What's the measure of value that we aspire to when it comes to a game's setting, backdrop or visual style?
Do we think a game that is more grounded in reality makes for a 'better' game, if so, why?
Admittedly when I write 'better' I'm using the word very tentatively, intimately aware of the fact that I can't think of a more appropriate word for the kind of value judgements we often make about games. But to me atleast it seems to fit, and in a lot of respects it's a very appropriate word, because usually when we say something's 'better' than something else we mean it in a very matter of fact, almost objective, way. Games too often suffer from this drive to have one objective standard of judgement.
Obviously in some respects there can be an element of objectivity when it comes to what we say about a game – we can talk about production values, we can talk about the voice-acting and visual design elements and the way the gameplay's been bolted together. Because relatively speaking we have something certain and concrete to compare those aspects to – I know what people having a real conversation and really emoting sounds like so I can compare voice-acting to that to make a judgement about the quality; I know what real people look like, how they look in motion and how their faces change as they speak, so I can compare that aspect of the graphics to my own experience; and I know what fun gameplay is to me. But often with games we also make snap judgements about the value or worth of a game simply based on how it looks, and how 'real' it seems, and to me atleast that seems unfair.
It's an odd phenomenon but I'm sure most people will know what I'm talking about, games that tend to focus on a 'real world' setting, with realistic-looking human characters and that tackle issues we generally consider to be intended for 'mature' audiences tend to be viewed in a positive light; whereas games that in any way eschew reality – say by using surreal, abstract or cartoony elements in their visual design, often get overlooked by a lot of gamers. Indeed, there's a vocal minority who'll actively chastise others for playing Mario instead of Halo or Kirby instead of Gears.
I always find this odd when I see it though, people berating others over what is essentially a time-wasting exercise (games), just seems bizarre. Not just because they're judging others over what they do for fun but also because it implies somehow that games that aim to be realistic give us all we need in terms of message and content as an audience, which isn't necessarily true. A lot of what defines being human and is most interesting in fiction is abstract and surreal, and can only be expressed through 'unreal' presentation. How would you express the unconscious side of the human mind, as we see it through dreams, without the surreal? How could you tackle difficult social issues without burying them in allegory or behind a cartoony visual style?
Granted I'm not saying that in particular either Mario or Kirby explore deep issues relating to human nature, or that really that should be the point of any game but I do think when we set out what a game 'should' be, limiting ourselves to just reflecting the real world and only having human characters stifles creativity and the range of issues and topics a game can effectively tackle, and games should be as free of a creative medium as possible.
As somebody who grew up really disliking the cartoony aspects of early games, and loving the dark, the macabre and the very adult in games and movies as a child I can understand being put off by characters like Mario or Kirby – hell I've even mocked that almost naïve, and childish side of gaming in the past
, but I could never write it off completely. Because I know that they have the potential to tackle issues or themes that human characters in a game never could.
A cartoony or a simple visual style can often be disarmingly simple; when we see people we expect complexity of emotion and a range of issues, when we a sack of meat or a stick figure, we don't.
Games like Super Meat Boy, the Sonic games, the Binding of Isaac, Sam and Max, Theme Hospital, the early Final Fantasy games, the Dragon Quest games, Journey, Limbo, are examples of titles where the style is sometimes integral, sometimes incidental, sometimes in contrast to the themes at play in the game's narrative. What's important though is that the way the games project themselves does effect how they're seen.
Outside of gaming one of the best examples of this I can think of is Persepolis, a graphic novel by Marjane Satrapi, which I saw after it'd been adapted into a film.
At face value Persepolis is a simple story about a young woman's experiences growing in her home country, having to come to terms with social changes that affect her and her family, before eventually being forced to move abroad by said changes; all presented in a very attractive, very cartoonish visual style – the characters have big eyes, are mostly black and white and often defy the rules of physics by twisting and bending in that way that only cartoon characters do. But behind the seemingly unassuming visual style and the simple presentation is in fact a very dark, very, very real story, about the changing nature of Iranian society, and the social miasma young women born before the revolution, and thus accustomed to some amount of social freedom, felt themselves being drawn into. No longer able to go where they please, no longer able to talk to or even associate with the men they want to, they faced a stark choice between relative captivity at home or freedom abroad.
In part what makes Persepolis' story so poignant and moving is the fact it's presented in such an unassuming and simple artistic style; whereas you might expect a a live-action movie or tv program to relate stories about real-world issues, even when you know something is trying to do it with a cartoonish visual style it still takes you off-guard, because you really don't expect it impact you like it does. Arguably this would be my strongest argument for not simply ignoring games that eschew realistic graphics, because if all we rate a game on is its real-world fidelity then we potentially miss so much that not-so realistic means of conveying a story or themes can achieve. Simple shouldn't always mean worse, and likewise complex shouldn't always mean better.
One of the things that happened when 3D started to creep into the games market was the wholesale shift from 2D to 3D, but a lot of developers did this regardless of the merits and just seemed to jump on the bandwagon as 2D was suddenly decided old hat; the inevitable result though was that not everything made sense in 3D – some franchises and series worked, others didn't.
People have been complaining about Sonic moving from 2D to 3D for years, not so many people complain about Mario's move from 2D to 3D; some types of RPG don't work as well in 3D – super deformed characters worked much better in the 2D Final Fantasies than they did in the 3D ones, and some genres have died almost completely in the general shift from 2D to 3D. Likewise with visual style, generally how stories, topics and themes are presented changes how the audience interprets and reacts to the message you're trying to convey.
Inevitably though, games made in the dominant visual style of an era do tend to get concessions when it comes to what they can get away with, because aslong as a game keeps to the kinds of stories and presentation techniques we're used to people don't overly critique them. This is true of a lot modern shooters and the highly realistic-looking games that dominate the market at the moment – and typically aslong as a realistic-looking game has good graphics and solid gameplay how strong or weak the plot is doesn't matter so much to a lot of people.
Look at games like Gears of War or Modern Warfare, two very popular franchises, and a lot of fun to play, but in terms of story there's not a whole lot going on there. They try to impress you more with graphics than the story they tell – huge explosions, special effects and big set-pieces are the order of the day. But in all honesty they're not going to win any awards for quality original story-telling, or atleast they shouldn't, because they re-use a lot of the same tropes, plot points and narrative mechanics that have been kicking around in Hollywood blockbusters and action films for atleast the last two decades. That doesn't necessarily make them bad games, but we shouldn't try to pretend that great games can't have dumb plots (Giant worm anybody?), it's part of the nature of being a game that the story often matters a lot less than it would in say books or movies – because the interactive element means gameplay and presentation count for a whole lot more.
And this is generally my point. A lot of the time in games we tend to get bogged down in the way they look, how good the graphics they have are, how realistic they are, how relatably human everything seems, but in doing so we often miss a lot. With games that impress us with good graphics and solid gameplay we often miss or overlook how familiar or unoriginal the story is – or how much they rely on cliché tropes, overused plot-mechanics and deus ex machinas; whereas on the other side of the equation, games that don't try impress us so much graphically but possibly tackle interesting topics and themes can often get overlooked simply because they aren't as realistic about the way they present their story. On a more general level, a lot of people just seem to generally dismiss characters like Mario or Kirby, simply because they aren't realistic-looking human characters, or muscle-bound action heroes who shoot everything in sight whilst wise-cracking.
This to me just seems so antithetical to the point of a game, games are entertainment, they're escapism, they're fantasy; the first games weren't epic tales of bromance and war, they were surreal, supremely simplistic interactive experiences – how would Pacman or early Mario make sense in a realistic world? I don't think they would, and much of gaming is characterised by this unreal element. Even though gaming has shifted more towards the realistic as graphics have improved it still retains something of the fantasy in it – indeed just as books or movies include it. Because part of what makes them so entertaining to us is the escapism, the fantasy.
Perhaps in a wider sense then the attitudes that seem to lie under the surface in the gaming community reflect a deeper sense of unease about fantasy in society – a reflection of the fears that for a long time politicians have projected onto games, that they're murderer-makers, liable to turn kids crazy, or push them towards crime. It seems like a lot of people want to be able to play games, because they enjoy them, but at the same time still want to be able to judge others on their choice of games, and so create this sense that somehow realism = good, fantasy (or the unrealistic) = bad. When that really doesn't make much sense, considering how we're all being fantasists in one form or another when we game.
In the end it's upto to us to decide what we enjoy and what we don't, what we feel we get from a game, and when we feel we've reach our limit as to how much fantasy is too much. Games are just a means of exploring ideas and stories, and most importantly, enjoying ourselves, something that all too often seems to get forgotten.