Finding Enlightenment: The Beauty Found within Modern Video Games

By Jennifer Allen

As mentioned in last month's article, I have been a fan of video games for quite a long time. While my enjoyment initially started with plucking a few quarters in each time to attack or avoid the various 8-bit beastie that was coming to attack my own tiny protagonist. Other times I'd have both hands on each side of the pinball machine as my fingers frantically clicked the flippers to keep that shiny ball in play. Back in those days we didn't really look at the art as much as we were just looking to rack up a high score, so the thought of video games as anything other than short term entertainment to pass the time was unheard of.

But the real question is… could you see video games beautiful enough to be considered Art?

Now I know that we've always had art in the form of pinball machines since they were first created. I'll admit that it was always quite a draw to see a pinball game with an intrinsically printed design. Later on, the games became more advanced with LED score panels that often displayed pixel graphics associated with the machine. While the cabinets for pinball machines have always been marvelous to observe and enjoy, I wish to instead talk about the narrative beauty within on-screen games.

The first photorealistic game that I clearly remember was Myst, first released in 1993. It utilized a very simple story where you play an unseen protagonist who must solve puzzles in order to link various worlds together and help uncover the history of an ancient civilization. The technique used to shift the player from scene to scene was pretty innovative at the time as it was also one of the very first computer games on CD-ROM. The graphics and soundtrack are both still extremely impressive even today. Myst and its sequels are still enjoyable games if you like puzzles and they can now be played on mobile devices.

From there games started coming out that had more complex stories. The first game that I distinctly remember the story was 1995's Chrono Trigger. You as the protagonist meet up with various NPCS who join your party and over time you get to know each of them as not only your comrades in battle but also as good friends. This was also one of the first games to have multiple endings, and trust me when I say that I got so emotionally invested in the characters that I cried with each ending I experienced.

Fast forward to 2003, and a new Star Wars game was released called Knights of the Old Republic. This not only had all of the usual criteria for a great game, but it also was the first game I remember with an amazing twist along with its multiple endings. What really made it special, however, was the voice acting. It was the first game I can recall having incredibly believable voice performances for every single character, which helped bump the narrative and make it even more enjoyable. I'd enjoyed voice acting in cartoons for years, but Knights of the Old Republic showed me that great voice performances aren't just for cartoons anymore, and I've become a huge fan of voice performers in general since then.

Since then video game designers have worked to give their fans bigger and better games. There are even a few in recent years with soundtracks, graphics, and voice acting that could rival big Hollywood or South Asian film productions.

A huge innovation in the realm of video games has been the integration of motion capture. While rotoscoping had been a technique for animation since Max Fleischer created it the 1915 to capture more lifelike body movements, the idea of accurately portraying an actor's face through animation has always been difficult. WETA Digital started this process with The Lord of the Rings trilogy, but James Cameron later fine-tuned the concept while filming the characters in Avatar. Since then, the use of motion capture has caused many voice actors to do more physically demanding but also much more poignant performances.

The performance makes the narrative much more personal since you are, in essence, controlling a character's actions as they move throughout the game. You are the one who keeps the protagonist alive or not through his or her available choices throughout the story. Later on, when that same character is seen handling an intense scene (whether it be losing a loved one, learning a dark secret, or even sacrificing his or herself to save someone else) the actor's performance pulls you in. Also there's something peculiarly attractive about the relationship that games put you into with regard to time since you can play within this imaginary world for as little or as much as you want each time.

A few newer games such as Bioshock Infinite, God of War, The Last of Us, Nier: Automata and Detroit: Become Human have also added a special NPC who ends up traveling with your character throughout most of the story. Often one character is younger than the other and the two gradually become closer as they travel together on their journey. This is where motion capture truly shines, as in many cases the two performers act out their scenes together and in essence makes their interactions feel for lack of a better word… more real.

Any game can be stunningly beautiful to look at, but there's just something much more endearing about a game with both good story and character development. Whatever you may say about video games being potentially addictive… it's no different than dealing with any other vice. A video game is essentially taking you out of your reality no different than drugs, alcohol, constantly checking your phone and other addictive behaviors can do. If I'm guilty of enjoying an exceptional narrative over a long period of time, then so be it. Video games, for me, offer food to the eyes, ears, brain and thumbs and we should celebrate our pleasure in them as we would any other art form.

Now I should go and check in on Joel and Ellie to see where they're heading off to next...

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Jennifer Allen works at Saathee and is also a Podcaster, Blogger, Photographer, Graphic Artist, Martial Arts Practitioner, and all around Pop Culture Geek.