As videogames ascend the ranks of popular media - they are now played in at least 75% of American homes, according to the Entertainment Software Association - they have begun to shed their image as merely an entertaining diversion for kids who should probably be studying or out playing sports. Though they still carry a certain stigma for many people - and for not a few politicians - most of the country and much of the world now understands gaming as a worthwhile pastime for people of all ages. Studies show that what gaming takes time away from is not sports or school, for the most part, but television. Onscreen entertainment is moving into the interactive realm. Viewed from the proper perspective, the rise of gaming is merely an evolution, not a dangerous revolution at all.
But just how far can videogames rise? The words "screen art" used to bring to mind the names of great movie directors like Hitchcock, Truffaut or Scorsese. Now, they conjure up the names of gorgeous videogames like Elder Scrolls: Oblivion or Shadow of the Colossus. Can the "art" of videogames ever make the transition from assets to expression? Or, put another way: Can a videogame make you cry?
Any time this question gets hauled out, there are a few key moments that are cited as the most tragic in videogame history. Chief among them is the unexpected death of the character Aeris in Final Fantasy VII. Fans who had come to know and love Aeris over the course of the story were shocked to witness her death at the hands of the evil Sephiroth, the game's central villain. Some games, like some movies, do a better job of painting character than others.
By the time Aeris dies, her personality has been so well developed, we've grown attached to her; we care about her and we want to know more. To see her fall at the hands of Sephiroth is a loss that touches gamers as much as tearjerking scenes like E.T.'s departure or the students' "O Captain, my Captain" tribute to Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society - or any number of other movie moments - touch moviegoers every time.
An on-rails single-player game like Final Fantasy - if it's very well written - can do that only because it's the gaming subgenre closest to a feature film. There is one plot and one outcome, and while in a game there may be slight variations in how you get to the end, there is really only one author of the action, and that's the development team.
But there are games other than Final Fantasy, and unlike traditional media, in which the viewer is only ever a passive participant, some games can allow the gamer to take a more active role, not just in the action but in the authorship of the plot and development of the characters, as well.
Take an open-world game like Grand Theft Auto or Gun, for instance, or the recently released Elder Scrolls: Oblivion, which has been capturing gamers' imaginations in droves. All of these games have their pre-determined plots, as well. The series of missions send players on what's essentially a long-range quest to build street cred and gain control of territory, take revenge on old enemies, or just save the world, depending on the kind of adventure you prefer.
But open-world games also allow their players to create their own plots, and that's where the possibilities get more interesting. There is no fixed set of people or places who may become important to you, but a rich mix of both to choose from. Most of the central characters in open-world games are governed by the same set of narrative rules as those in on-rails environments, of course. But to be banished from the 'hood by a rival gang in GTA or shunned by an NPC who had become an ally and friend in Oblivion can be just as painful as losing a companion adventurer like Aeris. Can it make you cry? Perhaps. But what it can do, regardless of the tears or lack thereof, is start to more closely approach the plot of a "literary" novel, in which people, places and things have a much more evocative presence. It asks players to contribute their creativity to the game. You've invested yourself in the game, not just as an observer but also as one of its authors, and if it was you who wrote that meaningful encounter into the gameplay - not through any software mechanics but by letting it mean something to you - any unexpected reversals are bound to have a deeper impact.