Storytelling and Expectations: How I Met Your Mother, The Last of Us, and Bioshock: Infinite

When we hear a story for the first time, I think we all try to predict the ending. Sometimes we’re spot on, and sometimes we are way off. The “twist” reveals as much about what we thought would happen as it does about the story we are hearing: sometimes a “twist” is so unexpected and out of the blue that it ruins what felt like a coherent story. Other times, like in Fight Club, the story is appreciated far more the second time through, with the twist revealed. The upending of our expectations is something we all sort of want, but some storytellers go too far.

One film that managed to avoid this problem was Pacific Rim, which is probably the most straight-forward film of the past few years. The trailers promised you giant robots fighting against giant monsters, and the film delivered exactly that. The story may have felt somehow less “interesting”, simply because there wasn’t really a twist. There was danger and a progression of that danger, but there wasn’t a sudden reveal that maybe we were actually the problems all along, or something of that nature (maybe the kaiju were actually our deep-seated fears, and the whole thing happened in our minds, or some other inane twist). But twists for the sake of twists are hardly worth examining.

Last year there were quite a few games that were (rightly) praised highly: The Stanley ParableThe Last of Us, and Bioshock: Infinite come to mind. The first I’ve already written about, but the game functions as an exploration of our expectations, as a way to take what we think a game is and, well, upend it. The latter two, however, don’t really step outside of the way a game is put together. They’re both linear, and you follow the story regardless of the decisions you make (Bioshock: Infinite has a few choices, but are not nearly as significant as the choices in Mass Effect, for instance). In fact, in a time where choice is becoming a near requirement for games, I appreciated both of these games for just letting me play the story that the games had to tell.

Spoiler warning for both The Last of Us and Bioshock: Infinite.

The ending for The Last of Us is one that I hated. I know many thought this was the best game of the last year, and in many ways they are right. The game is mechanically impressive, providing a depth and terror to the combat that many games lack. I felt real emotions for the characters, akin to some of my favorite books. There were, in fact, quite a few moments where I was emotionally flustered but had to act; a character just died, for instance, but I needed to shoot my way out of whatever situation I was in.

At the end of the game, the protagonist (who you have spent the majority of the game playing) lies to save the girl he now thinks of as his daughter. The daughter might be the only way to save the world from the terrible disease that has infected so many, but she would need to be killed to do so (she wouldn’t survive the operation required). In a terrifying last scene, you break into the room and save her from the surgery, only to whisk her away unconscious. When she awakens, she asks where you are, and you explain (falsely) that there are others just like her, that she isn’t unique, and that the world will eventually be saved anyway.

At this point I was upset with the protagonist, but could live with it. This girl had seen through lies before; it takes someone fairly smart and quick to survive as long as she has. But the finale of the game is a bit more harrowing: she forces the protagonist to look her in the eye and promise that he’s telling the truth. He does it, and she is satisfied. The end.

The frustration that I’d embodied this man who was not only unwilling to make the sacrifice to save the world (which is understandable, considering the cost), but he couldn’t even tell the truth to this young girl who thinks of him as father was almost unbearable. I had to rethink the entire game, and every development that the protagonist made felt empty in light of this moral failure. It felt as though the conversations I’d sought to have with the young girl were all to build trust, only to have that ripped away.

And maybe the story wanted to teach me that people are evil. But I already knew that, and didn’t feel better for the new “realization.”

Bioshock: Infinite was far more philosophical in nature, in regards to the twist. With jumps between various parallel universes throughout, the twist in that game ended up faring far better. The reveal that Booker (the protagonist) is also Comstock (the villain) works well, primarily because the protagonist reacts the same way that we do: Booker is angry and distraught, and immediately seeks to make sure that this isn’t going to be the case for him. The game even ends with Booker drowning his alternate selves (who chose baptism into a new name, Comstock), simply to remove the universes of his own evil. That’s a far cry from someone consciously lying to their child about perhaps the most important truth in their world.

Both of these games were heralded partially for their gameplay, but also for their unique stories. The twists made them, in a sense, memorable. I’ll likely not forget either of them, and would be interested in replaying both in a couple of years when the intricacies of the stories aren’t so fresh.

The breaking of expectations can go either way: sometimes we herald the story as ground-breaking and beautiful, while other times we decry the absurdity of the change to the story we’ve been told all along.

Even earlier this week with How I Met Your Mother‘s finale we saw the way people reacted to broken expectations. Some were frustrated, and some felt the show had a great conclusion.

Spoiler alert for How I Met Your Mother.

My friend Sarah Parro nailed many aspects of the conclusion, but one bit in particular is worth repeating:

 […] the finale does not change the overarching messages of the entire show, as much as it may attempt to. With the shift of focus back to Ted and Robin and the kids’ sharp insight into Ted’s underlying feelings for Robin, the driving narrative of being with “the one” still holds up amidst the rushed and stunning events of the final episode.

The end of the show was somewhat predictable (I knew that the titular Mother would die, for instance), and somewhat painfully consistent. The show was always about Ted and Robin, even when it wasn’t. The show always had Marshall and Lily together, even when they broke up for awhile. The show never had Barney settling down (which makes his new-found love for his daughter a little hard to swallow, considering what else he goes through in the show). The one question that is left unanswered is whether or not Ted and Robin will work this time; they’ve both tried this before, after all, more than once. But maybe now that Ted had his children and Robin had her career they can finally settle down with each other. The show really was about meeting the Step-Mother, not the Mother.

So did HIMYM break expectations? Sure, in some ways. I didn’t expect the show to end at all (I kid, I kid). For the most part, the show landed precisely where it always fell: the Universe wants you to be with the One, and you will be with the One, unless you screw it up somehow (but even then, you’ll probably end up with the One).

Twists are valuable, of course, but only insofar as they are twists that we can swallow. If I were to re-watch HIMYM, I should see, from the start, that Robin and Ted were meant for each other (for the record, Barney and Robin were a far more endearing couple; they both started at a similar place and grew together, which has quite a bit of merit in its own right). But I suspect I’d see the same convoluted story of on-and-off again romances that we felt the first time: only now we’d chime in with Ted’s kids that no, someone other than Robin isn’t right for you anymore.

I don’t mind twists. I think some twists are fundamental to good stories. But some stories can be told well without them, and HIMYM might have been more honest if it hadn’t attempted to include lots of twists at the end, no matter how expected.

Perhaps if the ending to HIMYM was something like this, we’d all feel that it was too generic and familiar (or, dare I say it, happy). Perhaps if The Last of Us had ended in sacrifice, we’d all have been bored to tears by the now-played-out sacrificial father role. And perhaps if Bioshock: Infinite had just forced us to kill Comstock, instead of realizing that we were him, it would have been forgotten as a game with above-average gameplay and writing that neglected to do anything new in the genre. I might have preferred that ending to the first two, even if I would likely have forgotten the last soon after finishing it. But sometimes I’d like a happy ending that doesn’t skirt my expectations, except the expectation that the ending will be happy.

“Heavy Rain” May Be the Best Game I’ve Played

Video games have long held powerful narratives. I’ve talked about that extensively here at Evangelical Outpost, and up until a few weeks ago I would have said that The Stanley Parable was one of my all time favorite games, primarily for how it handled choice. I recently was given the opportunity to play through Heavy Rain, which is as much a visual Choose Your Own Adventure novel as it is a video game. I’ve got to say: this is a game that handled moral choice expertly.

If you intend to play the game, I strongly recommend that you stop reading at this point. I went into the game with no knowledge of the story, and I think I was better for it.

The premise: you play Ethan, a man who lives a fairly normal life: you’ve got a wife and a couple of kids, you’re an architect by trade, and you live in a nice house with a backyard for your kids to play in. The game opens with a short story that ends with your older son, Jason, dying in a car accident that also puts you into a coma. Your wife leaves you, when your son visits you he isn’t really interested in talking with you, and your life generally turns upside down. There’s also a serial killer on the loose who kidnaps children and drowns them. The game’s real story kicks off when your other son, Shaun, goes missing. He’s been kidnapped.

Throughout the game, you play as four different characters. But the game’s real kicker moments come when you continue on as Ethan. He starts receiving messages about the location of his son; the messages ask what he would be willing to do to save his son. The first “mission” given by the killer is insane: drive into oncoming traffic on the freeway for a certain distance. There are four other missions, of various levels of intensity: everything from killing someone at a certain address to cutting off your own finger with whatever you can find in the room. As you complete missions, you are given clues about where to find your son.

At first, the choices were easy. Driving into oncoming traffic would be insane and dangerous in real life; but in a game, I’m pretty confident in my driving abilities. I’ve driven into oncoming traffic tons of times in games, with a modicum of success. But as I was engrossed in the story, I stopped considering video game laws and started to wonder how a father should react in this situation. What was appropriate action to save your child?

Taken asked the same questions, but managed to answer them as well: a father should not stop until his child is safe, even if it means killing people. Heavy Rain is a bit more ambiguous, though my ending suggests that I made the right choices.

For the record, I chose to act in any way that did not guarantee the harm of another individual. I cut my own finger off, for instance, but chose not to kill the drug dealer that I was ordered to kill. He had a family too, after all. But I felt it was appropriate (and in character) to put myself in harm’s way.

The choice to cut off my own finger was perhaps the hardest I’d made, strangely. Some were black-and-white: don’t kill someone for the sake of maybe saving your son, for instance. But the game was visceral enough that I knew that choosing to cut off my finger would include a graphic depiction of the act and of the pain. I was prepared for it, but at the same time there was nothing I could do to prepare for it. I watched (and cringed) in horror at the result of my choice. Fortunately, I ended up saving my son.

Much like my experience of playing Dishonored, this sort of choice can force us to consider our own moral intuitions. Some might think that it is absolutely acceptable to kill–particularly to kill a drug dealer, someone generally viewed as evil–in order to save your own flesh and blood. Taken took this route pretty openly, and was still a hit film. If you find yourself making those decisions easily, you may be able to draw conclusions about yourself (of course, the conclusion may be that you don’t take games seriously, or that you were attempting to put yourself into someone else’s shoes and make decisions they would make). But if you struggle, you may find yourself sailing through uncharted waters, so to speak. Any game that allows us (and, in fact, encourages us) to think through moral or philosophical issues is  one that likely deserves a stamp of approval.

Helix Fossils, Anarchy, and Playing a Game with 150,000 People

If you follow gaming news, you’ve probably already heard about Twitch Plays Pokemon. For the uninitiated, here’s the short version: Pokemon Red, a game released in 1998 (in North America) alongside the superior Pokemon Blue (can you tell which one I owned?), is being played through a streaming serviced called Twitch. Usually people will stream their games for entertainment, but in this case the chat section is being translated into in-game commands. Effectively, every viewer is holding a GameBoy, attempting to press the right buttons to help complete the game. There are interesting tweaks going on, like the voting between Anarchy (where every button press is registered) and Democracy (where every few seconds the button or combination with the most votes is inputted into the game), but most interesting are the emergent near-religious devotions of the players. If you’re seeing people say things like “Praise the Helix Fossil” on Facebook, they haven’t joined a cult. Probably.

While the memes generated can be interesting, especially to those of us who grew up playing this game, the sheer number of people playing allows the game to function as a strange microcosm of the real world. We’ve got people who are attempting to lead by providing strategy graphics. Some want to watch the world burn, and are attempting to bring in as many people as possible to sabotage all progress. I suspect some just want to cause chaos, and are simply inputting random commands, in hopes of seeing nothing happen.

The most surprising, and perhaps strangely hopeful, turn of events is the amount of progress we’ve made. We’re probably seventy-five percent of the way through the main game, roughly. That’s impressive for a group playing any game, but one as complex as this (and with many opportunities to foil progress) didn’t leave me with much hope. I’m fairly sure they’re making it through faster than I did as a kid. A million monkeys with a million typewriters will write Shakespeare, but I won’t come close to the Bard.

It’s humbling, ultimately, to realize that a large group, even one impeded by individuals set on destruction, can still work their way through something. All you need is a little motivation.

“Nostalgia” probably won’t run a government anytime soon. We won’t make progress, politically or culturally, by banking on nostalgia alone. “The good old days” isn’t a place to stand, no matter how well you remember your childhood. Progress isn’t made by nostalgia, it’s made by collections of people.

Majority opinion, coupled with action, rules. There isn’t much more to it than that, no matter how many small, well-funded minorities wish to fight. You have to convince the majority to join you, ideologically, and then push those thoughts out of heads and into hands.

Nostalgia may convince me to do something “for old time’s sake”, whether that is play a game from my youth or something else. But power does not come from triviality; it comes from people.

‘The Stanley Parable': Choice Finally Done Right

Sometimes, game developers surprise us. I’ve got a vested interest in gaming as a medium. Not only is it one of my hobbies, but I suspect it is a place where Christians can go to engage a large number of young men (and, increasingly, women) who are unwilling to engage with us directly. Most of the industry, unfortunately, is filled with problems that film critics regularly lament: the same, boring action game comes out year after year. Whether that’s Call of DutyBattlefieldHalo, or whatever Michael Bay is currently working on, both industries are filled with appeal-to-the-masses, easy to digest franchises. While some productions become worthwhile, even from the standard formulas (InceptionThe Matrix), mostly the top films and games of any given year are telling the same stories, only pushing forward graphics or special effects.

Enter The Stanley Parable. While some games have attempted to push the boundaries of what we can accomplish with game mechanics (BraidPortal), a few franchises have stepped up and attempted to provide solid narratives (Mass EffectDishonoredBioshock: Infinite, Braid, and, again, Portal). But this is something different. Here’s the description, straight from the game’s Steam page:

The Stanley Parable is a first person exploration game. You will play as Stanley, and you will not play as Stanley. You will follow a story, you will not follow a story. You will have a choice, you will have no choice. The game will end, the game will never end.

If that sounds contradictory, welcome to the game. The game begins with a narrator explaining Stanley’s thoughts, who you are (allegedly) controlling. Very quickly, however, the narrator starts to predict your action. “When Stanley came to a set of two open doors, he entered the door on his left.”

Of course, you can step through either door. The narrator reacts accordingly, sometimes addressing you directly, sometimes getting angry at you and forcing a game reset, and sometimes he just lets you do what you want. It’s an interesting illusion of control. Each of these reactions had to be programmed based on all of your options, and the game is clearly quite complex. It has kept me coming back to it over the last week, and I’m still finding “endings” to the game that I never knew were there.

That’s a lot of lead in, and I’m not shy about my endorsement. If you’re a gamer, you ought to give The Stanley Parable a shot. You’ll laugh, you’ll be surprised, and if you’re reflective you might just face some new thoughts about the limitations of interactive narratives.

More on that last point. Many gamers claim they want the stories of their games to offer them choice. Remember the outcry from the Mass Effect finale? “You promised us choice, but you only let us choose the color of the ending!” This was in spite of the numerous actual choices presented throughout the series. You could lose characters, damn entire races to extinction, make friends and enemies, and these all changed the story you told. But the ending fell flat, because of the final “decision.”

Mass Effect‘s problem was that it was simply too large to offer actual choice. It isn’t financially feasible to produce what amounts to three or four games. There is already a ton of content that I never saw in all three of those games, and their narratives were all more-or-less concluded the same way. What Mass Effect has in scope, The Stanley Parable has in choice. I’ve found branching paths, complex sequences that must be completed to arrive at different endings, and even unique dialogue if I’d acted a certain way in a previous play-through. Much like the Choose Your Own Adventure books of my childhood, The Stanley Parable invites repeated engagement, though holding your finger in the book to save your spot is considerably more difficult.

The choices are deterministic, sure, but that is one of those inherent limitations of produced media. No game, movie, or book can answer your questions in real time, or offer you unique and personalized content as you request it. Until someone manages to devote staff to answer questions online and program new sections of a game in real time (or, more likely, figuring out a way to make procedural generation more intelligent), or until we develop AI, we won’t really be able to incorporate the sort of choice The Stanley Parable offers at the length and breadth that Mass Effect promises.

For a generation that loves to conceptually play with reality (if you thought “wow, so postmodern” as you read the description, you weren’t far off; if you were just intrigued, you’re likely more postmodern than you realize), The Stanley Parable hits all the right notes. This is a clear subversion of the form, a step away from the normal narrative that games possess. It even takes jabs at the promise of choice, throughout. There are times when the narrator removes your options, forcing you along some path or another. In a game centered around choice, that can be jarring.

In fact, jarring is probably the right word to describe the game. In a time when we’re flooded with games that don’t really challenge expectations, The Stanley Parable stands out as a unique exploration of gaming itself. While the game lacks the moral punch that something like Mass Effect can explore (there really aren’t characters to care for or make moral decisions about in The Stanley Parable), it demonstrates one method to offering something approximating actual choice.

And gamers everywhere ought to rejoice.

Four Questions to Ask When Considering GTA V

For those not in the know, the next big controversial video game has been released. Years ago we heard all of the complaints about Grand Theft Auto III, then IV, and now we’ve got Rockstar’s biggest game yet: GTA V. Christians have fallen on all sides of this issue, ranging from liberty in all things, even killing digital prostitutes, all the way to suggesting we ought to avoid all video games at all times, even something as apparently harmless as Pac-Man or Mario.

Here are four questions you should ask yourself if you’re considering purchasing and playing Grand Theft Auto V.

 

1. Is play endorsement?

I’ve talked a little about my answer to this question, but the question is one we should all consider. Many Christians (parents especially) draw arbitrary lines in video games: it’s okay to kill in a game like Call of Duty (war simulator) and Splinter Cell (think Jason Bourne if he were mostly stealthy), but when it comes to something like GTA V, it’s time to stop. Maybe that’s because of the setting: Call of Duty at least happens mostly in the context of war; Splinter Cell you’re playing as the “good guy” taking out the “bad guys.” But in GTA V, you’re clearly just playing the bad guy. You’re fighting against cops, often, and killing innocent people on the street at will.

But violence itself, even violence enacted in clearly questionable ways, might be the right starting point for a number of discussions and personal revelations. You can learn a lot about yourself from the way you play your games. Some games deal with that by choices, as in the Mass Effect series, while others do so in a sandbox environment, like GTA V.

 

2. What do you get from playing?

If you play GTA V because you find murder, theft, assault, and other crime intrinsically fascinating, you should probably consider skipping this one. We shouldn’t just fascinate ourselves with evil. There may be a time when an experience is worthwhile for what it can teach us, or even how it can entertain us, but if you are filling the felony-shaped hole in your chest with GTA V, maybe you should spend less time in front of a television and more time in front of people who care about you.

 

3. Who else in your life is playing?

There are two routes you can take with this question. The first is fellowship. Maybe you’re a young guy, and every single kid in your youth group is playing GTA V. This might not answer the question, but it could definitely influence you if you’re on the fence. The multiplayer can be an excellent shared experience (I say this having played other video games cooperatively). In addition, teens especially seem to be sucked into certain video games so deeply that they won’t want to talk about anything else. Perhaps you should steer the conversation elsewhere, but having some common ground might make it worthwhile.

Additionally, if you’re a parent (or a youth pastor, or anyone who interacts with teens) and your teen wants to play this game, it might be worth a rental beforehand. Judge the content for yourself. Talk with your teens about what makes you uncomfortable about the game, what makes it worth playing, or what makes you forbid it outright. Teens may be rather rebellious (and they may play this game elsewhere, even if you ban it), but explaining your reason for a decision goes a long way.

 

4. Do you know when to quit?

Let’s assume you’ve decided to purchase this game. If a scene in the game becomes too much, will you know that you should stop? What if you look at the time and realize that you’ve been playing for 18 hours straight? What about 6 hours? Did you skip dinner with your best friend? Take time off from work?

Before deciding to invest in video games as a hobby, it is important to make sure you can manage your time well. People are more important than digital entertainment, period. I don’t think it is wrong to play video games (which is probably quite clear), but if you prioritize them consistently over people, you’ve made a pretty big error.

GTA V will likely have more hours clocked on it during this month than any other video game. That means it is worth thinking about, if only so we know how to engage it.

From Death to Life, Not Rot to Sanitation: Part 2

Three weeks ago I wrote about Christians having to live with TV and pop culture that is frankly yucky. I said that even though pop culture is often disgusting and rotten, Christians who are moving from death to life in Christ have to engage with it because 1. there is some good in it still and 2. they do not really have a choice not to have some level of interaction with it. In a discussion on Facebook, someone pointed out that I focused too much on tolerating evil than on moving toward good. Here I want to properly emphasize why Christians should learn to deal with stuff that is yucky and gross: the point is not merely to prolong our existence but to endure long enough to introduce what is truly good, free of taint and impurity. With that, I will turn once again to the video game Fallout 3. Continue reading From Death to Life, Not Rot to Sanitation: Part 2

Of Games and God: An Interview with Kevin Schut

What follows is an interview with Kevin Schut. He’s a delightful fellow, and he happens to have written a book about video games. It’s called Of Games and God, and you should probably read it. There’s a lot to digest in the book, and the interview below is no different. Enjoy. Much thanks to Kevin and Baker Publishing Group for their participation.

Wow. A book on Christians playing video games. When I first heard about the title, I assumed you’d be firmly in the “pro-gaming” camp. And while you’re definitely a self-described gamer, you’ve got a lot of cautions about the industry, and Christian engagement with games. Have you been met with many who simply won’t read the book, because they believe you’re just an apologist for silly entertainment?

Hmm.  No, I can’t think of any reactions where people outright and vocally refuse to read the book.  I’m sure there are people like that, and they simply won’t make a fuss and just not read it.  I’ve had at least a couple of online commenters that I can remember basically arguing that I’m not hard enough on video games, but they’re not complaining about the “silly entertainment” thing—they’re upset about their perception of filth and/or degradation in the medium.  This is the thing: everyone knows how big video games are today, so even people who don’t play much are unlikely to dismiss games as nothing worth thinking about.  I guess more to your question, though, I’ve been happily surprised that most people reading the book seem to go in with an open mind.  I’ve not had many angry comments about how pro-game I am, and none about me being anti-game—even though if I’m truly balanced, I should be upsetting a few gamers too.

When it comes down to it, this is the kind of guy I am: I am inclined to believe there’s at least some truth to most points of view.  I know a lot of gamers who want to basically say that any time a non-gamer attacks video games that the those critics are just talking out of ignorance.  Sometimes that’s true (and I hope I make that clear in my book), but I think often outsiders get unique views of things that insiders miss.  So I take the critiques seriously, even as I continue to play video games myself.  And to be honest, there’s lots to be upset about.  I’m hardly alone in saying many games are sexist, overly bloody, and poorly constructed by an exploitative industry.  But there’s also lots to be excited about, which is why I continue to love gaming.

 

You talk a little about religion in video games, often citing Dragon Age (which, I’m beginning to gather, is among your favorite games). What about games that explicitly have some religious message, like Assassin’s Creed 2, where the final ‘boss’ of the game is a boxing match with the Pope, or The Binding of Isaac, which centers around a character thrown into a basement by his ‘Christian’ mother, because God told her to?

I’ve not played through the AC series (more on this below)—I’ve watched a good chunk of it and skimmed a few synopses, so I’m speaking out of partial knowledge, which is a dangerous thing.  I have played The Binding of Isaac and watched cinematics of the endings (I’m not skilled enough to get there myself, unfortunately!), but I played it too late for it to end up in the book, sadly.  My perception of the AC series is that it takes the religion-is-social-power-masked-as-heavenly-power line that I describe in the book.  It seems to me that many of the antagonists and powers in both the first and second game wear the trappings of religion, but simply use their supposed beliefs as justifications to engage in highly cynical power plays.  I’d be interested to hear how my perceptions are wrong about that, although learning that the player engages in fisticuffs with His Holiness (I didn’t know that!) certainly suggests I’m not far off.  Such games are not so unusual.  I’d argue it’s part of the bias of games—it’s easier to deal with conflict and manifestations of physical power than it is to deal with mystery, grace, holiness and peace.  But in so doing, such video games really only tackle part of what religions really are.

Isaac is a different sort of beast, in my mind.  Because its narrative and fictional world are so spare and suggestive rather than smooth and coherent (a la the Uncharted-style narrative games) it’s hard to summarize what it’s all about and what it’s saying.  It has a large degree of interpretive flexibility—you can easily understand it in a lot of different ways.  It is definitely all about shocking sensibilities.  It gets into the realm of the grotesque and it really questions certain aspects of religious experience.  Dung, and fetid animals and rot and twisted signs of childhood innocence are everywhere.  And they’re framed with a story of insane devotion to tele-evangelism and an apparent voice from heaven.  But what, exactly, does that all mean?  The ultimate conclusion of the story suggests that the game isn’t exactly critiquing religion but is instead critiquing what people do with religion (just as Monty Python’s The Life of Brian isn’t a critique of Jesus—it’s a critique of Christians).  I don’t know what to make of it, honestly.  But what I can say is that that game has suggested to me the possibility of different ways of grappling with religion than games traditionally have done, and that, at least, is a positive thing.

 

That’s a good take on Isaac. I hadn’t considered it (and, honestly, put the game down after 30 or 45 minutes) that way. Maybe I’ll go back and give it another go. Have you played any games that deal with real-world religions (as opposed to one invented for the game) that deserve a shout-out?

Not really, no.  The most common appearance of religions in the games I play are in strategy games like Civilization and Europa Universalis.  And for reasons I outline in the book, I’m not entirely comfortable giving them praise in that regard.  I think they are noble tries, but a strategic simulation of culture at a very high level can only really simulate what I see as the least important aspects of religion.  There are stories like AC that have real religions in them.  But I can’t think of any that I really like.  There are probably a bunch I should be playing.  If anyone has a favorite, I’d love to hear from them, so I can add it to my repertoire.

I should note that there are lots of games that do very interesting stuff with ethical and moral choices.  Many of the big narrative RPGs let players make decisions that are very interesting and challenging in terms of deciding what is right and wrong.  I find it interesting that something like that is well done, but religion—which so often informs decisions about right and wrong—is pretty weak in most video games.

 

As I read your text, I found there were few games I hadn’t played (mostly the oldest among the games you referenced). Occasionally I found myself wishing you’d bring up other games (Minecraft for a discussion of play, though you do bring it up eventually; Heavy Rain for your discussion of the relationship between film and gaming; Bulletstorm for your chapter on gratuitous violence; Mass Effect for a discussion of narratives in games). A book of this scope is necessarily limited, so I wanted to ask this: what games do you really wish you could have talked about? Are there any favorite games of yours that either didn’t find a space, or the space they found was smaller than you’d have liked?

Ha!   I love how you try to provide me an easy out here: there are all these great games you don’t mention, but you probably didn’t have space for them, right?  Well, the shameful truth comes out here: I haven’t played any of those games.  (Well, that’s not strictly true.  I played Minecraft version 0.32 for a while when I first heard of the game, and I’ve been planning to play it for real this summer.)  The reason is this: the world of video games is huge.  And it’s substantially unlike researching, say, movies or TV in terms of the amount of time involved.  It’s true I could play a substantially fair amount of, say, 5 or 6 puzzle games in the time that it takes me to watch Argo.  But a lot of the games I’m talking about really require the equivalent of dozens of movies to really appreciate them.  On top of that, my natural inclination is to be a completionist—I have a hard time leaving a game before I’ve played all the way through the main campaign.  And (another confession) I’m a pretty slow game player.  I know people who can finish a game of Civilization successfully in 30-40 hours, but it sometimes takes me about twice that.  It took me north of 120 hours to finish Fallout 3.  I got about 35 hours into Skyrim and had to move on, and I’m guessing I’ve only seen about 15-20% of the world.  And because I have courses to grade, lectures to prep, administration to do, church to attend, a family to live with, and so on, I usually do this all after everyone goes to bed, which means that if I want to get more than 5 hours of sleep, I get about 7-10 hours a week of play time.  Phew!  I’m glad to get that off my chest.

The real reason I tell you and your readers about all that is to make it clear that I can’t keep up with everything important, and that’s why I tried to write my book so that it wasn’t about specific games, and more about general principles and issues that could apply to lots of games and hopefully will still be worth reading a few years from now.  A better place for discussions of the here-and-now is the Internet, because it can stay current.  I love that sort of stuff—I love it that within weeks of Bioshock Infinite of coming out we get Jordan Ekeroth’s article on Kotaku: “In Defense Of Religion In BioShock Infinite” (this is going to sound weird, but I haven’t read it yet because I don’t want to get spoilers—as soon as I’m done the game, however, that article’s on the top of my reading list).  But I can’t keep up-to-date like that in the book—as I’ve already mentioned, I don’t have time to play enough games, and the writing and publication process takes too long.  My hope is that readers look at my use of Dragon Age: Origins (all over the book, because I played it right before writing) or really ancient games like the original Sid Meier’s Pirates and say, “Hey! You could make the same point with game X.”  If so, I’ve succeeded.  I recognize that you can’t generalize everything, and that adding new games would add new nuances, so on that level, I’m sorry I didn’t get in more.  I’ve heard Heavy Rain and Alan Wake are both fantastic narrative games, and I really want to play them because I’m sure they’d give me new insights, but I haven’t yet.

Of course, I’m not expecting every gamer to like and/or understand this limitation.  One of the things I’ve found is that gamers tend to be very tribe-ish.  If you’re a Madden fanatic, video games means what others would call “sports video games.”  I can’t tell you how many gamers I’ve met who are absolutely shocked that I’ve never played any version of a Zelda game, because that’s really 40% of their childhood.  And while I’m into indie and art games, I’m quite certain I’ve not played nearly enough to please the true avant-garde gamers (I don’t even know which titles I’ve missed that I should be playing!).  None of those people are wrong about my limitations as a gamer: I’ve got some real gaps.  But we all have our favorites, and we’re all going to have gaps, and we’re going to most notice the gaps of others in the games and genres we like to play.  Honestly, as much as I sometimes feel guilty about not covering enough different stuff, in the end, I really like that localized, tribal passion.  It makes for vibrant communities and great discussions.  I think all together, our conversations cover a lot more ground than any one book can do.

You are right, by the way, that I didn’t fit in everything I like, although most titles I like a lot make at least a cameo.  Where I wanted to put more in but didn’t was all the games I played growing up.  I know you note the book covers titles that are old, but you wouldn’t believe how many ancient games I didn’t mention!  I don’t know if I even mentioned the old Sierra Quest for Glory series that I poured months or years into in the late 80s and early 90s. Masters of Orion (currently updated by games like Galactic Civilizations) was big for me and I don’t believe I touched on it.  I poured quite a few hours into text-based adventure games (the one I remember is The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) and a lot of time into cracked (illegal—but I didn’t get that at the time) Commodore 64 Epyx titles Winter Games and Summer Games.  But the odd thing about games is because they build on previous titles so much, that just about anything worth saying about those titles is also true of newer games.  So I only threw in a few to indicate that there’s a historical trajectory to just about every game we see today.

 

I assume a fair number of people who read this book will be concerned parents or youth pastors. People who don’t necessarily game, but who are interested in making decisions about the medium. Do you think it is necessary for these people to play at least a game or two, rather than just watching others play? Additionally, do you have any recommendations for games that are accessible, that “show off” the benefits of the medium, or else would be good for someone interested in exploring video games as an outsider?

That’s a great question.  My personal belief is that it’s hard to have a really deep understanding or engagement of something that I haven’t experienced myself.  That’s not to say that I’d have nothing valuable to say about, say, paragliding, after only observing it (rather than doing it).  I just wouldn’t have the authority to say anything about the experience for certain.  I also think it’s much easier for people to actually listen to an outsider who has at least tried the in-group’s activity before talking about it.  Many gamers tend to ignore the pronouncements of non-gamers, whether that’s fair or not (and I think this kind of behavior extends to all kinds other groups; I think many Christians don’t really care what a Muslim has to say about the Christian faith).  So yeah, I think it’s  a good idea to play just a little bit, so you know what all the fuss is about.  You gain empathy, insight, and a small measure of credibility.

That having been said, nobody should expect a non-gamer to become a high-end gamer.  Occasionally this happens, but it’s pretty rare.  It’s like reading, writing and all kinds of other acquired skills: it takes time to become a very good player of video games, and the later in life you start, the harder it is.  And it’s not really necessary.  We can’t be all things for all people, so all non-gamers need is a bit of familiarity and an open enough mind to trust experienced gamers who are willing to explain gaming experience.

I think if you want to get started on games that are fun to play with other people, you still can’t beat some of the simple Wii games, like Wii Sports.  They require zero skill, Wiis are just about everywhere (although they’re starting to get boxed up now), and they’re light fun.  If you’re just a tiny bit more coordinated, MarioKart Wii is even better for that sort of thing.  If you want to see what nonviolent beauty looks like in a simple video game, you can’t go wrong with Flower or Journey (except that, for the time being, you need a PS3 to play them).  There are billions of good puzzle games and most supposed non-gamers have, in fact, played some casual puzzle games.  For range of experience, I might introduce them to Circadia or something like Amazing Alex.  I also think Tiny Wings is a great choice to convince people that video games don’t have to be violent or disturbing.  Those are the easy ones.  There are categories of games, however, that are harder to find good recommendations for people who don’t play a lot of games.   If you want to experience a shooter, I’m kind of at a loss, as I’m terrible at those sorts of things.  I liked Battlefield 1942, but I really haven’t played much since then.  Actually, I think I’d tell most noobs to avoid shooters, because you don’t get much mercy in them—at least online.  I’d love to hear others’ suggestions.  RPGs are also a bit of a tough category, because they typically ask for a lot of investment, and it’s hard to find good non-violent ones.  Again, suggestions would be nice.  Strategy and simulation games are also often a bit daunting for outsiders, although I think the SimCity series is pretty friendly to non-gamers—assuming EA has, in fact, worked out all the kinks!  If people want to experience online multiplayer, have some tolerance for violence and racy portraits, and are willing to learn, League of Legends is about as easy to get into as it gets—but it’s still hard, so I’d only recommend that to certain kinds of people.

I’m not sure that list does it justice, though.  It’s a very practical question and one worth thinking about, so I’d encourage other gamers to make suggestions in the comments.

 

Because we’re talking about gaming, I’ve got to ask: what are you playing now? What are you most looking forward to, on the gaming horizon?

I just finished end-of-the-semester grading, which is always the most stressful time of year for me.  When I’m really wigged out, I retreat to comfortingly familiar games to keep me awake during those marking sessions that go to 3 or 4 am.  This almost always means Civilization; I just finished a campaign as the Carthaginians, and won via the diplomacy victory.  Now I’m trying to rapid-fire cover a whole bunch of titles that have piled up on my computer.  I played Atom Zombie Smasher for a couple of nights, then finally tried World of Goo (something I’ve been meaning to do for years), I’ve been playing Word Realms (my first Kickstarter title that has actually come to maturation), and just last night got in my first session of League of Legends in a couple of months (and only the second session I’ve done since hanging it up in January 2012).  I’ve got a busy summer lined up.  I just bought the re-imagined Tomb Raider, and plan to play AntichamberMinecraftDear EstherMonacoSpec Ops: The Line, and I might get to a few other small titles I’ve got kicking around like Stacking and Might & Magic: Heroes VI (if Ubisoft ever gets around to making it playable again).  But first up—and I’m quite excited about this—is Bioshock Infinite, which I now have budget and time for.  You’ll notice, by the way, that I frequently don’t play games right as they come out.  Often, it’s hard to schedule the newest and shiniest stuff.  But as a scholar, I also operate on a different time scale than reviewers and bloggers and online writers—I can still sometimes turn a two or three year old game into a publication, although I like to be more current than that if I can be.

By the way, I’d like to give a shout-out to some of my favorites from the last few months.  10,000,000 (I played on iOS) is one of the best puzzler/RPG games I’ve ever played, and it had the very weird effect of causing a very temporary (and very strong) obsession that was absolutely finished when I completed the game after about 6-10 hours of play.  Best type of game, in that sense.  I love Orcs Must Die 2 (loved the first too), and very much enjoyed The Unfinished Swan, which I reviewed back in January.

 

My final question is this: any parting thoughts? Anything you really wish people would ask you, but we always manage to avoid?

I’m not sure how much I want to add—I’ve already been plenty verbose by internet standards.  :)  I do want to say thanks for the opportunity to talk about the book from a different angle.  I really value the opportunity to have a conversation, since I really mean for the book to be about that.  It’s not that I don’t have opinions, but my real passion is for the Christian community to learn how engage video games in a healthy way, and that’s not going to happen without many voices speaking about games.  So I love the opportunity to move beyond the book.  Video games are such an important medium, and they have expressive potential that’s different from books and movies and radio and television and comic books.  Christians need to do more than just learn to live with video games—I think we have a calling to make them well, play them well and think about them well, because that’s part of what God made us for.

“Of Games and God”: A Review

Note: Tomorrow, we’ll be posting an interview with the author of Of Games and God, Kevin Schut. Don’t miss it. In the meantime, here’s the review.

It’s no secret around here that I’m a fan of playing video games. I heard there was a book out there that was attempting to reconcile Christianity with playing video games. I’m not actually sure ‘reconcile’ is the right word; I’ll steal from the cover, then: Of Games and God is A Christian Exploration of Video Games.

Which, of course, I’m interested in. And I think you should be too.

Christians haven’t done too well interacting with film. We (by-and-large, though not exclusively) wrote film off, early on, and so we’ve taken a long time to get to a point where we’re creating interesting, beneficial, and even beautiful films. It’d be a shame if we retreated from video games without carefully deciding if they were worth retreating from. For my money, and for Kevin Schut’s, they aren’t worth giving up, just yet.

I’ll get to what I loved about the book in a moment, but I’ll start with what frustrated me. The book is very much an introduction; gamers will most likely be bored with some of the chapters (“How to Understand a Video Game,” for instance). While these cursory and introductory chapters could be helpful—I could give this book to my Mom, and she’d follow it without a problem, even though she’s far from a gamer; I could probably give this to my Grandmother, too—they’ll simply be boring or too simplistic for much of the audience. Likewise, the book skips across the surface more often than it settles into the river; while Schut covers the majority of what you’d like to see covered, question-wise, he does so rather quickly. Each chapter ranges from roughly 15-30 pages, while each of them could easily be a book on their own.

These frustrations are probably necessary evils, for a book of this kind. If parents are going to read it, particularly parents who have never played one of those newfangled television games, then you’re going to have to actually introduce the material in a straightforward manner. Additionally, not much has been written on this topic for the Christian market, just yet. Schut’s breaking ground, and the topsoil is still a little rough. So he can’t dig just yet, unfortunately, but hopefully future books will.

And now for the good, which is certainly in greater supply.

For all the surface-skipping the book does, it lands on all of the important topics. We see a discussion of religion, ethics, violence, addiction, social living, and even the rise of educational uses for video games. Answers aren’t forthcoming, at least not definitively. You’ll find explorations more than you will conclusions: the book concerns itself with presenting information for both sides, making tentative arguments, but it primarily wants to introduce the reader to each issue that we could think about when we consider playing games.

Consider, for example, the chapter on violence. While many (both parents and gamers) might want a clear conclusion (the former may want a good reason to ban the games; the latter may want justification for playing them), Schut sticks to presenting both sides. The conclusions he does decide to offer, however, I think are relatively spot-on. Let’s stick with analyzing content based on the context it appears in, much like many of us have when analyzing film. Perhaps it isn’t always wrong to have a little violence (is Bugs Bunny really so deplorable?), but that doesn’t mean all violence is acceptable.

Perhaps the most useful chapter, at least for those who aren’t convinced we should even be playing video games, is his chapter on fantasy and escapism. In the latter half of the chapter, Schut recounts arguments from both Lewis and Tolkien on the nature of fantasy, and the benefits of world-building as an exercise of our creative nature. Schut takes the argument and expands it to all interactions with fantasy. Oddly, this is something both Lewis and Tolkien would have likely disagreed with (as they both had a distaste for non-print media), and Schut acknowledges this. But the strength is in the form: if creating and reading about and imagining fantasy worlds can actually be good for your soul, it isn’t much of a stretch, if you have to stretch at all, to arrive at the conclusion that playing some video games can actually be good for you. I’m thrilled that the positive argument was made, rather than the more common negative argument (that is, “Well, it’s just like other forms of entertainment, so it isn’t bad for you, necessarily”).

All in all, I’m quite glad this book exists. I’m happy with it, despite its few shortcomings. And for many readers, those shortcomings will actually be clear positives. I can safely recommend it to anyone interested in learning about this relatively new medium, regardless of your involvement with video games. Even hardcore gamers will find fresh perspective, even if you need to skip the second chapter.

A physical copy of this book was provided by  Baker Publishing Group on condition of a review. There was no requirement for the content of the review.

Narratives in Video Games: Why The Stanley Parable Stands Out

Next week, I’ll be reviewing Of Games and God by Kevin Schut. It’s a good book, at least so far, and I’ll also be posting an interview with Mr. Schut himself. On that note, I’ve got video games on the brain. His work has got me thinking about a number of topics, most of which will surface in the review, I’m sure. Today, however, I wanted to address one of the more interesting games I’ve played.

The Stanley Parable is unique, as far as I know, in the way the narrator interacts with the player. The game opens with a narrator describing your character’s life. As you move about the game, the voice-over (which sounds remarkably like the narrator for Pushing Daisies, a television show cancelled far too early) tells you what you are doing. A minute or so in, there’s a distinct shift: it is now telling you what you are about to do. This isn’t presented as a command, or even as an objective to accomplish. Rather, the narrator describes your future actions as if they were pre-determined. In fact, that’s the aim of the self-labeled parable; the entire narrative arc is designed to encourage you to think about what games tell you every time you turn them on.

The story can get bizarre. If you follow certain paths, you can end up with any number of endings: in one you escape the game altogether, in another you escape the narrator and nearly die; one ending even leads to a constant forced circle, leading to your eventual madness and death. But this strangeness, this odd world and its odd story, feels familiar to most gamers. In fact, the strange part isn’t any of that, necessarily; what is bizarre is the fact that I can choose any of these endings, and the narrator seems to actually care which I choose.

I’ve argued before that video games have a place in education, which usually means a place to explore spatial reasoning skills, but The Stanley Parable explicitly attempts to interact with the way we tell and receive stories. The Portal series is well known for its witty writing, Mass Effect and its sequels are renowned for their grandiose science fiction stories (much more than their actual game-play mechanics, usually, though you do have to avoid talking about the ending itself), and Half-Life 2, the engine that The Stanley Parable is modded to run on, is known for its silent protagonist, which has its own place in the world of narratives.

What Choose Your Own Adventure did for me as a child, The Stanley Parable did for me as a gamer. That is, when I first read a Choose Your Own Adventure book, I ended up reading the story 15 or 20 times, attempting to find my favorite ending. The stories themselves were rather bland, as far as writing goes, but the desire to discover something new each time kept me coming back. While I think The Stanley Parable has better writing than most of those books did, the primary comparison is just that I kept wanting to play. I wanted to explore, but in a different way than I explored Skyrim or Fallout 3. Those games encouraged me to explore a landscape or a world; Stanley pushes me to explore a story, a relationship, and possibly myself. It is rare that games push us to do that, at least explicitly.

But this sort of narrative exploration is helpful in understanding not only the possibilities for writing, but also the inherent limitations of both text and video game material. Pre-programmed responses are all we’ve got, no matter how much they appear to react to what I’m doing. At one point, you ‘escape’ from the presented game, and enter a large, open world. The walls are covered with untextured substance, clearly unpainted. In one sense, of course, the narrative tells you this is entirely unplanned. But someone still designed this room, and someone wrote the script describing this room, and the actor who played the narrator still recorded the script.

At times, it reminds me of Sophie’s World, when the main character and her mentor break out of the novel, which the novel then proceeds to detail. There’s something of the Matrix in there, too, stepping outside of what was originally described as a real setting, entering into “the real world,” as it were.

At the end of all of this, however, is one simple truth: sometimes video games can teach us about the world around us, about the limits of our own creative abilities (with the technology currently available, be that print media or top-end gaming engines), and even about ourselves.

Why We Riot: A New Game Seeks to Explore this Question

Leonard Menchiari has been experiencing this form of protest in person, and the game ‘Riot’  was born as a way to express it and to tell the stories of these fights. What is it that triggers such a strife? What does a cop feel during the conflict? In “Riot”, the player will experience both sides of a fight in which there is no such thing as ‘victory‘ or ‘defeat‘.

In what has become the purpose of all of our writing and film-making (that is, story telling, usually without taking a side, and often declaring that there really are no sides to take), a small game development studio from Italy has stepped forward to make a game about riots. The purpose, as far as I can tell from their ‘fund us’ page, is to provide us with a way to sympathize with both sides of riots. Regardless of your political persuasion, the game seems to scream, you will learn what it feels like to be a protester and a member of the police force.

I’ve argued before that we can learn a lot from video games, and that they provide broad canvasses with which to paint unique moral brushstrokes (ones that we can learn from), and Riot seems to take a stand somewhere in the same area, at least. It seeks, explicitly, to tell us a story that is worth knowing. The Verge described the game as a ‘playable documentary,’ which should peak the ears of many gamers. The subject itself–that is, riots–have interested psychologists, sociologists, and others for quite some time. But the importance of a game like this doesn’t stop there.

You see, this is a game that explicitly attempts to explore moral ground: it begs you to get to know each side of a riot, hoping you’ll stand in their shoes a little more strongly than you did before you played. While games have done this before, to some extent, I’m happy to see a game decide to bring this to the forefront of its purposes. Much like film can force us into a sympathetic position, so do documentaries seek explicitly to do so. Games following suit strikes me as a good move for the industry, as a whole.

As Christians, we should be offering grace wherever we can, broadly and with little (if any) reservations. It’s easy to stand in a place where you look at others and judge them for their actions, and a riot is a potent example of a situation about which we quickly make assumptions. Some may tend towards favoring the police (“Why would anybody rise up in such a violent manner?”), while others may be tempted to jump into the mob (“Stand against injustice!”), but the point is that we rarely take the time to understand the other side. What makes the offender unjust, and what makes the rioter violent? If people are made in the image of God, seeking to understand them may help us understand God.

That’s not to say that there isn’t ever a ‘right’ side in a riot. Perhaps there are right and wrong sides in some given instance of a riot. Sometimes the rioters may be justified in their stance, though perhaps violence is never the right answer. And sometimes the police are right to stop a riot. Discerning the difference is rather difficult, and the temptation might be to say we can never come to a conclusion. While I think that takes it too far, a game like Riot may provide us with the reminder we need: simply by playing as both sides, we can feel the stress of conflict from different perspectives.

And any time we are encouraged to understand another position, even if we end up disagreeing with some of the conclusions or end results, we take a step towards honoring the image of God not only in our theological convictions, but with our daily lives.