A Different Way to See Video Games

“I wish I had acquired wisdom at less of a price.”

Red Dead Redemption II

 

“Video Games Can Never Be Art”

The Madagascar chapter, Uncharted 4

It’s probably a sign that I’m getting older that I feel somewhat irritated when I see young kids being mesmerized by gadgets, that they’re virtually inseparable from them. When I spend time with my 5 year old niece and my 3 year old nephew nowadays, I’ve become the annoying voice that they ignore when they’re ensconced with their black mirrors. A thought that so often pops up in my mind is, “Geez, can’t these kids do anything else?”

Come to think of it, the grown-ups in my life might have had the same thoughts about my video-gaming when I was a kid — “Can you turn that off?” “Why not go outside and play?” “When are you gonna study?” — It’s perhaps more relevant in my case, considering the kind of games I played.

Video games have always been a huge part of my life. I could only vaguely trace back a time when Playstation consoles didn’t exist in my household, from the Ps1 all the way to the Ps4. I grew up playing the very classic titles, like Crash Bandicoot, Mortal Kombat, Marvel vs Capcom, and later on franchises like God of War, Assassin’s Creed, Uncharted, Grand Theft Auto, and Red Dead Redemption.

Gaming is often stigmatized as being a bad influence, a distraction, a huge waste of time, and a socially-stunting hobby for both kids and adults. There’s the looming preconception that video games are devoid of any intellectual and spiritual nutrients, because they don’t embody anything important to say.

And honestly, I can’t say that I totally disagree with that. I could credit games like GTA San Andreas for the wide vocabulary of curse words that I built when I was in early primary school. But it wouldn’t do justice to say that that’s all there is to video games, that they don’t have the potential to enrich lives — Because they very well can.

Especially today, video games are no longer simply about winning or leveling up, but about what it does for the players. Through aspects such as compelling narrative and gameplay, great games are geared towards intimately connecting with the individual player.

In one of his essays, the late movie critic Roger Ebert adamantly pressed his opinion that “Video games can never be art”, in the same way that “serious” film and literature can. “To my knowledge,” he elaborated, “No one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great dramatists, poets, filmmakers, novelists and composers.” He also said — And this is important to note — That “for most gamers, video games represent a loss of those precious hours we have available to make ourselves more cultured, civilized and empathetic.”

He wrote that “No video gamers now living will survive long enough to experience the medium as an art form.” The reality is perhaps the contrary, because Ebert didn’t live long enough to see his opinions get brutally rebutted.

In the Republic, Plato conferred that art is essentially the imitation of nature or the events and objects of ordinary life. A work of art, then, can be judged in light of how closely it reflects real life.

Like many people out there, I do believe that video games are a passionate form of art. The great games, at least, are epitomized by their painstaking amount of attention to detail — Every nook and cranny contain something valuable in them, and the characters aren’t one-dimensional, but have their solid backgrounds — Just as how life is.

It wouldn’t be fair to compare video games to movies or books, like Ebert did, because video games are an entirely unique experience. The ability to control and interact with the virtual world allows you to be more deeply immersed and engaged in the experience — Something you wouldn’t attain if you were to passively watch or read about it. That’s also the reason why movies based on video games rarely turn out good — Because they simply can’t replicate the level of bondage that you had forged with the original story from having a gaming controller in your hands.

 

 

 

A Different Way to See Video Games

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A favorite thing to do when my nephew’s around is to let him sit with me and watch me play.

It was somewhere near the end of last year when I learned that I suffered from a major depressive disorder. Maybe what sucked the most for me was thinking it was all normal, even though I had been experiencing the symptoms for a very long time. Nevertheless, I regularly went for counseling, and I made the commitment to get better.

Among other things like getting back on track with this blog, learning and playing music, running, and spending time with friends and family, an unlikely medium helped me tremendously on my road to recovery. And that medium was video games.

I hadn’t played video games for a few years since my reading habit grew. During those depressive episodes when it was difficult enough to get out of bed, I longed for a distraction from my inner world. I turned my attention to the newly-bought Ps4 in my TV room, and started up God of War.

My first thoughts when I played this game was that, it was different. I expected to see the vengeful and angry Kratos whom I grew up playing as, but there was none of that. There were no exciting boss fights like the previous games started with. Rather the game began on a solemn note, as Kratos mourned the passing of his wife, Faye — Setting the stage for Kratos and his son Atreus’s arduous journey of scattering Faye’s ashes on the highest peak of the nine Norse realms.

Early in the game, Kratos notices that Atreus has trouble controlling his anger. He firmly tells Atreus that he isn’t ready for their journey. In a way, I feel as though Kratos was talking to me too. This game called for a different way of playing, and maybe I wasn’t ready for it. I was still playing video games as nothing more than a form of escapism, a distraction to turn my mind away from the problems I was facing. I continued playing God of War’s story until the end, but without really ruminating on what it wanted to teach me.

My outlook on gaming truly changed once I started playing Red Dead Redemption II. In that moment, it dawned on me that gaming can be a character-building experience, instead of merely an entertainment.

Red Dead tells the story of the demise of the Van der Linde gang through the eyes of the protagonist, Arthur Morgan. Together with Arthur, we feel the pangs of disillusionment as his long-held beliefs are challenged to their core, and a gang that’s really more of a family to him completely shatters away, piece by tiny piece. All that while, as Arthur’s shadow of mortality looms from having contracted tuberculosis, he has to make his last days count by doing the right things, and by being the best person he could be.

Perhaps the best thing about Red Dead is that it teaches you a very important lesson, and that is making your own choices and living with them. The game has an “honor system” whereby your deeds and the decisions you make as a player ultimately influence how other characters treat you, as well as steer the very direction of the story itself. Quite remarkably, while the game is best played ethically, so to speak, it doesn’t dictate you to do so. Instead, if you want to fool around and live a life of violence — That’s your choice, but the consequences are yours to bear.

Noticeably, video games have become an august medium of storytelling over the years. It truly has developed into an art, touching the vulnerable humanity in our hearts, showing us again what it means to be living and breathing as human beings rather than human doings, who mindlessly move from one task to another with hardly a thought in between.

How has this worked so well in modern video games? Well, let’s look at it from a postmodernist standpoint. Postmodernism basically states that the coagulation of past arts can lead to the formation of a new original art. In tandem with this view, video games borrow storytelling arcs from the older arts such as literature, and turn them into something new by incorporating elements that are only accessible in gaming.

Also, according to postmodernism, for an art to work well the grand narratives have to be deconstructed, thereby making certain truths debatable and ambiguous — Raising questions more than it supplies answers. This way, the audience can come to their own interpretation or understanding, hence becoming more invested and emotionally-attached to the art.

In literature, some of the myriad of works that make use of this are Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman and Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, where the authors never express what their intentions are. As Beckett himself once said, “The key word in my plays is ‘perhaps’ “.

Many of the best video games we know employ this same literary technique to keep the players engaged.

And of course, another factor that makes video games as enchanting as they are is the virtual worlds that they create for the player. As increasingly sophisticated technology is incorporated in making video games, they’ve become exponentially better at capturing lifelike details, often to unnoticeable extents — From stunning graphics that depict exquisite scenery and minute facial expressions and movements, to in-game set pieces that pave the way for a wildly cinematic gameplay.

In Uncharted 4 : A Thief’s End, for example, one could not help but marvel at the picturesque places like Madagascar and fictive Libertalia that really make you want to explore them, which you absolutely can do. You feel like a real treasure hunter as you climb over architectures and obstacles, and think your way through puzzles and clues. Not to mention, the organic dialogue and interactions between the characters make you feel like you’re watching a movie — Or to be exact, like you’re playing one. All the while, you’re breathing in the fascinating character of Nathan Drake, who learns that his life of adventure has become an obsession, almost an addiction — And that family is what truly matters in the end. As with Nathan, you realize for yourself that if you don’t say no to things that don’t matter, you wouldn’t be able to say yes to the things that do.

Now, let’s take a closer look at these aspects in two of my all-time favorite video games.

 

 

 

Redemption

During a press conference for Red Dead Redemption II at Comic-Con, a fan asked the game’s voice actors, “What other artistic arena was (the game) most like?”. The actors replied, “Literature”.

Some fans asked for their articulate opinions on the story and characters with questions like, “When did Arthur discover Dutch wasn’t all he had thought he was?”, and other fans would request them to reenact memorable phrases from the game, like, “I have a plan” and “Lennyy!”.

It’s amazing when you think of the level of attachment that players have with great games like this — The intimacy of this connection beats that of what fans normally have with movies or TV shows. Since Red Dead was released in 2018, fans have openly expressed how they cried in certain moments throughout the game, and how their lives have improved from having played it. Decades ago, no one would have thought that video games could be anywhere near life-changing. But that’s the way it is now.

Like I’ve said before, the cultural reputation of video games is largely composed of the perception that playing them is a way of evading responsibility. When you’re in that virtual world, you could do whatever you want, and nothing really matters. Red Dead proves that it’s time we demolish that perception. With the fact that the player controls a large sum of Arthur’s actions, you empathize greatly with him : An outlaw with a heart of gold — Because his choices are essentially your own.

With that, the game also leads you to empathize with the other characters, even the “minor” ones. I’m putting this in quotations because virtually every side character in Red Dead contribute just as much to the richness of the game, as each of them have their own layers that you can choose to learn about, by spending more time and conversing with them.

You could learn of their tiniest quirks — Some characters, as you’ll find, aren’t much of  morning people, and they’d be pretty crummy until they have their first cup of coffee. And you could just as well deduce the traces of human nature in them — Their strengths, and their fatal flaws.

With Dutch Van der Linde, the father figure-leader whom everyone looks up to, you would realize that the cardinal trait that leads to his unraveling is his ego. He fashions himself as less of a criminal, but more of a Robin Hood persona who fights against a corrupt system that’s designed to suppress. You might find him likable, especially in the earlier chapters, as he compassionately cares for his gang or family. Eventually, this persona rots, together with the gang. You’d learn that he would have your back only if you have his, if you grant him your unquestionable loyalty. In his descent to insanity and his decay of a sense of morality, you couldn’t help but wonder if he has changed, or if he has simply become more of who he really is.

Still, Red Dead’s strength lies not only in its empathy-building aspect, but in the quiet loneliness of its world.

Gaming YouTuber Luke Stephens discovered what he calls the “40-second rule” in blockbuster open world games. In exploring the open world of games such as The Witcher 3 and Assassin’s Creed, he found that it takes an average interval of 40 seconds to encounter something interesting. Red Dead, however, doubles that time to 80 seconds, making its world more quiet and still as compared to that of other games.

Red Dead isn’t afraid to take its time, to leave blank spaces unfilled. Fast travel, or the ability to jump from one place to another, is intentionally made inconvenient. The feature is somewhat hidden, and in using it, the game doesn’t provide you with a mini-map — Forcing you to familiarize with the places and their names. The game wants you to travel across its huge map on your own. It wants to give you your space and let you be alone with your own thoughts.

I find beauty in bonding with my horse over long rides across the country, in the extensive moments of hunting game in the forests and bringing back provisions for the gang, in the mundanity of chopping firewood and fishing, and in my contemplative admiration of virtual nature as I gaze at the stars and observe the wildlife that act skittish whenever I move too close.

My anxieties and preoccupations fade away as I experience time without a clock, and live in the limitless present without a plethora of events that vie for my attention. The world goes on without me, as cities and towns are tethered to their rhythm of time and weather. In the absence of things constantly happening to remind me that I’m alive, is when I truly feel alive.

In a nutshell, Red Dead Redemption II has taught me to be empathetic and kind towards others, as everyone has their own stories that we might never know about. The game has also helped me think a lot about the person I want to be, and the cost that I have to pay from the choices I make. Just freely roaming around in the game has been a gargantuan help in calming my anxiety. As part of my convalescence, Red Dead has been essential in my practice of letting go, of having the faith to leave the invisible forces of this world to do their work, and for me to do my own — Echoing Ralph Waldo Emerson’s quote, “Adopt the pace of nature, her secret is patience”.

It has been a great privilege to play Red Dead Redemption II.

 

 

 

Resumption

A fan once shared on Reddit about the impact that God of War has had on his life, shedding light on his own personal relationship with his father. In response, the game’s director, Cory Barlog wrote,

“I had many demons to exorcise while making this game, but in the process a whole lot more that were born. It has taught me that this process of working through our problems is not a ‘one and done’ kind of thing. It is simply something you do throughout your whole life. You will never be done. That is not a negative. At times, it almost seemed like a daunting and almost dreadfully unending slog. However, with a small change of perspective I was able to realize that it is what life is actually all about. We feel everything, the good and the bad. We keep ourselves open to the idea of change – From small to large – So that we can truly experience all that life has to offer.”

Thinking that I’d missed plenty of invaluable insights in God of War during my first play, I decided to give it a second run this year.

Here’s a bit of a backstory for the game. Kratos is a demigod. He used to be a Spartan warrior, who in desperation during the time of battle, made a deal with the Greek god of war, Ares, in exchange for victory, which came in the form of the Blades of Chaos — A deadly pair of chained blades that also served as a reminder of his oath to Ares. It was a deal that cost him his soul. Desiring to mold him into a perfect warrior, Ares tricked him into murdering countless innocent lives, including his own wife and daughter.

After that event, an oracle cursed Kratos by permanently affixing the ashes of his deceased family to his skin, making him fearfully known as the Ghost of Sparta.

The previous God of War entries were about him seeking revenge and attempting to even change his fate. But in that path of vengeance, he discovered that he still hadn’t found any peace. In this latest God of War game, Kratos has settled in a new land, with a new wife, Faye and their son, Atreus. He has learned the tough lessons of calm acquiescence, and using his rage for better ends.

There used to be more limits to how much we could empathize with Kratos, as he was largely a vessel of violence. He has been made more vulnerable in this game, as we could discern deeper layers in his character as compared to the previous games. It’s quite a thing to see someone who has fearlessly killed mountain-sized beasts, be reduced to primal panic when his son falls ill or is dragged into danger.

Playing this game for the second time was remarkably different for me. It used to be my escape from the traumas of the past year, but it has since then led me to be unafraid in facing them, and to truly heal from them.

In the game, Kratos quite literally locked away painful memories, as he hides his Blades of Chaos underneath the floorboard of his home, not wanting his son to know about his past life or his true nature as a demigod. But later on, as dangers arise, Kratos is forced to revisit his past and wield his blades again, in order to save his son.

But it’s not just the theme of being at peace with your past traumas that makes this game so endearing. Time and again, God of War exhorts the resounding lesson of becoming better people from having faced those traumas. Several times throughout the game, Kratos utters nearly similar lines of “We must be better” to Atreus — Better than who they were before, from the mistakes they made, than the enemies that they have fought.

As you play the game, you’d notice that Atreus is often angry at Kratos for not being present enough in his life. Kratos on the other hand, is afraid to attach to his loved ones again, and he doesn’t understand that Atreus needs more than a father who provides for the family all the time. As they journey to the highest peak of all realms, they ascend as better people — Atreus having learned to restrain his anger, and Kratos a better father to Atreus.

This game is able to accomplish all of these incredible things because the emotions that it contains are real. They’re born from the difficult parenting lessons that the development team has had to learn in their own personal lives. Cory Barlog conceived the idea for the game’s new concept after reflecting on his struggles as a father — Particularly not being active in his son’s life because he worked so much.

He commented, “Because Kratos wasn’t around much in Atreus’s early years, Atreus interprets that as, ‘You don’t love me, you don’t want to spend time with me, it’s obvious that I don’t live up to your expectations.’ I’m trying to be better for my son. And regretting every moment that I’m not spending with him.”

Kratos’s voice actor, Christopher Judge said in an interview that he missed “10 years of his kids growing up”. As he held back tears, he remarked, “A lot of this performance for me is a love letter to my kids..and it’s an apology.”

God of War is a great example of what video games, as with any good art, can do for us. It helps us brave through hardship, and to understand ourselves and our loved ones better. It reminds us that all of that pain is ultimately worth bearing when you think of the deep reservoirs of compassion, kindness, and empathy that you’re able to build within yourself. Just as Kratos uncovered his Blades of Chaos, we too have the potential to turn our past mistakes into our strengths.

 

 

 

Final Thoughts 

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In summary, I do believe that video games can be art. Contrary to the stereotype that gaming is for the antisocial, video games do have the capability of building our empathy muscles and making us civilized and better people. Take that, Roger Ebert.

It’s important, however, to keep in mind that just as not all books or movies can qualify as art, the same goes to games.

That being said, as I’ve demonstrated, I admire real works of art that are passionately made and carefully thought out, rather than ones that are merely lucky hits.

Relating to TV shows, for example, this is the reason why I hardly ever watch any Simpsons episode belonging to Season 11 and above. I think the first 10 seasons are the only ones really worth watching, because the writers exhaustively put in the time and effort to craft brilliantly funny and emotionally-engaging stories and sequences. For some reason, after that, they settled in Easy Street, chasing ephemeral trends instead of depicting human nature as they previously used to do, putting in one cheap and lazy joke after another for seasons on end. As much as I do love The Simpsons, it’s a miracle that they’ve been able to stretch that until today, at their 31st season.

In gaming, video games like Assassin’s Creed and Call of Duty fall into that Simpsons syndrome — Pumping out stale entries year after year, barely making improvements to their core problems, let alone giving the franchise a fresh, reinvented angle. Sure, they can be fun sometimes, but that shouldn’t be all they have to offer.

Video games can be more than that. They can be an immense medium of betterment for the players, to actually change their lives on a personal and individual level. Video games have the capability of saying something important to the world out there.

Video games, if done well, can truly make our soul grow.

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