It’s the 1980s, and video games, while not mainstream, are rising in popularity amongst teenagers and children. They’re fun and entertaining, and most importantly, they’re the perfect form of escapism; when you turn on a Nintendo Entertainment System or pump some quarters into an arcade machine, you stop being boring you on the tediously repetitive Earth and you become a series of pixels on a screen, killing enemies and saving innocents. That was gaming in the 1980s.
I’m not going to talk about gaming as an art form, or how hardcore gamers are no longer the target market; no, I’m going to talk about how the morals of the gamer – you and I and everybody else reading this – have changed. Let’s take a look at some classic games which I’m sure you’ll all remember. I’ve picked a wide range to illustrate my point in the most cohesive way possible. I’ll start with an old favourite: The Legend of Zelda. Alright, here we go, it’s a basic enough premise: you’re a hero called Link, there’s a princess called Zelda that needs saving, so you gotta go do what you gotta do. You can’t just stroll up to the castle and demand her back, however. First, you’ll need to collect weapons, talk to wizards in caves, defeat bosses and traverse some fairly treacherous terrain. It’s all very epic.
Let’s cycle back in time a little bit and go to Space Invaders. It’s a very basic game in all respects; visually, it looks like nothing more than some squished flies descending from the top of the screen to the bottom of the screen, with a green triangle throwing rectangles at them to block their progress. Of course, in your head, you’re defending planet Earth from invading aliens. You are a hero, saving the world from these little bastard sky-bugs. Right on. Of course, nobody plays Space Invaders any more. You want to save the world from aliens, you’ll play Half-Life 2, which puts you in the shoes of physicist Gordon Freeman, defending the world from the Combine, who have appointed Dr Breen as ruler of the now very dystopian Earth. Once again, you play the hero, and you’re killing alien invaders to save the world.
Do you see what I’m getting at yet? The most traditional form of narrative in video gaming sees you play the hero, saving the world, a village, or even just a petty little princess. The gamer feels empowered. Virtual people are praising him for his deeds, and that’s a great form of escapism: you’re escaping to a world where you’ve done something impossible, and everybody loves you for that. Let’s go accelerate into the future and take a look at Red Dead Redemption. You’re an outlaw in the Wild West, but not the loveable anti-hero type you’ve seen Clint Eastwood play. In fact, you can earn an achievement for successfully killing a woman by tying her to train tracks. That’s not heroic at all, that’s bloody villainy.
You couldn’t get away with that back in the ’80s; what kind of gamer back then would want to play a game where you can slaughter innocent people without remorse? Games have continued to evolve to the point where they’re beginning to attract a completely different kind of audience, one that is perfectly willing to break their moral code in a virtual world, and that has created the demand for games like Red Dead Redemption. I’m not in any way damning games like this – hell, Grand Theft Auto is one of the finest sandbox series ever, and the latest instalments have a much stronger narrative than most people give credit. In fact, this new evolution of gamer has given us a wider range of games to play, so for that, I reckon we ought to give credit to these depraved souls. Next time you play BioShock and come to the point where you can choose to harvest or save your Little Sister, remember that someone, somewhere, always chooses to harvest, and it’s thanks to them we have Grand Theft Auto, Red Dead Redemption, All Points Bulletin and Manhunt.