Around this time of year our televisions are swamped in a deluge of advertisements for the Christmas season’s hottest toys and gadgets, and the fine retailers that stock them. Some adverts are nauseating: for example, that insipid Littlewoods one where a primary school Christmas pageant takes a quick commercial detour to focus on praising the mother for her name-brand present buying acumen in song – there may or may not have been a bedazzled ‘D and G’ watch standing in for the star shining down on a sleeping MacBook in the crèche. Other adverts are more intriguing: what is in that box the John Lewis kid is so excited to give to his parents? You never see it opened, but the cover of The Smiths ‘Please Please Let Me Get What I Want’ playing in the background suggests to me that inside may be the physical embodiment of a year’s worth of revenge for NOT giving the kid what he wanted. Possibly sculptures of his parents’ heads made from all those Brussels sprouts they tried to pass off as ‘special broccoli’.
There are also those ads that don’t seem to tie in to any store, and aim purely for the mysterious; a series of clips of a Renaissance-era man running and jumping, or of a massive battle in a Medieval realm. Some of these types of ads aren’t even that subtle, like the one with Chuck Norris talking up his love of World of Warcraft.
In my opinion video game advertisements (like the two mentioned earlier that vaguely describe ‘Assassin’s Creed 3’ and ‘Lord of the Rings: War in the North’) really don’t do justice to the product, considering gaming as both art and entertainment has really come a long way in the past fifteen years.
Right, I know some of you saw the phrase ‘video games’ and thought ‘Really? The Tribe has stooped to this?
Don’t go! It’s ok. I get it.
I was once like you, and saw gaming as the domain of people who subsist purely on a diet of Red Bull and Cool Ranch Doritos, possibly work part-time in IT but tell everyone they’re a ‘hacker’, and get their kicks by trolling on 4chan typing inane messages |_1 |< 3 +#1$ . Undoubtedly, people like this do exist, and depending on the game you choose, you may bump into a hell of a lot of them on your explorations through the world of gaming wizardry. Regardless, it’s worth checking video games out as a casual observer even if you have only the most passing interest in TV, cinema, or technology. Or if you’ve ever played Angry Birds on your iPhone- time to expand your world a little bit.
In case I’m in danger of losing you again (I see you out there, gamer girlfriends. The Xbox is your sworn enemy, and Fifa 11 its newest weapon against you, systematically draining time you could be getting from your otherwise-pretty-decent significant other with every Premier League match), let me lay out three good reasons you should give gaming a try, or at least show it the respect you’d give one to one of the more predictable weeks of X Factor (great production values, but the conflict was a bit stagey).
Good Reason #1: Story-based gaming is getting a lot of publicity, and these tales are a long way from the emotional complexities of ‘run through world, get coins, save princess’ of Super Mario Brothers
It may seem as if the best-known video games from our childhood are the type kids of the 80’s would have played in actual video arcades: platform games like Sonic or Donkey Kong, or fighting games like Mortal Kombat. Games like these were certainly some of the biggest money-makers, but for every Sonic game there was a Legend of Zelda: a story where you as the main character solved quests, collected items, and chatted with other characters in the game world. It may sound a bit primitive (and it was) but it laid the foundation for story-based games today. Tales like those in the Fallout and Mass Effect series have so many well-drawn characters (gone are the days of ‘hero and ‘villain’, now it’s all about the anti-heroes and justified villains), plot twists, and pivotal decision-making, that fans often get into pretty heated arguments online about the best way to play the game. Keep in mind, they’re not arguing about the game mechanics, but the story- what decisions will give you as the player the most satisfying plot. (Don’t worry, you don’t have to get into it with those people to earn the title of ‘gamer’. That’s usually bestowed on you by your judgemental flatmates or disappointed parents anyway).
Good Reason #2: The animation technology is getting mind-blowing. Hello, Uncanny Valley.
Ever heard of motion capture technology? It’s what allowed Andy Serkis to skulk around as Gollum in Lord of the Rings without having to spend hours in makeup (same idea for Zoe Saldana and the other Na’vi in Avatar). Since the technique of digitally integrating real and animated images is so successful in films, it was only a matter of time before the gaming world tapped into it as well. Celebrities have been lending their voices to games for years (and since they’re usually not included in the advertisements, playing ‘guess the famous voice’ is a fun game in itself). In 2009 Mass Effect 2 took celebrity involvement to the next level by taking Australian actress Yvonne Strahovski (from the American series Chuck) and used a method of motion capture to integrate her face onto one of the main characters. This isn’t a just good animation of her face, but a near-perfect likeness based on data from the real thing- the facial expressions alone are incredible if only for their meticulous detail. This was only two years ago, but believe it or not, the technology has gotten even more advanced since then- more on that later.
Good Reason #3: All media is getting more interactive, and gaming is leading the way.
Let me be clear: to say that all media is getting more interactive doesn’t mean that stationary images are going anywhere: an animatronic Mona Lisa or a singing quartet of Marilyn Monroe lithographs is literally the stuff of my nightmares. What I mean is that in general, we’ve gotten quite accustomed to being able to add our personal input to the viewing experience. We want to watch an episode of Hollyoaks whilst live-tweeting our thoughts, then upload our favourite clips on Youtube and update our exhaustive Brendan-Brady-moustache Tumblr (what…just me?). We like 3D movies and and Photoshopping images. We just aren’t content to be passive viewers anymore.
Modern gaming in this way is perfect: it allows people to develop their own persona in the context of a cinematic story. It’s a bit like a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure movie. Different games have different levels of customisation, obviously, but in general, players love creating a character with a unique appearance, skills, and personality, so I’d expect that trend to continue. And really, who wouldn’t want to make a more kick-ass version of themselves if they had the chance? It’s how The Sims sold so many copies.
So, in conclusion, let me give you some Christmas advice: ask for a copy of L.A. Noire to be put under your tree this year. Made by Rockstar Games (the same company behind the Grand Theft Auto series but this time with exponentially fewer hookers), you play an earnest young police detective fresh out of World War II and now cleaning up the streets of 1940’s Los Angeles one crime at a time. It’s your job to search for clues, interview suspects, and use your reasoning to solve each case. The overlying story unfolds slowly, but it becomes a tale of the tragedy of good intentions gone wrong, ambition, redemption, and sacrifice. The cast is full of celebrities, who have all been motion captured for incredible accuracy. The music is gorgeous, and the city of Los Angeles (which you can drive through without limits) remarkably detailed. There are plenty of references to historical people and events- the Black Dahlia murders, gang leaders like Mickey Cohen, and rampant corruption in the LAPD (N.W.A. definitely wasn’t tapping into some new emotion with their biggest hit).
Arguably the best part of the game is the interviews. You have to listen to the testimonies of suspects and decide from their motion-captured faces if they’re telling the truth. Any small facial twitch, rapid blink, or gulp could indicate a liar. The subtlety is breathtaking. You don’t have to a super-fan to appreciate gaming, and the artistic merit of L.A. Noire is a great place to start.
And if you’re too embarrassed to ask for it for Christmas, get it for your little brother. And ‘borrow’ it indefinitely.
Image Credit – Anne Harris
 You have no idea how many minutes of my life were wasted trying to figure out the leet equivalent of ‘k’. You’re welcome.