Video Games as Visual Narrative Spectacle

Here is something I wrote for my own personal reference several months ago, but never showed anybody. I figured I might as well throw in a few edits and post it here, as long as I don’t have much time to offer original writing right now.

There is a scene in God of War in which you scale a cliffside as you search for Pandora’s Box. As I played, I heard a periodic thumping noise, but I wasn’t sure where it was coming from, and I couldn’t just change my camera angle to look around for it; the “camera” switches angles automatically, as per the designers’ decisions, to enhance dramatic effect. Eventually I climbed far enough along the cliffside that the camera moved to a high angle, looking down at the protagonist from above, and revealing the source of the thumping beneath him.

Far below, I could see the massive limbs of Cronos the Titan, exiled to the desert by Zeus and forced to crawl for eternity with a palace on a mountain chained to his back. I’d only seen Cronos for a few moments earlier in the game, in a cinematic cut scene, so I’d forgotten that I was playing on his back. I froze in awe at the scene now—momentarily feeling like I really was moving atop his giant back, and then, outside the game world, consciously amazed by the designers’ attention to detail. It was a spectacular experience.

A week or two before, I had been playing Ninja Gaiden on my girlfriend’s old 8-bit Nintendo. I got this game in the mid to late 1980s, and it was one of the first of its kind to play up cinematic cut scenes as a major part of the game. As I played more recently, I got to a part of the game—being chased to the edge of a cliff by two leopards and a falcon, or something—which quickly cuts to a slow, brief cut scene. Cue the dramatic music, and the camera starts to pan, revealing your ninja standing at the edge of the cliff, looking out over the Amazon rain forest at a temple in the distance. (I guess the leopards and bird just kind of gave up.)

When I was a kid, this scene was nothing short of epic. Now, that ninja on the cliff has no emotional resonance whatsoever, and I want to know why. It could just be that I’ve just gotten used to playing up to that scene in Ninja Gaiden, but my guess is that it would seem no more thrilling if I came across it today for the first time. I seriously doubt that it’s because the game about killing Greek monsters with flying swords is so much more narratively sophisticated than the game about killing leopards with a ninja sword. Maybe I’ll find some way to formally research this at some point, but here’s what I’ve got rattling around in my head as of now.

Better Technology

The obvious answer, I suppose, is that I’ve simply become accustomed to a more immersive sensory experience in console gaming. This explanation makes a great deal of sense, considering the great body of research in visual media and “presence”: Newer games should be able to help us feel like we’re really there far better than older media. Visual elements like dynamically moving camera angle were far too complex for 8-bit systems to handle, but this is precisely the kind of technique that’s been used in cinema for years to affect audiences and convey meaning. This isn’t just a culturally specific convention, either, as the effects of camera angle and distance are fairly universal, even among people who have no video media in their native cultures.

Better graphics are part of it, but games have other sensory stimuli at their disposal. The rumbling controller may help at times, and the wild gesticulations of the Wii may be the next step in engaging off-screen senses. Console games have been doing great things with sound for years, too, and that mostly started in the 1990s. Sound and music are far too often ignored in reviews and critical assessment of games, considering that these elements can leave a deep and long-lasting impression of a gaming experience. When the old Playstation game Silent Hill was made into a movie, I went and checked out the trailer online, thinking, “This looks kind of creepy, I guess.” What sent a chill up my spine, though, was the few seconds of music from the original game, played at the end of the trailer. I watched a friend play that for several hours back in the late ’90s.

Actually, in the Ninja Gaiden/God of War example above, graphics may have even been less important than sound, as the Ninja Gaiden music seems kind of chintzy compared to the scene set by the deliberate absence of music and clever sound effects details. Not to mention that in most games nowadays you can set the relative volume of music versus sound effects, customizing it for your tastes.

Maybe, then, Ninja Gaiden was just the best we had in electronic games in the ’80s, so it coasted on novelty. That would suggest that I’ll probably look back on God of War in much the same way in a few years, which honestly makes me feel a little embarrassed. I mean, does that suggest that people are right when they say that video games are still too simple and ridiculous to really be valuable and meaningful? Am I just letting myself be suckered by this medium?

Arousal and Narrative

This brings me, however, to my second idea about why each game had the effect it did on me: The physiological and psychological state of arousal or excitement brought about by video games somehow amplifies the emotional weight involved in spectatorship. In other words, challenging and exciting games can make individual scenes—perhaps even entire stories, characters, and settings—more interesting.

This theory is not mutually exclusive with the one stated above, but I feel like the idea about technology doesn’t tell the whole story alone. If that were enough, then pretty graphics and rich sound should really boost a mediocre scene. Part of what makes me suspect this is my experience of watching the Final Fantasy XII cut scenes without ever playing the actual game. It seemed like a good idea at the time: People are always telling me about how they love to play Final Fantasy games for the story and the visuals. I’ll grant you, the animation and visual design are pretty impressive at first, but they get old fast, and the “acting” and plot really leave a lot to be desired. I’m not even that disturbed by jumping around between scenes without the content in between, as I’ve certainly done with actual movies that encourage scene-focused viewing (such as action movies and special-effects extravaganzas). So what’s my problem with watching FFXII without any gameplay?

It could just be my frustratingly high standards for storytelling, but my guess is that I’d probably be enjoying the story if I could get excited by the gameplay—whether playing myself or vicariously experiencing play through watching a friend. I don’t find it fun to pick “actions” from menus in turn-based role-playing games, letting the figures on screen take care of the rest. I’d rather be slamming buttons and making stuff happen myself. Some people have a lower threshold for excitement in video games than I do, though, so turn-based video games put them in a physical and/or mental state that might make what looks from here like a sub-par scenario seem more engaging. Heck, every time I try to explain the neat parts of God of War to people, I feel like a moron, thinking to myself, “You kind of had to be there, I guess.”

I’m much better at most video games now than I was when I was eight, so old games are less challenging. Maybe the gameplay of Ninja Gaiden doesn’t excite me enough to elevate its once-epic scenes. Maybe God of War has sufficiently advanced technology and will remain sufficiently challenging that someone could still enjoy those little moments years from now. Alternatively, maybe I’m just trying to convince myself that my hobby isn’t stupid.


The final point I have yet to address, I think, is that my own enjoyment of the God of War scene described above was at least partially because I’d never seen such attention to background detail in a game before. I had a similar reaction to the ruined landscapes in the distant backgrounds of Gears of War. There may come a day when such attention to detail is the norm in visually realistic games, even those without the word ‘war’ in the title; the uneducated gamer will not know what makes either of these older games innovative, like a museum goer who visits the Venus de Milo because it’s famous, not because of any aesthetic appreciation.

Don’t get me wrong: I really enjoyed God of War. I hope I still find it valuable to own years down the line. But, on its own, the story is pretty cheesy and predictable, and not one I would have enjoyed if it weren’t for all the interactive monster slaying. I think the point when games become a truly mature narrative medium—with works that will stand the test of time as well as the classics of film—will be when “challenge” is effectively integrated into the story, not just used to inject some excitement into a cliche. These will be the games that you play and care about no matter how the graphics look in a decade.