In Barnes and Noble, I came across “Castle in the Mist”, a novelization of the critically acclaimed Sony title “Ico”. This struck me as odd. I picked up the book and gave it a once over, and after a couple of pages, sure, it seemed like a good read, but something was missing. And as I thought about it, it occurred to me that any video game that can effectively be translated into a book is not using the full potential of the medium.
There was a day when the argument I’m going to make was less clear and fewer examples existed. There wasn’t a lot to take away from Mario if you weren’t just looking to kill a couple of hours. There wasn’t much to Crash Bandicoot beyond Dr. Cortex seeking world domination and you stopping him.
And these sorts of titles still exist. Mortal Kombat isn’t pushing a lot of boundaries, but there are plenty of gems out there with just as much to say as any of today’s blockbuster films in a span of ten hours instead of two, but now you play parts of it instead of idly watch.
Those games used to encompass my reasoning with people who didn’t “get” games. You like books? You like movies? You’ll like games – at least some of them. But there in the book store it occurred to me that that argument is a great deal weaker than it could be – than it should be. Video games have the potential to be much more effective than those mediums ever could be. There are many titles out there making a case for “Why should I care?” that can’t be ignored.
Books are written in first- or third-person. In third-person, you’re reading about someone or something. “So-and-so went here and did this and was happy about it.” In the current example, “Ico pushed the block.” Well, I guess. That doesn’t seem to encapsulate the situation, though. “Commander Shephard saved the geth.” Now that statement is just plain false. I saved the geth. Or for some, I killed off the entirety of that species! The statement isn’t particularly effective in this context.
What about first-person? “I pulled the lever.” Someone is telling you about it. Not only would I much rather blow up Megaton on my own than have someone tell me about it, but now we know that the main character lives until the end. Spoiler by way of voice. Besides, as anyone who played the game will tell you, Ico isn’t much of a talker beyond “Come on! Let’s go!”
While movies have lent visual stimuli to the otherwise fine stories literature has long been producing, the dilemma remains. The participant is still watching the action – letting it play out in front of them.
This is not to say that all games have built on this. While I enjoy the gameplay of “Metal Gear Solid 4” well enough, it’s the cutscenes and narrative that really get me. I could sit and watch all of those in succession and be content. But at the same time, other games have begun pushing further.
I’m not just talking about tackling more mature and complex themes à la Catherine or the upcoming Papo & Yo. I’m talking about a new experience altogether. I’m talking about being invested in a game at a personal level.
Games are very good at this from the get-go. Describing the premise of a game, in many cases, begins with “You are a…” or “You play as…” or “You take on the role of…” These statements are inherently implicit of the mountains they allow us to move in the long-stagnant field of story-telling. By their very nature, games change the way we relate to the tales we are no longer hearing but experiencing. It parallels the differences between sympathy and empathy. “That seems sad” versus “I’ve experienced that and I know how that sadness feels.”
Let’s bump it up another level with Ico. A boy with horns rescuing a strange girl. The antagonist is, in many ways, a giant castle. The biggest gameplay element? Holding the R1 button. Keep her hand in yours. Don’t let go. So simple, but with a notable lack of cutscenes or speech at all, an incredibly powerful mechanic. Any situation you approach where you have to let go is met with dread. Demons attacking her causes your heart to accelerate. Sure, the underlying fear is a game over screen, but it is so closely related to her not escaping the castle that falling away from her as her path retracts later in the game can be tear-worthy for many despite character development at a narrative level being nonexistent. The simple hand-holding objective created a personal investment and responsibility that set Ico aside from many of its peers.
Looking ahead in the timeline, today’s games are moving even beyond that, effectively building upon the “choose-your-path” books, a gimmick once reserved for children’s franchises like “Goosebumps” – hardly a tool to be taken seriously.
These “choose-your-path” decisions now decide the fate of entire races when placed behind the guise of Commander Shepard – an avatar for your long-repressed dreams of being an astronaut. That “gimmick” now means life or death for a reporter, a private eye, an FBI agent, a father and his young son Jason in Quantic Dream’s “Heavy Rain”. Very few movies have even approached this. The only example I can think of is a VHS-accompanied version of Clue, which was marketed as a game anyway.
They aren’t perfect for every story, but if you don’t “get” games, the only thing I can say is that there are times when a game is going to tell a story in a better way than any other medium ever could. Ico might be good as a book, but not without some artistic embellishment and certainly not on the same level the game managed.