I recently finished playing Remedy’s Alan Wake, which I enjoyed immensely, and prior to that, my wife and I played through Telltale’s The Walking Dead. While I have not yet played Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us, which is sounding pretty amazing based on what friends and fellow video game players have told me, all of these games have got me thinking about gaming narrative, both what’s come before and what the future (hopefully) holds.
When I first heard about The Walking Dead, I didn’t know what to expect. All I knew was that the game was vastly experimental for contemporary audiences (plot and character driven, and adhering to the now almost non-existent point-and-click method of game play), which is why I invited my wife to join me in playing through. As we began, and the story and choice-based system revealed itself, I became increasingly glad that this was something we ended up doing together. Simply put, The Walking Dead is brilliant, in whatever terms that means something to you. To me, it means that it is a work of art, with fully-realized characters, a consistent and truthful story, and game play that makes all of this accessible to those who play video games regularly and to those who do not (if ever). It immerses the audience and makes us think and feel, and not just about trivial matters. As parents, the story was a deeply personal and easily relatable one for me and my wife. During the course of a 4-hour discussion about this game, a close friend of mine, who had vehemently upheld that he would never have children for a long time, admitted that the idea was no longer as terrifying, and even that it even seemed to be a possibility. I feel that speaks quite highly to what The Walking Dead aimed to achieve in terms of storytelling, and they pulled it off fantastically.
As for Alan Wake, I knew exactly what I was getting into. Played at the recommendation of the same friend I previously mentioned, I knew that it was a psychological horror about a famous writer who searches for his missing wife. Written by Sam Lake, the same writer who previously penned noir-games Max Payne and Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne, I knew to expect a quality story and smart writing, and I was not disappointed. While not as emotionally affecting as The Walking Dead by any means, Alan Wake is certainly just as personal. A piece of meta-fiction to be certain, Sam Lake has no reins to speak of, as Alan Wake deconstructs his own surreal story in first-person as it unfolds. The entire game is a metaphor for the writing process, and the game goes to great lengths to be anything but subtle about that fact, a characteristic that I think actually enhances the story. Sometimes charming, often moody, and at times just a dick, Alan Wake is a fantastic character, a clichéd embodiment of the everyman struggling writer, but who is expertly written by Lake and perfectly acted by Matthew Porretta. While not as accessible as The Walking Dead, Alan Wake is definitely on my list of quality game narratives.
Yet therein lies the rub: the list of quality game narratives is a rather short one stacked against the entire gaming library. This is not unique to video games, as most if not all other mediums are also saturated with more commodity than quality. Video games are unique, however, in both format and form of consumption. In the first instance, video games are very hard to play. Those of us who have been playing since the early days of directional pads and two buttons, maximum, have had time to adapt to the ever increasing demand placed on the gamer as technologies have changed and improved. While we may not think twice about now having to work with two joysticks, a directional pad (which hardly functions for direction anymore), and no less than ten buttons on a controller, that is definitely a daunting task for the average person. Consequently, while my wife enjoys watching me play through games with interesting stories (and can participate in very rare cases such as The Walking Dead), those narratives go completely under the radar of people like her, for whom it is simply not worth the effort and, perhaps more importantly, the expense. After all, games are absurdly expensive and that makes them even less accessible. Recommend a book, film, music album, even a piece of theater, and the price will still be somewhat reasonable. Recommend an excellent video game, and it becomes an investment. What video game system will you buy? What model will it be? Will you pay more for a system that has no charge for it’s online services, or less for a system that will then charge you to take full advantage of the software and hardware? This is to say nothing about console-exclusive games, which means you might have to buy more than one system just to enjoy two different games. I have a friend who is willing to loan me his Playstation 3, but were that not the case, I would not be playing The Last of Us, and I would be missing out on what I’ve heard is a very good game. Not the end of the world by any means, but certainly its own hassle.
This is interesting, because it essentially means that video games lack the sort of audience diversity that normally forces other mediums to grow and evolve. “Gamers”, when lumped together from across the board, are a pretty simple demographic. Dare I say embarrassingly so. When a well-known member of the gaming community, who is pretty well educated on the subject of video games and who normally expresses some very good ideas, flippantly admits to making a terrible decision within the context of The Walking Dead storyline, it’s pretty telling of what seems to be the biggest problem hindering video games: the derisive attitude of games as “just games” not only from those who dismiss them, but from gamers themselves. James Portnow speaks about the game with phrasing like, “…it got me to give up on one of the characters…” and, “…within the context of the game, it seems justifiable.” But the game doesn’t and it isn’t, and that Portnow felt this way means he was not a participant of the immersive experience and missed the point entirely. Like the decisions made in day-to-day life, The Walking Dead goes to great lengths to make the player feel the consequences of every action. There are no choices made that the game forces upon you because the development team omits the “Paragon/Renegade” system prevalent in many choice-based games, where certain actions will merit certain rewards. Games are treated as inconsequential, and so we miss what they’re saying and, more importantly, what they’re saying about us.
And that’s just it. The average person or casual gamer stigmatizes gaming as a base form of entertainment because they aren’t all Alan Wake or The Walking Dead and they’re absolutely right. This fuels the already blasé attitude that most gamers have, who seek out vindication only from their own and accept video game culture as a niche. There’s no innate desire to change anything because as long as we have the yearly war and sports games, making video games is largely just another way to turn a buck. Sam Lake, the The Walking Dead writing team, and the many others who see the potential of video games to tell great stories have my utmost respect, because until more is demanded of the medium, things will simply not be getting better.
I’m interested to see what The Last of Us has to say about all this.