Games

What It Really Means to Be a "Prestige" Game

How "prestige" has come to mean something distinctly different in games and television.
June 9, 2020, 8:02pm
Screenshot from The Last of Us, in the foreground Ellie, white young brown haired girl, looks out the window of a car, while in the background we see Joel, a white, middle aged, black haired man with a short disheveled beard, driving
Image courtesy of Naughty Dog

Games as an artform have had a complicated history with being taken seriously. The ways in which the industry and fans have sought out "legitimacy" ranges far and wide, from arguments of whether games are art at all to borrowing language from other mediums to attempt to bridge the gap from well known mediums to the relatively new form of video games. One example being the idea of "prestige" games that were aligning themselves with the idea of "prestige television," a subset of shows that were held up as being "serious" art in comparison to mass market programming that usually tackle gritty, violent, or explicit subject matter with aesthetic and structural decisions that aligned closer to films than other TV. Prestige games are held up in a similar manner, as the natural peak of games as an art form that can convey themes and tell stories deemed as "important" that other games can't tackle. We discuss this framing, how a game's intended reach might affect its structure, and more on this episode of Waypoint Radio. You can listen to the full episode and read an excerpt below.

Gita: If we can typify what prestige television does narratively, a lot of it has to do with understatement and subversion. So if you look at a show like Deadwood where in the first episode, still the only episode of Deadwood I've seen, there's a scene where a man has to be hung by the neck because he's a criminal, and it doesn't work because actually, when you're hung from the neck it doesn't always work. So he has to be pulled down to break his neck so he can die, and the way it's framed is understated, right? It's not framed so that it's shocking to the people around you, it's framed so that you understand the extremity of the length of, you know, what it is like to live in the town of Deadwood where things are just shitty all the time, and everyone's swearing.

Austin: Can't even hang a man right.

Gita: Right, and you know that I feel like is a narrative beat you can get in a video game, but it has to come around just violence, violence, violence, violence,violence, violence, violence, a lot of the time in these AAA games that are going for this kind of thing. I think that was my big problem with The Last of Us, it tries to make those kinds of narrative moments, especially specifically talking about near the end with the elephants and then the thing that you have to do, where it just goes mega grim to differentiate it from the grim-ness of the world around it.

Austin: The dogs are going to have names this time, Gita.

Rob: So I think there's a couple things. One is that I think while "prestige game" shares a word with prestige TV and I think certainly the way they are marketed they want to reach for that level of cultural cachet, really I think what their dominant aesthetic is is actually the impact aesthetics of late 90s early 2000s war movies. Desaturated, understated. If you think about it, a lot of prestige TV is actually evoking neo-noir color palettes, Mad Men isn't full on Technicolor but there are times it really does love to saturate the palette, in a way that you just don't see in this this mode of game, where it's very monochromatic, very grayscale. But I think the other part of this is there's so much violence in these games, I think the only solution they've tried to come up with to make it feel like it has weight, and maybe feel like it is exacting a moral cost on your protagonists, is to make it comically graphic and grotesque at times, and it takes itself very seriously.

But if you look at The Last of Us, I was replaying it a bit, trying to get in the headspace for The Last of Us II. I do like The Last of Us, but when you look at the animations of Joel grabbing somebody and just fucking hauling that blade across their throat, bloods geysering everywhere, and everything's just covered in it. The first time you do it you're like "Whoa, jesus, this is brutal." You will do that a thousand times during that game and there'll be variations on that same animation, and the game will want to say "man, isn't this game brutal? Isn't it awful? Isn't this a grim world?" And [the answer is] no, this is actually just a really way more violent and graphic animation for something I do in a million other games. And I think therein lies the trouble.

These aren't prestige, they can't [be] because AAA games don't have the grammar to do what prestige TV does, which is unpack character through inaction, through conversation. Instead, the defining action of a game character is to is to move, to kill. And so I think we end up in this really uncomfortable place with these games where the marketing, and the way they're pitched, they're trying to say they offer profound truths about human nature. I think there are limited truths, you can glean about human nature from creeping around behind waist high walls and then like leaping out to stab a zombie in the throat. I think the moral education is limited there.

Austin: There's also a difference in in goal, right? Very quick google searches just now, Mad Men in season seven drew between 1.4 and 3.3 million viewers per episode. Something like Scandal even, right, which I think is on the edge of mainstream television and prestige TV, five [million] viewers. NCIS 12.3 million viewers in it's 17th season. [Prestige games] want to be NCIS, these don't want to be Mad Men. These don't want to be The Sopranos, they don't want to be just the watercooler conversation of the people in the know. They want to be big cultural moments, and in that way they have more in common with Young Sheldon than with Deadwood, right? I think that's an interesting dilemma because to reach that wide audience, the thing that you're saying is prestige TV and prestige TV show runners and filmmakers literally changed the technique of storytelling in order to evoke something distinct from primetime network television, popular television shows. That is not what's happening in prestige gaming, or this particular model of storytelling inside of games, they are in fact still stuck in the box of the same sort of mechanics and tools and verbs that we use across gaming. Even in the most pulpy, gamer ass game, even in Doom, you're doing the same verbs. In fact, the irony of it of course it's like Doom makes a splash a few years ago because of how it rejects "left trigger, right trigger," because of how it feels distinct from what had become the de facto way that a game is supposed to feel if it's a "big, important game." Rob, you had something else.

Rob: I was just thinking how I think the real parallel of the prestige game is the comic book movie. Where what they want is the cultural credibility and importance that works of prestige TV are accorded as works of art. But also they want to be works where the hero beats the shit out of the villain for 10 minutes and then ascends a great tower and has a huge battle and that's how it ends. And I think the the appeal made here is to say stories in this mode can still tell important stories, and I think that's true. I think genre can tell really important stories. I think by the end of The Order 1886, I think the awkward thing is that the game itself may not be an important game, because it has some of those limitations you cited, Austin. I think it doesn't know how to reinvent the cover shooter to make it so that you are fighting yourself, that you were up against the tools that you employ, but I think by the end, it will have told a story worth telling that has some resonance to modern society in a way that a lot of games of that generation, and certainly early generation games, really didn't. But I think the thing we encounter a lot with games is we conflate a certain grim-facedness backed by money with importance and insight.


This transcript was edited for length and clarity. Discussed: Golfing With Your Friends 2:36, Austin's Secret Game 16:29, Destiny 2 48:15, Xenoblade Chronicles 1:00:04, Valorant 1:10:53

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