A few folks have noted that the On Point radio show host seemed to be rather interested in drawing analogies to theater, and in discussing games as story. This lays the groundwork for a nice little ludology vs. narratology discussion!
I suspect the “games as games” versus “games as story” thing was too subtle for the show, though both Heather and I kept trying to steer the host away from his “it’s theater! No, it’s movies!” sort of approach. We may have overemphasized the opposite side because of that, with our constant references to games as models.
It’s hard not to see the game world in terms of the narratological side these days, when all the buzzwords are about improving presentation: the HD era, the need for better facial animation to convey emotion, and so on. Yet the “games as models” viewpoint is truer to the core nature of games; a modern blockbuster game, like say Half-Life 2, would make a terrible movie if yu stripped out all the FPS parts, but would still be a passable game experience if you ripped out every cutscene and character bit.
Of course there is room for both, but IMHO most of our learning to improve games as story is going to come from learning to make movies, frankly. Better writing, better cinematography, better shots, better CGI, etc. It’s outwards-looking learning, and it won’t make the games any better as gameplay, but it will make them better interactive entertainment experiences.
Inwards-looking learning, improving games as games, is where the growth in audience seems to come from over time. New audiences arise from new models and new metaphors: the Sims, god games, RTSes, and so on. This seems to happen much more sporadically and slowly than the other sort does. Frankly, the boardgame industry invents more new forms of gameplay in a year than it seems videogames do in five…!
In the interview, I said that I wasn’t sure we had had our DeMille yet in the games biz. But I think it’s fair to compare the original King Kong to some of our games today — maybe Ico? In terms of how it probably felt to the audience back then, and in terms of the sort of ending it has. But looked at that way, we can also measure just how far we have to go in order to become less blatantly manipulative as gamemakers; there’s a long way from the original King Kong to a modern movie that reaches for similar goals… say, Thelma & Louise. The complexity in the issues and story are vastly greater. And Thelma and Louise feels dated to us already too.
In good movies, shooting a guy through a window isn’t a plot point. Why the guy was shot through the window is what matters, usually. The body count in even a straightforward thriller like The Bourne Identity is quite large, but none of the incidental deaths of guys in stairwells are the issue. The plot points are actually when Bourne chooses not to kill someone.
In games, we tend to say that the shooting bad guys in stairwells is the game, and that the choice not to shoot someone belongs in a cutscene. Well, that would leave the part that has the largest possibility for emotional engagement, for art dare we say, in the bit that can be cut with no impact to gameplay whatsoever. This is why I say that many of the peak emotional moments we remember in games are actually “cheating” — they’re not given to us by the game at all, but by cutscenes. The death of Floyd the Robot in Planetfall is an example of a cheat like this; so’s the death of Aeris. Both are cutscene moments, effectively (well, in text in the case of Planetfall…) and not gameplay moments.
Games are indeed doing this OK — not well, by the standards of other media, but OK. There’s tons to get better at here, I think, foremost of which would be just raising the general caliber of the writing throughout (which is why it’s so important that the industry get off its butt about hiring writers). We just shouldn’t kid ourselves that this is in any way “game design” or advancing the state of the art in gameplay. It’s not. It’s us learning to be better entertainers, an advancement in interactive entertainment, and it’s us learning to be slightly less sucky filmmakers.
You wanna deride interactive movies? That’s what we mostly make now.
The structural issue with doing more become apparent when we try to do something other than make a bad movie with some minigames interspersed throughout, which is what something like Final Fantasy, or what something like every WW2 shooter, basically is. That, I think, is why so many people gravitate towards Ico as an example, because the emotional hook was actually conveyed through gameplay: the (literal) hand-holding of princess Yorda was what made it work, not cutscenes.
There’s the distinct possibility that Ico was “too smart for the room,” however. It sold poorly, even though it is greatly admired among designers and game cognoscenti. This might make us think that the bombastic games are the ones that will earn the most; one thinks of the way in which empty-headed summer blockbusters seem to dominate box office takes. But that’s ignoring what I think of as “The Pixar Lesson.”
The movies that in the long run have earned the most are the ones with the most emotional connection, not the biggest explosions. I mean, there’s zillions of examples. What big but empty movie sits atop the lifetime charts? Don’t get me wrong, the biggest movies deliver both the emotion and the spectacle, but c’mon, the memorable moment in Titanic is the scene on the bow where he’s king of the world and the scene of DiCaprio drowning, not the actual sinking; in E.T. it’s the kid silhouetted across the moon and it’s the finger lighting up in the closet, not the bike chase itself; in Star Wars it’s all through the movie, from the moment we find the blackened corpses of Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru (notice the deaths happen offscreen), to the swing across the chasm in the Death Star and “do you trust me?”, to the moment when Ben chooses not to fight.
I always use the example of Die Hard. Yeah, you get the big explosion and jumping off the roof of the building with the crashing helicopter behind you, but the crucial emotional moments are a phone call or two, and picking broken glass out of Bruce Willis’ feet. Why? Because the whole movie is about him walking over metaphorical broken glass to get back to his wife. The whole rest of the movie is just the obstacle. In a less bombastic movie, you might well not have had any explosions at all, and yet the emotional connection would still be there, and then you get Sideways, which is just as much a movie about an emotionally damaged man trying to connect with a woman.
In the more bombastic case, you get movies that nobody remembers. Car chases, explosions… stuff that you put on for a party or to fill an empty evening, but you’re not quoting the rest of your life.
That’s the Pixar Lesson: it’s not that story comes first, it’s that story deserves respect and so does the audience. Particle systems, shader 2.0, and physics are tools, like the terrorist in the building was a tool to tell Bruce Willis’ story. And just as Finding Nemo delivers the story, and then goes on to deliver the spectacle, we need to deliver the gameplay, and then go on to deliver the story.