The following extract is taken from an interview between James Lipton and Hugh Laurie, from an episode of Inside the Actor’s Studio, first broadcast on the 31st of July, 2006:
JL: In 1996, you spoke of diagnosing yourself as being ‘Clinically Depressed’… how did it reveal itself?
HL: It revealed itself during a charity… demolition derby. I was taking part in this race for charity, and I was driving around a circuit… two cars collided in front of me. It was a big, sort of, it was like a movie, and as I went past this wreckage, the thought hit me that I was bored. I was actually bored, and I thought ‘well, that can’t be right’.
The above exchange serves as just one example of a man struggling with clinical depression. He is experiencing ‘Anhedonia’, or the inability to feel pleasure in activities generally found enjoyable, often the symptom that informs the sufferer that they may be suffering from some form of depression. This isn’t an article about the mental state of Hugh Laurie, or to raise awareness of the social issue of depression; it’s about the steady progression of Anhedonia, with modern technological advances, within the entertainment industries and especially, at least more recently, video games. Because, while Hugh Laurie’s case is absolutely genuine, and based on a real world experience, I know a lot of gamers have faced at least an ersatz approximation of his experience; we’ve all witnessed some grand or spectacular event from behind a controller, or keyboard, and been bored out of our minds.
How did we get into this bizarre set of circumstances? It’s difficult to determine exactly when such spectacular scenes of destruction became dull; in older generations of consoles, limitations in the graphical presentation of things like explosions, or widespread destruction, made the quality of the context the most important thing to the gamer; seeing the game world ripped apart in games like The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, or Final Fantasy VI was made more meaningful by the time and effort the gamers put into them, and the way the characters inside it behaved.
They were both graphically impressive for their time, sure, but you wouldn’t have the British Government mistaking footage from them for an IRA training video. To try and define this, I’m going to go back to the start of this generation of Consoles, and the game that established the effect I’m trying to describe: Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare.
DROPPING THE BOMB
In one of the most viscerally shocking scenes on the current generation of consoles, then still in its infancy, we see a mushroom cloud dominate a city skyline, as the player character struggles briefly, then dies, alone and in silence. The presentation is brutally sudden, and powerfully simplistic; the developers understood that for most of us, the mushroom cloud remains the first image to spring to mind when we are asked to think about Armageddon.
Now, I’m not saying the plot of Modern Warfare breaks new ground, or even that it’s very good; but it’s a good example of a particular kind of destructive aesthetic shock, which plenty of gamers will have felt before that moment, and fewer have experienced since: certainly not on so big a scale. I play games like the Killzone franchise, and I watch others playing industry graphical powerhouses like the Crysis series on state of the art PCs that groan and boil themselves to squeeze the images onto the screen in stunning definition.
It’s very impressive, but I can’t shake that particular disconnect the sense of déjà vu stirs in me, in the way I could in previous generations, when I could still find something to like in most platformers, despite the character on the screen serving as the fiftieth example of a man trying to save a loved one by double jumping his own body height. Just look at the gameplay from titles this game has spawned, Battlefield 3 and Modern Warfare 3, and feel the bored sense of déjà vu sweep over you, to the tune of World War Three. That’s why neither of these games are generally regarded as having as good a story, as impressive a moment, as the single explosion of the original Modern Warfare. RPGs like Mistwalker Studio’s Blue Dragon, or action games like the Just Cause franchise, face similar criticisms for only bothering with simplistic motivations for their protagonists.
Now that the Modern Warfare games of this generation have removed the aesthetic shock value, it stands out more than ever. Stories that would have been considered standard at worst, and awe-inspiringly spectacular at best a generation or two ago, are now being derided for their ‘weak’ plotlines.
ALL IN A DAY’S WORK
Of course, the other half of this principle of the gamer apathy regarding the destruction of the world in front of them is the lack of incentive to then save the world. Recently, Ben ‘Yahtzee’ Croshaw, of the ‘Zero Punctuation’ series said ‘Saving the world is to the life of a video gamer what removing Lego bricks from nasal cavities is to the life of a kindergarten teacher’. This pithy statement illustrates the effect I’m trying to describe; the dull repetition which has rendered the idea of saving everybody boring, unless it can be presented in an interesting, or particularly well-crafted way. It isn’t surprising; the destruction of the Earth has served as a basic motivation for gamers since the arcades, and easily made the transition to early consoles. Today, a cursory glance at the market will show us that it remains a prime motivation from triple-A releases, like the Gears of War franchise, for example, to more basic fare that’s quickly forgotten, like the recent The Third Birthday. Its continued existence isn’t surprising; there’s a certain style of game, which exists to a limited degree in several genres, where it will always exist, in the same way there’s always going to be a certain type of action movie that utilises it as well. What’s interesting is how certain key developers are reacting to this trend, and how games with a smaller narrative scope have come into their own, from a critical standpoint at least.
A SMALL WORLD AFTER ALL?
Recently, the genres most associated with the ‘save the world’ dynamic have started creating titles with a smaller narrative scope; Persona 4, one of the best regarded JRPGs of recent memory, is about a group of school children trying to stop a serial killer in a small backwater town, while experiencing the repressed sides of their own subconscious; Bioshock, one of the best regarded FPS/RPGs of recent memory is about a man named Jack whose role developer Ken Levine referred to as ‘cult deprogrammer’ in the world of Rapture, just trying to get out. Other praiseworthy examples of small scoped narratives include adventure ‘Heavy Rain’, and puzzle/RPG ‘Catherine’. That’s not to say this is a black and white distinction; both of these examples’ narratives eventually broaden to include bigger goals, and games like Half-Life show that narratives about something as traditional as saving the world from an alien invasion can still be worthy of praise, and whatever grand goals incorporate themselves into these narratives happen so late, and in such a throwaway manner as to seem almost perfunctory; they’re not the parts of the experience the gamer will take away.
Commentators like the Penny Arcade sponsored ‘Extra Credits’ team have acknowledged in the past the power of an Indie game like Recettear, the game that places you in a traditional RPG style world, but rather than the warrior, or hero, puts you in charge of the item shop, or Echo Bazaar, whose gameplay is striking purely because of its well thought out application of non-combat gameplay; as far removed from the hero saving the world as it’s possible to be.
My own personal example is a lot more in-keeping with the mainstream standards, coming, as it does, from Bioware; Dragon Age 2. Now, I know this title doesn’t really help my earlier line about critical acclaim, launching, as it did, to noticeably weaker reviews than its predecessor, and a lot of its criticism is deserved. But one of its most catalogued problems was that it was a long, long Western RPG, with essentially one city and a bit of the surrounding countryside to explore, effectively nerfing the exploration element. Most people see this as a bad thing, and it’s easy to see why, but I disagree; staying in one place took something out of the game, especially when compared to the epic scale of its predecessor, sure, but in exchange we got a real sense of growth with the central cast; there was no major enduring conflict until the very end of the game, which meant the pace of the narrative worked differently; characters would appear in totally unexpected ways, and for once it didn’t feel like sheer convenience.
Personally, I found this smaller scope a big relief; there are plenty of great games out there to cater to the explorer in us: there’s always room for a little experimentation. After all, I don’t wander around from place to place, knowing people for a handful of days at a time then leaving them behind. It was nice to play as someone else who was just trying to get by and thrive in one place with his friends, albeit by slaying monsters and bandits. And it wasn’t just the protagonist that got some new light from this perspective; classical races like the Elves and Dwarves, reduced to basic, albeit well-presented, stereotypes in Dragon Age Origins (the Dwarves all live under a mountain, next to a mine? Inspired!) were here all thrown together into a melting pot, with characters like Varric, a clean shaven dwarf with no idea why anybody would ever want to live underground, and Merrill, a shy elf who gets excited at the prospect of seeing a real-life mugging, the result: these characters, ironically, just wouldn’t have as much space to breath if the game was just a plod through a sequence of disparate locations, played out in broad strokes.
Call me crazy, but I don’t think a traditional mobile party like those found in most of these Tolkien-esque fantasies would have highlighted these characters so well; for all the stick this game has gotten, I’ve read a lot more articles online about how much someone loved or connected with characters like Aveline, or Merrill, than I have about the party of the previous game, like Wynne, or Morrigan.
A glance at this year’s E3 shows the same objective; triple-A releases like Tomb Raider, and The Last of Us, games whose narratives are exalted for deciding to be about saving a couple of people, instead of the whole planet. To quote Naughty Dog co-President Evan Wells, they are ‘character driven’, and they got a hell of a better reception on the floor than, say, the wall to wall shooters that populated Microsoft’s press conference. These games are clearly working under a different paradigm; leaving its protagonists relatively powerless, and drawing all their power and tension from the act of survival.
Obviously a much more visceral image of survival than that presented by Dragon Age 2, but I think they’re both showing something similar; a developer who’s nailed the grand scope narrative expertly in the past, then stepped back, and deliberately tried to go smaller. Games like this have always existed in the gaming landscape; but in our current period, defined by the modern era First Person Shooter, they have taken on a new significance.
It’s funny; when Bioware offered me the entire Kingdom of Ferelden to run around in, I didn’t care. When they offered me the lone city of Kirkwall, I became invested. As graphical prowess begins to plateau, and grand spectacle, that recent industry stand-by, slows down, maybe that’s the answer for some of these genres that’ve come to rely on it.