Video games worth pondering

This decade games have realized they can mean something

My friend’s husband has a story about how a videogame taught him about bravery. In The Legend of Zelda series you play as an elfin lad named Link who’s on a quest to save the eponymous ubiquitous princess. Being a Nintendo series older than most stars the narrative never really develops past that even in its modern iterations. The story as you can imagine has a distinct lack of inspiring moments. Even still W. Neil Scott (author of Wonderful and the upcoming How to Evict a Dragon: A Goblin’s Guide to Courage ) has a lovely take on one of the game’s systems.

To paraphrase he talks about how besides getting a slightly better shield the only items you can collect in the game to make you more resistant to physical harm are “hearts.” For thousands of years in dozens of cultures the heart has been a signifier for not just health and vitality but also spiritual wellness; our essential goodness or virtue. So in order for Link to surmount greater and greater obstacles and rescue his princess he didn’t need a Mace of Sundering Righteousness a Flying Mount and a Shining Plate of Very Good Armour + 4. He only needed to be brave to be good — to be virtuous and clever. To Neil the steady increase in hearts throughout the game(s) was an abstraction of Link’s increasing knowledge of what it was — and what it took — to be a hero.

I don’t particularly care whether games are art or not. But they can be beautiful.

I’ve taken two or three different stabs at this article now and I promise that I will say something about the “Decade in Games” eventually. The problem is that there are too many important things that I could focus on. The two biggest media launches in the history of ever are now both games. World of Warcraft is such a lucrative business model that it has spawned its own ancillary industries. The list goes on. But why I chose to start with Scott’s Zelda anecdote is this: Even though The Legend of Zelda has existed in one form or another since 1989 only now are people taking the time to consider what it might mean .

The evidence of gaming’s increasing self-awareness can be seen in both the people playing as well as the people making the games. The Internet’s Robin "RoBurky" Burkinshaw wrote a series of articles earlier this year that chronicled with as little editorializing as possible the lives of Alice and Kev a homeless father and daughter he created with the Sims 3 . Even though it sounds like the logical extension of the infamous Sims’ "torture houses" RoBurky treats the material with respect and the result is surprisingly affecting. The rising popularity of "game diaries" like these popularized by the likes of Fidgit’s Tom Chick and They of Rock Paper Shotgun illustrates the emotional and intellectual resonance gaming can create with the people who play them. If you’ve ever met someone at a party and learned that you both travelled to the same small town in Nepal last year then spent the rest of the night enraptured by one another’s stories — it’s a little like that but with shotguns and elves and afterward no one has drunken sex.

Though the importance of vibrant effective criticism for a new medium can’t be overestimated the most exciting place we’ve seen observations like Scott’s is in the games themselves. The Path transplanted the story of Little Red Riding Hood into a surreal dark wood and used the "wolf" as a metaphor for the inevitable dangers of adulthood. Then the game’s designers neutered the player’s controls so it was impossible to escape the wolf. Braid used a decaying time-warped Mushroom Kingdom and simple "Save the Princess!" story as the setting for its treatise on the destructive pursuit of love and knowledge . Pathologic brought us as close to Andrei Tarkovsky’s horribly cynical world view as a game has ever managed . Bioshock stuck us in an underwater city gave us a gun and told us to kill with it then mocked us for following orders with such stupid blindness. In the past 10 years — but especially the last five — games have realized that they can mean something and the effect has been like watching all the once-dead light bulbs hanging over a million people’s heads suddenly come to life from the high view of a mountaintop — like a Coke commercial but with fewer confused environmental messages.

This has been a very difficult piece to write. I still want to talk about games like Diablo II Counterstrike Left 4 Dead and Eve Online and how their existence has led to the development of totally unique communities that span countries cultures and languages. I want to talk about the fact that intended meaning isn’t owed its traditional credence in a medium that’s inherently experiential. So much has happened — is happening — and singling out any one thing diminishes all others.

The biggest problem with saying anything definitive about the decade in games though is that it’s still way too early in terms of both the time of writing and gaming’s development. Other mediums have the benefit of an established body of criticism that contextualizes every work every movement and every trend within the broader scope of the medium’s history but gaming doesn’t yet have that luxury. This decade has been important even if that importance can’t yet be concisely articulated. Gaming is going somewhere but it’ll be impossible to tell exactly what significance the past 10 years have had in determining that destination until we’ve arrived. In the meantime those of us along for the ride will keep telling the stories about homeless digital dolls and heart containers hoping that gaming will remember its friends when it gets there.