Video games are undoubtedly big business. They’re so big, in fact, that they effortlessly out-earn the film and music industries combined. For instance, the Avengers: Infinity War film generated US$258 million at the cinema box office in 2018. In the same year, Red Dead Redemption II—a game playable on the PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC—made a staggering US$725 million in its opening weekend. The adventures that players can enact within big-budget game franchises such as Red Dead Redemption, Uncharted, and Assassin’s Creed become ever more spectacular, year on year.
The progress seems set to continue unabated and India is intricately linked to this global economic and cultural surge, with Indian branches of studios like Technicolor, Electronic Arts (EA), Ubisoft and Zynga taking on large portions of the development work needed to create high-end titles. The value of India’s gaming industry is estimated to reach over US$1.2 billion.
But what does the future of video games hold? Is it more of the same, but bigger and better? To answer this question, we must first reflect on gaming’s evolution—where it currently stands and the medium’s origins.
The world’s first-ever video game was a simulation of real-world tennis called Tennis for Two, which appeared 61 years ago in 1958, and was playable on a Donner Model 30 analog computer in a science laboratory setting. For comparison, the first American-style comic, Famous Funnies #1 was published 24 years before that, in 1934. As the title suggests, Famous Funnies mostly comprised comedic gags, which set the theme for comics in years to come until the medium experienced a golden age of popularity and artistic growth that started in the late 30s and finished around the early 50s. It’s during this period that a new generation of comic creators refined the medium’s conventions and reached a mainstream audience with superhero characters like Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman, and Captain Marvel.
The light-hearted themes of early comics nonetheless meant that they were negatively perceived as meaningless time-wasters—a stigma that the medium still hasn’t fully shaken-off and continues to give it a subordinate status to classical arts to many onlookers. It took until 1992 for the first graphic novel to win the prestigious Pulitzer Prize in 1992, which was Maus: A Survivor’s Tale by Art Spiegelman.
Following a similar thread, the first animated film, Humorous Phases of Funny Faces, was produced 113-years ago in 1906 and the medium experienced a Golden Age that started in the late 20s and finished around the early 60s. Popular characters that emerged during this time include Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Tom and Jerry, Betty Boop and Pink Panther.
What characterised the golden ages of comics and animation was a fresh generation of creators who overcame conventions set by industry pioneers. What they did was to connect the unique aspects of these young mediums with the traditional techniques that encompassed—such as pictorial composition, color theory and animation—which date back 600 years to the beginning of the Renaissance and beyond. Doing so gave comic creators and animators alike a sophisticated range of creative tools with which to craft subtler, emotionally-resonant experiences. Animation’s journey of self-discovery is nicely summarised by Walt Disney (1901-1966): “At first the cartoon medium was just a novelty, but it never really began to hit until we had more than tricks. You have to have [empathy] in the thing.”
Without hindsight, it’s hard to gauge if the video games industry is in the midst of its own golden age. Sixty-one years is an incredibly short period of time for any medium to reach full maturity—especially in the case of video games, which has a significantly broader art and entertainment heritage that include board games, sports, acting, architecture, painting, sculpture, literature, music and theatre (not to mention scientific fields like psychology and neuroscience). It’s perhaps worth asking, what perceived conventions might video games need to overcome?
Reports suggest that Epic Games’ Fortnite (2017) earned an estimated US$2.4-billion throughout 2018 and hosted 78.3 million active players in August 2018, alone.
A major clue lies in the word “games.” Ever since Tennis for Two, games have been characterised by competitiveness and win-objectives. Players must outplay computer or human opponents: defeat an advancing horde of aliens (Space Invaders); defeat the archenemy and save the princess (Super Mario Bros.); conquer the world (Civilization); be the last player standing (Fortnite). The ongoing focus on skills-based experiences makes perfect sense from a business perspective. As development budgets for high-end video games have increased to astronomical figures and the number of players is set to reach 2.7-billion by 2021, it’s best to play it safe and produce the same or similar content that everybody expects from the medium.
The serious emotional themes actively experienced in That Dragon, Cancer (2016), by Numinous Games, help elevate games beyond common conceptions of the medium.
It’s only in recent years that the industry has begun to break this mould with titles like Gone Home, and That Dragon, Cancer, which challenges their categorisation as games because they are void of competition and explicit win objectives. They’re not even “fun” in the way that we normally associate with games.
For instance, That Dragon, Cancer is an autobiographical game by Amy and Ryan Green and their struggle to raise their son with terminal cancer. Gone Home is about a young woman dealing with familial and social strife as she comes to terms with her sexuality. The subordination of conventional skills-based challenges makes That Dragon, Cancer and Gone Home difficult for many players to accept. The overarching challenges that these games confront players with are a nuanced player-skill: Empathy.
Death Stranding (2019), by Kojima Productions, has received polarising reviews because it features long tracts of walking that encourage players to quietly reflect and empathise with the playable character.
The recently released Death Stranding—the vision of Hideo Kojima of Metal Gear Solid fame—may have more conventional game objectives and challenges, but it explores a solitary, contemplative experiential space. It has encountered mixed reviews with some players labelling it as boring, while others saying that it’s the game of the decade.
This avant-garde development scene is likewise present in India with award-winning “indie” (independent) developers like Hyderabad-based Ogre Head Studio, and Quicksand in Goa bringing a distinctly local flavor to video games. Quicksand’s Antariksha Sanchar, for instance, is inspired by the dream theorems of prodigious mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan, and an opera by the classical dancer Jayalakshmi Eshwar—weaving Indian culture and philosophy with a stunning visual presentation.
The suggestion is that video games are gradually transforming into the perfect medium for telling unique, personal stories and generating empathy through active participation of the player-audience. This change is gaining speed because of the democratisation of game development tools and publishing platforms like Unity, Unreal, Steam and Apple’s App Store, which means that a personal computer and internet access are the biggest entry barriers faced by aspiring game designers—thus giving interactive voices to game creators that don’t fall into the typical teenage, straight white male audience. Additionally, the cross-section of people making games has also gotten older. With parenting, family responsibilities and less time comes a different world view and entertainment needs.
A poster of Antariksha Sanchar.
The industry is still working to reconcile the various art and entertainment forms upon which video games are grounded, including my personal research into the overlap between traditional craft and interactive media, with the aim of heightening physical empathy and embodiment. A broader definition encompassing games as interactive art will be undoubtedly be required to account for the increasingly varied and unexpected experiences, created by culturally diverse teams, that have yet to be created.
So we still haven’t reached the point where we can confidently say, “Ah ha! That’s what games are!” It’s increasingly clear that video games need not be fun. They can explore the entire breadth and depth of human experience just like music and literature. A time will come in the next decade, or so, when we’ll be able to paraphrase Walt Disney and say: at first the video game medium was just about skills-based challenges, but it never really began to hit until we had more than tricks. You have to have empathy in the thing. We’ll then see that the games we enjoy today, while already demonstrating an incredible level of creative and economic success, were only a small taste of what’s to come.
Chris Solarski is an artist-game designer and author of ‘Drawing Basics’ and ‘Video Game Art: Classic to Cutting-Edge Art Techniques for Winning Game Design’. He will be a part of the EyeMyth Media Arts Festival in Mumbai from November 29 to December 1, 2019. Book your tickets here.