NARRATIVE IN VIDEO GAMESOpinion

by Ali El-hashimi, AA 3rd Year
Intermediate Unit 10

8 October 2015
Architectural Association, London

 

How many times does a generation get to witness the birth of an entirely new artistic medium? I mean games could be the collaboration between everything we’ve learned to date, as humans, about telling stories through visuals, through audio, and now with the added component of interactivity.” – Kellee Santiago, TEDxUSC Are Video Games Art? presentation.

 

Concept art of Joel and Ellie

Concept art of Joel and Ellie

Originally this was going to be a three part series about film and architecture, which started from a simple observation made at the Villa Tugendhat on a unit trip to Brno last year. However, the written pieces soon became part of the wider context of narrative media and I began to feel that I would need more than three parts to explore these topics properly. One of these topics is the use of storytelling in video games and how it should be taken seriously as an art form – a controversial topic within the entertainment industry. It first became an ongoing discussion when film critic Roger Ebert participated in a series of debates and published conversations; he went on to later state that video games don’t explore the meaning of being human as other art forms do.

While there is still a sense of cynicism looming over whether video games are of the same calibre as other art forms like film, over the years the dissociation has decreased, and more and more people are starting to embrace the idea that this newer medium can be taken seriously as a valid form of art. One of the arguments against games is that they’re interactive therefore the author doesn’t have complete control. However, this rule doesn’t hold true for disciplines like music, which also requires a player. The film composer Hans Zimmer argues that as a musician, we play all our lives, so the idea of playing something and being involved in something is actually quite powerful to a musician. The participation is the thing that sets it apart.

 

A giraffe, a sign of fresh life, a beacon of hope. This is just one of the few moments that escape the harsh reality of the game's world helping to push the narrative forward and develop the relationship between the two characters.

A giraffe, a sign of fresh life, a beacon of hope. This is just one of the few moments that escape the harsh reality of the game’s world helping to push the narrative forward and develop the relationship between the two characters.

As the technology of game engines and console hardware improves over time, games become increasingly able to better express themselves, the level of interactivity and immersion develops in ways that weren’t possible before, which in turn leads to new methods of narrative that could never be achieved by cinema or television. Cutscenes in games have become more cinematic by using motion capture of actors to create a realistic and emotional performance rather than animating characters entirely from scratch. Using said technology begins to blur the boundaries between cinematic mediums, bringing a whole new meaning to the idea of an interactive cinematic experience.

To give an example of a game that has done just that is The Last of Us, considered by most to be one of the greatest games of all time and also the most awarded video game in history. Upon release it received universal acclaim with an average rating of 95%. So what makes this game so special? Set in post-apocalyptic America, a man named Joel is tasked with escorting a young girl, Ellie. This relationship soon develop into one akin to that between a father and daughter with a beautiful wasteland as the backdrop. Because of this, everything else becomes secondary including gameplay. The story is very dark but has moments of tenderness, exploring the human condition and the depiction of female characters is impressive since it goes against the conventional over-sexualised stereotypes usually found in the gaming industry. The relationship between the two characters is so well drawn, genuine and emotional, it left me wanting a daughter of my own. This is all achieved by the game’s narrative and the optional conversations throughout but also through the use of motion capture which helped the script greatly.

 

So is this everything you were hoping for?

So is this everything you were hoping for?

Over the last couple of years and especially after the release of the new consoles back in 2013, newer games have been constantly trying to push the boundaries of the medium. Although this is still in its infancy, the beauty of video games like The Last of Us is a celebration of the marriage between different art forms enabling us to question the normality of the narrative.

 

For more information:

Ali El-Hashimi on AA Conversations Part 1 – The Steel Column

Ali El Hashimi on AA Conversations Part 2 – Film’s Obsession with Modernism

A concluding piece which covers all topics from part 1 to 3 will be published soon by PNYX.

Ongoing collaboration with IntJournal that explores film and architecture in more detail

Film currently being drawn: Spirited Away by Hayao Miyazaki