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Staking a Claim 2

Exploring the emotional stakes that make games resonate and endure, both in narrative and with player-driven ambition.

Why care? I recently hit 100% in Lego Star Wars. Felt great! I’ll never do it again. Same with the golden statue in Animal Crossing or Pogs in the fifth grade. Challenge and reward are the core of contemporary video games. They tap a human desire to be confronted and succeed. But there’s a reason we’ve yet to win Ebert, or move to that dubious perch called “art”. Games too often suffer a deficit of emotional stakes: and not just in narrative.

Film critics lambasted Transformers 2 for empty characters amid loud clanging. Reason being, if we care nothing for Shia LaBeouf, why care about churning robots? Modern video games yield heaps of spectacle and awe, but few reach deeper, for moments that move and characters who change. If I cared more about Fenix than blasting Locust, I’d probably still be playing Gears of War right now. Or at least remember each iteration more fondly. Narrative allows games the ability to transform from a toy into a memorable, and maybe even personal, experience.

Stories like Final Fantasy and Shadow of the Colossus resonate. They involve and drive players in a way fetch quests cannot. Incredibly talented studios have taken the vanguard (Mass Effect, Journey), but the road ahead is long, and extremely exciting.

But it would be sacrilege to claim an increased emphasis on narrative works for every genre. One of my favorite games, Rock Band, has sat in my Xbox longer than many other titles combined, and it completely neglects story. Such titles highlight a highly unique, narrative-bereft potential in video games, a potential I believe rivals any artistic advancement of the last century: personal, player-created stakes.

Jeff Marchiafava posits about Minecraft in Game Informer "Creepers... explode your homes, the structures you've spent countless hours building up. The sense of loss they instill – that you won't be able to rebuild things exactly the way they were – makes even the most seasoned gamer flee in terror." These are the same emotional experiences filmmakers and writers chase, but here they are carefully freed by the developer to be claimed by the gamer. They extend the experience beyond empty statues or high scores. Loss resonates on an emotional level. That is pride and emotional involvement. Without a hint of developer-written story, that is art.

We’re seeing the evolution of gaming as an emotional, interactive experience every day. Games no longer waste time. Some soar you through a story where your choices make a lasting impact (Mass Effect, Heavy Rain), a potential film cannot equal. Others ask you to devote your creative resources and ambitions, allow you the tools and give you the reins. Painters cover a canvas, and leave the rest to us. Video games can take you one further, and I bet you anything, they will.

The future of gaming is not only optimistic on the technical or innovative spectrum, but for the ways in which they can reach, involve and touch players around the world. Naysayers who find no artistic merit in games are missing the most important opportunity of the century - to not only pitch art to audience, but make them a part of it. Not with empathy. But personally.

So why care? If developers are on the right path, you’ll answer that question yourself.

-Derek

P.S.

Whether or not to call it art? No one cares. Not gamers, not the art judges, no one. What matters is - can games move us? Can they speak to us? Can they captivate us? Duh.

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