Sunday, February 21, 2010

What Happened on Virmire

Well, I just recently finished playing through a game called Mass Effect, and it got me thinking. Video games are awesome. And not just in a "that was pretty cool" kind of way, but in a spine tinglingly good, amazing storytelling kind of way.

Mass Effect, like Fallout 3 (another game finished recently) had a better story than most films, books, or TV shows I have ever seen. And I think the reason for this is simple. Storytelling can lend itself better to video games than any other medium. In a film, you've got to cram in as much story as you can into two, three hours tops. But a video game can be thirty hours long. A story can be so much richer and more complex when there is more than enough time to tell it.

Although few games have caught on to that, a couple (namely Mass Effect and Fallout 3) certainly have. The stories are so good, and there's character development and plot twists that rival the best Hollywood films. And because you spend so much more time with the characters, it has an even greater effect.

And especially in RPGs like Mass Effect, a lot of what happens in the game is based on the player's choices. Entire story arcs are often affected by what the player chooses to do. Sometimes its simply how other characters will react to what you say, or sometimes its a matter of life and death. In Mass Effect, there's a planet you go to called Virmire. There's a part where two of your teamates are in trouble and you have to choose which one to save. And the one you don't dies! And not just "oh, we'll bring him back to life with a phoenix down," but actually dies for good. I remember how big a deal it was when Aeris died in Finaly Fantasy 7, but in Mass Effect, you have to choose which of your teammates, and you can't save both. That kind of thing can never happen in a film. You just watch what the characters do, so there can only be so much emotional involvement. In a game, you are the main character, and its how you act around the other characters that determines what the story is going to be like. There are a whole lot of other WTF moments that happen on Virmire, as well as at many other times throughout the game but I won't give anything else away.

On top of all that, there's still so much more to come with video games. Books have been around for millenia, and films for a century, but games have only been here for a few decades. They are only in their infancy in comparison.

Basically, my point is, video games get a bad rap for being a waste of time or money, and the people who play them are generally looked down upon by film buffs and book enthusiasts, as if they are a lesser form of entertainment. But they shouldn't be. Don't get me wrong, I love films and TV shows and books too, but video games certainly belong on the upper tiers of entertainment with them. And if you don't think so, then you obviously haven't played Mass Effect or Fallout 3.


Jonathan Coit said...

Well said! I like when people do non-artistic blog posts and just rant about topics I like.

I haven't played Mass Effect yet as I have given up games for this semester, but it is one which I am going to have to pick up because everyone rants and raves about it.

Thanks for the sweet post and hopefully one day the world will see that our down-time gaming passion was in adoration of something worthy to call art.

Nick said...

I was going to post my thoughts on this, but Mr. Coit has beaten me to it.

Fallout 3 is easily the most engaging game I've ever played, for many reasons, but the most important reason is the story. I think that part of the reason video games are such a successful medium for storytelling is that they combine a visual medium with interactivity, which most animals with high brain function desire.
I can't speak for Mass Effect, as I also, have sworn off video games for the semester.

Christian H said...

I can assure you, as an English major, that there is some effort into giving computer games critical attention. Off-hand, I know that the University of Waterloo offers graduate-level courses on electronic media and computer games. There is some work being done in developing critical theory for and the language to discuss computer games.

However, until there are more games like those you mention (and I'd like to add Half-Life 2, which is very critically interesting), I think there will be a deal of inertia toward this genre.

And also ask yourself about the audience breadth. How many people can or want to access computer games versus books or movies? Computer games take a certain level of skill to work through and enjoy; movies don't. While this increases the experience of playing computer games, it limits those who are able to access it.

Some genre always gets the shaft. There have been excellent ballads, for instance, but since the Middle Ages they've been considered folky and inferior. And I doubt that will change any time soon.

But, anyway, thanks for writing this. I hope to be part of a growing academic community keeping a close eye on and promoting video games.

Nicole Kozak said...

hey! i just lurked your blog because Rands is at your place right now and name-dropped you. I LOVE that you wrote about Mass Effect! My favorite game!! have you played #2 yet?

Adam Pockaj said...

Playing 2 now. It's pretty sweet. Overall, I think I prefer the first one so far, but ask me again in a couple weeks and I may change my mind

Kristian Duffy said...

I love Mass Effect and Fallout. In fact the first Mass Effect has been the only game I've played where I actually feared for the fate of the universe, I was on the edge of my seat right through the final act.

However, neither have lived up to the complete emotional attachment I had with Bioshock. That game set the bar for what a narrative can do to enhance the whole video game experience - and it hasn't been beaten yet. Artistic styling, music and atmosphere all added up to a believable and evocative package.

So if you haven't played it, do so right now.

On anoter note, I think the problem with video games' reputation is first impressions. The older generations look down up the gaming world because of it's beginnings. Right up until the late 90s, games were just about scoring points, or beating your friends. They were just there to kill time but they have since been harnessed to tell brilliant stories. I think they are slowly gaining a reputation but things like Call of Duty (though it is fun) are tarnishing that because guns and military must mean mindless violence.