Forging a Golden Age

Tuesday, March 27, 2012 at 4:00 pm
Television's in the middle of a golden age; what about video games?

I want to open this article by saying that over the past three nights, I've been in vastly different social situations with different groups of friends and acquaintances, and somehow I've managed to blatantly steer the conversation toward Game of Thrones each night. Apparently, as the upcoming season premiere approaches, the portion of my brain that gauges socially appropriate behaviors is slowly being invaded by brutal Dothraki armies.

I'm excited for good reason: Game of Thrones is objectively awesome, as are many TV shows now. People often cite this era of television as a "New Golden Age of TV." More than a few of the shows that have aired over the past ten years or so have advanced the theory that TV shows can be smarter, subtler, and more complex than previously thought possible (or at least than previously thought marketable). From The Sopranos to Breaking Bad to Arrested Development, there are signs that television producers are understanding in larger numbers that choosing substance over style can actually get you viewers.

I have a couple questions about this concept of a new golden age. First: does a golden age occur naturally when a medium reaches a certain level of maturity, or is it caused by innovators in the field boldly pushing the boundaries instead of remaining content with the status quo? And secondly: if the latter is true and golden ages are made instead of simply lived through, what are the ways developers can incite one in video games?

Okay, this may be a little literal.
Video games had a golden age; it's usually marked as the late seventies or early eighties, when the popularity of arcade games was blooming and gamers were becoming an actual cultural force. But I can't help but wonder if, just as TV shows are becoming more worthy of analysis and notable in quality, video games can experience a new golden age if developers can think about games in different ways. And perhaps the ways some of the best TV shows have taken the next step can help us understand how video games can follow suit.

One thing TV shows like Mad Men have done extremely well is to rethink the nature of the episode. TV programs traditionally would give their characters a problem or adventure each episode, but generally everything would be back to normal by the end of each show. The problem would be solved, perhaps a lesson would be learned, or a misunderstanding would be cleared up. But very little to alter the formula of the show would occur.  And if this wasn't true, things shifted from episode to episode so dramatically that change became the formula, yet very little was learned and very rarely would a character truly develop (some soap operas preferred to follow this route. Wasn't there one with a talking doll? I kind of wish they had a talking doll on Mad Men).

But, as of late, TV shows seem to understand that the "everything-always-goes-back-to-normal" routine is only one way of making episodic entertainment work. Another way is to use each episode as a chapter in a larger arc, and allow for characters to change, situations to evolve, paradigms to shift. This re-envisioning of what a TV show can accomplish is central to the best shows in recent memory -- can you imagine a version of The Wire where McNulty and Bunk just solve murders for an hour each episode, never pursuing anything larger, never changing or gaining insights into their lives? Can you imagine Arrested Development with Full House-style morals at the end of each episode, with the wacky plot never progressing, every character stuck in complete stasis?

No.  Through re-evaluating a basic tenet of their medium, people who make TV created a whole new realm of possibility.

So what are the basic foundations of video games that we can look at in a new way?

Well, on the most basic level, there's the thing that separates video games from very long CGI-animated movies -- interactivity. Different levels of interactivity have been explored in games, with something like Dragon's Lair at one end (which is essentially a cartoon that tests your reaction time) and something like Minecraft on the other.

The ways people interact with games will become more important as technology becomes increasingly advanced. With the Wii and, more recently, the Kinect, we're beginning to see games demand a different type of participation from player than is possible with a controller-bound console. Though there will be an inevitable gimmicky-ness that accompanies the introduction of this type of new technology, as it ages it will undoubtedly start to push video games into new areas.

But beyond simply waiting for hardware to come out that can accept input from players in more ways, innovators in the industry can look at what the input from players affects in-game. There's currently a lot of emphasis on players controlling how quickly and at whom exactly their avatars shoot with guns. And while I certainly love this type of gameplay, I am excited by the prospect of a game providing a riveting experience in the absence of slaughter. Imagine a game with the tension and adrenaline of a COD game, where perhaps you are a fictional Secretary of State making complicated, Mass Effect-style conversational foreign policy decisions based on a strict time-frame. You would need to tell the right things to the right people, and instead of grenade trajectories, your controller would guide the tone of your negotiations, the force with which you threatened military intervention, the options you left on the table. The stakes would be just as high as any shooter, but the pen would be the focus instead of the sword.

Fictional! I said, "fictional Secretary of State" to explicitly avoid the player character being Kissinger, god damn it!

And just as TV shows have widened their focus from considering only each episode to considering events within a seasons-long narrative build, video games can answer questions of pace now that used to be fairly off-limits. With Mass Effect's three-game span and games like Eve Online linking in-game progress to real-life passage of time, games are beginning to develop longer forms.

I wonder if games could take a cue directly from TV in the same way that TV has recently taken cues from novels. Would it be plausible to set up an environment, and within this set universe offer "seasons" of gameplay? You would have a permanent character, and a developer would release a major series of events and NPC actions that your character would be forced to deal with. The landscape of the game would change, the things the player character is called upon to do would vary, and each season could lead toward not only its own internal climax, but a "series" climax when the writers had finished with the story they wanted to tell? This type of thing would combine the strong plotting of standalone games with the player immersion of MMOs.

I don't know if this stuff is possible or would turn out remotely the way I envision it. I just think it's fun and helpful to have the conversation. Because I asked as a rhetorical question at the beginning of this column, "Are golden ages made or simply experienced?" But I think I believe that they are made. And I think I believe that we can make one if we work at it together.

Aaron Matteson writes a weekly column for Joystick Division. It is called Dangerous Physical Appliances 2000.

You can follow Aaron on Twitter @AaronMatteson if you want.

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