What would warrant referring to a video game as “a true classic” ? (from 2006)

[This essay first appeared on the (now, sadly defunct) web site of Arriviste Press, in 2006. It was ably edited by Rick Miller. Its original title was “Moby Dick in an X-Box?” ] 

It has been commonplace to dismiss video games as trash entertainment, but can video games become recognized as classics — in the same sense that ‘The Great Gatsby’, ‘Citizen Kane’, and ‘The Old Man and The Sea’  are?


Standard dictionaries define a classic as “a work of enduring interest and appeal – used especially [in] literature, art, and music.” Beyond that, the criteria for defining a ‘classic’ work are subject to debate, but most scholars expect a work to provide plot, dramatic tension, crisis and resolution. Certainly, most video games today are merely diversions (think Minesweeper or Tetris). They do not aspire to more than simple amusement — and nothing says they need to.


Some games, major projects with large budgets and legions of contributing staff,  clearly aspire to more. But when might we expect the literary or artistic experiences, expressed through the medium of video games, to achieve ‘classic’ status?


Edison’s kinetoscope parlor (i.e., movie theater) first opened to a paying public in April 1894. Edwin S. Porter crafted ‘The Great Train Robbery’ in 1903; Talkies arrived in 1928, and such films as ‘King Kong’ (1933),’The Wizard of Oz’ (1939) and ‘Gone With the Wind’ (1939) draw interest and are generally viewable today. It took four decades of development and experimentation, but film had arrived as a full-fledged dramatic medium.

As entertainment technology progresses, and as audiences grow more sophisticated in their appreciation of new media, ‘works of enduring interest and appeal’ will emerge in the medium of games as they did with cinema.

“Developers have realized they must move beyond the ‘zombie’ effects of really beautiful characters who have no social and emotional connection to the player. And this requires different ways of thinking about the game play itself,” says Katherine Isbister, Associate Professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in upstate New York.

Indeed the quintessential mindless video game, ‘Pong’  became available to consumers in the mid 1970s; yet by 1981, even the most formally dramatic games had hardly progressed beyond ‘Colossal Cave Adventure’ or ‘Zork’, and the more innovative ‘Pac-Man’ and ‘Donkey Kong’. (At least they had characters, of sorts.)


So what games might still be played 25 or 50 years from now? What, if anything, may be enduring about this new, more interactive medium for sight, sound, motion and text? The core characteristic games have — that more traditional media don’t — is interactivity. In a game, not only does the main character drive the action, the player drives the character. Successful games engage the player in making the choices. By making full use of interactivity, in concert with the other dramatic elements, games have potential for more deeply engaging narratives, ones that force the player toward an axiom of choice.


But will the dimension of interactivity impede, rather than enhance, a ‘good story, well told?’


The video game industry by and large (and self-admittedly) lacks a rationale or any sort of roadmap for providing a new and uniquely powerful form of literature.


“Creating detailed, realistic, and expressive content takes a lot of people, time, and money,” says industry expert Andrew Glassner. These costs create a powerful argument to play it safe. The major [game] studios do take some risks, but generally they need to be conservative and stick to what they are confident will sell.”

But the industry may be getting closer. Several recently released games may be the forbearers of the firstcritically accepted classic in the gaming genre:

[2013: These examples are now dated ]

Indigo Prophecy

Indigo Prophecy (Quantic Dream/Atari 2005) is an innovative and interesting game in which the player participates in solving a supernatural murder mystery from the points of view of multiple characters. Indigo Prophecy employs the suspense/horror genre much in the way an earlier game, Max Payne, employed film noir. From the first cut-scene — where the crucial character (Lucas Kain) jerkily lurches forward to attack and quickly stab a man to death — to the initial return to player control (“What have I done? I’ve got to get out of here!”), we are engaged both as viewer and player.


In an echo of Hitchcock’s introductory scenes at the beginning of each episode of his 1955-62 television show, game director David Cage introduces the game and its mechanisms via the tutorial and leaves us with two pearls of wisdom to apply as we explore the game’s challenges: “Every action has consequences,” and “Things are never quite what they seem.”


Indigo Prophecy provides players an innovative select-and-commit interface for interacting with the game environment or other characters. These choices play out in unexpected ways — asking one question may preclude your opportunity to ask a different question, or a time limit may pass before you have decided which tack to take. For example, early on in the crime investigation, the detective characters encounter a wino in an alley near the crime scene. Once the player initiates conversation with the wino, a timer kicks in. The choices of conversational line will branch, and then irrevocably drop out.


The plot device of invoking multiple points-of-view — first, that of an unwilling killer who seeks to find out what mysterious forces caused him to kill, then second, that of the detectives who are investigating the crime — involves us in the characters’ struggles and moves the plot to its crisis while avoiding repetition.


Within the limits of current game design constraints, Indigo Prophecy constitutes, at best, a promising beginning.  What is significant about this game is not merely the rich plot and the characterizations, but the high degree to which it succeeds in meshing the metaphor of a supernatural mystery/suspense movie plot and its attendant conventions with a (mostly) playable and challenging game experience.


David Cage is on record as saying, “…Video games were only exploiting a tiny part of their amazing creative potential, because they concentrated on ‘Action’ and totally neglected a fundamental element of human experience – emotion.”  It is on the basis of this worthy observation, as well as on entertainment value, playability, etc., that this game should be considered


The Godfather

The Godfather (EA Games, 2006) is a big-budget game based on one of the greatest film properties of all time. It illustrates what can occur when the game publishers have a great property to work from — a classic of its original genre — and ‘sky’s the limit’ on development.



The Godfather illustrates its brilliant development in this screenshot of game play action.



However, the dramatic elements that made the movie great are distinctly lacking from this otherwise highly immersive and compelling game. Principally what is missing is adherence to the dramatic rule that the main character must move the action. (See: Robert McKee’s textbook on the film scripting craft Story: Substance, Structure, Style and The Principles of Screenwriting(Regan Books, 1997). The player’s character doesn’t ever face the moral crises that beset Michael Corleone, and those choices and crises are what made the movie great. In the game, the player’s character is not a Corleone; he is some kid from the streets whom The Family takes under its wing, and who, through a series of successful missions, eventually rises to become ‘Don of New York’. Although adherence to the canon of the film is strict, actual crisis for this character is lacking or contrived. The player’s character throughout is simply ‘a man on the make’– no moral choice.

Despite great production values and a solid-gold license on the source content, this game is not destined to become a cultural classic. An opportunity lost?


Oblivion (Bethesda Softworks/2K Games, 2006) is a fantasy role-playing game based on the standard premise that Joseph Campbell termed ‘The Hero’s Journey’. In Oblivion, McKee’s commandment ‘that the protagonist shall move the action towards the crisis’ is upheld; however, if the protagonist opts not the move towards the crisis just yet, the crisis will wait.


Roger Ebert addressed this issue directly: “There is a structural reason for [why video games don’t seem to have any classics yet]: Video games by their nature require player choices, which is the opposite of the strategy of serious film and literature, which requires authorial control.”


Movies and novels move along at a pace determined by their crafters. The player’s objectives and progress are essentially self-directed, through his choice of whom to assist, and whom to wreak vengeance on. Main plot in Oblivion can wait, will wait, but it is the job of the designers, and their minions the characters throughout the game, to nudge the player towards taking up the quest perilous and at some point stop being distracted with all the little ‘errands of advancement’ along the way. Thus, both the principles of player choice and of the call of destiny are upheld.


The most forward-looking element of Oblivion is its use of nuanced — and variable — relationships. Not only are competing interests part of the game, but the attitude of the non-player characters can be influenced for good or ill by the player through a series of mini-conversations and, in some cases, cash bribes. Perhaps in a way, Oblivion’s designers are attempting something more challenging than envisioned for many films — they attempt to draw the player in, to get him to take up the core challenge, rather than have the film’s director finally have to show him how it all comes out.  Maybe the player comes to care for these silly people whose world he is saving from destruction.



Oblivion’s great graphics are complemented with unique relationship game play, but not enough to make a classic.



Yet none of these games fully rise to the challenge and potential of a dramatic interactive narrative fiction played out in a game.


Any game that seeks to draw the player in (invoking Aristotle’s catharsis), faces the large storytelling and development challenges associated with making the player feel something about the choices they make, about the emotional investment and identification they develop with the character and the storyline. Beyond deploying interactivity to invoke catharsis and identification, modern games typically enable non-linear plot and discovery choices not viable in films.


Although ambitious, innovative and to various degrees successful in their own right, Indigo Prophecy, The Godfather, and Oblivion each lacks some essential quality that would constitute a true classic for the medium. The talent and technique, and perhaps the audience, necessary to pull this off may not yet exist. But surely it will.

What we need are, as Robert McKee says, “Good stories, well told.”  Or, adapting slightly, what we hope for are “Good games, great stories, and well playable.”


We are only a few years away, I think, from the first truly classic character-driven dramatic game. Distinct from a film or a play, which are watched, or a book, which is read, a game is played. When a game is created with characters who struggle to a crisis in a new and powerful story, and these struggles are combined with the remarkable interactivity the industry is capable of designing: then a classic game will be born. But it’s all in the playing. And we are not there yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: