A long running debate in the world of entertainment is whetheror not video games can tell stories with the same emotional substance as film and television. Even George Lucas, whose Star Wars franchise has spawned dozens of video games, believes that games can never match the narrative power of the silver screen. But as I watch the recently released trailer for The Last of Us 2, I cannot help but feel that we can put this debate to rest. Over the past decade, games have played catch up at an impressive rate. Constant advances in game-related technology continually improve realism and the storyetlling tools available to developers, and the increase in charater-driven narratives has broght a deeper sense of empathy to the gaming experience.Yet while gaming has closed the gap in regards to gripping narratives, there is one final hurdle the industry must clear before truly reaching artistic parity with film and television: it must stop telling stories to purely entertain, and start telling stories that force real world reflection.
When I say, "real world reflection", I simply mean that at some point during the game, the player takes a step back, and applies what she has experienced to the world she lives in. This may sound counterintuitive, as the primary purpose of video games is to escape reality, but film and television release plenty of successful content that is designed to both entertain and prompt reflection on the physical world.
To give you a better idea of what I mean, here are two pairs of games and films that are meant to purely entertain--one dark and one light, but both in the same relative genre. The Last of Us is a gripping virus outbreak game, much akin to the film 28 Days Later. Dead Island 2 is a fun zombie shooter, which pairs nicely with an undead comedy like Zombieland. All four are entertaining, but wholly lacking when it comes to real world reflection.
Now here are some examples of media that both entertain and prompt real world reflection. Spec Ops: The Line is a third-person shooter that deals with the moral and psychological complexities of war, and draws its story and themes from the Coppola war epic Apocalypse Now. The Watch Dogs franchise is an enjoyable action-adventure "hacker" series that makes you question society's obsession with technology and the increasing dependence on the Internet of Things, both themes that are also addressed in USA's show Mr. Robot.
Do you see the difference now? Zombieland is a fun romp made memorable by Bill Murray, while Apocalypse Now is total mind f--k that undoubtedly entertains, but also leaves the viewer with a multitude of questions, and highlights the total lunacy of the Vietnam War and U.S. interventionist policy in general.
Similarly, The Last of Us is a gripping trial of survival, but ultimately keeps the player's thoughts isolated in the game's outbreak world, while Watch Dogs 2 takes place in a present-day, albeit fictionalized, San Francisco where many of the game's themes are being played out in real life.
So why does this matter? Why should we care whether or not video games make us reflect on what is happening in the world around us? Well, it matters becasue art that can both entertain and enlighten is objectively better than art that simply does one or the other. At present, film and television have far more examples of this "dual threat" artwork, which is why gaming is considered by many outside the industry to be an inferior narrative vehicle. But the opportunity for gaming to produce dual threats of its own has never been closer.
The gaming industry is already a master of entertainment. The billions of dollars and hours players pour into games each year is a testament to their entertainment value. It is the second part, the prompting of real world reflection, that has yet to be refined, and the polish lies in story selection. Video games should be sparking conversations, not just our imaginations.
Take the film District 9. It is a science fiction thriller that provides a not-so-subtle commentary on racial segregation and xenophobia using aliens or "prawns" as an oppressed everyman. The film has explosions, gunfights, and spaceships, which keep the audience engaged, but its topical social themes force the audience to consider how we treat immigrant populations, or for that matter, groups who are simply different than those in power.
There is no reason why game studios cannot craft AAA titles with the same narrative depth as Distric 9. The real world is not a fairytale of unimpeachable heroes battling incorrigible villians, so why should our video games be? In an industry that too often depicts good and evil on a binary scale, some moral ambiguity would be refreshing. It's okay to get raw. Gamers are ready for it.
Film and television have used storytelling to mold society's perceptions of race, culture, and politics for decades. Now it's time for gaming to cast its hat into the ring and endeavor to improve the physical world we live in.