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The gaming industry as a medium is starting to reach a point where both gamers and developers are looking for more in their videogames. A point where refinement is slowly seeping through the cracks to reveal a better experience and a better videogame.

Mihai Cosma, Blogger

November 7, 2011

9 Min Read

Videogames are a tool of expressing creativity... a way for ideas to spring forward and take the shape of whatever the creators have in mind for it. Not unlike writing or painting, allowing someone to make a videogame is like giving a child a plastic shovel at the beach.
Initially he will just play with the sand, make little pits and then move on to rough shapes with barely a resemblance to a castle. He will continue to improve, making better sandcastles, with tall hard-chipped walls and windows in the towers, and maybe even a little drawbridge to protect the castle from whatever the child will mold next.

But it is not before a child starts to ask "why is this sandcastle here", "why should it have walls" or "are people living in my castle?" that the sandcastle will stops being what it is, and moves on to be more. A princess crying in the balcony. A hole in the castle wall. Children working on the fields nearby... 
This is not a castle of water and sand anymore. This is an experience that has impact on a person, allowing him to focus on something beyond the mere existence and craftsmanship of said sandcastle.

I'm sorry for the overlong, and maybe a little fantastical, introduction, but i thought that it was necessary to to explain on what level will this article treat the videogame industry. It's important to know that it has the same traits and direction as any creative venue man has ever pursued. Like writing, painting, sculpting, music or choreography, it has the same stages of evolution and the same conclusion of refinement as its older or more-respected siblings.

Looking back to 25-30 or more years ago, videogames were nothing more than barely recognizable representations of ships, various animals or great heroes. Videogames were not taken for more than what they were, pure entertainment, and were regarded similar to primitive cave drawings: a crude expression of the ability to create in that medium. A buffalo was just a buffalo, a spaceship killing blobs was just a spaceship killing blobs. And the asteroids asked for it, of course.

As the years passed, games evolved into more complex and more detailed beings. We're now in the age where we're treated to a bit more reason for our existence in the game, and the role we have to play. Videogames now incorporate a sense of definable ego, hallow personas created for us to enter at will but which will not supersede our own. Short introductions of the entity tipping the primordial fight between good and evil are the order of the day. To continue my cave drawings analogy, there are now multiple buffaloes that are being chased by stick figures with spears. An observer might understand that the people hunted the buffalo, and the same observer might notice that we're now Jimmy the flying spaceship killing Ka'Blargh blobs belonging to the evil Noctis Empire... to save a princess.

We're going to jump ahead to the mid 90's-beginning of the 2000's. We now get true stories with our games, and even get to participate in them more than just killing the bad guy and retrieving a highscore. This is the age of Lara Croft and the Vault Dweller, of the Prince and the Nerevarine, of characters with a palpable reality and an enthralling story to tell. We are now experiencing the world of the game through their eyes and interacting with the game in ways that feel natural and normal.

Videogames come to the realization that they can give an identifiable medium through which to channel observer emotions and actions that no other creative venue is capable of doing. You are not a passive observer that reads or hears about a character killing another character... You, for all intents and purposes, can be considered in charge of the entity's action inside the game, and because you decided, you set in action the killing of that character. The true strength of the medium, interactivity, emerges.
To continue my cave painting analogy, we can say we now moved on to painting on canvas and are conscious of what we want to depict. We know we can tell a story through a painting and the unique strength of 'a picture being worth a thousands words' is coming to life.

Where are we today? In the flash and bling of a century that has seen the gaming industry evolve into an efficient, if slightly soulless machine, how far off are we from achieving a truly mature and depth-filled medium?

As an industry the videogame medium is one of the youngest, but also one that has benefited and suffered the most from its extremely rapid advancement. Comparing making a videogame to writing a poem or a ballad makes it seem like it's a child compared to the older creative mediums. Sadly, like all children, it's extremely influenceable and these are not the more forgiving and safe times for it to evolve in. We live in efficient times that learned to snuff at waste and praise productivity. Every step outside the comfort zone has to be calculated and the risk asserted. Like a child that is prohibited to play in the mud, he will never learn to appreciate both the simple fun of sloshing in the mud, nor the consequences of getting it in your eyes. Mud will  become nothing more than what you learn of it from people that experienced it, and any attempt at reconstructing that feeling based off second-hand-knowledge will lead to a robotic unnaturalness.

In the movie industry there was a period that most critics prefer to not admit existed and those that do concede, say it was a necessary evil. A gap in which a lot of experimentation, tentative probing, was made into the limits and boundaries of the medium. The exploitation boom. 
It was in the 60's, when the censoring of what was acceptable in movies dropped the bar, that a lot of low-budget movie producers started tackling movies that up to that date have been considered all kinds of things from tabu to nauseating.
It was in this period that the creative vision expanded in trying to fill all the crevices of possibility this medium held. A lot of the lessons learned here would go on to affect the movie industry in ways both subtle and blatantly evident, but overall, for its benefit.

This is an industry that evolved in times where children could play in the mud. It knows what it is and how it reacts and that helps pace it to being a complete medium. A medium where mud has been explored and which it can now shared through it to the observer at large. 

It is in that age, the age of feeling out the complete possibilities of the medium that the videogame industry is moving itself out of. Like the child that it is, being tossed in a suit and a suitcase and being sent out to fill a man's shoes. With insufficient knowledge of the world and how it reacts to it, he stabs out blindly marking spots of what should be maturity but its movements and reactions being nothing of that nature.

From Fable 3's tyrant brother revealed to be a trying savior, to the persistent necessity to include gay or lesbian affairs in Dragon Age, to feelings of sorrow so simply displayed by Dominic over his dead wife in Gears of War, to the imagination of bravery as a white paladin with a halo over his head charging alone headlong into battle... these are wild stabbings of a child out in the dark. Mere representations of what should be themes that in any other medium can shake a man to the core, or at least color a character or a world in a way that makes it matter beyond the apparent.

But even children sometimes can understand matters well above their age. Games like Fahrenheit and Syberia depicted stories of simple people engaged in extraordinary, even heroic, activities, American McGee's Alice and Clive Barker's Undying explored the realms of human madness, Theif and Arcanum dealt with issues concerning the division of society, Shadow of the Collosus and Silent Hill tackled the subject of loss and sacrifice, Half Life 2 and Heavy Rain explore relationships that bond people together and Bioshock strikes deeply in the very fabric of player-character control... all with a depth and an emotional intelligence that are the markings of a truly mature medium.

So i ask again, where are we today? How far are we from a point where a videogame can affect the observer in profound ways? How far are we from a point where we can consider it a worthy medium, its creations able to stand toe to toe with works of creative genius like the Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony or the sculpture of the Endless Column?

I say: Not as far as you might think.

I mentioned the detriments of a fast-evolving medium such as the videogame industry, but i failed to mention the benefits. In 2011, the world as we know it is more interconnected than ever and that's a great thing. The access to information and the speed at which abilities can be learned and applied is mind-numbing and as such, a high profile medium like the videogame industry gets a lot of attention. Given this, with the current backing of both game industry titans and small indie developers, this guarantees that whatever happens, our games and our experiences in them will evolve at a break-neck speed.

Yesterday i was reading an article about the new Rainbow 6: Patriots. Creative director David Sears was mentioning how they were going to fallow a path they never fallowed in any of the Rainbow Six games, a series of games which started all the way in 1998. They said they wanted the players to tread the gray road to give them the chance to make the same type of morally questionable deeds that give the universe its appeal. They even showed a trailer which featured an innocent man strapped with a bomb being thrown off a bridge by our protagonists to save other people. This is a bit of a far cry from Jimmy the spaceship killing aliens isn't it?

It doesn't matter if they will succeed or not, what is important is that there is the will to refine, to create an experience that makes a point and leaves a mark on you.

In the end i am convinced the gaming industry has the potential for great things; I’ve seen the signs and i have shared them with you. The question is, when the time comes for the gaming industry to pass through that door of ascension, will the players be ready for their games?

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