It seems to me that the way in which people look at videogames generally is changing. Over the past 12 months a more critical discussion of certain games has been coming not from afar but from within the gaming community itself. Resident Evil 5 springs to mind, as does the Six Days in Fallujah debacle. Less well know here in the west were similar concerns voiced over the depiction of the Japanese imperial army in Red Alert 3 and World at War as highlighted by Brick Bardo in his ‘Something About Japan’ column in February 2009’s issue of Edge Magazine. Even grumblings about the disconnect between the intelligent characterisation in Uncharted 2 and its murderous gameplay seem to indicate that people now expect something more from their games. So what has changed? It may be that the industry is maturing at its own pace, it may be due to graphical improvements forcing even enthusiasts to view games in a light previously reserved for conservative politicians and concerned parents, or it may simply be our overly P.C. society exerting an unnecessarily level of scrutiny on our favourite pastime.
As I see it, games differ somewhat from other popular media for two key reasons. First our (gamer’s) appreciation of quality seems stunted; what sets triple-A titles apart from less successful games are often their budgets rather than their content. When one goes to the cinema to see a summer blockbuster one expects nothing more than to be entertained (and explosions) yet gamers often purchase mass marketed triple-A titles expecting not only entertainment but high production values and interesting story telling. Taking Resident Evil 5 as an example, perhaps if gamers had understood from the outset that the game retained, in every aspect, the trappings of its B-movie routes, they would have expected less in terms of intelligent treatment of setting and culturally sensitive imagery. Secondly, and this is in many ways both gaming’s strength and its weakness, games are a thoroughly international medium. Worldwide distribution of games is common and unlike manga or Asian film for example, where enthusiasts approach such content knowing full well the cultural divides between them and the content’s creators, games can be marketed and sold to consumers who know little or nothing about the product’s origins.
While creators working within a society will usually be self-censoring to an extent, no such mechanism is in place for games developers working towards a world audience. Looking again at Resident Evil 5 (I hope people don’t feel like I’m picking on it), I personally never felt that it contained ‘racist’ content but as N’Gai Croal pointed out in his carefully worded articles (again in Edge), it’s choice of imagery was culturally insensitive and it appeared that little thought had gone into creating a context for the action. By any other name, as a minor release in its home territory, the game would surely have disappeared without a trace but presented to gamers as one of the major international releases of 2009 it may have done gaming a disservice. The implications of the current levels of graphical quality on how non-gamers will relate to the medium going forward can not be understated; it was very easy to take Resident Evil’s visuals out of context.
But what’s to be done? If games of all genres and from all regions were to be focus tested to ensure they offend no one, we would risk homogenising both gameplay and in-game story telling to the point of mediocrity. As I see it, the fact that concern is being voiced from within the industry itself shows gaming may be on the verge of some sort of intelligent self regulation. As big budget games inevitably move away from the easily marketed sci-fi/war scenarios that currently dominate, a greater emphasis will need to be placed on character motivation and storytelling. And that brings me back to Uncharted 2: Among Thieves. The developers need to be applauded for creating a free-flowing story which draws the player through from beginning to end, replete with changes of pace, mood and location. Similarly the inclusion of strong willed and interesting female characters is commendable. Both Nathan Drake and the player are given motivation for every action and both will often genuinely share emotional and even vocal reactions to events on screen (‘Now we’re getting somewhere’ or ‘That was close’ you’ll mutter to yourself moments before Drake makes a similar comment). But how then do we go from one for one identification with the game’s lead to wilfully killing some 800 hired goons on a quest for treasure. At least in the 2007 original Drake was caught between a rock and a hard place on a personal quest for the truth about his ancestor but here (for all his honour and lovability) his underlying motivations are greed and revenge.
Before anyone asks, I don’t propose to have a solution to this but for all our talk about gaming’s strengths lying in interactivity and presenting choice to the player, real freedom remains a rarity. Uncharted 2’s stealth sections and urban warzone setting seem to draw heavily from those of Metal Gear Solid 4 but I wish they had gone one step further and given players the simple MGS4 style freedom not to kill everyone in sight. That might have been a step in the right direction. A comment about Drake’s violent tendencies towards the end of the game is lacking in impact somewhat due to the fact you, the player, haven’t been given a choice and therefore don’t feel particularly responsible for Drake’s actions.
For me, Uncharted 2 falls into the ‘Inglorious Basterds’ category; undoubtedly one of the better releases of last year, it is well written and a lot of fun but is non-the-less over-the-top. Hopefully we will eventually see more developers put as much effort into context and story as graphics. Hopefully we will see gameplay morph to allow the more complex freedoms required to make games truly interactive. Hopefully we will eventually see game genres defined not in terms of the perspective from which you shoot things but in terms of the theme or setting of the game as a whole. If games are indeed capable of more, it is as yet difficult to see exactly how and from where the change is likely to emerge.