"It is a curious characteristic of our modern civilisation that, whereas we are prepared to devote untold physical and mental resources to reaching out into the furthest reaches of the galaxy, or to delve into the most delicate mysteries of the atom... one of the greatest and most important mysteries is lying so close beneath our noses that we scarcely even recognise it to be a mystery at all. At any given moment... hundreds of millions of people will be engaged [in] one of those strange sequences of mental images which we call a story." - Christopher Booker, The Seven Basic Plots
Narrative is our link to the universe.
Visceral immediacy is sold to us as a reminder that we are "alive." It is stimulation, a release of epinephrine from the adrenal medulla, increasing heart rate, dilating pupils, elevating blood sugar levels. It's a deception - a brief, drug-induced elevation above the norm. Story is the narration of our truth.
Visit a videogame developer while they're working on a project, and you can be certain to hear about one thing: graphics.
"We're implementing the very latest four-dimensional bloom lighting techniques so every light bulb in the game will glow 47% more - in the past and the future!
"With the state-of-the-art bump-map particle physics engine we've spent 95% of our budget on, our characters are able to have 10,010 polygons, trouncing the mere 10,000 in our previous game!
"Look! Look at the shiny objects! See how they glint and turn! Looooook. Loooooooook at the shiiiiiiiiny. Stare deeeeeeeep into the pretty lights..."
This ridiculous race for incremental steps toward photo-realism is a self- perpetuating, tail-chasing exercise. Publishers will not support a project that doesn't implement the latest technology, developers live in abject fear of not including the decorative features of their rivals and gamers all too eagerly buy into the whole charade. We have sold ourselves the lie that graphics matter, and it's looking increasingly unlikely that we'll ever manage to untangle ourselves from it.
This isn't denial. The opening levels of FarCry were a thing of wonder, as my PC was suddenly generating pictures that were, as daft as this sounds, prettier than real life. I called friends over to my house to see it. We stared in awe. It was beautiful. Of course, once the game shifted to indoor locations and the wonderful island vistas became rarer, my interest wandered. FarCry didn't have anything to say.
Christopher Booker, in his seminal tome, The Seven Basic Plots, dedicated 30 years to studying the structure of Story, its key proponents and, ultimately, its power.
"The more familiar we become with the nature of [the] shaping forms and forces lying beneath the surface of stories, pushing them into patterns and directions which are beyond the storyteller's conscious control, the more we find that we are entering a realm to which recognition of the plots themselves proves only to have been the gateway. We are in fact uncovering nothing less than a kind of hidden, universal language."
Our visual fixations deny this truth, and prevent our recognition of the significance of games that pass through this gateway.
Irregular The Escapist columnist Jim Rossignol (who, incidentally, contends with much of this piece's argument) wrote, describing the philosopher Rorty's interpretation of this consciousness: "He argues that human beings deal with the world through a 'final vocabulary.' This, like a box of tools, is the set of methods we have appropriated for interpreting and reinterpreting the world around us. Our public final vocabulary is the set of ideas and sentences that we use to deal with people and their own ideas."
I contend that the power of a vocabulary, in the context of a game's narrative, is so great, it overwhelms graphics. We connect by hearing others' "final vocabularies" and incorporating them into our own - increasing and developing our perceptions, building upon our interpretive vocabulary. Graphics provide spectacle, they can draw us in and they can certainly be the means by which a narrative is delivered. But they are only the messenger. There has to be a message.