Breathtaking. Literally.

The realism of video games takes storytelling to another level.

Breathtaking. Literally.

As a 56-year-old Professor of Astrophysics who plays a lot of video games, I spend a fair amount of time explaining to other 50-somethings why that's not a bad thing.

For most people my age, video games are something their kids did—and often, they did too much of it. Of course, I like shooting aliens, zombies, etc. as much as the next inner-16-year-old, but if that was all there was to it, I would not invest the hours (and there are many) working my way through a good game.

Recently I finished Red Dead Redemption 2 (RDR2), one of the most acclaimed titles of the year. It was so good that I could see, explicitly, what makes these games so powerful: A new way of doing what human beings have always done—tell stories. That is what makes this new and ever-expanding technology worth paying attention to.

(SPOILER ALERT: If you plan on playing RDR2, you may want to stop reading.)

Red Dead Redemption is a big sprawling story, like a great 600-page novel. Taking place in 1899, its principal theme is the closing of the American West's “Wild" era. You play as Arthur Morgan, a member of the Van der Linde gang of outlaws. But unlike most of the fictional outlaw bands you've seen in movies, Arthur's compatriots make up a kind of multi-ethnic extended family that includes a large number of women, a pastor who's fallen to opium, an aging drunk called “Uncle," and more. Their leader, Dutch Van der Linde, considers himself a kind of prophet of the underclass as the true heirs to the American spirit of freedom and self-reliance. In his eyes, to be an outlaw means to resist mining and railroad companies and their attempts to exploit the least powerful.

Taken together, it's the stuff of sweeping narrative as you follow Arthur and the rest of the Van der Linde gang as they fight desperately against the forces leveling the West in the name of profit. But if that's all there was to RDR2, then it would just be a great novel or an exceptional movie. The technologies inherent in modern video gaming allows for an entirely different kind of engagement with the story whose delights are in the details.

Inhabiting the character

Much has been written about “interactivity" in games. For story-driven “role-playing games" (RPGs) like RDR2, what is fundamentally new is the player's identification with the character. You spend hours living the story through Arthur Morgan's eyes, and the choices you make as Arthur change the story. RDR2 is particularly adept at making these choices matter in terms of how people in the game respond to you. You become fused with your character in a way not possible with a book or movie. (But please don't take this as an admonition to not read books!)

I've written before on this theme because I'm particularly interested in how creative game writers/directors can extend what's possible with this new medium. And that brings me to a particular aspect of RDR2 that I'd like to highlight.

Many hours into the game, after you've bonded with Arthur's character, you realize he's very sick. The game brings it on you slowly—a cough that keeps getting worse. When you finally get to a doctor, you learn it's tuberculosis—essentially, a death sentence. From that point on, the whole tenor of the story changes as Arthur weakens with each passing hour. This makes for a powerful story arc as Arthur, an outlaw, must decide what to do with what's left of his time.

But then comes a moment which would only be possible in a game. Usually when you finish some mission (a bank or train robbery), the game leaves your character staring out at a vista, ready to move on to the next chapter. But as Arthur gets sicker, the controls stop working. There are long moments when he is just doubled over, laboring to breathe. You must wait through those moments until the game gives you the controls back. It's subtle but speaks volumes, forcing you to consider his sickness in a powerful and visceral way.

It's one small detail in a game rich with detail. What matters is it tells us something about what's essentially new in the medium of video games. Human beings have been telling stories about life, love, and death for thousands of years. With each advance in our technology (the printing press, radio, film, TV, the internet), we've had the opportunity to invent new ways to carry out this ancient art.

That simple moment, waiting for poor Arthur Morgan to catch his breath and regain some measure of his fading strength, was a window for me into just how far video games can push us into new story-telling territory.

The post Breathtaking. Literally. appeared first on ORBITER.

A historian identifies the worst year in human history

A Harvard professor's study discovers the worst year to be alive.

The Triumph of Death. 1562.

Credit: Pieter Bruegel the Elder. (Museo del Prado).
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Harvard professor Michael McCormick argues the worst year to be alive was 536 AD.
  • The year was terrible due to cataclysmic eruptions that blocked out the sun and the spread of the plague.
  • 536 ushered in the coldest decade in thousands of years and started a century of economic devastation.
Keep reading Show less

The Einstein-Bohr legacy: can we ever figure out what quantum theory means?

Quantum theory has weird implications. Trying to explain them just makes things weirder.

Credit: dani3315 / 269881579 via Adobe Stock
  • The weirdness of quantum theory flies in the face of what we experience in our everyday lives.
  • Quantum weirdness quickly created a split in the physics community, each side championed by a giant: Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr.
  • As two recent books espousing opposing views show, the debate still rages on nearly a century afterward. Each "resolution" comes with a high price tag.
Keep reading Show less

Pupil size surprisingly linked to differences in intelligence

Maybe eyes really are windows into the soul — or at least into the brain, as a new study finds.

A woman's eye.

Credit: Adobe stock / Chris Tefme
Surprising Science
  • Researchers find a correlation between pupil size and differences in cognitive ability.
  • The larger the pupil, the higher the intelligence.
  • The explanation for why this happens lies within the brain, but more research is needed.
Keep reading Show less
Politics & Current Affairs

We are all conspiracy theorists

In each of our minds, we draw a demarcation line between beliefs that are reasonable and those that are nonsense. Where do you draw your line?