconventional characters, perspectives, opinions, etc. in games–with a much thornier one: how (if at all) a game can provide the sense of a meaningful relationship, to say nothing of “tragedy and love.”

      • NathanH says:

        I reckon if we’re going to meet your goals in a good way we need to come up with some better way of merging the story/whatever with the gameplay. Often it’s a case of game-nongame-game-nongame sequences, and if we just expand the nongame chunks to what’s necessary for what you want, it’s going to mess up a bunch of things. I’m not smart enough to think of solutions, but I’m sure someone else is.

        • Hidden_7 says:

          Pathologic has always been my touchstone for the way forward for maturity in games. There was all sorts of bonkers philosophical ideas being bandied about in the text and complex themes being dealt with and that’s all fine and good, but the translation being what it was, I didn’t get a lot of it. What I DID get was the feeling of oppression and helplessness and toil at fighting the plague that all came about via game mechanics.

          You only had barely enough time to get things done in a given day, and take care of your own health, and even then not always. You usually ended each day a little worse off than you started having only just gotten your tasks done and every day necessary items got harder to get and more expensive. The game gave you a puzzle to overcome, and only just enough resources to barely solve that puzzle in a not quite satisfying way. You were overcoming, but only just, and that gave a desperate sense to the entire procedings.

          This was then all combined with the narrative context of the tasks you were doing, and the changing world design, and art direction, and having characters die, so it all worked together to create this sense of foreboding hopelessness, but the core of it was putting the player into a rule system, with the understanding that the way the player was forced to interact with that rules system would communicate ideas to the player and elicit certain emotions.

          That for me, is where gaming gets its strength, what gaming can do uniquely, and the avenue best explored to find gaming’s maturity.

    • dysphemism says:

      To be fair, what Jaffe’s responding to really is whether games should take their cues from linear, non-interactive narrative like film. And he’s right, obviously they shouldn’t.

      That doesn’t let games off the hook, though — they obviously still are capable of evoking thoughts and feelings from their players. They do it differently than film, but they do it nonetheless. And the trend thus far has been to evoke only aggression, exhilaration, and empowerment. It’s fun! But games are capable of more — for my part, I think loss is an issue that’s rarely explored, and is a good candidate. It’s an issue everyone deals with at some point in their lives, and it’s healthy to think about loss in a simulated environment every so often.

      • Dervish says:

        It is worth thinking about. Not just that it is isn’t explored, but why that might be. Jaffe’s point is still relevant—the perception of loss as a sad thing that happens out of your control to a character on screen is very different than it happening to “you” (your character) in an interactive simulation. That’s the sort of question I’d like to see more articles about, not just people lamenting that there isn’t enough loss in games today.

        • Phantoon says:

          Yeah. Loss is handled pretty shallow in most recent games, like Dragon Age 2, which kills a sibling before you even know them and you’re supposed to feel sad.

          That’s bad storytelling.

    • Blackcompany says:

      I almost like the article linked to there. It is intelligent and well thought out. And it does a good job of quantifying the problem of differing neural activity from one medium of entertainment to another. I understand his points on that as well, and they are good ones.
      .
      Unfortunately, it also falls short in one category.
      .
      The author begins with the assumption that you are playing as a well known protagonist in a world that is familiar to you from other media. Implied herein, is that you would expect to feel the same emotions in regards to character in setting, as a result of playing a game, as you would feel were you experiencing the world through another medium – say movie, or graphic novel. The author then explains that this isn’t possible. And he is correct, as I understand it, from his and other, similar exercises in the study of brainwave activity.
      .
      That’s all well and good, as far as it goes. But then he goes on to cite the emotions and their related stimuli that he believes games can instill in others. And you know what? They are largely the same ones game developers have regurgitated since the origins of video games on the 8-bit machines of bygone days. Terror, tension, joy, discovery and the satisfaction of team work. The same emotions games have invoked for years and even decades.
      .
      The author then posits that, if games can indeed make a player feel emotions similar to those evoked by movies – they can – he does not know how it would happen. At least he is honest here. And if he would like to know a bit more about making a player feel a powerful sense of loss, a crippling sadness, a sense of genuine mystery or a strong desire to investigate the unknown, perhaps he should study some modern games outside of the world of AAA development.
      .
      Ruins can make a person feel so profound a sadness that six months after “playing” this story game it still brings tears to my eyes. Bastion drove me ever onward as much so I could come to understand that ruined world and the catastrophe that struck it as because I enjoyed playing it (I did.) The Witcher 2 frustrated me with the results of some of the choices I made while playing not because I felt them wrong, but because the consequences, while they made sense in the context of that world, were not quite what I expected. (You know, like what happens in real life sometimes.)
      .
      Evoking emotions in games – powerful, movie and narrative type emotional reactions, that is – is not only possible in games. Its done all the time. By mixing in healthy dose of player control with careful story-driven cut scenes and meaningful choices, games can evoke powerful emotions of all sorts. By revealing the truth of your story and the foundations of your world a little at a time, one can evoke a powerful sense of awe and wonder in a gamer. Shivering Isles was Bethesda’s sole victory in this regard, and both Bastion and the Witcher games do this well.
      .
      By telling detailed stories of other characters in your game world the player can come to sense the losses they suffered, the hurts felt by the people in your world. By hinting at greater depth and letting the player imagine the story, you can invoke a sense of mystery and even suspense.
      .
      Games can evoke all sorts of emotions. The problem is not the game. Its not even the results of EKG and other tests run on gamers. The problem is not one of limitations either on neural responses or neural activity.
      .
      The problem is gamers who do not want these things, and the degree to which they make up the market. So long as the majority of players just want to press X and win, well…that’s what large, investor-driven corporations that happen to make games will produce. Only by not playing games can we determine what games we will get to play.

      • liquidsoap89 says:

        I remember reading an editorial on PCG about (well, kind of about) Bulletstorm. Now I have only played the demo of this game, but from what I can gather it seems like a rollercoaster ride with guns. I remember the writer discussing how he HATED having his control taken away from him so that he could see something “cool” (which is really just the developers wanting you to see what they’ve made). The point of the editorial was about how there will always be people who just want to shoot people in the face. They don’t want to have control taken away from them to see their character jump across falling buildings, they want to turn around and shoot their teammate in the face repeatedly, they want to run in to the washroom and flush the toilets/turn on the taps, they want to pick up the pop cans and throw them at lowly citizens. And he made the point that these people shouldn’t just be ignored because they’re not following the rules so to speak. While I more or less agree with what he’s saying (I don’t believe those who just want to play a game should be ignored), I do think it’s this clash of opinions of what a game should DO that causes this disparity between “good” narrative games and “Call of Duty” games.

        There was also an interview I read a long time ago (definitely recommend trying to find it somehow) with one of the lead designers of Far Cry 2. He was discussing how most developers will make their game, and have the writers kind of… Add their narrative over the game itself. And he went in to detail about how this method of “game first, movie second) severely limits what you can really DO with the story. His solution was to get the writers in at the start of the games development, and to have them give a much more significant say in the game’s development. Basically trying to form the game itself around the narrative. Which I’m sure in many cases could be a disaster if the game part itself isn’t up to snuff, but seems to be what many of us WANT our games to be like.

        It seems that the interview might have disappeared, I’ll continue to search!

        EDIT: Actually now that I think about FC2, there’s some (slight) political issues in a game! Hurray for maturity!

  17. NathanH says:

    Of course, there’s no reason whatsoever that some video games can’t be “mature” (I don’t like this word, as I will discuss later). There is plenty of room for such “icing”. I think there needs to be some work done on good ways of designing video games so that the icing doesn’t get in the way of the game, though. Then you’re definitely onto a winner, because you’ve got the fact that games are great just for being games, and then you add the meaningful/funny/insightful/wacky/whatever icing over the top of it in a non-intrusive way. Sure gain. A problem we have at the moment is that the “icing” tends to be an alternative to playing the game (cutscenes, game-free dialogue, etc), and so you get, quite understandable, arguments emerging. We need to think harder about how to mix the icing with the game, rather than keep them separate.

    “It’s the sense of desperation with which we cling to the faintest glimmer of maturity in our game content.”

    You’re right, this is definitely a problem. I’ve said I don’t like the word maturity in this context. It seems to suggest, as does this quoted sentence, that some people, particularly those who write authoratively on the subject, are a bit embarrassed about their hobby. Part of this is, of course, that people who don’t like the hobby are quick to judge its maturity for you. I don’t think the answer is surrendering to them. At work last week one of my colleagues expressed incredulity that I played video games (“How old are you?!”). I didn’t reach for my closest desperate example of the “maturity” of video games as an art form blah blah blah. I explained why I liked games. This usually works.

    Short version:

    1) There’s no reason that the sort of icing on the game cake that you want shouldn’t be catered for
    2) More work needs to be done in intergrating icing with the game cake, rather than presenting them separately (if the icing can be integrated on top of the cake, I can ignore the icing if it’s too pretentious or whatever for me, and so on; there’s no struggle for attention between game and “meaning”)
    3) We shouldn’t be so quick to surrender to the game-deriders by calling gaming immature when it is no more or less immature than hundreds of other hobbies that wouldn’t give in to the enemy so easily.

  18. Blackcompany says:

    Thank you for saying this. Articles like these keep me coming to this site.
    .
    And truly, this needed saying. Games do need to grow up. Games such as Deus Ex and the Witcher/Witcher 2 have proven conclusively that an audience exists that strongly desires – and will pay for, as opposed to pirate – mature, adult-oriented games. More than one million sales of Witcher 2 on PC alone, and its gone gold on XBOX sight (almost) unseen to boot.
    .
    I am confident there are more like us. People who want to agonize over the consequences of the decisions they made in games. Fallout New Vegas proves the popularity of a game where decisions matter and Witcher 2 once again backs it up as well. These games do sell.
    .
    Except…except devs (or more likely, their big publishing house masters) do not seem to see this. So long as they can continue to repackage the same game every year, they will simply keep selling only these titles. So long as these rehashed titles continue to sell so well, its all we are likely to get from so-called AAA publishers and developers.
    .
    Which is unfortunate, because as indies and Kickstarter are proving to the world, there is an enormous and largely untapped market available demanding mature games with content oriented toward an adult audience. That market is sitting there, waiting to be tapped by some eager developer. CDProjeckt has now twice proven that there is money to be made in that market.
    .
    So why isn’t anyone else listening?

    • Perjoss says:

      We can hope that a brilliant lead games designer is bored over the next few hours and reads this, and who just so happens to be looking for inspiration for his / her next masterpiece :)

    • InternetBatman says:

      I wouldn’t call the Witcher a mature game. You play an adolescent power fantasy with the goal of hooking up with as many women as possible.

      • Jimbo says:

        That’s how I play life, I’m just not very good at it.

      • V. Profane says:

        You haven’t actually played it, have you?

      • HothMonster says:

        I think there was a level of maturity in the greyness of the world. There was never a good or evil decision, it was all shades of grey and usually someone was getting fucked. I think it added some weight to your decisions and made you think of the consequences and compare that to the benefits of choosing said option. Sometimes you had to hurt good people to do good things, sometimes you were unclear as to the ramifications and the game would later show you the consequences for not thinking something through. It is leaps and bounds ahead of most games that clearly lay out the good/bad dichotomy and make it clear which is which and doing good thigns always has good results. Sure sometimes they throw a neutral option were you say “I don’t care just pay me” but its not really the greyness of the bleak world the witcher plays out in.

        Unfortunately there are a lot of boobies in that game and people argue that the sexual content makes it mature or makes it particularly immature. Boobies give a game a “mature” rating but have little consequence on the maturity of the subject matter and the world at large. Boobs alone do not make something mature or not it is the fiction, the world, the characters and in games the choice. The boobs were the least mature thing in the witcher, really Devs boobies trading cards? Gotta collect um all!

        • InternetBatman says:

          I don’t think moral greyness or forced difficult decisions automatically makes a work more mature. It just makes it morally grey. That sounds a bit simplistic, but I think there can be interesting decisions that aren’t difficult and vice-a-versa. A great example of this is the factions of Planescape Torment. You don’t have to join any of them, but they offer an interesting philosophical quandary.

          • HothMonster says:

            I won’t argue that. I just hate seeing people say “the witcher is mature” only to be countered with “Boobies are not mature.” As if what gave the game a mature rating is why people think the game is made for mature audiences. That last sentence sounds fuzzier than I want it too but I think my above comment explains it fine.

    • John Walker says:

      Cheers.

      Also, you know you don’t have to do those full stops to keep the paragraphs separate, right?

      • Blackcompany says:

        Thanks for letting me know about the stops. Handy info to have. I abhor walls of words.

        And the Witcher may not be the most mature game but honestly, there is far more to it than the now-popular internet meme dubbing it an adolescent power fantasy. There are choices and consequences in the story of the Witcher that really change what happens in the game and the path you end up on.

        And the Witcher 2 does an even better job of presenting a mature story aimed at thinking adults. The sex is downplayed for whatever reason and its a praise-worthy decision. But the Witcher 2 is a game I would recommend to any adult gamer who is sick of the typical fare. Well worth the time.

      • Dozer says:

        There’s.too.many.forums.which.are.cavalier.about.removing.the.user’s.whitespaces.
        .
        It’s.very.irritating.
        .
        I.reflexively.press.shift-enter.when.I.want.a.newline.now..Facebook.has.conditioned.me.

  19. Calabi says:

    I was, thinking about this, I’m getting bored of games in general. We’re getting games with less freedom and like you say no bite to them(and generic as hell).

    The new consoles are probably going to be released next year, I reckon they are going to tank, if the companies just keep making the previous games except slightly better like they are doing.

    • Brun says:

      If they tank it will be because the hardware upgrades aren’t enough to be noticeable. Both Microsoft and Sony seem to be seriously underestimating what people expect of a new console generation. People expect an evolutionary leap in graphical fidelity when they go from one generation to the next, and I’m not sure that they’ll be able to deliver that with the frankly mediocre hardware that’s rumored to be powering Durango and PS4.

      • shizamon says:

        I think they’ll tank because you supposedly won’t be able to play used games on them, therefore borrowed games. They will always require an internet connection, and game prices will be fixed at the higher price point for longer.

        Hardware wise, they’ll have closer to PC hardware, easier for devs, so I think they’d be able to squeeze quite a bit out of that. They don’t have to worry about things that PC developers do, different hardware, memory, OS other software running, etc.

  20. alex_v says:

    Inspiring piece of writing. I think ‘maturity’ doesn’t just have to mean content for grown-ups, which implies a sort of po-faced oscar-worthy approach. It can apply to design just as much as story content, as I’m sure Stuart Campbell would argue. Or aesthetic elements – painting and music can have maturity without slapping a soap opera of emotion in them.

    I think we have to find maturity in the way we approach games, first and foremost. We need to be able to find, if not beauty, then at least the mature intention in games. And that goes for browser games just as much as shooters. If we found and responded to the games that do exist in a more mature way, then it would encourage the creators to play to that audience.

  21. coffeetable says:

    Considering the number of games that hinge on the idea of revolution against a corrupt authority, it says a lot that few ever go beyond good/evil.

    The thing is, it really wouldn’t take much to make the games you’re asking after. Insert a mandatory gay romance into Half Life 3 and a million people would be forced to face their prejudices. Hell, even a female protagonist with mandatory straight romance would rock a lot of boats

    (The dream would be a transexual protagonist, but lol as if that’ll ever happen)

    Or military sims. Yeah, sure, fight the commies – but as a CIA-backed fascist in Central America. Or how about a scifi insurgency against a popular, effective empire?

    • pkdawson says:

      (The dream would be a transexual protagonist, but lol as if that’ll ever happen)

      See Dys4ia. Anna Anthropy is one of a few indie developers I truly admire. She’s pioneering games as a medium for self-expression.

      Totally different from the kinds of games I’m interested in making, but unlike a lot of indie stuff, really genuine and moving.

    • NathanH says:

      The sexuality thing is a bit more complicated than you seem to be suggesting. Players are going to want to identify with the protagonist to become more invested in the game, to a far greater extent than with passive media. Most people seem to prefer doing thing with characters who are similar to themselves in sex and preference. Not everyone does; I tend to choose female protagonists where I have the choice (but again: I specifically choose this, so it’s not that I don’t care, I just care in an unusual way).

      The level that this matters differs across genres, of course, with RPGs being the most important and strategy games probably the least. But it’s there, and it’s not unreasonable, and it highlights why it’s really quite difficult to make some points without harming your game. If your RPG needs a male lead to make its point, then you’ve already made it less attractive to me. It’s not at all simple.

      • coffeetable says:

        @NathanH

        The thing is, isn’t that exactly how gay people feel about straight protagonists? You can make an argument that the game should let the greatest number of players identify with the lead, but that’s jumping straight into the arms of heteronormativity, which I’m not keen to do. More, it restricts us to solely young, straight white male characters, as that’s the greatest number of players.

        Alternatively, since when do you need to look like someone to identify with them? In particular, I don’t think forcing young, straight white males to identify and empathise with other demographics is a bad thing. A harder thing to sell maybe, but it’d be worth it for the bigotry it highlights in the people who do have problems with it.

        • NathanH says:

          Yes, it’s very similar to gay gamers and straight protagonists. That, I assume, is why RPGs involving romance, which is where such considerations would appear, have started catering towards that group. I doubt they did it for some political correct purposes, I expect they did it because they wanted to improve the experience for a bunch of people who couldn’t previously play a character who is the correct sex and orientation for them. It’s exactly what I’m talking about. If Hawke has to be a straight male for plot/pointmaking purposes, then you’ve gone and lessened the experience for the group of people for whom this is unattractive. This absolutely matters in RPGs, for sure, and it’s absolutely something that”s influenced by interactivity, making it much more complicated than “people don’t mind this for passive media, so it’ll be fine for video games”.

          Compare the current state of Bioware romances with their first dating simulator, BG2. In that game there are no gay romances available, and the only one available for female characters is with a proper tit. That wouldn’t cut it now, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

          Your point about combatting bigotry is fine, this is a worthy goal, but you’ve got to balance that against the non-bigots that you’re bothering by this.

          RPGs in particular are a lot more fun for a player if the protagonist satisfies certain properties, determined by the player. This is not worthy of criticism. For many people, this tends to manifest through properties the player shares with the character, thinks they share with the character, or wishes they shared with the character. This is also, in my view, not worthy of criticism.

        • HothMonster says:

          The most realistic gay characters to me are the ones that never make a big deal out of being gay. To play the stereotype, to make a big fuss “Now with gay romance, we are inclusive” always bothers the shit out of me.

          A lot like J.K Rowling and the whole Dombuldore being gay reveal. Where she just kind of casually dropped it out when asked why the book had no gay characters. The said she never thought it needed to be said, “he was just gay no one bothered him about it there was no fuss its just who he was and how I always imagined him.”(paraphrase)

          Another great example is a couple in the recent issues of the walking dead comic. There is a character in about 4 books who is just a normal guy, he meets the main cast leads them somewhere and returning home a guy runs up and hugs him and gives him a kiss and they walk off talking. No one stares, there is no big reveal, no one questions it. Its just that character being the character and he happens to be gay, big whoop.

          Back to the subject at hand, games, I think we need to put less emphasis on character sexuality. No one I know walks around with a big neon pink neon sign and arrow pointing to themselves saying “gay” (ok a couple of them might as well do this) I don’t see why fictional characters need to. Some people are just regular normal people who happen to enjoy the same sexual parts they already possess they are not some strange foreign entity.

          If my game had a overly stereotypical black or asian character I would get called a racist, or at least a horrible and lazy writer, so we should stop praising developers for having “!GAY!” stereotype characters.

          I am not saying there should not be games specifically for gay audiences or that mainstream games shouldn’t have gay characters but if I go to the bar and have a gay friend with me I don’t introduce him as “my gay friend Dave” he is just Dave. Why do games keep having the big flashing neon gay arrow over those characters?

    • Runs With Foxes says:

      How do you know Gordon Freeman isn’t gay? Is there anything in Half-Life that specifically says ‘Gordon Freeman has sex with women’? Not that I recall. Alyx seems interested in him, but he doesn’t exactly return those feelings, being mute and all. Is it possible that he is, in fact, gay already? And the game just doesn’t feel the need to take some affirmative action?

      By arguing that Half-Life should have Gordon Freeman … what? … kissing a dude? Talking about how great the penis in his butt felt last night? Speaking with a lisp? By saying HL should make Freeman’s homosexuality explicit, you are revealing your own heteronormative assumptions. There is nothing that says he’s actually straight, or gay, or bisexual, or asexual, or anything else. These are assumptions you are making, and then you have the temerity to criticise other people for not talking about the gays enough. Get your own house in order.

      • HothMonster says:

        Thank you for saying what I was saying much better than I said it. Also with a good amount of snark. I like snark.

      • Skabooga says:

        You used the word ‘gay’ three times in your comment. Episode 3 will be here soon.

  22. newprince says:

    You could make the same argument towards movies. Are the movies that deserve praise usually mainstream? Not often, although they do get some recognition in the form of awards.

    There’s no accounting for taste, and often times when something is brilliant, it exists just below the mainstream. This is why being a nerd is such a huge payoff in terms of personal pleasure. You can read Patton Oswald’s lament over the death of nerdery, of how he describes nerdy pastimes as “hidden thought palaces”. Now these were invaded by bros and we have CoD MW Tactical Warface Hoo-Rah. But are we really bitter or do we like the deserved mainstream attention too? I love it that Skyrim is critically AND commercially successful.

    Is Skyrim “grown up” enough? Mature enough? Yes and no. I think the hurdle you described as being the player is a much bigger problem than anyone thinks. You can sort of bypass it all by making the character an empty slate, and giving you a sandbox environment. I like it, but can you compare this to a film? No.

    In other words, I am an apologist for gaming, and I don’t see a need for it to “grow up”. It’s still going through its teething phase, and I’m quite all right with that.

    • Brun says:

      Is Skyrim “grown up” enough? Mature enough? Yes and no. I think the hurdle you described as being the player is a much bigger problem than anyone thinks. You can sort of bypass it all by making the character an empty slate, and giving you a sandbox environment.

      Skyrim’s open sandbox nature is its greatest strength, because the detail of the living world it presents is starting to approach the level where a scripted story is unnecessary – instead, the story starts to flow naturally from the player’s interaction with the living world. Dwarf Fortress really carries that to the extreme but it’s the same basic idea.

      • Blackcompany says:

        I have often wondered whether we need a scripted narrative in Bethesda games. Frankly, they are never very good. The past 3 efforts – FO3, Oblivion and now Skyrim – basically reveal the fact that Bethesda does not bother with a real writer. They have no understanding of proper narrative, the need to maintain a sense of mystery or the art of the “slow reveal” that keeps people wondering about the overarching plot, alliances, enemies, etc. So many stories – and some games, such as Bastion and Witcher 2 – really nail these things.
        .
        But Bethesda? Not so much.
        .
        Bethesda’s greatest strength is indeed their huge, open world. Their greatest weakness (aside from their terrible mechanics) is a need to foist upon players a contrived reason for being there. They do this in the form of their usual, lackluster, reveal-all-up-front narrative, derived from the macguffin Elder Scroll prophecy. Its cheap, overly theatrical and worse still, its tired.
        .
        Just give me the open, realistic world and turn me loose. I can think of plenty of reasons to be there, and none of them has anything to do with a prophecy or saving the world. We really are better off with the world and our own personalized, if make believe, stories than we are with their overly contrived, artificial feeling narrative.

        • newprince says:

          Interesting. What are your thoughts on New Vegas story wise, then? I thought it was a good combination of sandboxy, open world stuff, but at the same time I thought the storylines were incredible, especially considering you had a lot of “end game” options. I went the wild card route, but it was ultimately because every faction I first thought I would be loyal to made me compromise my personal philosophy somehow, so I would defect to the next until I thought… maybe I’m the only capable, moral leader in this new civilization. But of course, at the end I realized I had just as much blood on my hands as all the amoral factions I had defected from. I was satisfied at the outcome much more than I have been for any video game before, precisely because I was so conflicted during the game, not just at the credits.

          • bladedsmoke says:

            This is all true, and stems from the fact that Obsidian developed New Vegas, and Bethesda merely published it.

        • Brun says:

          They need to saddle games like Skyrim with scripted storylines because many players don’t want to make the kind of mental and creative investment to “make their own story” – or lack the ability to do so outright. Some people are just objective-oriented game players and a completely open-ended game with no defined goals won’t make much sense to them.

          Dwarf Fortress takes Skyrim’s model to the extreme by providing a huge world with no objective at all – although that’s not exactly true, since the objective is really survival. However, Dwarf Fortress’ engine is robust enough to have the goal of survival flow naturally from the game’s mechanics and your environment, so it doesn’t NEED a predefined quest or storyline to keep you playing. Skyrim’s engine doesn’t go into that level of detail.

          Another thing to note about Skyrim is its immersiveness. It’s another element that I think is critical to the notion of a “naturally occurring storyline.” The graphic fidelity, realistic world design, first person perspective, etc. all come together to really bring you into the world. This is something that Dwarf Fortress noticeably lacks – the graphical limitations are obvious, but you’re also more of a “manager” in DF, rather than a participant in all of the struggles and trials of your community of Dwarves. It’s a decidedly hands-off approach compared to something like Skyrim.

          • Brise Bonbons says:

            I think the point here is that you can have goals which flow naturally from the (lightly simulated?) state of the world, without having a Bethesda-defined narrative for the player to follow.

            I.e. the civil war story that seemed to languish in the background. Just give each faction a sort of RTS-style AI commander who would make basic decisions based on a series of goals, and then generate goals for the player based on those.

            I dunno, maybe in practice it’s just too complex. I admit I’ve not played Skyrim myself, so I probably shouldn’t speculate much more about it.

  23. Celtti says:

    Clearly the author hasn’t played any of Derek Smart’s games which are chock-full of meaning and technical innovations.

    In all seriousness, what gaming industry lacks are competent completely off-the-wall leads who want to make mature games. With no hope of selling a copy outside of opium dens. Well, I’d buy it and so would you, but the rest of “them”? Nuh-uh.

    • Blackcompany says:

      The 1.1 million or so people who bought Witcher 2 for PC have a thing or two to say about games for a mature audience, and the selling of them outside of opium dens.
      .
      That, its one crowded opium den. The possibility of which, I will admit, does exist, certainly.

  24. Jimbo says:

    Prince of Persia (’08) has some things to say about love, if you care to listen. It even relies on an interactive game mechanic to make its point, which really is quite noteworthy (more so than it should be).

    • Jibb Smart says:

      Loved that game, and really loved the ending — it really stuck with me. And it was all interactive. Fantastic.

  25. Brun says:

    I think that the level of maturity you’re wanting was starting to develop in the late 90′s and early 2000′s. That is to say, games, as a medium, were approaching that level of maturity. The development of the audience as consumers of more mature games was largely parallel to this trend.

    I think if you had asked someone in 1999 what the state of gaming would be like in 2012 they would have told you something like what you’re describing. Then, somewhere around 2006 or 2007 (MW2 was, sadly, the real watershed), Xbox 360 got very popular with an enormous audience – a different audience from the one that had been steadily maturing along with games themselves. That “New Audience” dwarfed the core group that had formed the primary audience for video games for the past two or three decades. Moreover, that New Audience had not developed the level of maturity that the Core Group had gained over two decades of video games.

    Primarily due to its larger buying power, the New Audience became the target for future games. There were other obvious benefits as well – without the gaming maturity of the Core Group, the New Audience was easier to please (they could be distracted and dazzled with fancy graphics and gimmicks).

    So really, the shift from the Core Group of hardcore, longtime gamers to the New Audience represents a step backward along the path that would have lead, ultimately, to the kinds of games you want.

    When Star Wars was first released and became a huge success, there were some critics who blamed it for shifting the focus of Hollywood away from deep and meaningful films (The Godfather, Taxi Driver, etc.) and back toward juvenile action-blockbusters. I think that the shift in the video game industry in the mid 2000′s is similar. Modern Warfare 2 is video games’ Star Wars (except for the obvious difference that Star Wars, when taken by itself, is an excellent movie, whereas MW2 is a garbage game).

    • Palehorse says:

      Bravo! I was scanning through the comments to see if anyone would point this out. I was going to take a stab at if no one did but you said it admirably well.

      I was okay with the jump back in maturity because it meant a huge explosion in revenue for the industry, which lead to advances in everything except maturity. Graphics, controls, accessibility. It also lead to the glut of entertaining games that come out every year now, instead of the 1 or 2 we had pre-2004. Unfortunately this same jump back introduced a lower difficulty in our games.

      I am hopeful that as the new audience matures we see the content hoped for by this article.

    • John Walker says:

      That’s an interesting idea – that gaming so quickly broadening to a new audience hit a reset switch on progress. I’m fairly certain it’s not that simple, but interesting to ponder.

    • HothMonster says:

      Excellent point. I just want to say do not forget that the first couple infinity ward CODs were very good, very progressive, introduced new ideas to the genre and were generally fun and worth your time and cost of admission. Just because the franchise went to shit, turned into a horrible cash cow and stop caring about making a good innovative games do not forget there was a reason the series became popular in the first place.

      Otherwise it would be just as easy to dismiss Star Wars with the tripe that is released under that license today.

    • newprince says:

      I’m afraid this IS overly simplistic reasoning. It is a repeat of circa 2000, with the invention of the “casual” and hardcore” false dichotomy, ironically (ironic because now we PC gamers tend to call XBOX gamers casual or some other condescending term) usually employed by XBOX fans to Nintendo fans.

      Look, I have no illusions that the target audience for the 360 and PC differ. But to call one group the “Core ” and the other “New” is incredibly myopic to be of any use, I’m afraid. How many RPS articles have been reviewing brilliant PC games that started out as 360 Arcade games?

      • Brun says:

        I would argue that the 360 Arcade market is geared toward different users than regular 360 games.

      • Malibu Stacey says:

        How many of the “360 Arcade” games you refer to as being reviewed for PC sold even half as well on the Xbox 360 as they have when released on PC? For very well documented high profile examples see Super Meat Boy & the PC exclusivity of Orcs Must Die 2 (original was out for a few weeks on Xbox 360 before the PC IIRC).

    • RobF says:

      It’s not just overly simplistic, there’s pretty much no evidence to support it any more than there would be arguing that it was all downhill after we moved to computers you could buy in the shop and they weren’t just kits made by hobbyists. There’s no watershed, no point of dumbing down and no transition from intelligent mainstream to dumb mainstream or to people trying and reaching to people not reaching. It’s golden age crock.

      Thanks to this generation of consoles and this new audience, Sony and MS have -directly- aided and funded more “higher” game experiences and put them out there *to* this new audience and for us. They may not be the immersive sim dream or whatever PC game fantasy lurks in the shadows but there they are. (More) mature games.

      And we’re making *more* of them than ever before. I agree we’re not where we could/should be emotionally but it’s nothing to do with the advent of this generation of consoles or any guff like that, it’s that there’s so many ways and things to explore that aren’t just funneling down the PC game tunnel of dreamy love, we’re doing all the things, so many of the things and more people are at it too.

      And like Deus Ex sat alongside 102 Dalmations:Puppies To The Rescue, we do the guff and we do big thinks at the same time because we can.

  26. Colthor says:

    Interactivity is the problem. Games are based on their mechanics, and we can’t mechanise relationships or emotions (we’re not even that good at machine-generated speech). The best we’ve managed is either pre-canned conversations, or mechanics like the friendship bar in Dragon Age. The former is barely interactive; you can only take it to the few pre-determined outcomes; and the latter is just daft.

    We need far more advanced AI to be able to model plausible, meaningful, dynamic humans and relationships. And that’s a technological problem that books and films don’t have to overcome; you could write any book with a stick and wax tablets.

    • Dervish says:

      See also: Chris Crawford and two decades of laboring under a delusion.

      • pkdawson says:

        Yeah. But the failure of one approach doesn’t invalidate every idea like it.

        There’s a broad middle ground between ultra-simplistic relationship mechanics and something approaching strong AI. You can fake a lot of things with the combination of clever procedural generation and a lot of writing.

    • Jimbo says:

      Interactivity isn’t a problem, it’s an opportunity. It just hasn’t been mastered yet in this regard. When it is mastered, it will allow things to be expressed in ways which passive art could never hope to achieve (not necessarily a better or worse way, but different). When we get there is when ‘games’ will truly be able to stand up as art in their own right, rather than just as a collection of other artforms.

    • newprince says:

      I’m afraid you’re right. Programming is telling a computer what to do under certain conditionals. It’s easy for the average gamer to say “I want to go up to another entity in a game, tell them what’s on my mind, and have them react in unexpected, original ways”. Then ask a programmer how he’s going to do that, and I’ll be damned if he doesn’t ask you to get REAL specific about what you’re asking. We’re just not there yet.

      • Brise Bonbons says:

        But I’d argue that games are (almost inherently) abstractions, and that’s what gets missed in the current obsession with photorealistic visuals and hyper-detailed film-like narrative and dialog.

        Many game designs are ignoring the possibilities of alternative scales and tenses, for example. You could tell the story of a character who never speaks a word, but instead communicates through symbols, sounds, and gestures. You can describe a character broadly, as in Dwarf Fortress – “he is very happy, but doesn’t like the sheep”.

        Now, the question is, will such stories always feel detached as they do in DF? I don’t recall a game ever trying to tell a more intimate story using such abstract tools; I honestly can’t say for sure whether it would be possible or not. But it seems like it should be viable given some imaginative sound music, art direction, and game design.

  27. Anthile says:

    Far Cry 2 comes to mind, especially with the brilliant ending. I think it’s a very underrated game in this regard and it’s a damn shame so few people played it to the end and see what it’s all about.

    • John Walker says:

      It’s not really a game that motivates you to play it to the end, sadly.

      • HothMonster says:

        You mean you don’t like killing the same 4 guys in the same roadside checkpoint 1000000 million times?

    • Mman says:

      Major Far Cry 2 spoilers ahead so here is some filler to make them not show up on the right side of the site hopefully that’s enough filler now.

      Far Cry 2′s ending was really interesting to me as far as unique things games can do goes as it created a perfect end to a character arc that I created. When I started the game I assumed there would be some sort of moral choices in the game, so I was initially annoyed when I realised I had no choice but to commit utterly monstrous acts as the game went on. In the end I decided to roll with it, and imagined my character as one who genuinely wanted to make a difference, but had their morals gradually deteriorate as their obsession with catching The Jackal grew. Then the ending came along and provided redemption and some attempt at amends in a way that almost made it feel like the game had read my mind. I’ve seen a lot of hate for the ending, and I was apparently a complete minority in coming up with something like this, yet, that quite possibly made it even more powerful. It was MY story of dangerous obsession and eventual (fatal) redemption, and no other medium could have done it the same way.

      Even the epilogue fit, and ended up creating an extremely negative ending/message that still managed to fit everything so far; my final actions hadn’t really helped Africa at all, and the country remained a hell-hole. Yet that only seemed natural after the horrible acts I had committed along the way. I couldn’t change anything in the end, and didn’t really deserve to, but at least I was allowed to try.

  28. Torticoli says:

    I don’t know what to say, aside from the fact that I don’t feel like I’m living in the same gaming world as the author. I think the first game I’ve played that “had something to say” about society and governments would be Final Fantasy VII, and that game came out in 1997 ; and really, FF VI already had something to say, it already had a philosophical message (that could only resonate more strongly in Japan, I’d think). Since then, I could give several examples of games that I’d consider just as “mature” as any widely-recognized book or movie.

    Shadow of the Colossus, Journey, Final Fantasy X, and of course the Metal Gear Solid series, come to mind, and I could give many more names. Especially MGS 2 : that game was all about conditioning and social commentary, in the end.

    Of course I agree that games should try to aspire to something greater that sheer entertainment. But I feel like they’re already doing so, and have been for many years.

    • Brun says:

      Shadow of the Colossus, Journey, Final Fantasy X, and of course the Metal Gear Solid series, come to mind, and I could give many more names. Especially MGS 2 : that game was all about conditioning and social commentary, in the end.

      Think about when all those games you listed were released. Late 90′s early 2000′s. The gaming world of the that time is totally different than the one of today, even though it’s only 5-7 years ago.

      • Torticoli says:

        “Think about when all those games you listed were released. Late 90′s early 2000′s. The gaming world of the that time is totally different than the one of today, even though it’s only 5-7 years ago.”

        You mean like Journey ? Or Mass Effect ? Or Red Dead Redemption ?

        Seriously though, I’ll agree that many of those games were released quite a while ago – last generation, in fact, which is definitely saying something. However, I still say that games like this do exist today, even if they’re a clear minority. But here’s the thing : such games were always the minority, just like really deep, interesting, meaningful movies and books are the minority in what’s released/published.

        The difference is, we now have an independent scene that can do things the mainstream industry can’t or doesn’t want to. I’m confident.

        • newprince says:

          But here’s the thing : such games were always the minority, just like really deep, interesting, meaningful movies and books are the minority in what’s released/published.

          Exactly!!! This cannot be overstated.

        • Skabooga says:

          I was going to post something akin to this as well. I am probably as inspired and challenged by video games these days as I am by movies, television, and books when they are considered proportionally. Not so much a case of 90% of video games not being mature as it is 90% of everything not being mature. A sort of Sturgeon’s Law variant, if you will.

          Granted, movies and books are more likely to be about heavy subjects, but that does not necessarily mean these subjects are handled with a commensurate amount of nuance and complexity.

  29. Maelig says:

    Interesting article. Imho however, you underestimate the time it takes for a medium to evolve. Comics is a good example of this. Let’s say the “modern” comics era started in the late 30s. It wasn’t until the late 60s – early 70s (you mentionned 35 years, that’s about it) that more “mature” pieces started to appear (the only one I can think of off the top of my head is Maus), and mainstream media recognition followed after that. I think that we’re getting there with video games, although I totally sympathize with the frustration that things are moving slowly.

  30. Jad says:

    The answer of “just look at indie games!” is not what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about games that have a budget, have production values, and more importantly, are marketed at a wider audience — not the widest audience, but wider.

    To compare this to movies, what I’m saying is part of the problem is the loss of the middle-budget game. You have plenty of indie games that tackle big subjects, just like there a lots of art-house indie movies, and plenty of giant budget games that compare well with the Michael Bays of the movie world.

    However, the movie industry is not comprised solely of $1 million art films that most people will not watch and $200 million blockbusters that have to be everything for everyone.

    The Social Network cost $40 million to make; it had no explosions or flying robots, but was also not excessively difficult to follow or experimental in a way that would turn off the average viewer.

    I don’t think Mass Effect is the right place to be looking for this kind of thing. It’s too expensive. In movie terms it would be a $150-million+ movie, at which point the studio would start trying to file off any interesting edges. But once you go below Mass Effect in budget, games seem to immediately plunge into the low-budget indie space.

    As lovely as To The Moon is, you have to admit that the graphics will turn a lot of people off to it immediately. We can rail against those people and call them shallow, but that’s the way it is. The movie industry figured this out a while ago — they make movies like The Social Network, which is conventionally filmed, with attractive looking actors, and an trailer-friendly premise, but still has a deeper and more interesting message than the “robots blow up” theme of the biggest movies. The games industry rarely seems able to do this.

    • newprince says:

      I see your point here. I’m looking for the gaming equivalent of “Drive”. Drive the video game! No, sorry that would be awful.

  31. Spinks says:

    There’s always Journey

  32. Laurentius says:

    Author gives himself an answer but not in a straight way: money, that’s why it is unlikely to happen. You can’t go into the circus and say “plz people grow up and start showing Hamlet”. Video game is an expensive medium that can only make money being circus unless someone deliberately decides to blow money on such project.
    One person can write “All quiet on western front” but it will take hundreds people to make a game.

  33. RegisteredUser says:

    Winning!

    That kid literally looks shit-faced.

    We do have games like Fate of the world and other “ethical” games etc; we also have some at least trying to explore emotions, rape and whatnot.

    I’m quite fine with shallow, pointless distractions as long as they are exhiliarating. I actually would much rather demand we stop making mostly “save the world/prince/galaxy/wotever” games and go on to make more menacing, evil, grim, bastardous, mischievous, pure dickish etc pp games.
    (To be fair, they are actually partly being made, but usually on such an amateur, unplayable level they really do not count..)

    More “incorrectness”, more outrage, more borderline in the fun, but “wrong” or “dangerous” direction, etc.
    Katharsis by plunging through the depths of the evils of the human soul or simply by enjoying what rarely anyone admits: That enslaving races(thank god for scifi games like Distant Worlds etc), creatures(I wuv you Dungeon Keeper) and genocide(take a pick from anything like Thermonuclear War to true evil like Hitler Diktator or Wing Commander or or or) can all be either good fun or intriguing or at the very least a debateable, but featureable element in games.
    We much too seldom take “the other side” and/or get to indulge in truly being psychopathic and evil (outside of crap like Manhunt which I did rather not enjoy, thank you very much mister maniac glass in eye stabber person), if just to see what we really do secretly crave in our darkest hours and where we do draw the line.
    To explore our human bounds and souls, truly, must include a play on and for the dark side, in my opinion. And we’re just sooooooo deeply stuck in morality issues, laws, wot-we-think-should-not-be-okay etc, that that isn’t really an option.
    Not that I need truly despicable crap being the only thing left being made; but goshdarnit, there is something to being a ruthless homicidal tyrant, regardless of how innocent(DK, MOO, DW, Evil Genius, etc) or completely illegal(truly banned game) or legal-but-hohum-though-to-be-honest-rather-tame-overall(Germany campaign in Hearts of Iron, e.g.) things are.

  34. SirKicksalot says:

    I agree with your article so don’t take this as a criticism. It just reminded me of this quote:

    “Critics who treat adult as a term of approval, instead of as a merely descriptive term, cannot be adult themselves. To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence.” – C. S. Lewis.

  35. Kevin says:

    Cost of technology and labour also plays a factor. One can make a decent live-action film with relatively few funds, whereas to render the same scenes in a video game engine would cost orders more.

    Put it this way: Compare how much it costs to film a scene in LA Confidential to creating a comparable setpiece in LA Noire.

  36. Lord Pendragon says:

    I disagree with folks who are arguing that maturity can only come with some sort of advanced AI. That would only be true if you believe a video game requires interactivity in every aspect to be mature and successful.

    While interactivity is certainly what sets video games apart from novels or film, there is a place in them for a well-written, powerful narrative voice. A video game can be mature and successful, for instance, in creating relationships between the main character and a supporting character, without providing the player with the million options of a real relationship.

    A theoretical game could present you with a few different paths to take, and define each of them with thoughtful, well-written, realistic paths based on those choices, and be satisfying.

    Imagine Mass Effects romances, for instance, but written more maturely, and with more depth.

    The key here is that such a thing requires greater resources, in terms of paying for quality writing, which takes resources away from other aspects of a game. And unfortunately I do not believe the industry as a whole sees the value, to our detriment.

    • newprince says:

      Quite simply, no! Depth and maturity in terms of what you are asking for means precisely MUCH MORE EFFORT in coding and AI. Let’s assume for a moment that in this situation, you could (somehow) cleverly mask that your relationship will have 3 possible outcomes. Then your writers go on and flesh out the stories for each possible ‘path’.

      Holy shit, dude, that’s a lot of work. You can easily say “Just hire better writers,” but even if we’re just talking cut scenes, that’s still tons of work being done by non-writers. And how much time/money should we really spend here if romance or relationships aren’t really our focus?

      The problem is, writing better just means… better writing, and video games are a different beast. There’s a reason there’s not more popular, accomplished writers in gaming. It’s because writing is simply not remotely all that is necessary to have a ‘good story’ in a video game, and is deeply interwoven with all the other systems.

  37. InternetBatman says:

    I think games as a medium will have to come up to a real answer to developer control / narrative linearity before a large number of thought-provoking games can be made. Right now, too many developers wield the blunt tool of locking character progression and content behind progress in the game itself. Indies thinking themselves clever make games that play with the developer control over the experience. I think the future seminal works of gaming will resolve the problem as part of the foundation of a new movement. It hasn’t been resolved and even really good games, like Bioshock, trip over it.

  38. Eight Rooks says:

    People were making great films more than a decade before All Quiet… , perhaps more. I know you’re not doing it here, mister Walker, but Christ, it winds me up something chronic when people compare games to cinema as some kind of get-out clause. Even BBC Radio 4 went for that one.

    Also, better people than me will have to put it more sensitively, I guess, but I remain convinced an important thing that needs doing is explaining to the ‘games must always be fun’ crowd that they’re wrong. No argument, no debate, they’re wrong. Forever. There should always be games that are fun – pure, simple joy; there should also be ‘games’, whatever that word ends up meaning, that you hate yourself for playing, and that make you grateful to the developers for letting you feel that way. And there should be games that are everything in between.

    Plus, good piece, but as always I get upset that no critic says plainly, clearly and out loud; the vast majority of the games we have got right now would be much more fun if the words in them were made by people who knew how to maek wurds better. Again, no argument, no debate, no stop-comparing-games-to-other-mediums – that last is a good point and a valid issue, but a completely different one. Never mind player agency and non-linearity and all the rest of it for the moment; I’ve lost count of the number of games I’ve played where I could have written – in some cases where pretty much anyone with a decent vocabulary could have written the exact same story and made it a thing of beauty instead of a horrible lumpen mess. But it’s never ‘Make the words better’; it’s ‘Oh, no, we need improved AI and better technology and graphical advances and -’ no. Just. Better. Words. Then half the battle – or at least a significant portion of it – would already be won.

    • NathanH says:

      I’d dispute the “much” in your bold statement but otherwise it cannot be contested very much, at least in games that use words at all.

    • newprince says:

      I think you have to ask yourself why this hasn’t been done before. Maybe you’d see why such a thing is so difficult.

      As above, you cannot simply say ‘hire better writers’. Games don’t work like that, I’m afraid.

    • InternetBatman says:

      I think the industry has to grow up its own crop of writers that write well for the medium. Sadly they’ve been trying to skip over the education and fostering of new writers by importing them from other industries and it just doesn’t work. Too many writers aren’t able or willing to give up narrative control, and it results in a lot of the flaws you see in modern games.

  39. Gilead says:

    Well, I agree with: “When we say, “Look, look at this, aren’t we doing brilliantly!” No, we’re not. They’re great games, and I love them, but we can reach far further.”"

    It’s just that I can’t help thinking the next time Bioware (to take a random example) push out an RPG that’s entertaining but with a level of emotional complexity and depth of thought on the level with one of the old Dungeons & Dragons cartoons, it will still be greeted by the gaming media collectively, yourselves included, with no solid criticism at all.

    Unless games journalists stop treating every game with a sub-soap opera level of storytelling as though it’s a shining beacon of quality, nothing will improve.

    • xsikal says:

      I completely agree. It’s all well and good to post an article chiding the industry as a whole for not living up to its potential or growing beyond its origins, but, when most reviews of games consciously avoid any such specific commentary, it basically undercuts your own point.

      Having a healthy critical process is necessary to spur the advancement of ‘art’ or most creative endeavors, and the video game press honestly does not appear to have an interest in being constructively critical. In fact, I’d say that there are far fewer examples of genuinely insightful, critical commentary in game reviews than can be found in movie reviews. (Sounds a lot like the stated distinction between games and movies themselves, doesn’t it?)

  40. skorpeyon says:

    From my experience (and probably BioWare’s at this stage) the problem with trying to be mature and tell a compelling story that has people asking questions and theorizing is that it pisses off your audience. Make a game that tells a great story without enough branching? It’s too linear. Make a game that takes branching to an absolutely ridiculous extreme? If it doesn’t take all of 300,000,000 choices into account when generating an ending it’s crap (I understand that BioWare claimed that choices WOULD have a significant effect, then it didn’t, so that’s a chunk of what got people angry, but I’m using it as an example to build on).

    You may desire a more mature gaming experience. I admit I do, too. Frankly, the reality is that we are likely in the minority. Whenever a mature gaming experience presents itself, it is either ignored (Beyond Good & Evil, The Longest Journey, two of your examples that most of my friends had never heard of until I played them and pointed out how awesome they are) or actively shouted down (ME3). If they had more support, if they were supported with both praise and money there would be more like it. As-is, they’re just not a “safe” move for a game company that has the motivation of making money. It either won’t sell, or people will flip the hell out and demand you change the ending. This makes it not worth the risk of innovating, since there is no reward.

    I wish it were different, but it’s just how things seem to be.

    (Now, to be fair, I haven’t played ME3 because ME1 pissed me off by making me drive vehicles that were utterly retarded and got me killed no fewer than 100 times as I just tried to drive down a damned canyon so I never returned to the series. But I will say I am disappointed at the reaction to the game’s ending. It was praised right up until it was over, and from what I saw of the ending, it seemed rather reasonable to me that every decision made throughout 3 40+ hour games wasn’t taken into account for the ending. That would have been nigh on impossible. The mistake they made was ever suggesting those choices would be taken into account. That’s what it seems to me people should be bitching about. But demanding the ending be changed? That’s ludicrous at best.)

    • Mman says:

      “I haven’t played ME3″

      It certainly shows given you think people hate ME3′s ending purely because of the lack of choice, even if it is one reason. The actually interesting themes the game explores (such as the Krogan arc) are by far the most praised parts of the game. The ending is so bad (and understandably game-ruining for many, even if I’m not one of them) because it specifically pisses away every vaguely interesting choice or theme, as well as “resolving” one potentially interesting theme with a single matter-of-fact statement despite the fact that (at least if you play a “perfect” game) Shepard’s actions have completely contradicted it. I’ve seen alternative ending ideas which offer no choice at all and are still far better than what was provided.

  41. sinister agent says:

    I dunno, I’ve thought that the better part of the last decade has seen games go through an adolescence rather than remaining in their infancy. We have that peculiar mix of juvenile, frankly embarassing nonsense and lots of awkward, insular posturing, but also clear elements of maturity, character and development.

    Most games are generally still quite relaxed and uncomplicated, but there are plenty of games that touch on or explore Serious Issues with a little more nuance than GUNS LOL.

    It’s worth noting that games have historically been more aimed at kids and/or teenagers than films or books. I’m not saying “games are for kids” (nor that it would matter if they were – I have a copy of Predator’s Gold by my bed right now), but they are more so than films were when they were this age. That coupled with the entertainment industries’ great skill at extracting money from younglings and their parents (they really have become masters at it in the last two decades) means that games will continue to be pitched to that audience for longer, because there’s guaranteed money in it and it’s become quite well impressed upon our culture.

  42. hosndosn says:

    This is something I believe games journalists have about the biggest responsibility in the entire gaming scene.

    Publishers will continue thinking with their money-brains. The mass audience won’t suddenly become anything else than it is. But journalists? They’re actually shaping the discussion. They wield incredibly power and have the authority over what becomes a “critical success” (which in games seems to almost always overlap with “commercial success” because games get pity-points for expensive (and marketable) production value).

    Everytime a dull AAA game gets an A+ “because it’s plain fun” (but on the maturity level of a 70s B-movie), it hurts a highly intellectual indie game that gets a B- because “the controls are kinda unresponsive”. I genuinely believe that a lack of hatred and disgust for blockbuster games is hurting indie games or -god forbid- quality bigger budget games. You can’t “like both”. You just can’t. You can enjoy both as a guilty pleasure but you can’t reflect that in a rating if that rating is supposed to push innovation, maturity and creativity.

    Oh, and one more thing: I don’t believe that “story” is the only measure for maturity in gaming. There can be art without story. Without “issue tackling”, even. I’d rather see the interactive part of a game do something interesting to my brain than read a ham-fisted drama story tacked onto a mediocre game mechanic.

    • Brun says:

      I’d rather see the interactive part of a game do something interesting to my brain

      A la Portal. There was story there too, but I think Portal would thrived as a simple pure puzzler with no overarching storyline behind it.

    • Zwebbie says:

      Oh, and one more thing: I don’t believe that “story” is the only measure for maturity in gaming.

      Much agreed! Chess being the obvious example here.
      What I dislike about a lot of these thoughts about ‘mature’ storytelling is that it doesn’t have anything to do with games. You can tack emotional cutscenes onto a game, but that doesn’t make it an emotional game. Farmville with Mozart’s Requiem as its soundtrack could be an emotional experience, but that doesn’t make it a better game. Better words don’t make better games, better ludic systems do.
      Practically all games are about player input leading to success. Do a thing well enough and you’ll succeed! You can overcome any obstacle! That’s the message most games tell, even if they end with a sad cutscene, that cutscene is still a reward for doing a thing well enough. “The medium is the message” is what Marshall McLuhan used to say. The gameplay is what the game’s about, not any fancy cutscenes about loss or environments about objectivism.
      Compare this “you can achieve anything!” message of games to the Epic of Gilgamesh, perhaps the oldest work of literature we have. The moral of the story is that you can want something very badly, but as humans we just have to accept limitations in life. Ouch. That’s much more poignant, and that’s literature almost 4000 years ago.

      Personally, as I’ve grown older I’ve grown more fond of games that just have interesting mechanics. A game of Dwarf Fortress or Crusader Kings (edit: or Solium Infernum) may not pretend to be thoughtful, but in not being a linear route to eventual success, but a series of ludically driven ups and downs, they’re far more interesting than any authored story. Chess can’t do what a Matthäus-passion can do, but that doesn’t make it inferior.

      (It’s also worth noting that the libretto’s of Bach’s works are usually considered to be terrible, but that doesn’t make it worse music. And heck, Schiller for Beethoven’s ninth? The Ode to Joy is rubbish.)

      Apologies if this post went on a tangent and didn’t have much to do with the original.

    • newprince says:

      Just one problem: we’ve known for thousands of years that there’s no accounting for taste. Hoping for people to hate things that they actually enjoy is useless.

      • Brise Bonbons says:

        But we live in a world where taste is often created for us – or at minimum massively influenced – by what the market and corporations want us to *want*. They mold our tastes and desires through marketing in order to mesh with what they can sell us – see the media and advertising’s portrayal of everything, whether clothing, sex, food, electronics, violence, cars, music – even washing machines and vacuum cleaners!

        Point being, you can’t just brush these issues aside by saying “people just like what they like”. People like what is new and hot, or what is popular, or what is subconsciously suggested to them as being desirable, or what is exclusive, or what seems like a good value, or what is easy and mindless and engineered to make their brains return positive feedback.

        Even if we didn’t face the overwhelming cacophony of the mass media, people would still be vulnerable to suggestions by community members in authority positions, or just the opinion of their peer group. But they can be educated, taught to be more critical consumers of information and products, to see the tricks others will use to manipulate and shape their desires.

        And that sort of education and discussion often starts when writers and critics question the quality and value of things which are otherwise accepted without question, such as the latest CoD game or Transformers movie.

  43. Giaddon says:

    Disregarding economic concerns (which are serious), I’d say game design is the chief obstacle. There are only a handful of gameplay scenarios that designers have been able to make fun over the long term, and most of those, especially for “hardcore” gamers, rely on destruction (shooters, strategy games, RPGs), or on bizarre, self-contained challenges (puzzlers, platformers). Neither fit well with what I think of as maturity. Especially the violence.

  44. MiniMatt says:

    In short, I fear games haven’t matured because somehow the people who play them haven’t.

    Within minutes of joining any online FPS I will undoubtedly have been subjected to a torrent of racist, homophobic, anti-semitic abuse (and this is as a white, straight, agnostic). I’ll have been called the n-word, the f-word, the f-ing f-word, I’ll have been told that I suck and what I suck (give you one guess).

    All being a fantastic illustration of the Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory, but also, tragically, an illustration of our reluctance to challenge such behaviour.

    The comparison to other art forms tends to fall down because games have a broader appeal. Jean Claude Van Damme fans are unlikely to be seen at indie art house screenings. Earnest Hemmingway afficiandos tend not to be big buyers of Barbara Cartland. But folks who enjoy “To The Moon” are still quite likely to enjoy shooting people in the face. And whilst shooting-people-in-the-face games are populated by Greater Internet Fuckwads, the gaming industry as a whole will tend to expect them and cater to them.

    • newprince says:

      But that is just one massive sweeping generalization. You are placing people in neat little groups but I’m afraid it’s much more complicated.

  45. DickSocrates says:

    If you think about the great books and films that really do tackle ‘issues’ and make you laugh, dance, and cry (all at the same time), how exactly could that be turned into a game? What kind of game could it possibly be? A point and click adventure? Nothing but dialogue wheels? Crime and Punishment doesn’t contain a game element, unless you make the game be the plot and then it’s just the book or movie broken up by you being required to trigger the next interaction. How do you gamify someone wrestling with their conscience while tossing and turning on their bed, drenched in sweat? Turn it into a surreal dream sequence where your demons become little red men with pitchforks? Maybe you could control precisely what position to lie on the bed and a metre lets you know how comfortable you are?

    The maturity issue would seem to be bound to ‘character’. Characters that actually have character; that seem like real people, or at least have human interests beyond kicking people’s asses (kind of a shame no FPS has moved beyond Doom in character, and in many ways Doom’s vaguess makes it far more interesting and compelling). While I don’t like HL2, would people agree the characters seemed rounded? And yet it’s still a first person shooter. It’s still about ‘rocking’ action (which doesn’t even work on a tecincal level as the whole thing is faked to make the player feel like they are *just* good enough by adjusting item drops and AI as you play. The ‘game’ is a con). Is it possible to have genuinely sophisticated and thought provoking characters and situations when at some point you are required to point a gun at something? I think it should be possible. HL2′s in-game cutscenes where you could move about are techincally impressive, but I think most people just get impatient while being held away from the ‘game’ part of the game.

    Perhaps the reason most games are sophisticated in their storytelling is because games are designed by game designers and not writers? Unless you’re a genius, being a writer requires thousands of hours of practice and study and even then you can turn out crap. And the geniuses put in all that time and effort anyway. Most people who want to write fiction, write fiction and wouldn’t ever consider wasting their time and relinquishing their creative control to force their ideas into a game format when a novel has no drawbacks for them. Same goes for film makers, why make a game when you can make a film? Do games offer anything interesting to the person who likes to write stories? More often than not, it seems games attract the type of writer who couldn’t find success in their chosen profession so had to diversify.

    Creative writers don’t yet see making games as an avenue for their talents. There’s no real reason to make a game over writing a book or making a movie. Making games is incredibly time consuming and incredibly expensive.

    And then there’s the target audience. It’s still children and young adults, usually male. In the main, they don’t want sophistication or ‘issues’ (though no decent writer deals with issues anyway, leave that crap to Eastenders), they don’t read books, they *might* read comics, they don’t watch movies that aren’t blockbusters. The upper age range for gamers is still only 40s. When there are generations of proper adults who also play games, then we may see an improvement.

    But to be honest, if I want to get mentally stuck into something, I don’t want it to be a game. I read and I play games. They don’t fill the same times in my day, it’s not one or the other, it’s both (and reading always comes first) . I look for entirely different things from both mediums. If I’ve been reading a lot, I can’t bear to then put on a game like Skyrim with yet more reading and people going on about things. For me, games are the rest period where I lose myself in an enjoyable manual activity and enter a similar state that I would if sewing buttons on a shirt or wiring a plug.

    • HothMonster says:

      “The ‘game’ is a con”

      The cake is a lie?

      Otherwise I agree. There are few talented writers who specifically go out looking to make games. Sure there are some, and there are also some devs who are pretty darn good at it. But really you often get devs who are not to good at it or really good novel/screenplay writers who do not know how to write for a game because it is a very very different process.

      I am not trying to insult games writers though the above kind of sounds like it. I just agree you do not get many cormac mccarthy’s who want to write their masterpiece in the medium of video game. Often its a talented writer from another medium or a talented dev who isn’t too bad at writing. Certainly part of it is the lack of an emphasis on writing at many studios. You mention HL2, I would argue that Valve titles in general do a great job of the narrative. Partially because of a talented writing staff but also because the company emphasizes the narrative. Even in a game like L4D with almost no exposition the game world tells its own story, portal 2 makes a robot and a dead guy into believable characters.

      Most games just seem to call in a writer at the 11th hour and say here is our game write some kind of narrative explany for it and get some interns to write the dialogue. Or at best give us a list of locations to make maps of and go somewhere else and write a story, we will call you when its time to make cut scenes.

      • Gilead says:

        True. I mean, look at Crysis 2.

        They got ‘a real writer’ on board in 2010, about a year before release. They’d been working on the game since 2007. They already knew what the setting was going to be, the characters, the themes, the art style, the difficulty progression, the pacing…

        In other words, virtually everything that makes up ‘the story’ was put together by a committee of game designers and programmers, with no doubt hefty input from publishing and marketing guys, way before Richard Morgan would ever have seen it.

        If you create the story without even realising you’re doing it and then hire a famous name at the last minute to desperately tidy up the B-movie nonsense you’ve produced, you’re probably screwed.

    • Brise Bonbons says:

      I think you’re getting stuck on the idea of translating a book into a game as the only model. A book can sometimes be a puzzle to unravel and understand, but other than that it shares little with what makes games unique as imaginative spaces; to explore and react to, or to have react to you.

      What if we compare a game to, say, a cathedral: A massive space to explore, a collection of harmonious visual proportions, engineering marvels, symbols, and images which combine to inspire any number of emtions. Hidden passages, fragments of history and stories of people who lived there or built it, a place to interact with others and talk, or enact important rituals.

      I could easily use similar language to talk about something like an online Skyrim, with pretty much all of its “main quest line” removed. Imagine if the world in that online game was covered with a progression of real architecture from throughout human history – grounding it in the real world, making it a visual love song to human endeavor, to be dynamically explored and juxtaposed in a way impossible in reality – rather than a place to stage the trite story of a hero killing dragons.

      Do not assume games must be comparable with books or film or any sort of linear narrative form we know. They can be something else entirely, while still evoking emotion and beauty and loss or whatever else you want to express.

      EDIT: Sorry if I come off as dismissive, I think the original comment was very interesting and makes a lot of good points. I just took one little snippet and got carried away.

  46. Advanced Assault Hippo says:

    I personally wouldn’t want to play a game that questions governments and tackles serious issues – that’s what the real world is for. I play games to escape and whenever a game does haphazardly try and make a statement I often just scoff at it, since it’s like pissing in the wind – pretty much a waste of time when compared to other mediums that are far more suited to it.

    • Brise Bonbons says:

      This is such a frustrating view to take. Games are eminently suited to certain difficult intellectual tasks: See some of the great work being done using games to teach history, for example. People can understand the forces at play much better when they get to tinker with them directly and get involved, rather than just trying to absorb information and regurgitate it. See the power of simulators to teach piloting, driving, management skills, etc.

      It is incredibly foolish and short sighted to label an entire sphere of human endeavor as worthy of nothing but escapism and time-wasted. Coincidentally, I’m sure the same thing has been said of almost every new medium when it was young…

  47. Cinnamon says:

    Sounds like someone has realised that Mass Effect is a bit shit really and is having a nervous breakdown. Calm down man, there will always be indie games about sad children lost in the dark or something to make games seem deeper.

  48. Vagrant says:

    I found yer problem right here! Films start with a script, games start with a design document. Games pitch mechanics, not story. Writers are integral at the inception of film design, but are not integral to game design.

    I don’t think a better game script is the right answer anyways. Storytelling in games should be from visual designers.

  49. BatmanBaggins says:

    Games -have- been trying to “mature” for a pretty long time now. It just still seems like they’re really struggling to figure out how. Honestly, the best example of a big budget mainstream game that came close that I can think of, is Red Dead Redemption. It had something to say, wasn’t “artsy” for the sake of being “artsy” (a trap too many indie games fall into), and presented itself in a serious, believable way when it mattered. It didn’t feel like I was playing a teenager’s/young adult’s/generic geek’s wet dream, basically, which is what too many games that think they are “mature” come off as. Even Mass Effect, really.

    I also agree with many posters who have said that part of it lies with the gaming press, who are all too quick to drool over anything that eschews even just the most basic of video game tropes as being a step forward in the evolution of games as art. I hate to say it, but too many gamers have really low standards.

  50. Mman says:

    While more games that explore more themes, and do it well, would be welcomed (just as more games exploring new areas in general would be), I think focusing on that falls into the trap of using film/book standards for “art” rather than exploring new ones. All of the most powerful experiences I’ve had in games that weren’t pure-gameplay (even if gameplay is pretty much always a major contributor) have been a result of the gestalt experience created by all the elements of a particular moment (or game as a whole) coming together; in many cases some of those elements are weak in themselves, but their contribution to the overall aesthetic is more important.

    Hell, of the example games cited in the main post that I’ve played this is the case. For instance, when put under a microscope almost every individual aspect of Deus Ex is pretty weak with a few exceptions, but the way it all comes together creates something brilliant that’s far more than a sum of it’s parts, and couldn’t really be executed the same way in any other medium. The Dear Esther “second opinion” (http://www.rockpapershotgun.com/2012/02/15/what-i-alternatively-think-dear-esther/) also-probably unintentionally-nailed this, with the focus on how the overall experience established a certain mood in a way that couldn’t really be done outside of games (and while I didn’t get the same profundity from it, I personally came to pretty much the same conclusions as the reviewer there did about what it was doing).