With annual revenues for 2012 topping $70 billion worldwide; video games have come to occupy a significant place in popular entertainment and culture.
Hand in hand with the stupendous increase in graphical sophistication in the 40 years since Pong was released, has come the concept of video games as more than merely a diversionary puzzle, but as a far more immersive experience, both intellectually and emotionally.
At the heart of this trend is a greater attention to narrative, and games with more ambitious, cinematic stories like those in Assassin’s Creed and Mass Effect are being seen as never before.
Matthew Jackson is a game and narrative designer working at a major developer in Montreal.
Matthew’s background includes a BFA as well as formal study in Game Design at Centre NAD in Montreal.
He said: “I was always interested in games. I graduated film school, but it didn’t take hold. I mean, I love story, love watching movies but my true love is games.”
Jackson, now 34, says his background has helped to support his work in games.
“From a story perspective and from a visual logic perspective, studying film has informed my critical eye. Film has been around longer. Cinema informs how you tell a story in games. How you plan your shots. The pacing. We understand film as the language of storytelling. We just do.”
As Matthew sees it; storytelling in games has the greatest potential to improve. It is where games are weakest, but show greatest promise.
He added: “The rules of games, even if they evolve and move into new technology…The same base of rules apply to card games as they do to video games. But until recently, games never used to have storytelling elements, or very minimally.”
“Now we are developing a new type of media where we fuse the best parts of movies – the connection with the character, the connection with the world. The emotional side of it is why we love movies. We are only scratching the surface of what we can achieve.”
We are already seeing examples of what he says is the future.
Said Matthew: “This new form of entertainment is a hybrid of compelling blockbuster story and a solid, engaging gameplay experience. Assassins Creed is a good example of a game that is moving the notion of games as a credible storytelling device forward.”
Yet there is still much to overcome.
“One of the core things holding games back is that games still need to be taken seriously by the critical class – reviewers, mainstream media figures. They haven’t done that yet.”
To Matthew, the fault of this lies not with the reviewers or the public though, but with the games themselves.
“They have not done this because they do not yet do what movies do, which is appeal to the emotional core of a person. Why does Lord of the Rings appeal? It’s a fantasy. Because it speaks to core human values.
In order for a game to appeal to a wider audience, it needs to be a credible storytelling experience. It has to move into the realm of art. We can all agree that Transformers isn’t art. But there is consensus that art can be achieved through the medium of film. In the 1920s nobody was talking about films as art. But they are.”
Again, His background in film points the way.
“It’s only by looking to film that games will improve and go where they need to. When they invented radio; where did they get inspiration? Plays. When they developed TV; where did they look to? Radio. When you develop a new technology you look to the previous technology.”
Exact figures are difficult to get, but it’s clear that the video game industry is already rivalling film in total annual revenue. To Matthew; this is a sign of things to come.
“Just as opera and plays waned in popularity, movies will be relegated to a niche entertainment as video games rise to prominence and become the standard bearers of our stories. I see games becoming the dominant form of entertainment. I think it’s inevitable.”
“Some people will always want to watch movies, yes. But they just can’t compete. Are you kidding? Something you interact with? Versus something you don’t. It’s impossible to get the same emotional connection.”
He is, however, quick to dismiss premature pronouncements of success.
“There really aren’t any mature games yet. Where are our Taxi Drivers? I don’t mean mature as in blood and gore and violence. I mean dealing with mature themes in an emotionally mature way. You often hear that Uncharted had a great story. Please. It’s Indiana Jones light. Where are our Hurt Lockers?”