The Leaderboard: Videogames and the Vast Wasteland

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For decades you could do one thing with a television: stare at it. It was an exit-only pipeline pumping commercials and lowest common denominator entertainment directly into our households. Technology has changed how we watch TV, but despite greater choice and the ability to fast forward through ads television is still a passive exercise. Shows can make us think and feel and lead to conversations both shallow and deep, but in the end we’re still beholden to the decisions of others.

Videogames introduced an entirely new way to enjoy a TV set, and brought at least the illusion of choice with them. We control our own fate in games as simple as Pong and as complex as Skyrim, interacting with rules and narrative to craft an experience that might vary drastically for each of us. Those narratives have grown increasingly vital over the last decade, as improved technology lets games reasonably appropriate the visual language of movies and TV shows. Although many of these games clearly aspire to be epic, interactive movies, few are formatted after television shows, with stories neatly divided into concrete sections. You might need a TV to play Call of Duty or Grand Theft Auto on a console, and you might feel like you’re watching them as much as you’re playing them, but they’ll always feel less like TV shows than action movies where the ratio of people talking to stuff blowing up is even more ridiculously out of whack than usual. (So like a Michael Bay movie, then.) It’s odd that this medium that probably wouldn’t exist without the television rarely takes its cues from the programming that remains TV’s primary purpose.

There’s no shortage of videogames based on popular TV shows. There was a M.A.S.H. game for the Atari 2600, and various adaptations of CSI and Law & Order’s many franchises. There will never be a videogame system that doesn’t have at least one Star Trek game. Telltale Games’ episodic Walking Dead series is based more on the comic than the TV show, and its episodic nature is simply Telltale’s standard business model and not an attempt to emulate the show. Any cartoon or children’s show that lasts more than a season gets its own videogame, but those almost always put the show’s characters in a game world instead of trying to feel like the show itself. That’s true of the vast majority of videogames based on TV shows: Instead of feeling like you’re playing through an episode of that show, they more often just dress up rushed, lackluster design with the trappings of some momentarily popular property. (A notable exception is Lost: Via Domus, which is divided into seven episodes with opening and closing credits and music from the show. Don’t even try it if you weren’t obsessed with the first two seasons of Lost.)

The videogames that most resemble TV shows aren’t based on real TV shows. Alan Wake is the best example yet of a game mimicking the presentation of a television program, and it’s an entirely original creation (despite obvious allusions to Twin Peaks and The Twilight Zone). Like the Lost game, Alan Wake is broken up into a handful of episodes, which are basically just videogame levels book-ended with credit sequences and “previously seen on” montages. With writing and acting that’s better than most games and many actual TV programs, Alan Wake looks and feels like a weird computer-animated TV show, albeit one in which the lead character spends most of every episode scampering through the woods, aiming a flashlight at possessed yokels and collecting abandoned thermoses for no reason whatsoever.

The drama and action of Alan Wake are both heightened by this episodic presentation. It’s rare for a game’s story to enthrall me to the point where I want to keep playing just to see what happens next, but Wake’s use of cliffhangers and last second twists hooked me like a great TV show. When those credits rolled I would immediately start up the next episode, just like my wife and I do when we’re watching something on Netflix or HBO GO. The end-of-episode pop-song montage might be a lazy cliché for most TV dramas these days, but by virtue of its rarity in games it becomes fresh and exciting when Alan Wake does it. (Also, how many games would put a Nick Cave song on the soundtrack? Sure, he’s far from obscure, but this is generally Linkin Park turf.)

Asura’s Wrath, an action game released earlier this year, adopts a similar episodic presentation. The Japanese game feels so much like an anime that I started to wonder if it was based on one. That episodic affectation is extremely important in this case, as the story would make almost no sense at all if the episodes weren’t book-ended by recaps and previews. Despite its absurdity Asura’s Wrath flows even more like a TV show than Alan Wake, in large part due to the regular Quick Time Events that minimize action to a single time-sensitive button-press. A game can disappear under too many QTEs, though, and there’s not much reason to recommend Asura’s Wrath beyond its compelling presentation.

This type of structure is absolutely arbitrary, of course. Television shows are serialized for economic and logistical reasons that don’t apply to videogames. That structure isn’t mandatory for a successful videogame or story, and neither does it insure success—whatever value is added by the format depends on the quality of its execution. It’s such a natural way to consume media through the television, though, and if done well it’s perhaps the most direct way to keep a player interested in a game’s story. It’s surprising that more games don’t follow television’s lead.

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