This past week has been a big one in the world of gaming, with The Video Game Awards and PlayStation Experience bringing a slew of announcements and premieres that we here at OnlySP are striving to get on top of.
Busy, Busy Bees
As I have mentioned over the past two weeks, getting the site back on track is a more difficult process than I had anticipated, but we are getting there. Our primary goal at present is ensuring that we are able to publish content on a daily basis so that you, the readers, have a reason to keep coming back, and I daresay that we have done a reasonable job of achieving that, though we still have much further to go. Part of that involves the acquisition of a couple of new writers and, ideally, I would like for those to be people who are familiar with the principles and tenets of OnlySP. Therefore, I am inviting any members of our community who are interested in writing and publishing about video games to send me an expression of interest at [email protected] From there, we can discuss matters further.
To return to my original point though, now that we are getting back into the groove of things, we are beginning to plan more of the in-depth features and reviews that have long been the bread and butter of OnlySP. Mitchell published the long-running Games of the Next Month article earlier this week, and several more are already in the works. You should see them beginning to pop up in the very near future, while interviews are not likely to return until after the new year. Still, interesting things are inbound.
Conflicts and Guns, Stories and Systems
Although the double-punch of the VGAs and PSX delivered a plethora of announcements to digest and discuss, one of the articles that most captured my attention this week stemmed from IGN’s Lucy O’Brien asking guns are holding games back. The article took a measured approach to examining the history, present, and future of guns within the medium, touching on ludonarrative dissonance, mechanical familiarity, the ongoing infancy and adolescence of video games as a medium, and subversion of gunplay (as in Portal and Half-Life 2). If you have the time, I recommend it as a very interesting read.
However, one glaring omission of O’Brien’s piece is the idea that guns are a straightforward systems-based manifestation of conflict. Among the first lessons of creative writing is that conflict is always central to the story, whether that be a short story, novel, film, or, yes, video game. The main character must have a goal (even if that is as straightforward as getting a glass of water), and obstacles must make that goal more difficult to achieve. Games have the added requirement of interactivity, which, to retain player interest, needs to provide a constant feedback loop. Some titles, such as Skyrim, use discovery as a reward, while others, such as Until Dawn and Telltale’s series, rely on responses to QTEs and player prompts, and still others, including Mario and LittleBigPlanet, utilise forward progression through simulated athletic timing and skill. For the most part, however, such games are exceptions, with most focusing on combat as a central mechanic. The idea of combat taps into a power fantasy that most people are capable of engaging with quite easily. Putting a weapon into our digital hands and casting us a master swordsman or marksman enables us to live out an experience that most of us could only dream of otherwise. Furthermore, swordplay and gunplay represent a convenient system of conflict, around which a story (however half-hearted) can be written. Therefore, the prevalence of weapons-based gameplay systems in video games derives from both a mechanical and narrative imperative, but justification and admission of their necessity does not answer O’Brien’s question.
The Week in Review does not provide me space to engage with the topic on a truly academic level with a balanced argument and, thus, what follows is my personal opinion as a student of literature and aspiring novelist. In short, yes, guns are preventing video games from reaching their full potential as a storytelling medium. In that respect, the indie sphere is making great strides, with Gone Home, Firewatch, Virginia, and Her Story all offering fascinating, involving stories with minimalistic gameplay and nary a weapon in sight. Rather than relying on the adrenaline rush of gunning down monsters, Nazis, and terrorists, such games ask players to engage on an intellectual level through exploration of a place, or police evidence, or the human mind, and they are stronger, more memorable experiences for it, and that trend is sure to grow alongside the explosion of virtual reality. The lessons of such titles are slow to trickle into the AAA sphere, however. The Last of Us: Left Behind remains a high point, and it is to be hoped that the recently announced sequel, The Last of Us: Part II, draws more from its thoughtfulness than from the bombast of its stablemate, Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End and its spin-off Uncharted: The Lost Legacy. Unfortunately, few of the games set for release in 2017 and beyond hold the same amount of promise, with guns and swords giving rise only to the possibility of vapid stories built around mechanics, rather than the opposite being true. Until developers are able to avoid ludonarrative dissonance and overcome their reliance on weapons as a system, gaming can never truly move forward and will remain trapped in the same well-worn paths.
It has been another difficult week for me as I continue to work through a few personal issues, which have hampered the amount of time I am able to dedicate to gaming and my work here at OnlySP. I daresay that matters are improving, however. Beyond that, I have passed a few more hours in Planet Coaster (expect a review soon), and have finished reading Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood, translated by Jay Rubin. Although the prose could have been improved in parts, the story as a whole was haunting and moving, powerfully evoking the sadness, confusion, and sense of loss that the main character, Watanabe, felt. Given that it sits on the border of the young adult genre, the book may not be for everyone, but it certainly is worthwhile and I look forward to reading more of Murakami’s work in the coming months and years. Since then, I have begun reading Lian Hearn’s The Tale of Shikanoko, and am approximately halfway through the first part, ‘Emperor of the Eight Islands’. It is set in a fantasy world based on Feudal Japan, and has proven difficult to get into coming off the intense realism of Norwegian Wood. At the moment, I am intrigued by the story, though I find Hearn’s writing style slightly offputting and struggle with being thrown headlong into this world without any preparation. The Tale of Shikanoko is a prequel to her earlier series Tales of the Otori, and I think part of the my lack of engagement with the former is that several years have passed since I read the latter and the few details that remain in my mind are murky and unclear. You will likely read more about that next week.
Until then, let us know what you’ve been up to in this last week and your impressions from the last two big shows of the year.
Have a good week, single players.