June 27, 2012

Are Video Games Thought Provoking?

Hello Everyone,

Not everyone is a fan of Naughty Dog's The Last of Us. Roger Ebert, the reason this got attention, recently re-tweeted a link to a site stating that "The Last of Us, and other video games that leave absolutely nothing to the imagination".

the last of us wallpaper
The Last of Us Wallpaper
Now the actual article is rather humorous to read; however correct in some aspects. It comments on video game's stride to become the most cinematic, high definition, jaw dropping form of entertainment. I agree with this statement, for the most part. Most games now a days are attempting the shock and awe factor but to lump every game into that category is rather silly. The articles biggest fault was using Call of Duty as the core of its argument. Myself, and gamer's alike, know that Call of Duty isn't anything other than a five hour thrill ride. There are little attempts to involve players emotionally, other than short three minute sections of the past two Modern Warfares. They are simply for your entertainment, just as Marvel and Hasbro movies are.

Roger Ebert Last of Us tweet

To sit back and generalize video games a "killers" and movies as "poets" is a little exaggerated. Why didn't Journey, Heavy Rain or Beyond, Bioshock, Ico, Shadow of the Colossus, To The Moon, Braid, and so many more get mentioned? It is probably simply because he was a fan of film and was writing an article dismissing the merits of games. If I based this entire article off of the most popular film, The Avengers, while bringing up the above games I could easily spin this into a "games are poets and movies are simply to entertain" but I aim not to.

I went to college for film for two years. I've always enjoyed the emotions and stories found just under the surface. I'm going to admit, I cried during Pokemon the movie when I was a kid. I also cried during Marley & Me as I saw nothing but my childhood best friend. Hell, I even had a weird episode when Chuck ended last year. It is easy to say that I've cried more to film than I ever have to video games. Looking back, I can't really pin point anytime that I cried during a game. Maybe a tear out the corner of my eye in Gears of War 3, maybe during a point or two in Uncharted 3, and maybe Ocarina of Time and Majora's Mask if I was to play through them again. My point is that video games just haven't brought forth that same emotion that film has. However, video games have always provoked thoughts for me more than film.

Who couldn't have cried at this as a kid.
Boone dismisses The Last of Us because he viewed the E3 demo as "a crowd of gamers cheered on a camo-clad tough guy as he went room to room beating people to death and setting them on fire". Sure, that is what is being shown on the surface but games have always been much deeper than that. Perhaps, this is where the divide happens between those that argue that video games are artful and thought provoking with those that say they are just for entertainment. It takes time and knowledge to look past what is being shown to derive your own emotional responses. The thought provoking video games never come out and bluntly tell you what their meaning is, it is up to the player to derive their own from the experience.

Boone viewed the last of us simply as what he saw, a man working his way through a building killing all that cross his path. As a long time gamer, I have become desensitized to the face value of games and see the deeper meaning and emotion behind them.

In that same seven minute gameplay demo (above) I saw a game which concerns not the destruction of the world, but instead of the toll it takes on mankind; evidently shown through Joe and Ellie's interactions. One of the old world and the other that only knows the new. Instead of creating a game in which one simply shoots their way to the next story cut-scene, Naughty Dog infuses the entire experience with story, emotion, and character development. Little pieces of information such as the street advertisement and commentary between Joe and Ellie about the human condition really drives deep into the players emotions. You are not simply the hero in the game but instead a human tasked with moral decisions and a past filled with things you would rather forget. A sense of fear, guilt, and the fight for survival is constantly prevalent in your interactions with enemies. It is completely possible to bypass enemies through sneaky gameplay or take them head on. Your enemies react eerily lifelike to all of your actions: from calling out a friend's name, shouting and hiding if feeling threatened, and deciding to fight for their life if a weak point is shown (such as the click of an empty pistol). The tension is palpable and only grows as you further interact with other survivors.

last of us please no
Could you kill a man saying "please, no"?
Sure, it has the shock and awe of a shotgun to the face and choke outs but, the emotion behind it all is what really makes me think that the game will have an emotional and story driven game. Why does that choke at the beginning of the E3 demo stick out in people's minds? Choke outs are nothing new, even Uncharted had neck snaps. The difference is that it was a process. It wasn't a simple 'press square' for a 1 second neck-snap animation that you can execute in back to back to wipe out an entire squad of enemies in five seconds. It was a long, drawn out process. I felt myself getting uncomfortable watching because it was eerily real. There are no two second choke outs, its a long process that strains the choker and causes extreme distress of the choke-ee and it was extremely prevalent in the demo. The choke was long and drawn out to really show the emotion in Joe's face and the fear in his enemy.

Those few seconds in the choke out brought forth more emotion in a kill than I have seen in quite some time. The same can be said with the shotgun to the face that closes the demo. Sure, its gruesome, but it felt real. After the demo ended, I thought to myself that in a post apocalyptic setting this is what is required. I know that I would break down afterwards if I was in that situation, pointing my barrel down at a man screaming no or calling for a friend with his last breath. Like I said earlier, The Last of Us isn't a game about the world being destroyed or about getting from one cinematic to the next by mindlessly shooting your gun. Its a game that appears to be highlighting the human condition in an apocalyptic setting, and unfortunately, humans are rather savage creatures.

The problem is that critiques never look past the surface of the game at the meaning behind it. They get caught up on the details, "can you win", "are there points", "does the game have an ideal balance"? In thought provoking games, "can you win" should simply be viewed as "can you finish the story". Just because a game requires player input doesn't automatically make it about winning or points, it can be about the journey and what you take away. Games have progressed a lot in the past few years, I never thought I would have seen a game that feels so grounded in reality and that brings forth such strong human emotions. Unfortunately, not everyone is able to see that.

Maybe, this debate isn't between "killers" and "poets" but simply one side not understanding the merits of the other.

What do you think? Are video games as thought provoking as film?



  1. Are you forgetting all the times you cried when I'd kick your butt in Goldeneye?

    1. Care to write a counter argument? I just saw the Avengers again today.

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