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Grown up gaming
There is a moment in Crysis Warhead, Crytek's hyper stylised shooter, lead character seargent 'Psycho' Sykes beats an enemy and drowns him to death. Instead of releasing a wry quip or simply carrying on the fight, our gruff British hero collapses and starts to cry. He sobs as he is overwhelmed with the regret of his actions. In the middle of a high octane first person shooter, the protagonist takes a moment to reflect on the horrors of combat. This is the state of gaming today, and a fine state it is.
We have certainly come a long way from the days when death meant inserting another coin into the arcade machine or resetting the console, now we are faced with real situations and moral choices, confronted with emotional conundrums which relax the overworked trigger finger. The medium is being pushed forward and more and more games target a mature, intelligent audience who seek a more emotionally fulfilling experience.
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Grand Theft Auto: The bad boy cleans up his act
Perhaps one of the best examples of giddy, juvenile gaming thrills is the Grand Theft Auto series. The original PC and PS1 game was a cult classic in which organised crime and mass murder were the aim. You could run over pedestrians, blow up buses, fire a rocket launcher into heavy traffic, hell, you even got a bonus for mowing down Hari Krishna's. It quickly became a media hot button for controversy and gamers loved it. Fast forward a decade and Grand Theft Auto IV presents the epic tale of Niko Belliq, an eastern European immigrant in Liberty City. During Niko's story, players are given the choice between killing and being merciful. At key points in the game you can choose to spare the lives of those who have wronged you, this is a million miles from the original games nihlistic slant. If a franchise like Grand Theft Auto can mature, this marks a clear time of progression for videogames.
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Good Vs. Evil: The Bioware RPG
Bioware, a hugely successful western RPG developer, have been perfecting a formula for years now with the basis being the balance between good and evil. Essentially this means that a players choices in-game can affect the story, their character, even the way other characters react to them. This method of storytelling came to fruition in the excellent Star Wars: Knights Of The Old Republic, in which the actions of the player placed them on either sides of the force. It was a simple idea expertly done, good action incurred favour in your squad and evil actions made characters hate and fear you, the transition between the two even effected a change in appearance, with the player growing pale and sinister looking on the dark side but ethereal in the light. The developers Blockbuster Mass Effect series has built on those early methods with the paragon/renegade balance, these two extremes effect both your presence within the narrative and the story as a whole, players being able to carry over their good/evil character into Mass Effect 2. Its this sort of story dynamic that force the player to take care in their decisions, take stock of the situation and decide if it is worth blasting that enemy when this may effect your progress later in the game.
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Bioshock and the epitome of moral choice.
Building on progress made by developers like Bioware, moral decisions and duality have been included more and more in games, these elements serve to liven up otherwise linear narratives, breaking convention by offering player progress that branches out in different, unpredictable directions. Perhaps the purest example of this is Bioshock, which confronts the player with a crucial decision; save or harvest?
The Little Sisters are an avatar for the corruption and degradation of Rapture. Andrew Ryan barks philosophical rants on the radio but it's these small children that you encounter while stalking through the city. Here the player offered two conflicting opinions on the plight of the sisters; Atlas believes they are beyond saving while Tennenbaum seeks to appeal to your better nature by drawing attention to the fact that they are innocent in all of this. The choice offered is one that extends far beyond the different endings on offer. Bioshock offers a unique spin on the conventions of the FPS, all this killing-why not save something. This dynamic is built upon in the sequel, in which you play one of the Big Daddy's and are tasked with guarding the sisters as they collect Adam. You are then offered the chance to save or harvest, a choice made all the more difficult given the bond forced upon you by the act of protection. Bioshock among all others presents the most simplistic and purest example of the progression in videogame narrative. We have come to a point in which even the traditional shooter offers the player a chance to redeem their virtual soul.
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The freedom of the MMO
Of course all the above examples are scripted, the player can renegotiate any decision they have made with a quick load/do over. Its in the world of the MMO that the modern gamer has been given a chance to mature, unhindered by the stifling parameters of conventional narrative. Players are given a 'hub story' in which to insert their avatar and from their, freedom is key.
This freedom may have opened the floodgates for all forms of trolls and flamers but there is also evidence of solid adult gaming, howevor free and aloof it may be. More complexity is present in the in-game relationships than can be seen in any single player experience. Perhaps this is where the evolution of the modern gaming experience is going to ultimately end, players writing their own destinies, constructing situations where they will have to make their own unpredictable moral choices.
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The best that can be said of the new found complexity of the videogame narrative is that it is closing the gap with the medium to which gaming has long since aspired, cinema. Grand Theft Auto director Dan Houser once said that his ultimate goal was to create a game better than any movie Hollywood could produce, and while the epic scope of Grand Theft Auto IV comes close, its still confined by the conventions of a Hollywood narrative. Quantic Dreams latest game, Heavy Rain, furthers the pursuit of 'interactive entertainment', with director David Cage offering complete control over the characters in what is essentially a detective thriller. In Heavy Rain, players can choose to act out every action of the characters in the story, from the exciting (a murder investigation) to the mundane (being a parent), all the while ushering the player through tough moral decisions that greatly effect the outcome of the story.
Its seems apt to point out that the evolved state of gaming today stems from both an influence of, and the desire to be more like, cinema. Perhaps one day the two cultural mediums will merge and produce a hybrid piece of entertainment that will marry them indefinately.