From Panels to Pixels: The Misunderstood Medium That Is Video Games

From Panels to Pixels: The Misunderstood Medium That Is Video Games

Video games, the very idea of it, what picture does it paint in your mind? In the modern day and age, if you were to walk up to an individual who doesn’t necessarily engage with the medium, especially in Southern Asia and ask them what their take on video games is, you’d mostly hear a range of answers that for the most part, circle around the common consensus of it being a simple activity to pass time or an activity which is unproductive, wastes time and is futile with very little to no potential of storytelling or world building. It’s definitely interesting to ponder upon how the public came to such a fixed collective conclusion. Thereby, let’s try to understand and decipher how this common stance may have come about.

Firstly, this has to do with where the concept of gaming has landed in the public eye in the status quo. With the likes of popular gaming media such as ‘Call of Duty’, ‘PUBG’ and the likes of ‘Fortnite’ that have taken the world by storm, being the center of attention these days, the popular gaming genres of e-sports and online multiplayer have a tendency of becoming most non-gamers’ entry point of knowledge as to what gaming is. Video games as we know it, checks a multitude of boxes. It acts as a means to help reduce stress, is a form of escapism and serves as way of deriving entertainment among others. So, when someone says that gaming can be deemed as an activity we engage in to pass time, while that may be an oversimplification of the matter, I can roll with that definition.

But when someone argues that video games have little to no potential of storytelling or world building, I would like to pump the brakes right there, and take a moment to vehemently disagree. Books, movies, music and virtually any form of entertainment consists of genres. Some genres are able to present certain things better than others. Similarly, when one considers the medium of video games, the story isn’t all that different. Thus, there are genres within the medium of video games that perfectly capture the beauty of profound character development and world building. I would like to point out, that these popular video game genres we just spoke of earlier such as e-sports and online multiplayer however, do not fall into that category. This is because those games are not meant to be narrative-driven, for they are tailored for a completely different purpose. They serve as a platform to have fun by playing alongside your friends or on your own. And in terms of accomplishing what it sets out to do, it does very well, but in terms of storytelling, not so much. The downside in the context of Southern Asia at least, is that the access and exposure to the genres that do subscribe to masterful storytelling are quite limited, leading to those who don’t engage with the medium to not know about their existence and in turn, not fully realize or appreciate the medium’s full potential.

A prime reason as to why the access to genres that truly define the story telling capabilities of the medium, such as strong single-player narrative driven games, are limited and therefore not known by the general public has to do with the fact that they tend to be either exclusively available to a particular console (a device specifically made to play video games) or requires a very beefy PC in order to experience them. Which means in order to even think about playing the titles that belong to these celebrated genres, the consumer will need to own either a console or a very capable PC, both of which cost a very hefty sum of money. Thereby, a general consumer’s access to these video games naturally becomes very limited, as these experiences are locked behind a huge paywall. Not many people are willing or even able to, for that matter, undergo such a huge expense just to experience these genres and in extension the games that constitute them. Thus, unsurprisingly, the games that garner the most attention in the public eye in Southern Asia are those that can be played on the standard PC one can find at home and mobile phones. This is mostly due to the fact that gaming on a device which is easily affordable and readily available to most people is convenient when compared to spending a lump sum of money to own a console or a high-end PC which are necessary to properly enjoy most narrative driven video games. Thereby, I understand why most non-gamers don’t fully grasp or appreciate the potential of the medium and why they’ve arrived at the conclusion that they have, as their exposure to the medium stems from the genres of gaming that aren’t inclusive of a striking or moving narrative.

However, taking one or a few genres of a medium of entertainment into account and then branding the entire medium as mediocre or passable based on your view of the respective genre or genres you’re familiar with, is quite frankly, pretty ridiculous in my personal opinion. That’s like someone saying music isn’t a good form of art simply because the genre of ‘heavy metal’ doesn’t quite appeal to their tastes. Thus, as a gamer myself, I find it a bit heartbreaking to see people just wave aside or belittle the medium simply based on what little they’ve been exposed to. The bottom-line being, judging the potential of a medium based on one or few genres of it isn’t the best way to go about it.

Any medium, that is able to make its experiencer feel deep emotion of any kind towards its characters, narrative or world, is a medium that deserves respect. Because for that to happen, it needs to have you engaged, it needs you to care about its characters, its world and it needs you invested in the story that it’s trying to convey. Let’s turn our attention to some video games that have gained worldwide acclaim for consisting of powerful and moving narratives to further prove my point. Whether it be feeling the heartbreak of losing a child and witnessing the buildup of a relationship between a young orphaned girl and a troubled man in ‘The Last of Us’ (2013), understanding the struggle of parenting in ‘God of War’ (2018) or acknowledging the complicated marriage between power and responsibility in themes such as mentorship and partnership in ‘Marvel’s Spider-Man’ (2018), video games have proven time and time again over the years, to be a competent contender in the collective of mediums that push forward competent storytelling.

It’s important to understand, similar to the way that narratives in movies became more layered with time and started to dig deeper into discussing and addressing more politics, socio-economic issues that plague society, and the more sensitives themes around life, video games too have evolved with time, both in complexity and its story telling ability. But unlike books or movies, a video game is an interactive experience as opposed to other mediums which mostly tend to be an experience which is one-sided. Because for the hour, two or however long you play with the controller in your hand, you become this character, you walk in their shoes, see the world from their perspective, see how the world reacts to them and witness how their problems become your own.

Playing as Ellie in ‘The Last of Us Part II’ (2020), an openly gay female protagonist in a bleak world that has been brought to its knees by a deadly infection, pits us against the struggles and hardships she faces by those around her and of the world she inhabits. From the way people treat her due to her sexuality, how friend becomes adversary in the race to find necessary resources which their world lacks in order to survive to how the blind pursuit of revenge can cost you everything, just to name a few examples, makes us truly appreciate their character arcs and experience their train of thoughts first hand, just like other proficient mediums would do. Witnessing the struggle of a woman to make her voice heard and be taken seriously in a post-apocalyptic world as Aloy in ‘Horizon Zero Dawn’ (2017) for instance, is yet another profound example of the power of the medium to make you experience the lives of those that some of us may never be able to physically, through their virtual lens of the world. The medium truly has evolved into an experience capable of evoking deep emotions and initiating debate. Games in recent times have even gone a step further to be analytical and critical of the things it presents to you much like other respected mediums. ‘Grand Theft Auto V’ for instance, is a satire of modern-day America, exposing the sleezy, dark underbelly of the United States through the use humour and wit coupled with the use of strong characters with believable intentions and problems.

Video games was thus my love letter to storytelling and world building, for it served as my entry point and gateway to what I now consider literature all those years ago. And seeing it being waved off as an empty and soulless medium is saddening. Every genre brings something new to the medium that it’s a part of. Every medium of entertainment deserves respect. And video games are no different.

– Rtr. Vibhath Jayasinghe

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