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Gods, Heroes and their Immortal Games

I discuss the "Magic Elixir" that I feel is missing from many narrative-based Games.

I must admit, I’m new to the game industry and in fact I’m newly returned to playing games after a ten year hiatus while I raised a family. But now that my kids are old enough to make their own peanut butter sandwiches I’m finding the time to get caught up on what I’ve missed in the past decade of game development.

About six months ago I started scanning reviews and “All-time-top-ten” lists to try and isolate what players considered the best-of-the-best of contemporary games. I was eager to study those games that were breaking through the noise, standing the test of time and/or considered classics. The results of my study were exciting enough to inspire me to jump ship on a ten year career in Film/Television and cross over into the world of game development.

But what got me truly interested in game creation was not so much what I was seeing in the games I was playing (Bioshock, Fallout 3, Farcry 2, Shadow of the Colossus to name a few), but rather what I could plainly see was still missing from the games themselves. There is – in my opinion - a vast reservoir of untapped potential in the art of game making; a vacuum that waits to be filled by the most daring and ambitious of game developers.

I’m not a programmer, so I won’t be contributing any deep thoughts on the topic of rendering, or physics engines; nor am I – strictly speaking – a game designer, so I won’t be presenting any breakout concepts on the nature of game play itself. But if I can present myself as a ‘double-threat’ it will be in the area of Art & Storytelling. While writing and art are generally considered two disparate areas of the brain I have obstinately held the conviction that the alchemical fusion of art and story present the most timeless and emotionally binding experience for an audience.

Central to my path as an Artist/Storyteller has been the exploration of a subject that has followed humanity from its first stone etchings to the modern day. A subject that – although well explored in literature, art and film – remains virgin territory in the craft of game development…

Spirituality

Now I don’t mean bible-thumping, old-testament, fire-and-brimstone sermons; nor cheap moralistic finger wagging; but rather work that truly causes consideration for the mystic aspects of the human condition. Movies like Pan’s Labyrinth, Jacob’s Ladder, The Shining, 2001 and that amazing sci-fi movie Sunshine all went beyond delivering entertainment and brought us a profound examination of the nature of human spirit… and they’re all cracking good, scary, bloody, edge-of-your seat films as well! In fact I’d go so far as to say that ALL of the greatest works of art, literature, music and film have within them a desire to explore the deepest aspect of human nature: the soul.

One game that appears on a number of ‘top-ten-greatest’ lists is the hauntingly beautiful Shadow of the Colossus. A number of people have told to me that they had played it years ago and yet the feeling of that game has stayed with them. The accomplishment of beating it contained a sense of value that surpasses many other games. For me it’s plain to see why. With its visually evocative man-versus-god theme, it’s the perfect example of what I would call a ‘spiritual adventure’; it is a tale with a timeless theme told with remarkable sincerity and insight; a metaphor of man’s eternal struggle to challenge his own mortality.

But games with this level of artfulness are rare. And are there any that really push the envelope? Are there any games that leave a haunting, lingering sensation of change in the player, so that they emerge from the game with a different perspective of the world around them? (That’s not a rhetorical question either, if anybody can name a few I’d love to try them out)

I’ve recently finished the massive Fallout 3 (and all of its DLCs) and – considering I was really only there to shoot things – I found some surprising elements of depth. The initial end choice of the main storyline really wasn’t a particularly reflective choice (hmm… to be a jackass or not to be a jackass? I wonder…) but the surprise choice in The Pitt held up an interesting mirror to my own world view; I walked away still wondering if I had made the ‘right’ choice. The side quest “Oasis” also provided some interesting personal insight; but the odd thing was that the world of Fallout didn’t provide any particular reaction to my choices; it fell short of actually having a point.

I should point out that in the nearly forty quests that I completed, the two mentioned above were the only ones that held for me even a moderate amount of depth. Most I considered strait forward ‘scavenger hunt’ type scenarios, so I’m only giving Bethesda a limp half-‘thumbs up’ on the profundity scale but props for trying.

Bioshock - with its much touted “moral choice” - really wasn’t particularly difficult or haunting in any way. I made what I thought was the ‘right’ choice; which was probably the same choice as anyone who has even a rudimentary understanding of karmic mechanics. But maybe the game was being marketed to the ‘borderline sociopath’ demographic and I just missed the point. But to be fair, it did raise some intriguing questions about choice that stuck with me.

There are a number of games which I have yet to explore that supposedly challenge players with moral choices (GTA, Fable), but from what I can tell from reviews and articles the choices are usually skin-deep moral quandaries with little or no consequences either way. “Morality” at any rate being a somewhat clumsy cousin of what I consider genuine spiritual insight.

In mythology, heroes die, change shape, are reborn and at times become completely different characters in order to complete their mystic tasks. They shift magically from their own world to the ‘otherworld’ where they are tested changed and sent back. The constant mercurial shifting from one state to another, from one world to another, has the effect of distilling their spiritual qualities. By turning on a game the player has already agreed to step into a new reality - a ‘spirit realm’ if you will – so… challenge their spirit.

How are the heroes of myth tested by their gods? How does the hero’s sacrifice, perseverance, humility, compassion, courage and love of life change the world around them? If developers assume the godly mantle to create a world and test a hero, mayhap they should don their divine garb and test the very soul of their chosen heroes! *insert godly thunderclap here*

Games have the power to bring people into any imaginable reality and then to change that reality completely. The very ideas of time, space, life and death can be altered to deliver - what has the potential to be – a very powerful and consciousness-awakening message.

In many of the articles and reviews that I’ve read, I can sense an undercurrent of mounting frustration. Even as technological breakthroughs abound, many reviewers and fans are befuddled by a nagging sense of ‘sameness’ in the titles that are being released. There is a deep craving for something else, something new, something challenging – not only to the fingers, eyes and mind – but to the soul. Games – like all other media before them – have the potential to reach people at depths unimagined.

This is the potential that draws me to games.

Many faces

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