Open World Video Games: 21st Century Art

The video game market has quietly become a behemoth of industry, outpacing passive visual entertainment mediums such as movies and television by leaps and bounds. Last year alone the industry took in over thirty-six billion dollars—that’s billion with a “b”—in the US alone. Why have video games become such a popular pastime? Why will some of us invest hundreds of hours into games? Are we, as a culture, better or worse off for this development?  

Any attempt at a piece about the influence of video games on our culture would be incomplete without giving, at the very least, a short homage to the history of the form. Video games couldn’t always offer players the experiences they do today. From the earliest days of Pong, Pacman, and Galaga, video games basically offered a difficult puzzle. Players in the eighties weren’t looking for a profound art experience, engrossing literature, or contemporary music. They were simply looking for a colorful and, often times, challenging respite from the daily grind. No different from throwing a football in the yard, drinking a beer, or smoking a cigarette. Early gaming wasn’t profound; it was simply entertaining.

However, as the medium grew, the capacity for utility increased as exponentially as the computing power needed to convey such profundity. Second- and third-generation games such as Zelda, Super Mario Bros., and Castlevania introduced a new element to keep the player addicted: story. But not just any story, THE story—the quest. The hero, going along in his everyday life, is confronted with a great journey to kill dragons and rescue princesses. He must sacrifice and grow in order to overcome not only his enemy, but also himself. This was a new addition. This quest, this story, has been told for millennia to young ones, but now was finding new expression. Video games, at this stage of development, were a new entertaining, safe, and even stimulating instrument with which to convey that timeless story. At this point players need not just seek to be entertained, but inspired.

The inspirational quality of video games cannot be understated. The examples are far too numerous for me to even broach, but I will provide an anecdote from my own life: Final Fantasy VII. If you were an RPG (role-playing game) player in the late 90’s you probably share this experience. This game was so rich in color, design, and character development that it rivaled the (admittedly, very few) books I was reading at the time in terms of scope and effect on me. Cloud, the hero of the story, was a loner who (SPOILER ALERT) was genetically engineered to be a super soldier. However, in a bout of amnesia he sought out to understand his past, and consequently himself, while saving a damsel in distress from the dragon of an exploitative corporation. I learned a lot from Cloud. I, too, was a genetically engineered, loner super-soldier (or at least that’s what I told myself). In actuality, I was a little poor boy in Atlanta who was home alone a lot because my mama had to work 2-3 jobs to keep a roof over our head and food on the table. My PlayStation, a Christmas gift, was the only thing I had to keep me company. We lived in a really rough area, so I couldn’t really play in the streets. This game was what I had to learn from during some of my formative years. Cloud was my role model. I immersed myself in the story, like any great novel, movie, or piece of music, not only to escape, but also to find an alternative to my difficulties. I took those lessons into my life. When I found myself, as I often did, on the cusp of a fight, I thought, “What would Cloud do?” When tragedy befell me, when times were rough, when all hope seemed lost, I remembered that Cloud felt that way, too. Or Mario. Or Link. Or Ash. And they always overcame by doing the right thing.

A lot of young men like me we were raised on video games. The world was changing in the 90s. Any child who lived in areas like I did didn’t really have the option to go outside and play. Outside was much too dangerous with the drugs, the gang violence, and the all the consequences of systemic poverty that surrounded me. Not to mention the abduction scares, typified by John Walsh’s “America’s Most Wanted”, that, like video games, dramatized the evil of the world and inspired fear in the hearts of parents all over the country. However, the stories of our videos games provided us with an escape…and an example… of good overcoming evil. Not to mention a beautiful artistic example.

For the inexperienced or skeptical, video games may seem a waste of time or even an escape from reality. However, for millions in the world they provide the same inspiration that great literature, film, and music provides: timeless stories flawlessly and artistically executed in the form of their time. Truly, video games are the capital “A” Art of the 21st century.

The most profound execution of this channeling of artistic achievement is the relatively new concept of the open world game. Whereas the games referenced above had predetermined stories that guided the player through a limited storyline, open world games provide an overarching storyline plus side quests, secret missions, and customization at a level of detail that is seemingly endless. These games, even more than the storied achievements of the last three decades, truly take the hero’s journey and the cultural relevance of gaming to new heights. In them, not only is the player taught the essentials of the quest of the individual (as I described above), but also choice, morals, and conscientiousness. Games like Fable, Horizon Zero Dawn, Fallout, and recently the mega-hit Red Dead Redemption 2 offer not only the opportunity for players to immerse themselves in fantastic worlds of jungles, dystopian futures, and the wild west of early America, but also offer them the chance to decide how someone should interact in such a world. Should they focus on the meta-narrative provided to them by their character’s creator or should they go off and do their own thing? Should they care about others or themselves? Should they prioritize the needs of others or themselves? To wit, not only are players offered these choices, but they also face the consequences of these choices. In these new games every decision that a player makes will influence how their characters develop in the future. If their characters stick to the main mission to fulfill their purpose, they will be rewarded with adventure and stories that, again, rival literature in their scope, all the while feasting their eyes on true artistic achievements in visual composition. However, just like in real life, players need not necessarily be concerned with the meta-narratives handed down to them by designers or engineers (authority figures). Indeed, they can skip the meta-narrative altogether and focus on themselves, their wants, their desires, and their customization, if they so desire. However, at some point this will get lonely…just like real life.

2018’s PlayStation 4 hit Red Dead Redemption 2, mentioned above, is one such game. This open world game, set in the late 1800s west of America as civilization starts to infringe upon the outlaw lifestyle, perfectly represents true artistic achievement mixed with the existential education that I am arguing above. In the game you assume the role of Arthur Morgan, an outlaw on the run from the law with a gang of fellow ragamuffins, as he navigates a world forgotten and a world to come. Like us, sitting on the other side of the TV screen, Arthur is constantly faced with choices of whether to help those in need, sometimes to his detriment, or take advantage of his power and force others to obey his will, often to his financial advantage but ultimate moral erosion. However, these choices, like our choices, do not take place in a void. Every decision Arthur makes is reflected in the way other characters treat him. If Arthur goes around shooting people at random or robbing them or getting in fights, towns unite against him and come after him in droves. If Arthur is a gentlemen, he is often lauded, praised, and rewarded (or at the very least not chased by the cops and bounty hunters all over town). Likewise, Arthur’s choices of food, hygiene, and frivolities carry consequences. If he doesn’t eat, he starves. If he doesn’t bathe he stinks and loses stamina and social credibility. If he smokes too much he suffers from lung disease. In short, we assume the life of Arthur Morgan and take responsibility for him. Taking responsibility for a life is the apex and purpose of any conscious life. In open world games like RDR2 we can choose whether to take this responsibility… and live or die with the consequences.

Whether this development in human artistic achievement and philosophical teaching is a net positive or a detriment will be debated for decades to come. Will the constant market boom and technological advancements lead to an anti-social matrix where moralistic considerations are only relevant within the game? Or will we be able to temper our consumption and use the games as tools like the great books, songs, and paintings of the past to show us examples of purpose, moral virtue, and the consequences of our actions? Well, if I only had Super Mario or Pokémon to teach me, I might be more inclined to think the future is predetermined according to someone else’s story. But if I’ve learned anything from the artistic achievements of the 21st century, exemplified in open world video games, it’s that our choices matter. May we learn and choose wisely…because there will be consequences.