My transition from child to teenager to adult has paralleled the transition of the computer from room-sized monster to consumer electronics to pocket-sized powerhouse. Similarly, I’ve seen the video game grow from ‘Pong’ on a black and white television, to Pac-man in the arcade, to become one of the largest and most valuable parts of the digital economy.
The PlayStation 4 that is now connected to our flat-screen television can present things that I couldn’t even have dreamed of in the mid-70s as I played Pong. The hardware, the software and the experience are of a standard that has become more than just game-play.
The question of what has the video game become, really hit home, for me, when I played “Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End” (2016, by NaughtyDog). As the title would suggest, this was the fourth in a series of games featuring the character Nathan Drake, a treasure-hunter and explorer. At its most simplistic, Uncharted 4 is an ‘action-adventure’ game in which the player controls Nathan Drake as a story unfolds through different times and settings. There are aspects of puzzle-solving, action, fighting, shooting - basically, all the things that are a part of the action-adventure game genre.
What made Uncharted 4 an eye-opening experience, was the way that the game integrated cinematic aspects of narrative and story-telling. The ‘player’ is given the sense that they are within the narrative in a way that I’d not seen in video games before. For me, the most impressive link of narrative and gameplay came in the early part of the game, which teaches you the controls of the game. Rather than a series of simplistic tasks or instructions, we find Nathan Drake in the attic of his house supposed to be cleaning. He finds a toy gun, from his daughter’s childhood, and proceeds to play in the attic shooting suction cup darts at targets and hiding behind cardboard boxes.
Along the way, he stops to look at photographs and journal entries that allude to his past ‘exploits’. Until the voice of his wife brings him back to task. So, what we discover is not just the mechanism of controlling the character, hiding and shooting, but we are given a glimpse into the character of a man who was once a swashbuckling adventurer, who has now settled down, but longs for some of that adventure; and has a playful side, as well.
Soon after, the game teaches you the more advanced mechanisms of climbing, jumping and recognising puzzle situations, through an extended flashback. We discover that Nathan grew up in an orphanage, while his older brother was out in the world. Nathan clearly idolises his brother, and wishes to be with him on ‘adventures’, but his brother recognises this is not possible. In this flashback, we learn both the more advanced mechanisms of the game control and a deep backstory that will inform the relationship between characters and establishes the motivations that drive the narrative and the game.
Throughout the rest of the game, we are presented with ‘cut scenes’ that continue to move the story arc and reveal more about the characters and their relationships. Similarly, the voice acting during the game is of a standard that is not something I’d found in games. There is emotion, humour, tension and it is all in service of the story. By the end of the game, I felt as if I had been on my own adventure or, at the very least, I’d been a participant in a cinematic experience. This is not passive watching, this is immersive and engaging.
I won’t claim that Uncharted 4 is the first game to achieve this, as I’m sure there are others. But, for me, it was the first time I felt that I was engaged in something more than playing a video game. I liked the characters. Well, I liked the likeable characters and was surprised that the unlikeable characters were believable - not just caricatures of ‘bad guys’.
When a video game is able to take the player on a narrative journey, with depth and emotion, have we not moved beyond the realm of just ‘a game’? There is a cinematic aspect to modern, triple-A games, that is as (if not more) sophisticated as some blockbuster movies. Perhaps the time has come to reclassify the video game; to move away from the notion that it is just a game. When something involves a complex narrative structure, deep character development, and emotional engagement, we can’t be simply ‘playing’.
The Higher Nationals in Creative Media Production include a Game Development pathway. In developing the units that would support this pathway, I was pleased to find the discussion among our writers exploring narrative, character and story structure, as well as design and programming. Game development has clearly moved to a position which brings together many different areas of theory and practice.
We are just as likely to be engaged in a discussion about Joseph Campbell’s theory of the ‘Hero’s Journey’ as we are to be talking about programming game engines. The practice of game design and development involves a unique skill set, and the ability to engage in both story development and game development (if my experience is anything to go by) can result in something that challenges what most people will think of as a ‘video game’.
So, what should we call this emerging form - something that is beyond a game, beyond watching, beyond playing? ‘Digital Entertainment’ goes some way to being inclusive of the range of possibilities. ‘Playable Narrative’ has some potential to capture the storytelling nature of the form. I’m not really sure what the new term might be, but I look forward to more of it!