Offbeat 17 June 2016

So, here I am, writing this column, late in the evening. In truth I would prefer to be playing a computer game called The Witcher, winding down for the day. Last night I cut the head of a giant wolf in a swamp, one of the many quests the game has given me. I still have to turn the trophy in for a reward. With that money, I will probably buy a book and add to my character’s knowledge.
The game is great. It’s pitched somewhere between epic fantasy and noir. It has a bunch of hard-boiled investigation in it, and enough hacking and chopping to keep even the most showy Asian chef smiling. Plus I have a useful flame spell with which I can fry the monsters. Insert your own bad culinary pun here.
I have been a gamer for over twenty years now, computer processing power and hardware permitting. I didn’t fall for online gaming or LAN parties though. I have always preferred to play by myself, level by level.
LAN games as far as I can tell, involve a lot of running around and shooting in different environments, without much more than that. I don’t participate in the gaming community either. I only have one friend, as far as I can tell, who plays.
She’s the one who recommended The Witcher to me.
Is it a waste of time? Referencing an outdated attitude, possibly? In post millennial thinking, almost certainly not. Think about it this way? I have the standard choice of a story conveyed through a television, or I can interact and influence events in a story, by playing a role that belongs to me, through my character. They don’t call them role-playing games for nothing. The point about role-playing games is that there has to be a decent story to keep the game afloat, and profitable. I imagine the rise of the story in gaming has lot to do with the ennui of LAN or online shooters, running around and trying to shoot the avatars of a bunch of friends.
Over the past two decades I have had a thorough grounding in games, starting with Doom, heading onwards to Duke Nukem and then backtracking to Wolfenstein. Even Wolfenstein, in its earliest incarnation, held the germ of a story, the increase of intensity heading to the final confrontation with a level boss.
From there on, the stories became far more sophisticated. Yet mostly they were scripted. You passed the plot points, and the ending was inevitable. But all that changed.
The first shocking inkling of the potential came to me in a horror game which used emotion in a way other than turbo-charging the character on the basis of rage. In Dark Corners of the Earth, I reached a point where my computer screen turned grey and fuzzy, and my avatar slowed down. I thought it was a glitch in the game until I googled it. Someone had invented virtual fear.
After that things became yet more interesting as a range of effects suitable to a story began to emerge. In The Witcher, your character has to get drunk from time to time, drink with other characters in the game to loosen their tongues and obtain information.
But there is yet more to it than that. Most games give choices, but The Witcher in particular gives those choices a hard-hitting impact. Should I love her or the other one? Should I frame an individual in my investigation, a character who I dislike, or should I go where an impartial approach leads me?
Games will continue to evolve and improve themselves in the quest for the vast amounts of money that they generate. They will find new ways to suck us in.
The current realm of games relies mainly on action, but there is also a game like The Sims, which in some way resembles soap opera.
An article in The Guardian introduces the idea of the game as electronic literature. I agree entirely. It can’t be long now before something notable happens in a role-playing game that doesn’t involve hacking and chopping. Sooner or later, someone will release a role-playing drama.
It’s an interesting thought, but I won’t pursue it now. I am carrying around a wolf’s head, and I need to hand it in to get my gold.

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