Saturday, 1 June 2013

Descent Into Madness (Suggs To Be You)

Very rarely do I find games that get to me. This isn’t through a lack of trying; I primarily look for strong and engaging narratives when purchasing games, though very few of them tend to register with me on a mental or emotional level. However, when a video game does get to me, it seems to have to have just as powerful an effect on me than if I was watching the story as a TV show or film, if not more so. Now I don’t mean to sound pretentious when I say that because for something to register with me, I only ask that it have some lasting effect and I don’t instantly forget about it after I’ve finished, which I think we can all agree is the measure of an experience being worthwhile. For example, I would say Psychonauts has registered with me in the same way Monty Python and The Holy Grail has because I haven’t found a game as genuinely hilarious. The tongue-in-cheek, surrealist humour of both of them has definitely had an influence on me as a comedian, yet in terms of mental or emotional resonating with an audience, video gaming as a medium has distinct advantage due to it being an interactive medium; especially when it comes to empathising with a protagonist’s descent into madness.

Just needed to get this joke out of my system. Last one, I promise.
I recently played through Spec Ops: The Line. For those of you who haven’t played it, Spec Ops is a 3rd person shooter that follows a special operations task force into storm hit Dubai to save any of the remaining survivors and  investigate what happened to the decorated American Platoon of Soldiers, the Damned 33rd. The game is loosely based on the book Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad and is an examination of both the Post-Traumatic-Stress-Disorder that soldiers can experience in action and how removed actual video games about war are from the real thing. After a few hours of game play, there is an incident that involves white phosphorous that made me as a player feel physically nauseous and incredibly guilty. Why? It was because it was the player who causes the incident. That simple fact alone means that the player is more invested in the narrative. They’re not passive watching it on a TV screen for the main character to deal with as if it was a film. Having watched Apocalypse Now last weekend, a film inspired by Heart of Darkness, the horrors in that didn’t get to me as much as Spec Ops although it is based on nearly identical themes.

The game finds subtle ways to break the fourth wall to remind you what you've done. (Until that moment where all the characters look directly to the camera and call the player a dick.)

From that point onwards, the player watches the main character try to cope with the things he is doing to survive while also trying to comprehend what he has done; thus allowing the main character’s self-awareness to be that of the audience, making them feel guilty about the horrors they are committing. There comes a certain point in the game when the battlefield changes in a sudden flash to look like a hell on earth before transforming back, which is both symbolic as well as representative of the main character has losing a part of his sanity and being scared forever. Needless to say, Spec Ops: The Line got to me.
I find this altering of the pre-established reality as a way representing the main characters diminishing mental state at its most effective in video games because you are able to actively observe it at your own pace. We all remember the Scarecrow sections of Batman: Arkham Asylum for doing this masterfully to give us both an insight into Batman’s psyche and a unique way for him to battle the Scarecrow. For those of you who have played Eternal Darkness, you will recall how well the game was able to mess with the player in a variety of ways when the sanity meter was low and made them think their TV was broken.
World's worst Pic 'n' Mix salesman ever.
Not that all video games get this right. The desert section from Uncharted 3 is a test in patience at best. I find the key to getting this to work effectively is to use it both sparingly and subtlety. The best uses have those moments where the player isn’t sure what they have seen and are able to doubt themselves. It is a good way of re-enforcing a theme or an idea in the games narrative. Of course, not all games need to incorporate this to be a good game or to give a deep and meaningful experience.

I am a firm believer that video games have the potential to have a more powerful effect on the audience than film and TV. While there will always be shining examples of masterful story telling in every medium, watching a character walk through hell on earth and having the choices you actively made be the reason he is there are two completely different experiences altogether (and I know which one will stay with me for the longest). Now I’m going to play some Sly Cooper: Thieves In Time to remind myself there is still joy in the world.

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