Gone with the Techwind; or, discovering video game longevity in an everchanging techworld

thelastofusI’m resolved to play this game at least five more times before I die.

We gamers have often heard the expression that video games, while entertaining, are not art.

As a matter of fact, a few years ago the recently-departed and notable movie critic Roger Ebert had some choice words to say on the matter in 2010 with the following being the essential summation of his critique: “No one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great poets, filmmakers, novelists and poets.”

The irony of what was essentially one of his final controversial critiques is that nestled in his essay is the very thing that today would define the artistic nature of video games he lampooned:

One obvious difference between art and games is that you can win a game. It has rules, points, objectives, and an outcome. Santiago might cite a immersive game without points or rules, but I would say then it ceases to be a game and becomes a representation of a story, a novel, a play, dance, a film. Those are things you cannot win; you can only experience them.

Think about just a few of the titles released in the last year, The Last of Us for example. When have you EVER heard someone say “I beat the game” in reference to that game? Or, “I won in The Last of Us.” The interesting fact is you probably haven’t. “I finished The Last of Us,” is likely what you yourself have said if you’ve played it, or you’ve heard someone else say.

Finished.

Reexamine the last line of Ebert’s quote: “Those are things you cannot win; you can only experience them.”

The fact of the matter is most games these days are indeed story-driven EXPERIENCES, not just games you play to win. There is no winning. There is finishing the story. And while there are certainly games out there that are simply meant to be beaten, is one really going to dismiss the visual aesthetics, or the music when similar joint efforts could have been done in motion picture, which by Ebert’s definition, IS art?

It’s wonderful to think that just a few years after Ebert’s harsh critique video games have certainly established themselves as an art form to be appreciated for the beautiful, sometimes horrific, entertaining, and often thought-provoking pieces they are, even if their interactivity allows a viewer to be an active participant rather than a simple bystander.

But it’s worth making clear, video games long before their recent steerings into the cinematic, were just as moving and artistic 25 years ago as they are today. I’m going to write off Ebert’s misguided critiques as those coming from an older generation rejecting the uprising of an unfamiliar medium. Which again is ironic considering there were those before Ebert who were equally dismissive of motion picture, which Ebert championed, as it developed last century.

So as people who think like Ebert die off, which sadly appears to be the only way for things to change in society, and we get our acceptance in society as a meaningful art form, we’ve become faced with a new challenge: longevity.

IGN Associate Editor Mitch Dyer proposes a rather dismal future for video games that seems to stem from the very tree planted by Ebert’s rejection of the medium.

In his essay, he presumes that the video games we care about today, might not matter in 10, 20, or 100 years from now. He attributes the reasoning to not a lack of acceptance as an art form, but due to the disposability of the technology for which video games are enjoyed:

The other issue is a symptom of the industry’s generational flow, which affects the way games are distributed. Video game publishers do not operate like book or film publishers. Nintendo is as likely to reissue Super Mario World as it is to reissue Super Nintendo. The closest thing we have to the Criterion Collection is an HD or digital re-release, which, due to various programming and architecture complications, isn’t always feasible across hardware generations, never mind whether it’s worth a developer’s precious time.

Comparing a book or a movie to a video game, Dyer could not be more correct in his assessment. And this is as much a fault of the gaming business as it is ours as gamers. Video games are tied to the technology upon which they are enjoyed. i.e.  Super Mario Bros. to the original Nintendo, Halo to the Xbox, The Last of Us to the Playstation 3. In a world where technology’s development is constantly evolving and technology can quickly become obsolete and disposable, so too will be the video games that are connected to said technology.

Books have withstood the test of time because there will always be a company willing to reprint them. Motion picture is enjoyed in the theater, on VHS/DVD/BluRay or on television. They are refinished, retouched, recreated, and redistributed because they are beloved by many so much so that despite the change in times and technology, they will continue to be reproduced. Video games are different. They just can’t simply be copied because as the technology changes, most of the time for the better, what is left behind is the medium that is unable to change with it. Graphical engines, coding, user interactivity — all are changed with each new generation of console.

What I disagree with in Dyer’s assertions is that the improvement of such technology renders obsolete the games with regards to their respective replay value, just as one finishes a good book and is so inclined to re-read it every so often. He cites the comparison of Grand Theft Auto: Vice City to the current Grand Theft Auto V as an example:

Vice City is, after just a few years, a messy, clunky thing, because what it did has been done better by its sequels. Forgetting its cool setting and story — I don’t think I’ll be remembering Tommy Vercetti on my deathbed, anyway — GTA 5 has negated the need to ever play Vice City again. Rockstar Games made its own history irrelevant by giving us access to something better. It will do it again in five years. These are the building blocks of a brand, and not something with any historical value. What other medium seeks out its own obsolescence?

While noble in his message to get people into thinking what they loved about the games they played, he oversteps the line in his over-analytical postulate as he concludes that just because a new game is out that plays better, that we wouldn’t want go back and experience the stories of similar games from an older generation.  It’s not that the medium is seeking out its own obsolescence, the medium is doing the best it can with the technology that is available. New tech over time means a new way of experiencing something. Yes it could be better than the previous, but it in no way demeans the efforts of the tech before it. And unlike Dyer, I enjoy replaying Vice City despite the fact that GTAV is out with an equally engaging story. I play both because they have a great story, period.

So now’s the time to spearhead Dyer’s gloomy prediction! The games we love cannot simply disappear because people don’t love them anymore. If their fate is tied to quickly evolving technology, then it is incumbent upon us as gamers and developers to find a way to preserve the games and their stories.

If we fought so long to get it categorized as an art form, then why are we letting them fade away?

It starts with our passion as gamers. But our passion must dictate to the companies that make the technology that older games continue to be made and redistributed, if even on a limited scale. Yes a gaming company wants to make money, and yes, it is time-consuming to have to recreate them, but our legacy needs to transcend the need for profit. If Michelangelo worked solely on principles of Return on Investment (ROI), do you think the Sistine Chapel would have been produced? And in our foresight to recognize what Michelangelo did as an artistic achievement as something worth preserving, should we not do the same for the stories and worlds we’ve created and explored in video games?

It is a challenge to game developers: if Sony and Microsoft continue to make technology that refuses to allow us to re-explore the awesome games we came to know and love, then it’s their duty as developers to recreate them. I’m not saying it has to be every year, but a good decade or every other console generation would suffice to keep the stories in our hearts and for new generations to… experience. Here’s looking at you, Ebert.

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