Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!
Video games are the cosplayers of modern media. They like to dress up as other media, in particular movies and comic books. Look at the biggest-selling games of almost any year and you’re likely to see games dressed up as Michael Bay movies or as the latest Marvel extravaganza. In some ways early video games had more of a unique voice, not least aesthetically, because when you’ve got pixels the size of pomegranates and harsh bleeps and bloops it’s futile to try and look like a Jerry Bruckheimer action flick. There was an abstraction to the classics, the Space Invaders and Pac-Men of yore, that came with technical limitations. At least since the modern days of real-time 3D graphics, and especially in the last ten years, video games have come to look less and less like abstract art and more like what we see at the cinema, a big bucket of popcorn in our lap.
Games that ape movies, in terms of how they look and sound and of the stories they tell, aren’t necessarily bad, but they’re one of the reasons why I believe it’s taken a long time for the medium to develop its own voice. In that sense, games aren’t that different from cinema, where there were trailblazers like Georges Méliès or the Lumière Brothers who looked for what was novel about the medium, but much of the first few decades of the medium was dedicated to trying to transpose the theatre to the silver screen.
2005 had various games trying to look cinematic – and that’s ignoring the licenced movie adaptations. Call of Duty tried to be Band of Brothers, Battlefield recalled the frenzied battles of Black Hawk Down. This goes beyond aesthetics: then as now, so many games – especially of the big-budget, mainstream variety – try to be cinematic, to put the player inside a movie, and often very specific movies or movie genres. On the whole, the more cinematic a game is, the more it tends to restrict player agency to a handful of very clearly defined, cinematically-inspired actions. You press a button and something goes BOOM! in visually pleasing ways. However, 2005 had two major examples of games that developed their very own voice. Not that those games completely ignored the lessons of cinema, but they didn’t feel like they were trying to give you the Star Wars experience or that Saving Private Ryan feeling.
The first of these was Psychonauts by Double Fine Games, an often surreal, endlessly inventive game that put you inside the psychic brainpan of Razputin “Raz” Aquato, the runaway son of a family of circus performers who has high hopes of becoming a member of the titular Psychonauts, a band of heroic agents endowed with special powers. There are elements snatched from other media – a sprinkle of X-Men here, a drop of Tim Burton’s off-beat early stylings there – but Psychonauts still crackles with an imagination that’s entirely its own, which extends beyond the game’s visuals and sound to its design. Where else would you investigate milkman conspiracies, become a miniature figure on a Napoleonic board game or wage an operatic battle against a theatre critic? Present-day Tim Burton wishes he had an ounce of Psychonauts‘ eccentric flair.
Just as unique a voice to gaming as that of Double Fine and their founder Tim Schafer is that of Team Ico under the lead of Fumito Ueda – and Shadow of the Colossus is a great example of this voice. Look at screenshots of the game and you may think that it is about a daring hero who fights gargantuan beasts in order to save the girl and the day, and on the surface that’s not entirely wrong – but where so many games, like so many films, are about power fantasies, about heroes beating the bad guys and getting the girl, Shadow of the Colossus took this power fantasy and turned it on its head. You seek out mostly peaceful, beautiful creatures minding their own business – and you kill them, because a booming voice in an abandoned temple has told you that this might bring back your girlfriend. At which point, after how many kills, do you ask yourself whether you’re the baddie? Ueda is a master of tone: Shadow of the Colossus doesn’t hit you over the head with the realisation that the player may not be the hero they’ve come to expect themselves to be. Instead, it subtly alternates between exhilaration, exhaustion and and moments of dawning realisation that monstrous actions may just turn you into a monster – and it does so in ways that only games can, by making you not just complicit in those actions but the one who is actually doing them.
Both Schafer and Ueda have since moved on to develop other games (well, one other game in Ueda’s case – the man takes his sweet time when he creates something), but nothing has been up there with those two classics released in 2005. They’re great examples of gaming finding its own voice – not in copying other media, but neither in rejecting their lessons outright. Any year that produces games such as these is a good year for what is still one of the youngest media.
The Rear-View Mirror will return every Friday, looking further and further into the past. Fasten your seatbelts: it may just be a bumpy ride.