A billboard for the Rockstar Games' "Red Dead Redemption II" in New York. Photo: PA

Serious fun: how video games grew up—and became an art form to rival Hollywood

From the runaway success of Fortnite to thoughtful creations like Papers, please, video games are more in the spotlight than ever. Is the medium finally having its “Citizen Kane moment"?
November 12, 2018

On a chilly September morning outside the vast, aircraft-hangar-like space of the Birmingham NEC, a long queue—mostly cheerful, mostly white, mostly male—curls back and forth outside the building, chatting and playing Nintendo Switch as a couple of women check them for knives and guns.

“You must not be carrying sharp metallic blades,” a sign reads, “or anything that can fire a projectile such as BB guns. Props or weapons may be retained by our staff for the duration of the event if they are deemed to be unsafe.” This level of specificity would be understandable elsewhere—survivalists’ gathering, medieval reenactment, a US high school—but this is the EGX (formerly Eurogamer Expo), the UK’s largest public event celebrating the world’s most profitable entertainment medium: video games.

Video games we’re told (and certainly I hear it several times in the course of my weekend at EGX) power an industry whose profits already far surpass those of Hollywood. Worldwide receipts, including everything from the smartphone app Candy Crush to survival game Fortnite, totalled $121.7bn last year, while cinema box-office takings amounted to a less glamorous $40bn. The fairy at the top of the tree is Grand Theft Auto V, the action-crime game from 2013 whose profits have reached more than $6bn.

But while games may have struck it rich, in the culture at large they still face a Gatsby-like struggle to be taken seriously. Most people are now prepared to accept that games make fabulous diversions—often too fabulous, as attested by the recent panics over Fortnite addiction, the immorality of Grand Theft Auto and the World Health Organisation’s classification last year of “gaming disorder” as a mental health condition. For many, however, a bigger question mark still hangs over whether games can give their players something more than kinetic thrills, compulsion loops and superpowered wish-fulfilment fantasies.

To which the answer is: of course they can. By any metric, video games have been works of inspired craftsmanship for some time—look at the beautiful worlds they create, look at the hundreds of artists and programmers who exhaust themselves over a game like the newly-released Red Dead Redemption 2. Set over hundreds of square miles of remote 19th-century America, it aims for verisimilitude in everything from the flap of a leather coat-tail to the minute shrinking of a horse’s testicles in snowy weather. Despite its wonders, though, sceptics might argue that it’s still built around a conventional arcade core of mission-based, combat-centric narrative.

The extraordinary creativity within games is not to be found within the most commercial examples, any more than you can descry the depths of literary art from a glance at the Tesco bestseller rack. Still, the industry half-seriously anticipates gaming having its “Citizen Kane moment,” when the medium will finally be taken seriously. Before Orson Welles, movies were regarded as mere popular entertainment rather than potentially great works of art, to be judged alongside novels or paintings. In the same way, video games are now—rightly—pushing their way through into mainstream cultural acceptance and appreciation.


Grim smiting vs cartoon spangles

Inside the NEC there’s an atmosphere of hectic festivity. One PR woman invites players to strap on a VR headset and enter a simulation of the sinking Titanic. (“Now that’s very 2018,” I hear a passerby observe). There’s a game called Hash Rush that promises to “unite the worlds of cryptocurrency and real-time strategy gaming,” which sounds less an entertainment pitch than a kind of anxiety dream. Several booths offer products with titles you couldn’t confuse with any other medium, except perhaps—thanks to the colons—the PhD thesis. I fill my bingo sheet with Vanguard: Fight for Rudiarius, Thea 2: The Shattering, Starlink: Battle for Atlas and Genesis: Alpha One.

“Now that’s very 2018”

The EXG is in full swing: blaring music, screens everywhere, people waiting patiently beside notices saying “1hr line from here” for a glimpse of the latest Call of Duty or Destiny blastathons. People watching other people playing video games—the industry’s most bewildering meta-spectacle to the uninitiated, but one that accounts for some of the most-subscribed content on YouTube—are in ample supply. A large crowd turns up to watch a bunch of guys knock the stuffing out of each other at the 1980s classic Street Fighter.

The skill of the participants has a near-sorcerous edge about it to anyone who ever lost a pocketful of quids trying to beat M Bison in the arcade, but the real arcana is in the commentary. (“Those anti-airs are not very solid at close range. Needs to use the jumpback”). At the corner stage, decked with heraldic props, a sullen-looking kid using the pseudonym BoarControl is playing the online fantasy card game Hearthstone against an older guy whose alias is Mysterious. “Mysterious is now committed,” declares the announcer. “He’s gone in with the bloody roar.”

Each of the major console manufacturers—Sony, Microsoft, Nintendo—demonstrate their hardware. People line up for a go on the Playstation VR kit, a glowing blue-and-white headset that plunges you deep into a 360-degree simulated world, whether guiding a friendly robot through vertiginous landscapes (Astro Bot: Rescue Mission) or experiencing a full-immersion psychedelic take on Tetris, a franchise older than most people here. VR is going to need decent PR to deal with how daft people look when playing it.

The big games on show are surprising mainly in their lack of surprise. There’s Destiny 2, a shooter in which players leap about alien planets blowing the snot out of each other with science-fictional weapons. There’s The Division 2, in which they creep about future cityscapes blowing the snot out of each other with near-future weapons. There’s Metro Exodus (post-apocalyptic Russia, handmade automatic weapons), Strange Brigade (1930s Africa, Indiana Jones-period weapons) and Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 (mid-21st century, too many weapons to count). All but one of these games is a sequel, or a threequel, or a 4.

There’s a new instalment in the Assassin’s Creed series, in which a devastatingly beautiful Ancient Greek setting accommodates the same sort of building-climbing, people-stabbing gameplay that has sustained the series through 11 episodes to date. Booth after booth is decked with ludicrously vicious promotional props: real-life actors wielding sniper rifles; pistols and crossbows lovingly enshrined; a miniature alien defiantly toting its blaster. I begin to understand the warning about weapons at the entrance, just as a guy dressed as Cloud from Final Fantasy—bare chest, leather jerkin, 6ft-long plastic sword—wanders through security and into the hall.

Over in the Nintendo corner, meanwhile, things look different. Here, it’s a cartoon riot of primary colours, whizzing music and tinkling sound effects, as players get their hands on new games in the long-running Mario Party, Pokémon and Super Smash Bros series. The EGX divides neatly down the middle: grim smiting on one side, cartoon spangles on the other.

Despite a recent rise in the success of independent productions, the industry is still ruled by the equivalent of a Hollywood studio system, where monolithic products are turned out with more of an eye to continuity than creativity.

The stakes are heightened by the industry’s recent fascination with microtransactions—a system, now found in games from Fortnite to Assassin’s Creed and FIFA, by which players can pay real extra money for in-game items, fork out for easier play experiences or (an opportunity recently banned as gambling in Belgium) take part in a lucky dip for rare online equipment.

Correspondingly, many of the largest games are now less individual products than long-tailed creatures spawned from a dogma known as “games as a service”: they guarantee customer loyalty, and spending, with a continuous stream of fresh updates and new content.

With so much at stake, such games aim safely at the “core audience”: players (often male, often youngish) of fighting, shooting and adventure games. Look around the EGX and you’ll see tens of games that are another example of certain types of game. Enjoy open-world combat? Dig real-time strategy? Lap up 3D platformers? Go nuts for first-person shooters? They have just the game for you—and in most cases, it’s one that edges towards confirming a view of the industry’s products as blurs of ultraviolent colour, lethally programmed for distraction or addiction.

For more interesting stories at EGX and elsewhere in the industry—games that attempt to reimagine interactivity and narrative, glimpses of how the core audience may be changing or disbanding—one needs to look elsewhere.

Through a console, darkly

Sure enough, away from the brightest lights and longest lines, EGX finds space for a panoply of different narratives. A bank of PCs down one aisle is showing Disco Elysium, a roleplaying adventure game set in a bizarre Eastern European world, part Life on Mars-style 1970s and part fantasy-medieval horror.

It’s designed by an Estonian novelist and former musician called Robert Kurwitz, and I am allowed to play half an hour of it, which is enough to form the impression that it contains some of the best dialogue I’ve encountered in a video game, paired with some of the strangest game mechanics. Text-heavy, intense and deeply rooted in its weird world, this is a detective adventure in which progression allows you to alter things inside the detective’s head: by growing different chattering factions of an interior consciousness, each with its own enthusiasms and interests, you dictate the ways the character perceives the world and his surroundings.

Disco Elysium will be just one of many fascinating pathways into gaming’s growing fringe, where small teams experiment with different routes through narrative and new game mechanisms. This recent flood of independent creations forms a large part of the new exhibition at the V&A entitled Design, Play, Disrupt, which runs until 24th February next year.

It offers a 15-year tour through the changing nature of the medium, touching not only on large-scale studio feats of worldbuilding and story—the grisly Bloodborne, which draws inspiration from HP Lovecraft, Dickens and vampire horror, or The Last of Us, a post-apocalyptic adventure centred on a curiously tender paternal relationship—but on leftfield games that could genuinely be classified as art.

These include How Do You Do It?, a comic game about a young girl trying to figure out sex using naked Barbie figures, and Queers in Love at the End of the World, a game that plays and replays itself over 10-second periods and asks the player to converse with a loved one in the instant before the world ends.

These and other independent productions, often from single creators, show a breadth of material and an irreverence of tone reminiscent of the underground comix movement—whether they’re asking you to sort food desperately on to a plate in the Tetris-inspired game Consume Me, about the rigours of extreme dieting, or, in the barbed Phone Story, mine coltan ore for smartphones in the Democratic Republic of Congo and catch suicidal Foxconn workers jumping off buildings.

If games like these veer in the direction of satire or installation art, others aim at offering narrative and intellectual pleasures that explore the medium’s unique possibilities. One of the most striking releases of the autumn is Return of the Obra Dinn, a game in which a clairvoyant insurance agent investigates the fate of a deserted ship that has drifted into Falmouth in 1807.

Rendered in glorious retro graphics and deeply imprinted with the Melvillian lore and language of seamen, it throws a gloriously unprecedented investigative burden on the player, asking them to piece together the facts in the case—time and place of death, rank and position aboard ship, and eventually the whole story of the voyage—by inference, observation and comparison.

You’d be hard pressed to think of a game so divorced from the caricature of a video game, unless it were the creator’s previous work, Papers, Please, in which players were called on to man a border in a fictional Communist country and sift through the pleas, lies and evasions of escapees and immigrants alike. Such games lean heavily on interactivity, intelligent engagement and the player’s willingness to experiment with new forms.

Down another line of booths at EGX, I come across an unattended computer whose screen shows an image of a walled garden, standing on a hill above a deserted plain. It turns out to be an early prototype of a game called Heaven’s Vault, out next year, the latest by a small British development house called Inkle, whose sharp-eyed steampunk take on Jules Verne, 80 Days, was nominated for four Bafta games awards and won Time magazine’s game of the year award in 2014.

A few minutes with Heaven’s Vault reveals an interactive mechanism rarely, if ever, seen in games before. The protagonist is an alien archaeologist who might have stepped from an Ursula Le Guin novel, investigating a strange structure on a deserted planet. Alien explorers and post-catastrophe landscapes are hardly new to the medium.

Startlingly, this is largely based around translation and philology. Periodically, the player is asked to assign English words and expressions—garden, temple, dead, forever—to the scrolls and curlicues of an alien alphabet. As they do, the character’s observations of the world around her begin to change. Suggest that you’re in a “temple” and the character you play attempts to draw religious significance from a particular stone figure, whereas choose “garden” and she may attempt to understand it as an earth mother, or a gardener.

“You might walk around with several theories which are contradictory, or wrong,” explains the game’s lead writer, Jon Ingold, when I catch up with him. “We had this idea that translation as a puzzle was a really great thing to have the player do, but puzzles come with this slightly fascistic sense that there’s a right answer that you get or you don’t. When you couple that with something like archaeology and trying to talk about explanations of the past, it’s flat wrong. Ambiguity is core to the understanding of the experience of the past.”

The fickleness of understanding, the ambiguity of the past, the difficulties of truth: these are not the waters in which games have traditionally been thought to swim. Is part of the problem, I ask Ingold, that we insist on calling these experiences “games”? “I don’t know that it matters particularly,” he says. “The analogy with films is a good one. In the 1930s and 1940s, when my grandfather was going to the cinema, the cinema was a silly place. No one went there to watch anything serious. Obviously film is a very respected medium now, and that’s partly because it’s very well funded, but also because it’s had several successful pieces of art.”

“I think there will come a time when people see that video games are better suited to discuss certain topics than movies.”

“I think a more interesting version of the question,” he goes on, “is how much of the gaminess do we need to preserve as sacrosanct? How much do we need to be ensuring that the experiences we make are fun, or give the player agency, or are interactive, or are difficult, or have successes, or failure, or scores? ... I’m very interested in getting away from the idea that there’s a single story that I want to tell and that I’m going to chain you, the player, down and make you do it. I hope we find a middle way which is a conversation between the player and the author.”

Other developers are also thinking laterally. “I think there will come a time,” says Jennifer Schneidereit, a game designer, programmer and founder of the independent studio Nyamyam Games, “when people see that video games are better suited to discuss certain really important topics than movies.” If mainstream developers, as she puts it, still “think about a white male gamer who’s between the ages of 15 and 25,” Schneidereit targets a demographic that’s “more female than male” and seeks deeper experiences from their entertainment. “That can be emotionally meaningful experiences,” she says, “but it can also be experiences that are historical or educational, with an entertainment touch to them.”

Schneidereit is practising what she preaches. Her latest game, currently in development, is Astrologaster, a period comedy developed with the writer Katharine Neil that draws on the work of the Cambridge academic Lauren Kassell. Its central figure is Simon Forman, a notorious Elizabethan magician, astrologer, medic and quack, and its central mechanism is an unusual combination of cold-reading patients (a querulous merchant and his drunkard wife, a brash young nobleman contemplating marriage) and interpreting arcane zodiacal houses to offer advice.

It’s a fascinating mixture of historical enthusiasm and subversive modern comedy, which its creator intends to offer “an interesting and unusual look at history; at the little people, not the kings and queens.” It’s also about as far away in spirit from the Hollywood-Grecian bluster of Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey as you can imagine.

Another game in development at Nyamyam, she says, hinges around the work of investigative journalists; it asks players to “look at a story from different angles in an interactive way” in the “post-truth, post-fact” era. “I want games that grow up with me,” explains Scheidereit seriously. “I’ve played games all my life and I don’t want to keep playing the same rehashed experiences. I want them to grow up with me, and the experiences to mature.”

Increasingly, she isn’t alone. On the train back from EGX, I took out my phone for another look at a game that fascinated me last year by being one of the least enjoyable—in the traditional sense—that I’d ever played. Called Bury Me, My Love, it’s been developed by a French studio, and is based on a series of Le Monde articles, in which a Syrian husband communicates by text message with his wife as she makes her escape to Europe. Behind the pastel WhatsApp-lite interface and the intermittent cartoon graphics is a bleakly unsentimental, intensely grown-up experience that—as it should—leaves the player feeling entirely helpless and hopeless.

It’s very easy to see why one might choose to be hopping about on an alien planet, skipping through a world of Goombas and Koopas or notching up killstreaks and headshots instead. In this, as in other artistic areas, venturing outside the mainstream has its challenges. But it’s still, I suspect, the best place to look for the future.