TV shows like The OA and Westworld are scene-stealing in front of games

Tuesday, 10 January 2017 14:31 GMT By Matt Martin

Will games be influenced by the bold character and story triumphs coming out of Netflix and HBO? Stranger Things have happened.

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“Westworld is the best TV show about video games I’ve seen. It’s about day one bugs and patching mistakes on the fly to keep players entertained and big business happy.”

Warning: this blog post has spoilers for The OA, Westworld, Glitch and Stranger Things.

I finished watching The OA this week, Netflix’s near-death-small-town-escapists drama. I found it gripping, darkly funny, unsettling and inventive.

The OA, and also Westworld, Stranger Things and Glitch, all had an effect on me in the past 12 months. Not just emotional, but genuine excitement at sitting down and trying to anticipate the unexpected. Feeling genuinely surprised at twists, getting to know unpleasant characters, enjoying the breaking of storytelling conventions. And shock at some of the content on screen, from brutal violence to some pretty hot sex. I can’t think of any mainstream games in the same period that have taken such daring steps with such regularity.

This isn’t to slag off video games. But rather I’m hoping that shows from Netflix and HBO’s bold golden age of TV can really influence video game design and storytelling. Whether The OA’s story is fulfilling or wilfully quirky for the sake of it, you can’t deny it’s intriguing. Abused prisoners can travel through dimensions by performing dance moves passed on by angels? Compare that to what we’ve got to look forward to in games this year; For Honor is about vikings fighting samurai. Where’s the imagination in that?

There are parallels between these shows and video games, and they’re so much more interesting than than slavishly converting a game into a TV show or movie. The OA throws up red herrings (or are they plot holes?) and a few left turns, with an ending that comes as a suckerpunch. The final episode appears to be a disappointment on purpose, a simple explanation and dismissal of the previous seven hours of fantasy. Until those last five minutes when it throws an extra curveball right at your face. I was floored by it. I can’t recall a game that’s done that to me recently. Thinking back it feels like something Eternal Darkness or Metal Gear has tried in the past. It’s fucking with the audience at the same time as entertaining them.

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Westworld is the best TV show about video games I’ve seen. It’s about day one bugs and patching mistakes on the fly to keep players entertained and big business happy. Surgeons reprogramme AI and reuse assets to save costs with disastrous results. An egotistical writer crafts ongoing storylines to slot into what is essentially a massively multiplayer world that’s beginning to fall apart. Designers are brought down by their own over-ambition. New experiences are forced into Westworld like DLC to a game as the creatives disagree with the corporates. It’s Red Dead Redemption: The TV Series.

Stranger Things is a curious one too. It’s like pixel art and indie 2D side scrolling platformers, or the current trend for remakes, or chiptunes re-released on coloured vinyl and sold for $100. It’s nostalgia repackaged and brought up to date wearing all the 1980s influences on its sleeve. It became a cultural phenomenon last year. It was TVs Pokemon Go.

Have you seen Glitch? It’s about people getting a second life sort-of where they left off and includes what any gamer will instantly recognise as permadeath. (It’s also includes the most Australian response to seeing someone wake from the dead I’ve ever seen: “Was it some kind of satanic ritual? Or were you just on the piss?”).

So maybe we’re already seeing TV influencing games, and games influence TV. But games take so long to make. What’s fresh and exciting on a small screen can’t possibly be interpolated into games until years later.

A case in point would be The Walking Dead’s Norman Reedus in Kojima’s re-imaging of Silent Hill. The TV series has lost darling status even among diehard fans and the game is long dead. Maybe Death Stranding, featuring Reedus and Hannibal’s Mads Mikkelsen, is the one to watch. Kojima certainly has an encouraging track record of wild experimentation in million-selling video games.

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“The most interesting creative experiments are being taken on TV. Storytelling is being flipped. Characters are fascinatingly unpleasant. Sex is clumsy.”

I’ve interviewed enough developers, publishers, creatives and suits to know they are always uncomfortable name-checking contemporary games as influences, even when the comparisons are clear. Instead they cite TV or film, or if they have to, retro games. But it’s okay to say your art is influenced by your peers, contemporaries and rivals. Music does it all the time. It’s nothing to be ashamed of.

Maybe as games grew up it was necessary to distance them from Hollywood by proudly stating “we have our own writers now”. Ones who understand the medium. That was a big step, but wouldn’t it be great if mainstream video game stories embraced the experimentation we’re seeing in TV right now? We may see glimpses of it, but it’s often smothered in 20-plus hours of regular trad games stuff. There have been a few outliers such as Life Is Strange, Ladykiller In A Bind, even Firewatch or Telltale’s recent work reaching smaller audiences, but nothing that can compare to the dominant reach of the ubiquitous Netflix.

The most interesting creative experiments are being taken on TV right now, and they’re not for a niche audience. Storytelling is being flipped by the manipulation of time. The best characters are fascinatingly unpleasant or relatably broken. Contrasting settings that shouldn’t work are successfully fused together. Violence and sex is upfront, messy and clumsy. Endings aren’t happy but open to interpretation.

As a creative medium, TV seems to be doing all the scene-stealing.

Or maybe I’m missing this in games right now. What games would you say are trying daring experiments with story-telling, narrative structure and character?