An unfortunately common tendency among humankind is to assume that something new is inherently bad. People say that smartphones are turning people into idiots by allowing someone to look something up literally anywhere they are rather than having to remember something. When paper made its way to the Mediterranean around a thousand years ago, people said the same thing. “We can’t write things down! No one will be able to remember anything anymore!” In short, new technology is not problematic, it’s people being afraid that the world continues to change.
All that being said, one of the more interesting changes in the world of art is the rise of video games as a legitimate art form. Many people unfortunately do not respect the form in this way yet, but as the angry British game critic Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw says, and I paraphrase, “at some point everyone over the age of fifty will die. Perhaps then video games will finally be respected as art.” People see the colors and controllers and settings of cities in the sky and space and assume that it’s for children and people who live in their parents’ basement. Many still imagine that games like Pong and Duke Nukem are the pinnacle of video games. Because what art form could possibly advance in over twenty years? Well, fortunately for the world, video games don’t solely revolve around the world of misogynist space marines killing Nazi-zombies on planet Garblax. Those games certainly exist, but then again so do movies like “Die Hard” and “Pacific Rim.” There’s certainly a place for them, but to compare big budget high-graphics no story games to “Casablanca” is like comparing “Predator” to “Heart of Darkness” or “The Stranger.”
Video games have evolved at a breakneck pace over the past three decades. We’ve gone from “Pong” to recent hallmarks of storytelling, “Bastion,” “Bioshock: Infinite,” and “Far Cry 3.” Video games now address the same themes of humanity that all art forms address. Just because someone is holding a controller doesn’t mean they’re impervious to a well told story. One of the aforementioned games, “Far Cry 3” is one of the best games I’ve played in the past ten years. And I’m a nerd, I’ve played a lot of video games. It’s one of the games that the story has stuck with me even though I completed the game over a year ago. It’s about a group of rich white recent college grads from LA taking an adventure in Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands and they run afoul of a slavery ring on a remote island. One character joins with a group of local freedom fighters and starts to destroy his humanity to save his friends. It’s like if “Alice in Wonderland” had a baby with “Heart of Darkness.” What the game does wonderfully is that it blends the story and the gameplay brilliantly. The character goes from barely knowing which end of the gun makes the loud noise and you should point that end toward the thing you want to stop moving, to moving silently through the underbrush picking off trained killers one by one like it was a game of tag.
Now one of the things that makes this interesting in the larger world of art is that when any art form grows, it starts to cross over into the other worlds of art for inspiration and resources. The face of “Far Cry 3” is one of the major antagonists of the game, Vaas. His entire character came from an actor named Michael Mando. His face, voice, and they used motion capture of the actor to get the movement for the character in the game. Hearing Michael Mando talk about the character, he talks about everything we talk about as theatre artists, finding layers in the character, bringing truth to the story, and serving the story. It also helps that he makes the character absolutely terrifying. His presence in the game instantly creates stakes and tension during the parts when the player is directly confronting him.
The art form offers different capabilities than anything else. There is partly an easier suspension of disbelief, perhaps partly because of the lack of respect from much of the artistic community, but also because the lineage of video games has always been a place for space marines and time travel and fantasy worlds. The primary difference is that it makes the player an active part of the story. The audience and the protagonist in a video game are one in the same. No other form offers that.
The reason this really excites me is because collaboration with other already respected artists helps build legitimacy. It’s possible for artists from all different disciplines and backgrounds to collaborate on a piece of art. Actors, musicians, visual artists, anyone can be a part of a video game if that’s what the story calls for. My personal belief is that at the heart of any artistry should be storytelling. Since video games are storytelling, why wouldn’t we offer our services as theatre-makers to offer our expertise in how we tell stories? It’s happening now. And it excites the hell out of me.