Gamer’s Wife Sees the Light
by Jill Adams
I am from the elitist camp of bookworms that might have avidly played Super Mario 3 from start to finish in 1988, but then happily went a decade without owning a television, right up to my late 20s. Post-Mario, my understanding of video games evolved via media stereotypes: Guns!! Rape!! Sedentary, mind-poisoned, racist tv zombie bros!!
Then I was swept off my feet by a gamer. This charming, adorable, hilarious man with a devotion to making me happy pranced in, and we now live happily ever after. With a very big television. And two gaming consoles. A PlayStation Vita (handheld gaming system, for the uninitiated), Trittons (advanced headphones with a built-in mic, meant for gaming in groups), at least 7 controllers of various shapes and sizes… you get the picture. Never in my life would I have imagined emotions other than disdain for this sort of thing, but much to my gamer’s credit, I enjoy a nuanced appreciation for what I now understand is an emerging art form. Or, an emerged art form, little did I know.
So this post is to explain my conversion experience: how I went from hearing “gaming” as “slobbering nerds or douchey guys shooting stuff,” to being genuinely impressed.
L.A. Noire came out in 2011, and was very highly anticipated in my house. Set in 1940s L.A., you play as a detective working his way up through the ranks by solving cases around the city — stolen trinkets, jewelry heists, missing starlets. The art style is solidly film noir, and does a lovely job of putting you in full Sam Spade mode. The art style alone was enough to impress me, but L.A. Noire’s biggest accomplishment was that it brought humanity into the game in a way that completely surprised me.
The developers employed a new technology called MotionScan, which turned the game’s characters from plastic Ken dolls into people — people who could lie to you. Convince you. Evoke a sympathetic response. The game is all about solving cases by reading the clues, including reading the witnesses and suspects. You are asked to assess people’s truthfulness, in order to make progress. Seeing someone squinch their eyebrows at the wrong moment, or shift weight in an untrustworthy manner — these added a real twist of intrigue that I didn’t expect to ever get from a video game.
Not to mention that the MotionScan technology is completely amazing.
It always seemed to me that there was no place for irony or cleverness in gaming. I only ever heard about machismo and a kind of sardonic cruelty, or alternately, puffy silly games for kids. It didn’t seem like there was any place for my inner snark — a world that would correlate to “The Royal Tenenbaums” or “Napoleon Dynamite.”
When my gamer got his Vita a few months ago, Escape Plan was the first game he had me play to understand why this $300 toy was worthwhile. In a black-and-white factory universe, this game features Lil and Laarg, two herpaderp characters that bumble along, doop-a-doo.
Your job is to help them through the gauntlet of factory dangers to escape from level to level without being sliced, squashed, imploded, or brained by any number of blades, traps, or other dangers. (Remember Happy Tree Friends?) I am convinced Escape Plan was developed by a dry, evil wit of British origin, down to watching Lil’s drunken, bubble-induced hiccups float the character over a lethal threat.
Another mention in the strange humor category goes to Frobisher Says. Frobisher is akin to a Monty Python skit gone even more mad.
Frobisher barks absurd commands in a British accent, faster and faster, demanding that you “Deliver my pudding!” “Fight this bear!” “Poke the otter with a stick!” The Vita has both front and back touch screens, joysticks, arrow controls, trigger controls, and each task uses different means of accomplishing the command. Meaning that you begin to look like a crazy person, waving, whacking, and wielding the Vita in whatever way necessary to keep Frobisher from mocking you when you’re too slow, in order to receive the coveted, “Splendid!”
Community Investment and the Artistic Process
There are lots of anti-gaming arguments to be made in favor of moving your ass off the couch and having a real conversation with other humanoids, in an effort to be a viable member of society. That said, it’s very easy to discount the real bonds that are formed in the gaming community.
For me, the most impressive example of this to date is Sound Shapes. TheSpawnPoint has done some extensive coverage on this game recently, for good reason. The basic principles are about levels and music. A player moves through a screens of a level, collecting little coin-like symbols. The faster you complete a level, and the higher the percentage of coin-things you collect, the higher you’re ranked. The muscial element comes in from the creators — each coin-thing represents a musical element, perhaps a percussion sound, a synth riff, or a melodic hook. So, as you go along playing the level and collecting coins, you build a song.
But Sound Shapes has a dual purpose: both to play levels, and to make levels. Players are provided with some pre-programmed sound bits and graphic elements, which with my creative juices would stay pretty basic. But the community has gone wild, using these elements to create elaborate soundscapes and story lines, and even stop-motion animations that the Sound Shapes developers didn’t realize were possible.
A little sample of what’s possible starting with geometric shapes and small sound elements, from maker Daftbomb.
Watching my gamer interact with the developers and level makers has brought on a wholeheartedly positive vibe. All these guys genuinely appreciate the labor and focus that go into the creative process, and spend a lot of time commending each other and talking about method and process. It’s akin to watching friends in design discuss typography or collage, and deeply centered in the art of the experience.
The Art of Place
This one was a real conversion point for me. It’s one thing to have a generic battlefield, or an outerspace outpost with an alien war underway. It’s another thing to show beautiful crumbling mosaic tile murals in Istanbul (Uncharted 2), or climb some historically-accurate buildings in 15th century Florence (Assassin’s Creed II).
The attention to detail is astonishing, both as a consumer, and from the perspective of art direction. Not to mention historical accuracy, as the makers of Assassin’s 3 are about to demonstrate.
And then there’s the idea that gaming can be an existential contemplation. Journey is hard to describe — imagine being a faceless, robed, monk-like being, traveling the desert alone. Your destination: a mountain in the distance. Your means of travel: floating along on a mystical drift, or the occasional flying carpet or draft of magic sparkledust. Along the way, you pass through ancient stone cities… Perils appear, mirages and oases shimmer in and out of reality, and occasionally you bump into another lonely traveler. With only a speech of singing bells to help you, you can help each other gather more energy, in the form of a rune-covered magical scarf that grows. And in the end, you arrive at the mountaintop nirvana (*spoiler alert*), to be transfigured by a ray of cosmic shooting light into a sparkling comet.
It was so beautiful, so uplifting and magical, that both my gamer and I nearly wept at points.
Which is all to say: given the choice between watching reality tv and playing a game like Journey or Sound Shapes, my husband chooses gaming. And I’m glad.