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The Utopian Video Game
Should games leave you feeling in control? Or is sacrificing some interactivity worth it for the exhilaration of experience?

What is the Platonic form of the video game? It’s a strange question, but it’s surprisingly one that currently has the gaming world aflutter. Of all things, it was because some people were incensed by popular site Eurogamer’s review of upcoming blockbuster Uncharted 3. They gave it slightly lower score than many others because, as the critic said, “the strict, linear design and tight camera management… contributes to a sense of being a semi-spectator on a fairground ride”, rather than fully in control of the action. The controversy is this: Should games always leave you feeling in control? Or is sacrificing some interactivity worth it for the exhilaration of certain types of experiences? It’s a tough nugget to crack. The Indiana Jones-inspired Uncharted series has become one of gaming’s premiere franchises  because, unlike many other mainstream games, it has compelling, believable characters, quality dialogue and, perhaps most of all, a movie-like plot and feel that really does seem to out-Hollywood Hollywood. The downside, though, is that to get that kind of tight, well-paced narrative, you also have to remove the exploratory, open-ended nature of games like Grand Theft Auto or Assassin’s Creed. For Uncharted‘s hero Nathan Drake, there is only one way through the story and it leaves many players feeling robbed of the very control, individuality and freedom games are supposed to embody. It might sound silly, but it all raises some rather complex questions. How do games offer a social and intellectual relevance akin to film or literature without guiding players through a pre-determined, and therefore also crafted, artistic narrative? Can you make culturally important artistic things in which the viewer, reader or player create their own experience? It gets down to what you believe art and entertainment should ideally be. But at the end of the day, “what should games be?” is like asking what constitutes great literature or film: your answer will largely reflect your own biases. All you can do is argue forcefully based on what you believe to be good and true. And to plant my flag firmly in the mushy middle, I’d say that gaming needs both scripted experiences and open-ended ones in order to fully succeed. For example, the broad, majestic narrative and aesthetic sweep of Red Dead Redemption is matched by its approach to gameplay. The possibilities of play are as open as the game’s rugged American landscape, and on that fertile creative ground you can closely follow the plot or, if you so wish, simply become invested in the well-being of your horse. It’s gaming as a space of explorative play. But less open, more linear games have their merits too. Beyond the cohesiveness and sheer spectacle of titles like Uncharted, overlooked when it comes to the issue of control is that, because games ask you to identify with or even as your avatar, they can beckon you understand another perspective. If you give a person little choice but to place themselves in the mindset of “someone” of another sex or nationality, for example, games have a potential for empathy that perhaps even exceeds literature of film. In a certain sense, taking away choice can demand more from the player. Sure, thus far games have mostly had you identifying with a white, American “everyman”, a phenomenon that has to change if games are to be more inclusive and simply smarter. But that possibility in games for both sympathizing with others but also producing narratives of one’s own also means that games, like other forms, are best served by a balance of many types of plays. Perhaps more than anything though, the arrival of the debate in the mainstream means that popular titles and their audiences may also be ready for games to tackle headier, more complex ideas – something that has been too long coming and will only further cement gaming’s cultural relevance. __ Navneet Alang is the Toronto Standard Tech Critic.

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