David Cage, video game designer, is annoying me again, whining about how games need to “grow up” – and my friend Paul Fidalgo at Freethought Blogs has been taken in! Let me tell you something Mr. Cage: I grew up with video games, and they’ve grown up with me. My parents used to sit with us around our old Amiga 500 and play point and click adventure games into the night. Some of my most vivid early memories are of Dungeon Master: the shuffling of mummies as they crept through the stone passageways, the clank of iron doors as he opened into unexplored rooms, and the terrifying wail of Shriekers before you batter them into food are all seared into my memory. Games were bewitching, magical interactive narrative spaces which beckoned me to spend every hour with them – and on some weekends I gave in to their siren call.
But those early games – rich and compelling as they were, and rife with bizarre and wonderful stories (Sam and Max, anyone? Gabriel Knight?) are nothing when compared with the best games of today. Today’s games have given me some of my most profound, enriching experiences of my adult life. From the profound political and personal explorations of Bioshock to the touching, dreamlike meditations of Final Fantasy VII, to the triumphant thrill of a successfully-executed raid against C’Thun in World of Warcraft, games have rocked my world.
Since I’ve been playing games – from pretty much the beginning of the medium – they have “grown up” in countless ways. They have remarkably quickly developed a repertoire of mechanics which would have been unimaginable to those coding Wizball (one of the games which came with our old Amiga). They have dramatically expanded their visual repertoire (games now range from the hyper-realistic to the completely abstract, with stops along the way in impressionism, noire, and other artistic styles). They have revolutionized how we encounter musical scores, with today’s games (as well as featuring some of the best dramatic scoring in all entertainment media) featuring dynamic music which responds sensitively to the situation of the player. And major games frequently tackle deep and challenging themes: Far Cry 3 explores insanity and the corrupting pull of violence, Mass Effect 3 is an extended poetic investigation of the nature of loss and sacrifice, and Assassin’s Creed 3 (to continue the trend of 3s!) takes you inside the American Revolution in a charming (if completely bonkers) way.
Paul Fidalgo notes the grand investment many games require, wondering what the payoff is:
games in particular, they can give even seasoned players, what, 60-plus hours of playing time. Why would you want to waste such a powerful medium on just more shooting and puzzle solving? It’s not even necessary to fill a game with politics or a moral or what have you, but like any great novel or film, shouldn’t the story and the experience enrich you in some way, given all that you’ve put into it?
For me, video games have been powerfully enriching. Games are part of the mental furniture of my life, a set of cultural and experiential touchstones I relate to as others relate to music or books. I find myself thinking “That’s such an Aeris moment”, heading to work with the inspiring riffs of Halo 2‘s “Mjolnir Mix” accompanying my footfalls, and I look back fondly on the times I’ve spent with guilds in various MMORPGs. Games have brought me to tears, made me hunch over my controller in terror, and LOL more times than I can possibly count. It’s true, as Cage asserts, that “many games have absolutely nothing to say” – but this is also true of books, songs, films, poems, and plays. Most art in all media is bad. Yet, in comparison to other media, games have “grown up” remarkably quickly, and the future holds only promise. The only person who seems to miss that is David Cage.