Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Finding our Voice

We have reached a transitional period in videogame analysis. Perhaps some of you have noticed it. Several years ago, it seemed enough to simply review a game based on the quality of its audio and visuals and whether or not the gameplay mechanics functioned correctly and consistently. Plot, if a game even had one, was never a major concern. Instead, enjoyment was paramount.

However, as voice acting and cutscenes started to be incorporated more and more into the presentation of videogames, many videogame writers began to view games as analogous to movies. At the time, it made sense: games are audiovisual experiences that – by and large – attempt to tell stories to the players. Increasingly though, we are finding that this is the wrong approach.

For one thing, treating videogames as simply movie analogues completely ignores the interactive aspect of the medium. I know I’m not the first one to make this observation, but it bears repeating. Movies are a static medium, meaning that the experience is essentially fixed from viewing to viewing. And while each person might view a film differently (e.g. seeing different meanings in the story), the action on screen is completely fixed. This is where videogames differ. Each player will experience the game differently, not only because of the different choices a player can make but because each player’s skill level is different. A game like Resident Evil 5, for example, might be decried by experienced players as too easy and therefore not particularly scary. However, the experience of these players gives them “expert bias.” A relatively inexperienced gamer might find the game very challenging, and that challenge will only heighten their sense of fear (as it does for me when playing Resident Evil 4 on anything but the Wii).

The limitations of this approach also come to light when we try to discuss “games as art.” More often than not, the games we try to lift up to “art” status are those that simply well-produced stories with copious cutscenes and voice-acting. The Metal Gear Solid series – though I love the games dearly – is quite frequently brought up in this context. The games are laced with messages and themes related to the danger of nuclear proliferation, personal identity, and nature vs. nurture, among others. However, the Metal Gear Solid games are primarily “games imitating film,” which should be considered its own category in this discussion. Very rarely do these games use the strength of their medium – interactivity – to further the themes of the game. The only time we are aware of these themes is in lengthy cutscenes, meaning that these storylines could just as easily be portrayed in a movie. And hence, because the games are so highly regarded, the idea of games as movie analogues has proliferated.

I do not mean to downplay the impact or importance of games like Metal Gear Solid; as I’ve said, I thoroughly enjoy them, in part because of their cinematic and cerebral storylines. However, the medium is capable of so much more.

I do not profess to have the answer, but I, like many others, are working to find that perfect approach to true game analysis. Film-based criticism still has its merits at times, given the audiovisual nature of videogames. One of my favorite games bloggers - Leigh Alexander - advocated using music as analogues, because of the subjective nature of both. Additionally, we need to focus more on the experience as a whole: how the audio, visual, interactive, and thematic elements coalesce. At least, that is how I intend to approach videogame analysis on this blog.

Consider this my charter for Save the Colossi.


  1. Nice, I shall add you to my list. Look forward to see your future stuff.


  2. Thanks! Hopefully I'll be updating more frequently than I have been.