June 14, 2011

Nick Schaedel on video games & the human condition

“Everything’s amazing, and nobody’s happy.”

It’s one of those statements of utter simplicity and yet immense insight that only a truly great comedian – like Louis C. K. – can toss out. You can almost taste the sickening, gut-churning truth lingering in the air. It’s lucky that the line is just one in a larger set of reflections on modern society, because without the relief of a punch line you’re more than likely to cuddle up in a corner with a quilt and start deconstructing the very nature of existence itself.

We’ve kind of messed this whole thing up. That original Jetsons-esque technological dream was of machines sparing us the hard work so that our lives could have more meaning. And yet, we spend our time complaining about how our computer doesn’t work, or reading into why our friend didn’t text back immediately. When people call us, we let the phone ring out. Somehow, that vision has been perverted, and instead our machines are the hard work and take away meaning. We’re overstimulated and yet apathetic. We’re the loneliest friends. We’re the hollow generation.

That’s why video games are so important.

Sorry if that narrative flash-forward smash-cut conclusion jarred. It is indeed a glorious non sequitur to claim technology will be the solution to our problems with technology, but hopefully on examination a kind of beautifully obvious one. In the first few decades of this cold, wintry silicon frontier, we’ve lost the connection with ourselves. We forced a social brain the product of millennia of evolution to cope with a radically different lifestyle. That primitive pack urge to band together, to play and learn as infants through rough-and-tumble, was distilled and removed from our lives.

There’s good news. The video game industry’s ongoing growth and increased maturity will with it bring back so much of what we are now missing. Just a scant decade ago, when the medium was arguably still in its teenage years, it could have fairly if disparagingly been described as something that nerds did in their parents’ basements. And yet, probably thanks to the recent efforts of Apple and Nintendo, casual gaming has exploded into public consciousness.

Where before games were just a distraction, a niche hobby, a childish pursuit neither deserving of greater recognition nor needed once an adult, they are now something entirely different: a cultural normality. The generation that grew up with video games now have kids of their own, but instead of plodding towards middle age like those preceding them, slowly losing touch with friends and settling into an office management job, this generation are legitimising games as a culturally valid form of adult escapism.

Humans have longed to escape forever: our cultural heritage proves it. Books move us with the power of language, and film takes audiences to fantastic places that thrill and excite. The trouble with these media is that they are still innately intellectual, unnatural delights that run contrary to our instincts. Our animal brain never dreamt of visiting foreign lands; it’s all merely a substitute for physical experiences we can never have. If you place games in this chronology, it doesn’t particularly seem like a revolution.

So let’s look at things differently.

Today’s video games offer us physicality through interactivity. You can be thrilled or disturbed watching a film, but at the end of the day you are a passive participant in the experience. Hell, there are entire journals dedicated to audience theory. Your reactions are by necessity empathetic. It’s escapism, sure, but the unfulfilled escapism of watching others. Video games are on the cusp of a breakthrough in which true escapist storytelling will be placed, literally, in your hands. By some measures we’re, if not already over the threshold, then at least wiping our shoes on the mat.

In a film, the protagonist’s failure is their failure. In a game, the protagonist’s failure is our failure. That’s what gets the juices flowing. That’s where the twitch reflexes and predator vision can kick in. Video games can, are, and will be the pressure valve that releases your deepest animal instinct wanderlust. They are the defrag program of your societal computer. They clear your biochemical Eustachian tubes. They’ll offer you an experience so realistic that your body reacts like it would have ten thousand years ago. They will reward and punish you for your actions. It’s technological catharsis.

Let’s talk specifics. You have motion control that can take physical input and translate it to a digital scenario. You have the internet, capable of connecting disparate people to the same ‘space’. You have the rendering magic of increasingly powerful computers able to replicate a world remarkably similar (or dissimilar) to our own. And, as we always, we have storytellers that shape experiences that can affect and change us.

Of course, as the industry has grown into a multi-million dollar entertainment powerhouse, we’ve had hundreds of games that excite us and transport us away from our lives. Most don’t deliver more than an adrenaline rush. One that did, and will likely be seen years down the track as pivotal in shifting our conception of gaming away from mere ‘distraction’ and toward a bigger experiential picture, is Heavy Rain.

Heavy Rain is not a perfect game, but it is an important one. Described as interactive storytelling, it places you in the roles of multiple characters within a noir city environmental stalked by a serial killer. Featuring representative controls, where to open a door you must pivot the control stick in an arc to mimic turning the knob, and with a branching story path that evolves with every decision you make in a character’s shoes, it stands alone in a genre of one. Your failures are permanent. A character’s death doesn’t result in you starting the scene again for another shot, but in the story organically evolving around it. The stakes feel real, so they are real. The moral ambiguity raises unanswerable questions and puts you in life or death situations where you have to choose one way or the other.

No game I’ve played in recent memory stayed with me after its conclusion like Heavy Rain did. No game has educed such visceral reactions, such shaky adrenaline and anguish and release. No game has made me feel actual, gut-wrenching regret that hung around after I turned the system off. It is this reaction, this real-world response to fiction, which offers us escape from the emotional rut we’re in.

So, let’s return to that original statement: everything’s amazing and nobody’s happy. Maybe that’s partly because we’re unable to separate ourselves from the world we live in. We don’t get a breather from life until we’re dead (and it’s a bit of a stretch to call that a breather). We are stuck in lives based on rational necessities that don’t allow our centuries-old animal instincts to run around on occasion and muddy the carpet. Our community brain is overrun with stimuli, and instead of our thirty person caveman clan we’re forced to process hundreds of interactions with minimal engagement.

Video games allow the beast inside to run free. They will soon offer interactivity with what to date has been unimaginable, or at least unobtainable. And it will be societally accepted. We live in a world where a vast number of us own consoles, and in which every smartphone additionally serves as a sophisticated casual gaming machine. The games we play will offer possibilities for collaboration, heartbreak, friendship, education, exploration, disaster, and hope. The emotion and satisfaction these games release will be real. Maybe even be the realest real you can get.

And everything will be amazing.

Games That Aren’t (Just) Games

Heavy Rain

features representative controls and a branching story path that evolves with every decision you make.
blends genre-bending platforming with German expressionist misé-en-scene.
Mass Effect
is the first mainstream franchise to show the repercussions of your moral choices across multiple games.
offers a stress-free detox experience as you, playing the wind, blow through realistic garden environments.

LA Noire

 asks you, a cop, to read the facial expressions of suspects, performed by real mocap actors, and decide if they’re telling the truth.
Nick Schaedel works as a video game journalist and reviewer for Sliced Gaming.
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