Could video games replace television?

23:06, Jun 25 2013

Forgive me, but I'm going off script a bit today.

There is a belief among some television aficionados that big-name drama has moved to the small screen. In a blockbuster cinema world dominated by superheroes and special effects, viewers are looking to shows like Mad Men or Boardwalk Empire to get their fill of entertaining, dramatic storylines and strong, evocative performances.

But it's got me wondering: since television has taken over from film in this way, what will be next? Is it possible that video games could one day inherit the entertainment crown from television?

The reason I ask is I've been dealing with zombies lately, thanks to a copy of the video game The Last of Us which landed on my doorstep a week ago. Okay, the monsters I'm facing in The Last of Us aren't technically zombies. But they're close enough to qualify for this discussion.

I reckon the zombie genre is a microcosm for this theory.

If you're a fan of both good drama and zombies (like me), then it's probably a fair assumption that you think zombie films have been outdone of late by The Walking Dead (as I do). The adventures of Rick Grimes have been more riveting, more entertaining, and occasionally more horrific, than any zombie movie released since it hit screens in 2010.


The only film that comes close to being as enjoyable as The Walking Dead is this year's Warm Bodies, and that's technically a romantic comedy. Before that, you're going back to 2009's Zombieland. Everything else is just unoriginal splatter-porn, jump scares and extras moaning like idiots. Believe me, I saw World War Z on the weekend. A large part of my disappointment with that film* was that I could see things that The Walking Dead is simply doing better.

Yet, here I am this week, absolutely thrashing The Last of Us on the PS3, and wondering if it has some of those same advantages over The Walking Dead. The video game is engrossing. I sit down for a quick 20 or 30 minutes, and end up playing for an hour or two. On Monday night, a friend played for a while before handing the controller to me to just save the game and turn the console off. I ended up playing for another hour.

The story is riveting. The spoiler-free summary: aside from the prologue, most of the game takes place two decades after a fungal infection decimates the human race and precipitates the collapse of society. The player takes the role of Joel, who reluctantly takes on a dangerous mission that takes him through post-apocalyptic America, facing off with various monsters, both "zombie" and human.

The use of cut scenes (the little acted-out parts of a video game) is seamless. Some scenes end and player control resumes without any awkward transition. And you never feel as though you're playing to get to the next level; like binge-watching a box set, you're playing to get to the next part of the story. The Last of Us is immersive. You end up getting attached to characters. I've found myself emotionally affected a number of times.

I would say it's the best video game I've played in years.

I can also imagine that this could be the next evolutionary step in immersive dramatic entertainment. Part of The Walking Dead's appeal - the appeal of any great show, really - is that it has built a believable world in which its characters can exist, and it tells its story through an interesting point-of-view character; flawed though it might be, I reckon those are two things The Walking Dead does better than most shows.

But The Last of Us might do both better. As Cracked (of all places) pointed out last week, video games do a better job of creating an immersive world: "a linear experience [such as a film or TV show] means the audience is largely beholden to whatever the camera is pointed at. It's a big deal that in video games you control the camera." And protagonist Joel is an interesting character to play, particularly given the emotional baggage that informs his interaction with Ellie.

Anyway, I'm just spit-balling here, wondering if The Last of Us is a sign that video gaming could replace television one day, or whether immersive games are still too few and far between to really pose a threat (not to mention that not every show would make a good game; The GC: The Video Game doesn't sound too appealing).

What do you think: could video gaming replace television as the superior source of long-form drama one day? Or am I just thinking too much about the relationship between television and gaming?

(*) Another big part of my disappointment: it sucked. Actually, speaking of things that should have been on television, there is no doubt in my mind that World War Z, the book by Max Brooks, would make a fantastic show. Each week covers a segment or two from the book, told in a documentary style with the text from the book being spoken by an actor interspersed with scenes depicting the action, and every episode taking place in some new location. I'd watch.

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