Is Catherine ushering in a new era in video gaming?
In a world where emotion has been slowly bled out of certain game genres we should, as gamers, be excited; very excited, in fact. Catherine, the latest game from Persona creators Atlus, deals with hitherto more or less ignored subjects by posing questions on the very nature of love, desire and commitment. This leads me to wonder if there hasn’t been an awakening of a far more adult side of video games in the last few years.
Not to say that the good old knee-jerk reaction to anything remotely sexual doesn’t still exist; Microsoft blocked ThriXXX’s Kinect sex game and We Dare was shooed away from shelves both in the UK and the US. These games could hardly be said to be delving into the more spiritual depths of man’s connection with the other, it still shows that one of the most emotional acts that can be committed with the other is a little bit too delicate to be dealt with fully, or even with an open mind.
However, it’s not just sex that’s trying to get gamers using the grey matter for something other than pointing at this and shooting at that. Some games are trying to make the gamer more aware of his own reactions to in-game events and the ramifications of his actions in the game’s universe. Games such as Infamous 2 use a binary morality system. The trouble with that, though, is the player has to always be good or always be evil to fully benefit from the system. It would be much more complex (and maybe rewarding too) to have a system where morality still affects the world, but in a much more open way. Just think about real life for a second. Black and white situations rarely exist because of the hundreds of mitigating factors, loyalties and personal agendas that are constantly in play. Basic it may be, but this good/evil morality framework is one way to make players reflect, albeit only briefly, on their actions in the game world.
What about the living dead? Is it really possible for killing zombies to be an emotional experience? Dead Island’s trailer suggested that, yes, this can be the case, given the right setup. Sadly, this games seems to have failed to deliver this sense of connection with fellow man in the excessively over the top gameplay that has since surfaced. Still, empathising with the characters in the trailer provoked strong reactions in many viewers, some even confessing that they were moved to tears by the imagery and implications of watching your own daughter become a zombie when, just hours before, you were on a dream holiday as a family. Not to mention the cinematic presentation, which is something our culture has a lot more experience at using to handle emotions. Speaking of which…
…Heavy Rain posed the question: How far are you prepared to go to save someone you love? The game more or less left the decisions about how to deal with the situation down to the player, although my favourite way to play the game is with an all in ‘I’ll do anything’ approach, which doesn’t always end well! Not to mention the way that game explores the traumatic experiences motivating the serial killer’s actions, exposing him to be just as emotionally fragile as the father he torments. The game received a lot of criticisms for playing more like an interactive film than a game, but I feel they got a lot of what they did exactly right by pushing against all sorts of boundaries and preconceptions.
Film can and does deal with very complex emotional content maturely and, most importantly, it does this very well. Does that mean that games should endeavour to be like cinema? No. Remember that cinema did not arrive as a fully formed concept; indeed, early films were more like lively trips to the theatre with singing, dancing and a very graphic slapstick humour. Once the medium started to come of age, more delicate subjects started being discussed, with no more grace than the early forays into sex in games that resulted in two polygonal masses gyrating against each other. Video games are now entering a similar period and I can’t wait to see where it takes us – but the sooner we leave the crass emotional voids of Duke Nukem Forever and the likes behind us, the better.
Interestingly, there’s a flip side as well, with games that encourage the most horrific excess and truly revel in the joy of a world with no real consequences either to the player or the game world. It could be argued that these games, like Grand Theft Auto IV, allow the player to interact with the game world according to his own ideals and code of morality, allowing him to explore and develop his own ideas. Although I can’t help but feel that I’m giving a little too much credit to a game where every single player has gone on a killing spree to see how long they can last and/or how many kills they can rack up, before diving into bed so it’ll all go away. Yet, credit where credit’s due, the game truly encourages the player to let his cruel side come out to play and run over that fat gobshite on the sidewalk or explode that unsuspecting hotdog vendor’s stall. These things are fun for us to enjoy because we can vent feelings of frustration and powerlessness in a safe, controlled manner.
I’m not saying games should all become morality tales with a side-order of emotional baggage. But if you had the choice to play something a little bit deeper than, say, the average “shoot this, explode that” FPS, then there’s something out there for you. This isn’t necessarily something the independent market could come up with either, as a truly deep story requires more resources than the average startup company has at its disposal. But if, as Codemasters in the UK have suggested, smaller developers start to pool their resources, then more games like Catherine could become a real possibility.
Ultimately, I find myself pondering whether it’s possible for games to ever have a full emotional awakening; we know that everything we kill, create, steal, earn and so on ceases to exist in any meaningful way once we hit the power button. It doesn’t matter that you killed everyone in Megaton because you can just reload your save. It doesn’t matter that you’re wanted by every police and army recruit on the planet because once you go to bed it all goes away. With no real-world consequence, games will have to find new ways to provoke emotional reactions in the player, like Catherine tries to do. My only worry is that Europe seems to be a bit behind the rest of the world… Still, I’ll be importing Catherine at the first available opportunity!
Video games were a part of Chris's life from the Mega Drive onwards. He has many happy gaming memories, including the first time he collected all the chaos emeralds in Sonic 2, collecting all SSBM's trophies (yes, all of them) and, more recently, collecting far too many platinum trophies on his PlayStation 3. In the real world, he has a degree in French and is currently living in Frankfurt, Germany. Follow him on Twitter @DPrime_Chris
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