Video games are like porno movies. The vast majority of them are guilty of having just enough plot to get to "the good stuff." Or at least, that's the way it used to be.
In some cases it still is. Developers tend to spend the majority of their time focusing on finely tuning their core gameplay mechanic. If you were to look at the story backdrop of most games you'd find a barely coherent narrative that no screenwriter or film director would ever touch. Unfortunately, that's never stopped Uwe Boll.
However, there are a few developers that have realized that the video game presents an opportunity to tell a story in a way that cannot be done by a book or a film. The interactive nature of the medium gives the savvy developer the ability to deliver plot exposition and character development through the actions of the player controlling the game. Video games have crawled out of the primordial Atari 2600 soup of their fledgling days and must be considered a legitimate art form.
The mainstream media doesn't agree with me here. Most coverage you see regarding video games revolves around sensationalizing the new release of a particularly violent title.
The outpouring of righteous indignation by the talking heads when it was discovered Grand Theft Auto IV allowed you to pick up a hooker and then murder her on the street to get your money back is a good indication here. It wasn't mentioned that at no point does the game require the player to do this to advance, nor was the violent nature of the title ever viewed in context of the overall narrative.
When commentators learned that Mass Effect features a sex scene between the player character and a blue-skinned female alien, momentary hysteria exploded as the developer BioWare was accused of destroying the moral fabric of our children with fully interactive hardcore digital sex acts. It wasn't mentioned that this non-interactive sex scene consists of blurry side-angle shots of the character's midsection, legs and partial buttocks cut together with 'montage-style' love-making cinematography. Seriously, folks, you'll find more hardcore content than this in a Lifetime Original Movie. And once again, this sex scene isn't mandatory. It's sort of an Easter Egg you'll see if you've spent time in the game cultivating a relationship with either a human or alien female. Oh, and by the way - if you choose to make your player character a female, you have the option to pursue a relationship with either a human male or alien female, with the same type of 'sex scene' included depending on whether or not you've developed a relationship with them. I suspect the simulated depiction of on-screen lesbian sex might just be what torques the Jerry Falwell crowd more than anything.
This kind of hack moral posturing doesn't happen so much anymore when it comes to cinema. Racy and provocative content gets put out every year without so much as a peep from the mainstream media. Yet it seems if adult themes are explored in a video game, it's time to light the torches and rally behind Jack Thompson. Never mind that every single title sold in this country is rated by the ESRB. Parents have no right to deflect responsibility to the game's producer if their kid comes home with a copy of Manhunt. The hypothetical retailer that sold this title to the child is at fault for not enforcing the ESRB rating system...but the parents shoulder the majority of the blame. Would you let your kids go and purchase whatever movies they wanted without you there to supervise? No, huh? Then why would you let your kid do it with a video game?
It seems that media outlets as a whole view games as things that should only be used by children, and whenever adult content is placed in a game, the software companies are purposely trying to corrupt and destroy the fragile minds of our children. I'd suspect this is more of an age-gap issue than anything else. The majority of the journalists in question here remember video games as being like Pong, Asteroids, Paperboy, and Gauntlet - mindless repetition of a simple task for little more than a reward in points. I think it's fair to assume that they believe interactive digital entertainment still holds to this paradigm. And while they outgrew video games and pursued their careers, the digital entertainment industry grew and evolved right under their noses into the legitimate art form they are today.
To view video games as nothing more than children's toys is to take an incredibly unrealistic view of what the medium is capable of from an artistic and storytelling standpoint. To be sure, many games are released each year whose plot lines are incomprehensible and ludicrous, seeming only to exist to justify whatever "twitch" action the game is based on. But there are many movies released each year that suffer from this as well. Video game reviews from sites like IGN.com are aware of this, and routinely take marks away from titles for half-baked storytelling.
In Part Two of this post, I'm going to focus on some examples of contemporary video games that pushed the boundaries of storytelling and delivered an absolutely compelling experience worthy of notice and respect from gamers and non-gamers alike.