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February 27, 2009

Comments

I can't see Chris Klein without thinking of "Election". Your review of his "acting" makes me *want* to rent this film!

Nick,

With the initiation of IFC's The Sandbox column I'm curious about your background in video gaming. It is not my intention to discredit your opinion on the subject, but I'm inclined to disagree with the sentiments you expressed in the first paragraph of the article. While nobody can deny gaming's stellar financial performance of late, to say that video games were created solely for children and contained no thematic complexity prior to the last decade omits the industry at its peak performance.

Curiously, the entirety of the 90's - just outside the period you mention - is usually considered the gaming renaissance. Entries such as Doom, Alpha Centauri, Chrono Trigger, Metal Gear Solid, Civilization, Planescape: Torment, StarCraft, and numerous Mario, Zelda, and Final Fantasy games (to name a few) whole-heartedly contradict the implication that early video games were inherently immature. (Indeed, the nuanced study of ethics in arguably the best game of the bunch, Fallout: A Post-Nuclear Role-Playing Adventure, would soar straight over the heads of folks in this alleged demographic.)

The notion expressed in the last line of the first paragraph is doubly discomforting, not only in that a game's ESRB rating is in any way related to its maturity (and thus, its value, apparently) but also that newer games constitute a shift in attitude akin to "growing up." Indeed the available technology has grown up but to suggest that Grand Theft Auto (the marriage of colloquial violence with aimless logistics), Rock Band (rhythmic wish fulfillment that dumbs down Japanese originals by having players repeat the same riffs for five minutes at a time), and World of WarCraft (the world's most futile time sink) are an improvement that finally makes video games worth the time of an adult is simply misrepresentation, even if it does echo mainstream sentiments.

Of course, the best video gaming had to offer and Hollywood don't really coincide; the games are all freeware by this point and the biggest draws in the game-to-movie market tend to target adolescent boys' perceptions of "classic" games, e.g. Max Payne or the upcoming Halo. But I'm curious about your history with video games, and thus the direction of the column. Insight such as that in the second paragraph - that video games mistake gratuitous violence and sensuality for maturtiy - could easily comprise an entire article. In short, I'm really excited about the future of The Sandbox and I hope the gig works out.

J,

Thanks for the thoughtful comments. I'll try to address your points as coherently as my sleep-deprived brain will allow.

My background in video gaming is that I've been a lifelong console gamer (very little on PCs) who's owned just about every console made during the past 25 years, and spent inordinate amounts of time playing games on them.

I didn't mean to imply that games weren't thematically complex before this decade; if that were the case, it would mean I spent a good portion of the '80s and '90s playing nothing but simplistic junk. Rather, I was merely trying to set the table for why this column exists NOW - and the reason, I think in part, is because games have become such big business that they've not only grown to include far more diverse types of titles, but that a lot of those titles exhibit a sophistication that most industry-defining titles of the past (like Sonic, Crash Bandicoot, etc.) did not. Or at least, did not to the same degree.

I agree wholeheartedly that the titles you listed (Doom, Metal Gear Solid, Final Fantasy, and so on) are excellent examples of '90s video game ingenuity and maturity. And as I said later in the article, just because a game is rated Mature doesn't mean it's actually mature - games like GTA and Warcraft, in many respects, prove that point. But I nonetheless believe that video games are growing up, not always well (GTA's exploitation of violence, for example) but in ways that have made the medium begin to seem – in terms of aesthetics and mechanics - like the art form that many have claimed it to be. While games like the original Fallout certainly do what you claim, Fallout 3 strikes me as a further leap forward, and while platformers have often been intricately designed works that speak directly to the medium's interactive element, a game like Braid seems to push the genre a step further, and into previously uncharted (or undercharted) waters.

My point - maybe not made as clearly, in-depth or eloquently as I would have liked - is simply that games have now ascended to the pop culture big boy's table, and deserve to be treated with a level of critical insight that's generally reserved only for other arts. True, this should have happened long ago. But given games’ current popularity and (in my mind at least) increased levels of (audio-video, design and thematic sophistication), I think now’s the perfect time for it to start.

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