Recently I read an article that wanted more truly adult movies. Not adult in the “more swearing, more boobs, more close-up shots of exit wounds in slo-mo”, but adult in the sense that they require some maturity and engagement to understand, adult in that they aren’t scared in the use of silence.
I thought of this when I heard that Gearbox said they were concerned about censorship issues around Duke Nukem Forever, and the possibility of people being punished for their “creativity” (said creativity kicking off with a point-of-view urination scene and ending with a slightly-off-screen FFM sex act).
There’s an interesting disconnect in how the video games industry says it is mature and ready for respect, and what it actually releases.
Gamers tend to get defensive on the issue on if games are truly mature, or make any meaningful cultural contribution (not impact; contribution). “Hey, UnSub,” you aren’t saying to yourself, because no-one really talks outloud to a blog, “There are plenty of movies with dick and sex jokes.” Yes, there are, and some are very funny. But they aren’t the artistic pinnacle of the medium – film gets “Rashomon” to go along with “The Hangover”. Movies get a mix of titles that explore big and difficult issues alongside scatological references or explosive dismemberment material. Video games don’t get much of the former, but do see plenty of the latter. It’s a reason why video games are such an easy target for criticism.
Gamers typically brush off those criticisms with, “It’s just a game and I’m having fun.” Unfortunately that’s an argument that will see video games remaining at bottom of the barrel in terms of cultural acceptability. It’s hard to argue that it is important for players to be able to see individual bone fragments emerge from wounds they inflict in-game because the title / industry is ‘mature’ when all that is being displayed is technology-fuelled gore for its own sake. Movies can at least talk about the gore being shown for a particular reason that is offset by another – say, a message on what happens when life is cheap, or to drive home the morality of a man’s behaviour. Games rarely journey down that path, remaining as pure power fantasies.
As such: Duke Nukem. Duke Nukem 3D was a successful title, sure, but as a game it was inferior FPS to Quake. It did have more blood, boobs and more dialogue (often stolen from Bruce Campbell’s work) which is what brought it an audience and also lots of controversy. However, this was 14 years ago. Duke Nukem Forever seems poised to do it all again in a higher resolution and potentially use the same kind of excuses – it’s just a game, so what if the women are just T&A and the gore gratuitous? 3D Realms Gearbox knows exactly what kind of controversy storm they are heading into and appear set to milk that for all the free publicity they can. Gamers will help them by getting outraged over the merest hint of censorship. Great for DNF sales, probably not great for people trying to get video games taken seriously.
And if video games aren’t taken seriously, it makes it very easy for restrictive legislation to be put in place because “if it is just a game” it doesn’t need to show multiple player-caused homicide or involve nudity at all. Games are mostly for children, after all.
Mature Moments In Gaming
In going back to the idea of games that require some kind of engagement / maturity to understand, I can only sadly come up with a short list of times when I think I’ve come across it (and below isn’t a comprehensive list, just the ones that came to mind quickly). Maybe I play the wrong titles. Maybe video games don’t do silence well.
- BioShock – the maturity of BioShock came from the world it crafted in being a paradise lost. There were moments of sadness and silence scattered throughout Rapture, evidence of the ordinary people crushed in a war of egos. And no, the choice between ripping out a little girl’s spine and not ripping out a little girl’s spine was not mature at all, especially since the morality of it was highly neutered due to the rewards for each method basically evening out.
- Mass Effect – most choices in Mass Effect don’t cost you, the player, anything. Shoot the alien in the head or let them live, it doesn’t matter – there are no longer term consequences. The exception is the choice to save either Kaiden or Ashley – you can’t save both. Neither have done anything wrong, but it is just a point in the game where you have to directly choose who lives and who dies out of two characters who are important (of sorts) to you directly.
- The Darkness – it’s a rare title that has the opportunity to sit with the character’s girlfriend and have them fall asleep on you. It is only a moment, but it shows how comfortable the two are in what is a more adult relationship rather than just throwing up a pseudo-sex scene for the titillation of the player. (Of course, she dies and you spend most of the game ripping hearts out of chests with with demonic powers… but let’s ignore that for now.)
- Silent Hill and Silent Hill 2 – how you played and what you did directly impacted on the ending you saw. Silent Hill is a title that wasn’t afraid to use silence to build tension, while Silent Hill 2 is one of the few games where sadness and guilt are key points to the plot and character silence is the reaction to a plot twist.
- Haven’t played Heavy Rain or Planescape: Torment, but by reputation these are titles that have a more adult view of game narrative and situations.
However (outside of Silent Hill 2’s plot twist) most of the things listed above are footnotes to the main gameplay elements of killing lots of things. Most titles aren’t brave enough to let players experience silence or moments of contemplation, because that risks players becoming bored and skipping the cutscene. However, it is into the silence that video games have to start to go, to gain the ability to portray something emotional without a narrator, subtitles and things being spelt out repeatedly for the player. It’s only when video games can start to convey emotions without resorting to “I am sad / tell me why you are sad / I am so sad now”-style dialogue, or ridiculously over-the-top choices that have no real in-game downsides either way, that games are going to start approaching the status of being art that so many in gaming want.
It’s one of the reasons why I think that games currently aren’t art, but that’s a topic for another time.
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Couple of thoughts. First is that the market shapes the product. Generally speaking games that are unusually thoughtful have not tended to be more commercially successful.
Next is that you’re focusing on story as equivalent to art. I think there can be game design elements that are not story but which are thought-provoking. For example in Civilization there was a mechanic based on Women’s Emancipation which effectively allowed you to field more troops. That’s clever and cynical – a suggestion that the heroic efforts of the suffragettes won them the right to replace their menfolk in the grimy factories pumping out uniforms for their husbands to go get killed in (now they were no longer needed in the factory). All of that was suggested in 5 words:
Female Emancipation – +2 happiness.
Deeply clever, political and subtle, definitely “art”, but not story.
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