Mistakes were made
I may have been been wrong about video games.
During the time when I was writing and thinking about games most intensely — roughly 2009 — I wrote a lot of stuff on the internet about the aesthetic potential of games, some of it well-reasoned. Despite some pervasive hedging, I think it’s fair to say that my arguments converged on the view that the manifest destiny of video games lay in their ambitions towards immersive, narratively complex world-creation, a gesamtkunstwerk ideal glimpsed in games like Far Cry 2, Shadow of the Colossus, and Bioshock. I reasoned that the tensions between mechanics and traditional storytelling involved in this effort would be, if not resolved, at least smoothed as the medium evolved.
From the current vantage point, it seems indisputable that this research program has produced diminishing returns.
But I am no longer certain that games are particularly good at presenting narrative. Indeed, where I once thought that cracking this artistic nut involved mating existing mechanics to narratives whose quality approached that of other media, this now seems exactly backwards.
It’s not just that people making video games, on the whole, have questionable artistic taste and writing chops, although this is also true. It’s that games don’t get “immersion” from production values, no matter how expert. Games don’t primarily communicate through sound and vision. They communicate through systems. I have become more and more persuaded that what games are best suited to convey is these experience of operating within a system. The most powerful means by which games get their emotional and narrative texture is through mechanics. Perhaps the most powerful instance of this phenomenon in recent memory is Cart Life, which conveys the requisite feelings of powerlessness through mechanics that capitalize on ignorance and repitition.
There are exceptions to this trend. Some fantastic games have hacked their way down this trail in the past few years. I thought Minerva’s Den an intelligently designed and narratively taut take on the world established by Bioshock. Dishonoured’s anarchic mechanical suite was so versatile, and its world so bizarre, that it made crafting such things seem worthwhile.
But the most vital things going on in games over the last few years have shied away from these ambitions. They’ve come either where mechanical commitments were minimal (as in The Walking Dead, or Spec Ops: The Line) or where explicit narrative is kept to a minimum (as in Hotline:Miami). And if I were forced to make a choice about how to spend my leisure I’d choose the latter path without hesitation.
In fact, I do every day. I play DOTA.