Another holiday season, another God-knows-how-many video games lining the shelves. This is a business that has more efficiently monetized entertainment than at any other time in human history, and the only thing louder than the vast din of E3 each spring is the ringing chimes of cash registers the following fall.
But for such a successful industry, video games are shockingly bereft of new ideas. The gaming gold rush was built on the safe prospects of carefully managed product releases and high-profile franchises like Madden NFL. Soaring development costs have squeezed out independent publishers and stifled creativity at the big houses; licensed film properties, sequels and other seemingly sure bets rule. In general, video-game companies don’t make new games; they republish old games, slightly updated.
There are, however, exceptions to the monotony. And as my inbox fills up with another round of race cars and hockey fights and dudes running around with guns, let’s reflect instead on a couple of breakthroughs from seasons past. Gamers will recall the revolutionary ICO as an inconspicuous release in conspicuous times. It was 2001 and PlayStation 2 was a new device then, and the video-game realm was delirious with all the attending flash and self-satisfaction of expanding Madden et al. into more polygons.
ICO took root in the margins, developing a cadre of followers who praised the game’s ingenuity and purity of game play. And heart: ICO’s story, simply told, follows a boy, born tragically with horns, who avoids ritual sacrifice by escaping an expansive castle with a beatifically glowing princess at his side. ICO’s genuine charm eschewed points and levels altogether, instead turning the game’s fantastic geography into a continuous spatial puzzle to be navigated by you and your sad-looking horns and the princess who follows along behind with soft footsteps. With a touch of dread, wispy black phantoms would materialize occasionally from the drafty castle’s flagstones to try and whisk her away. Thereby did ICO become the first game that was both visually and temperamentally sweet, a play aesthetic best illustrated by the fact that the most important button on ICO’s control had a sole function: to call the princess to hold your hand.
ICO was a pure joy, and fans were thrilled when the long-awaited follow-up, Shadow of the Colossus, came out last year. Lengthy drumrolls often inflate expectations, but Shadow met them all. Available only on PlayStation 2, the game was coincidentally released just before the debut of the Xbox 360, but that only highlighted Shadow’s strengths; despite the 360’s hype and a generation of hardware development, most of its showy titles were duds compared to Shadow’s simple draw. Almost a year later, even after another E3, the Halo 3 trailer and the frenzy surrounding the upcoming PlayStation 3, forums for Shadow are still alight with enthusiasm. A recent post even generated a discussion about dreams players have had about the game.
“There is something about it,” wrote Itchy Thumbs in June. “All people who play computer games should bear witness to it.”
As with ICO, Shadow is basic. There is a new princess, now dead. To revive her, you must defeat the 16 “colossi.” This time around, the special call button cries out for your black horse, Agra, atop which you seek the colossi by riding across a vast landscape of deserts and steppes, chasms and mountain paths, barren wastes and lakes scattered with ruins. It’s notably sparse; there are no towns, or dungeons, or things to put into your inventory. The meandering journey, almost contemplative, creates anticipation that is every so often punctuated by the discovery of the next colossus; each attending battle is a clever puzzle that is played out on the moving body of the colossus itself.
Describing graphics in print is usually pointless, but Shadow is really something to look at. Like ICO, Shadow is a visual inheritor to the fantasy calendar tradition, only refined by restraint and an eye for detail. Wildly imagined, the colossi are beyond impressive: Never before have scale and force and movement and inertia been so successfully represented in any kind of digital entertainment. I don’t know what they did, but it seems akin to the jump from Medieval to Renaissance perspective: These things feel huge, each one so uniquely detailed and rich with character that many players said their only complaint with the game was the remorse they felt for being forced to kill the colossi.
“There will be times,” one reviewer wrote, “where you’re left wondering why you were forced to destroy a creature of such incredible beauty.”
That kind of emotional response is rare in video games. Interestingly, Shadow’s pathos is achieved with almost no story. Unlike the default convention of today’s games, which imagine themselves as “interactive cinematic experiences,” ICO was built on a wordless narrative, and what little story exists in Shadow of the Colossus is entirely beside the point. In both cases, players are instead pulled in by the idea of the game itself.
It’s an inspired approach, one that understands that video games are not movies — and shouldn’t try to be. Plagued by bad writing, the minimovies inside games are almost always dead weight. By definition, the sci-fi thriller in your Xbox 360 is a forgettable knockoff of a forgettable knockoff sci-fi thriller from the multiplex a couple summers ago. Even a great game like Vice City, in its storytelling moments, amounted to a clumsy pastiche of clichés from Scarface, Miami Vice and Carlito’s Way.
If game developers have recently realized this weakness, they’ve come up with an equally lame answer: to license the originals. Hence, Electronic Arts’ “addendum” to The Godfather for Xbox 360 is sitting on my desk right now, and Vivendi Universal’s Scarface: The World Is Yours is on the way.
Then there was EA’s big announcement last year that Steven Spielberg had signed a deal to develop three video games with their studio. Although I will always stand by Spielberg the filmmaker (except, maybe, for the crosscutting orgasmic execution at the end of Munich — huh?), EA’s move seems like a step in the wrong direction. Spielberg is a master of character-based storytelling and catharsis. That may be of limited use in a medium that calls itself “interactive digital entertainment.” The whole point of video games is open choices, whereas the power of great films like Spielberg’s resides in the director’s singular vision.
All this reflects an industry in a state of confusion. Just as early film production copied the stage, the new medium of video games has yet to escape the gravity of film. And it’s getting worse now that growth is slowing, because the honchos are grasping for straws. Their way forward? Expensive concept visuals, original soundtracks and Hollywood talent voice-overs. In a few short years, video-game publishers may have even become more commercial and risk-averse than their movie-studio cousins. All this has made it difficult for video games to shed the cocoon of product and metamorphose into art.
Then there are games like ICO and Shadow of the Colossus, providing a flash of possibility. If there is any hope for video games, it’s in the strength of entirely new ideas. Grand Theft Auto’s success lay not in Joe Pantoliano’s voice talent, but in the innovative system of open play. Quirky little Katamari Damacy, with its rudimentary graphics, bizarre pop songs and strangely compelling game play, caught fire because no one had ever seen anything like it before. Nintendogs tops the market for DS (double-screen) handhelds because it put a pet in your pocket. ICO and Shadow’s visuals are exquisite enough that one enthusiast called the game “a beautifully crafted piece of software,” but its cinematic sweep frames a bold, original concept, one that entrances players without cheap narrative gestures. Shadow may be as beautiful as a film, but it never forgets it’s a game.