Thursday, February 28, 2008

Where is Gaming's The Wire?

HBO's sensational show The Wire is coming to a close, after five thought-provoking seasons. While not one of HBO's most popular shows, The Wire is often cited as one of the best shows no one is watching. Juxtaposing the problems of inner-city Baltimore (really, any inner-city) with the police department, politicians, education systems, and media that surrounds it, The Wire creates social commentary as to the reasons and outcomes of our society's flaws. Its characters feel real and gritty; its storytelling feels emotional and at times gut-wrenching. Recently, an event happened on the show that has caused me to reflect on the world we live in, in great depth. So where is the video game industry's version of The Wire? Where is our game that forces the user to reflect on the world as a whole and figure out how they fit into that world?

As far as I can tell it doesn't yet exist. Storytelling in video games and storytelling in film and television are two very different beasts, there is no doubt about that. Part of The Wire's low ratings is due to the complicated and tough-to-handle subject matter. However, HBO still left them on the air for five seasons. In the mainstream core gaming industry, if it can't sell millions of copies, it won't be made.

Electronic Arts, Activision, Nintendo, and Ubisoft are like the major four TV networks. They mostly stick with the safe bets. None of the top 20 publishers, however, deliver us games that make us truly reflect, in my opinion. What was the last game that made you think about your actual life or the world you are surrounded by? The games that stick with me the most are usually the ones with the best plot twists (Knights of the Old Republic) or innovative gameplay (Katamari Damacy). There are a handful of games that have made me feel something more than just fear and aggression, however. Ico taught me that I can love another video game character, even if it's only for the duration of the game. Jason Rohrer's Passage made me feel true sadness (If you have not played this game, please play it right now - it literally will take you five minutes and possibly be one of the most emotional games you will ever play). I, however, did little reflection on life after either of these titles. They affected me in the moment, and the fact that they affected me at all stuck with me. Thoughtful reflection did not follow either, unfortunately (Though Passage did get me to think about mortality for a period of time).

So, how can we as an industry solve this problem? For starters, we can start putting thought-provoking moments in our games. BioShock was a decent start; it asked you to make a moral decision, but wrapped that moral decision with ludic elements. Players didn't reflect on whether or not they made the right choice because they truly cared about the Little Sisters (at least most didn't). Rather, they reflected on if the decision they made helped them create the best character. Some saved the Little Sisters because they would get an exclusive Plasmid for doing it. Others killed the Little Sisters because it gave them the most in-game currency. How many saved or killed because it was the right thing to do?

We need to take the moments that can cause self-reflection further. We need players to ponder the meaning of life. We need players to feel sad, remorseful, and disgusted outside of the immediacy. Not all games need to do this; not even most games. Just some games, and not just independent games like Passage. Large, mainstream core games need to make us feel this every once in a while. Sure, the game may be under appreciated by the masses, who want their media spoon-fed to them. However, this is what will make our medium culturally relevant and allow us to move forward as an industry. Only then will we get close to the gaming industry's version of The Wire.


  1. Good post there. I hadn't heard of Passage, but i immediately downloaded it and played. Wow.

    Really makes you think.

    Going through life the normal directions, maybe collect a few fortunes or rewards, but they really don't matter in the end. Its like watching your life pass you by. Depressing. But on the same token, i applaud the game for tugging at another emotion that doesn't get attention in games. Very few games make me think, or feel emotion. Mass Effect is a good modern example of choices that are reflected in the world, and yes i think i did cry when Aeris died in FF7.

  2. I just finished reading The Art Of Games article on Gamasutra, which basically comes to the same conclusions as you do, citing similar games (e.g. Ico).

    To me, what you're getting at is what the Gamasutra article is getting at--that is, "Where is Art in Video Games?"--since Art (with a capital 'A') is really just about causing self-reflection, deep emotions, and meaningful thought in the partaker.


    P.S. - Oh, and the Passage game was amazing.

  3. Actually, COD4 made me reflect some what on the nature of war and soldiers. But that's the only game to recent memory.

    Possibly The Longest Journey too.

    I'd love to say Half-Life 2 & friends, but despite many emotional moments it's just not grounded in the real world.

    But then, I'm one of those people that couldn't even contemplate the idea of killing a Little Sister. The mere thought horrified me.