Warning: If, for some reason, you are playing through the video game Red Dead Redemption and have yet to beat it please stop reading now. I am going to talk about the entire last half of the story in this post. You've been warned.
As I have mentioned in previous blogs (and have mentioned once here) I am a big supporter of video games. While I don't play as many as I would like to I do enjoy learning as much as I can about them. They've always fascinated me since my father was playing Dig Dug on his old Atari 2600 when I was barely five or six years old. No matter what Roger Ebert says, video games can and are art. HOWEVER, not all games are art since not all are made to be. It's the same with movies and books: not all are made to be serious thought-provoking tales. Some are simply to pass the time while bored. The same can be said about the digital entertainment industry. Just look at the annual release of Madden. While the games still do what they set out to do (make millions of sports fans happy), they are NOT art. They serve their purpose well and are rewarded financially because of it. As a libertarian I am completely fine with this because of our beliefs that people (and therefore products and ideas) are compensated for what they do to further the standard of living for the rest of society. I do not like most sports games but if others do then more power to them and their creators. No one is lesser for liking them.
If you have ever played a game like Shadow of the Colossus, Heavy Rain, or Braid you can make a case that if a lot of love and dedication go into the overall experience and story it will rival some of Hollywood's greatest achievements. Art is supposed to invoke emotions and responses, right? The whole idea is to express to you some underlying message or meaning that probably isn't directly spelled out in text. Video games can and do this yearly. I think Roger Ebert's big problem is that he is not a gamer, so therefore he still has the stereotypical response that video gaming is nothing more than overweight nerds playing old arcade cabinets in their basement because they have no social life. Just look at how much money companies like Activision and EA make. It is no longer a niche market, and therefore has to throw off the 1980's view of being only a social outcast's hobby. Everyone (from authors to big time philosophers) are involved in gaming now because they know it is a way to better reach their audience since being involved in the experience helps relay the message. I agree with this and I feel that the majority of the gaming world does too.
This brings me to one of the most recent games I had a chance to beat: Red Dead Redemption from Rockstar. The biggest reason why I even mention it is because they have come a long way from being the "cop killing simulator" that brought them to the Senate floor during the Playstation 2's era. In the surface RDR is the exact same as Grand Theft Auto: it is an open-world sandbox game that loosely shows you where to go to advance the plot while giving you miles of virtual land to roam around in and do as you please. It's not until you get to the last part of the story that the game really opens up and shows the player that Rockstar is changing how people view them and the ending to a video game in general. I am the first to admit that most games don't end well. There's a big rise up to the final fight with some evil being, then the credits roll. That's it. Mario saves the day again from Bowser or Pac-Man eats all the white dots. There's almost always no show of what is after the finish to let the interactivity of the player reap the rewards of the previous toils and challenges faced to save the princess, save the world, whatever the case may be. You never get to feel the accomplishment beyond seeing a long scrolling list of the people that worked on the title. We don't care who the Quality Assurance Support was, we want to see what happens after Mario gets back to his house. Rockstar has done this, and therefore the opposite of the norm, and let the player keep playing after the story is complete.
I'm not saying they keep the world open so you can finish any side missions you haven't had the patience to do. I'm talking about you as the outlaw John go back to your family that you just saved and live with them. You get to teach your son how to hunt and how to herd sheep. You get to ride around and make connections to local farmers to hopefully save your ranch from the destruction of the upcoming winter. Even after all of this RDR does another 360 and finishes the story by killing the main character.
Imagine my surprise. Every bad guy has been put to death, the government has finally gotten off your back and pardoned your past crimes of gang life, and bam. John is killed while trying to save his family from the very same people that kidnapped them in the first place. The credits roll, and then the unthinkable happens again: you keep playing. You are instantly teleported to control of John's son the minute after you run away from the ranch. With your mother riding behind you gunshots ring out, signifying your father's dead.
The screen fades.
Images reappear. It's raining and dark out as someone who is wearing a familiar cowboy duster coat stands up from two graves. Swinging the camera around, you are now the main character's son ten years in the future. Every skill he was just taught is now in effect as you can now hunt, shoot, and do what your father did. Nothing shows on the map as a story or mission, so you assume that the game is finally over.
Then, if you are lucky, you go to one of the cities and see that there is a side mission. If you go to it, you find out that Jack (the son) is going after his father's killer. If you choose to you can track him down to get revenge, and the credits roll for the final time.
Is this art? No, but it shows how gaming is making a large step in the right direction by making things unconventional and ambitious. It threw a loophole and plot twist at us that usually isn't seen. If this can give society a good reason why Rockstar isn't as bad as they say maybe it'll help the whole hobby and industry as a whole since most "art games" aren't as popular as GTA and the like. They just don't get the attention. I bet most gamers don't know what Shadow of the Colossus is, that it is a prequel to ICO, or that both of the games are some of the essential titles from the last decade.