This is the extended version of an article that appeared in OnScreen, (RealTime 34, Dec 99-Jan 00)

Sales of home consoles and software in 1999 rose to 20 billion dollars, surpassing the Hollywood box office for the first time in history. What does this mean? It means more people are playing more games more often than ever before. It means that more people are playing games than going to the movies or reading books. It means that games are now quite probably the single most popular form of entertainment on the planet. Most alarming of all, it means that people will soon be forced to acknowledge (at least the possibility) that digital entertainment has finally crossed the line from spotty boy’s wasted time to viable art form.

If you need something to blame it on, blame Space Invaders. In 1978 it caused a yen shortage in Japan. It was the first video game to break out of seedy arcades and into general stores and pizza parlors, kick starting the ’80s arcade game craze and fathering the now multi-billion dollar video game industry.

If that’s not enough, blame the recent phenomenal success of Sony’s PlayStation and (to a lesser extent) Nintendo’s unimaginatively titled Nintendo 64. These machines succeeded where their predecessors had largely failed: they attracted a huge, general audience to games, selling over 70 million systems worldwide along the way.

If at this point you’re feeling a little panicked and need people to identify with, you’ve got a choice: if you want to get retro, stick with the residents of Mesquite, Texas who in 1978 went to the Supreme Court in their efforts to ban Space Invaders from their community. Or if you’re in the mood to stay current, how about the residents of Littleton, Colorado who blamed an entire high school massacre on the contaminating influence of ID Software’s seminal first-person shooter Doom.

And to be honest, it’s not surprising. Very little has changed between Space Invaders and its modern cousin, which might make them more palatable to the general, litigious public. A small case study: Space Invaders allowed players to manipulate a monochromatic spaceship left and right across the bottom of a single screen in an attempt to destroy endlessly descending rows of tiny, alien ships. Doom allowed players to manipulate a human character around a 3D maze in an attempt to destroy an endless series of variously deformed aliens. One is no more than a heightened version of the other. Third person alien bashing versus first. The actual game-play mechanics are virtually identical.

For over two decades, games have provided the same primary thrills, manipulating players in the same basic ways. Games could get you excited, they could surprise you, they could even get a laugh occasionally, and most of the time they could make you pretty damn pissed off, but that was about all. Now developers are trying to figure out how to evoke subtle reactions from their audience. Where is the seething resentment? Where is the pathos? And, wait for it, where is the love?

In October, Sega launched its new 128-bit Dreamcast console in Australia after selling over a million units in two scant months overseas. Not to be outdone, Nintendo and Sony have both announced new systems, pitched (as they always are) as more powerful than their predecessors, capable of dragging twice as much eye candy around your TV screen at twice the speed in half the time. It is doubtful whether this alone will entice reluctant gamers into the fold or convince anybody that games are a serious artistic rival to books or cinema.

The potentially revolutionary aspect of these new systems is hidden in the way their manufacturers (especially Sony) are describing them. If the hype is to be believed, we are on the threshold of a new entertainment age. Sony is calling the processor at the heart of its new system an Emotion Engine. That might be a ridiculous moniker for an inanimate hunk of metal and plastic, but it marks a fundamental shift in the way games are approached by developers and the way consumers are willing to accept them.

The basic premise of this little article is that games are moving toward a new horizon, a golden coloured artistic Mecca, which has the potential to uproot the traditional arts or at least shake them about a bit. The follow up query is whether one will end up devouring the other or whether they can all exist alongside each other in a kind of friendly room-mate scenario. The basic conclusion leans more to the latter, although there’s a thinly veiled hope running through the whole thing that the mindless dross so often pumped out by Hollywood and mainstream publishers might collide with the empty headed video game fringe and that everyone might come out healthier, smarter and generally better dressed.

But comparisons between video games and other arts are nothing new. In video game circles the term ‘interactive movie’ has been an oxymoron for years. The usual outcome is an unplayable series of set pieces interrupted by simplistic choices leading to fragmented (and badly acted) sequences involving B-grade actors and ex-porn stars. Games developers would benefit from dropping the movie tag altogether and following industry leaders like Square whose Final Fantasy series have long been pushing the boundaries in digital storytelling.

Progressive games developers are beginning to look for ways to tell better stories and communicate ideas in a non-linear fashion. Game levels are being replaced by game environments, single task orientated goals are being fleshed out with multiple side quests which (in the best examples) actually affect the main story-line depending on what angle the player chooses. New software titles coming soon for the discerning player include Vampire: The Masquerade from Nihilistic Software which allows one player to change the game on the fly, throwing enemies, puzzles and situations into the path of other players at will. Or the recently announced Republic from Elixir which boasts a million unique characters and an infinite polygon engine in its simulation of (wait for it) an entire Eastern European country. If that doesn’t impress you, remember that the game’s detail level is rock solid right down to individual flower petals and autumn leaves.

Whether either game turns out to be any good doesn’t matter right now. What is worth focusing on is how markedly different their approach to software development is to the practices of the past. These games exhibit traits more often associated with movies than entertainment software. Vampire for instance, aims to allow players to basically script their own adventure movie as it’s being enjoyed, wresting control away from formulaic computer AI and handing it back to the user. These are software tools more than games as they are traditionally understood, more like a movie camera than a finished movie.

And you can already smell the fear at the box office. Marketing guru George Lucas openly modeled the lengthy and generally tedious speeder-bike chase scene from the resurrected Star Wars franchise The Phantom Menace on video game racers. Whether this was to tie the subsequent game license more closely to the film or an attempt to attract an audience of teenagers raised on games is unclear. Perhaps George has invented his own oxymoron: the non-interactive game.

The major draw card for games is interactivity. The blockbusters of the new millennium offer all the visceral thrills of film and schlock novels and then some. If more developers follow the lead of companies like Nihilistic and Elixir (which seems likely) then the gaming community ten years from now will be a very different place. Imagine being able to create scenarios instead of linear plot threads, world environments instead of single scenes. Imagine taking your friends through a custom designed adventure which you could manipulate to their tastes every time someone seemed bored. The possibilities are immense and their exploitation may eventually make games a serious artistic player.

But first things first. The second crucial ingredient in the equation following the types of games made, are how these software toys are delivered and used. Multiplayer games have been the catch cry since the late ’90s, and Sega has recognised this by including a modem as standard with its new Dreamcast and allowing owners of its console access not only to other players around the world, but to email and net access through their TVs without an expensive PC.

On a very basic level this means more human contact. The PC on-line world is (at present) a “frag fest” of Quake death matches and Half-Life mods (1). Players run around a maze, players shoot each other, players start again. Not exactly advanced characterisation or emotional interaction. But other sites like Ultima On-Line offer at least a small step forward, allowing a reasonably detailed world for dedicated role players to muck about in, filled with literally thousands of other human players and overseen by a simulated economy.

The combination of the two, providing realistic and detailed environments with the ability to link to other human players in scenarios which offer more than the usual kill-or-be-killed mentality is where the potential to revolutionise entertainment lies. True virtual reality doesn’t need to strap a black plastic box to the top half of your head, it just has to allow you to interact with real people in a world which allows you to make different and realistic decisions.

Primary conclusion: will this new depth devour the arts as we know it? Of course not. If you need proof, notice that film did not kill books, and TV did not kill film, despite various doomsday prophecies. However, it does mark the emergence of a new form which is in direct competition with mainstream media. Secondary conclusion: but is it the death of the Hollywood blockbuster and the schlock novel? You never know. How many times can your average 14 year old kid get excited at a larger, more realistically executed explosion? And how many times must Bruce Willis save the world before we can all sleep at night? Because personally I’m doing okay already.

Endnotes

  1. “Frag fest” is a kitsch online way of saying “shoot ’em up”.