Monthly Archives: March 2007
In my last post I mentioned the notion (also mentioned by Will Wright at SxSW) of guilt as a complex emotion games can convey better than other media. I’ve always been surprised that it never seems to come up in the ol’ “games can’t have the emotional impact of film so they shouldn’t bother with being anything other fun, and pass me the wii-mote” discussion.
My own personal anecdote of realizing the power of this was Knights of the Old Republic.
So I had been traipsing through the game, enjoying the story (trying to be a neutral bounty hunter type, which of course was a pain in the ass given the good vs evil force meter). But edging on the side of good, more often that not. So I had characters in my party that I got along with and liked, specifically the Twilek girl Mission Vao, and her Wookie pal.
Periodically, whenever it seemed like I was presented with a key good vs evil branching point, I’d save, and try out both. Many times Bioware just did an awesome job of making me think I had a choice when they usually routed me to the same point (they are masters of this illusion). But towards the end (spoiler alert), you finally choose to be good or bad, and if you’re bad, you can be very bad. I Force-Dominated the Wookie into killing the girl who saved his life, who he was life bonded too. Man, I felt dirty. I just got my friend, to go kill his very best friend, just to see if he’d do it. I mean shut-the-console-off-immediately-because-I-can’t-take-being-reminded-of-my-own-capacity-for-evil dirty (which reminds me of this book, The Lucifer Effect, I should write about, but I digress… where was I? Oh yeah, dirty!).
It’s more than that though. Games can much more easily convey any complex, conflicted, emotion – feeling two or more opposing ways about any particular subject. Because of power of the dilemma – put a player in a situation where they want both of two outcomes (or neither), and they will immediately feel conflicted. Tada! Games with emotional impact.
Now, film on the other hand, you really only see a very small set of movies that convey those sort of emotions (most recent in my mind are some of the movies of Wong Kar Wai – dammit if you don’t want those romances to always work out, but you know they never can and it would only hurt the people involved to try… sigh). Not only are the movies that successfully explore those themes rare, they’re usually relegated to art-house cinemas as being too complex for the average viewer.
But exploring stories with conflicted emotions in games is much more appealing, I’d argue – because displaying that on the movie screen is only ever going to be so compelling. The emotional distance between you, the viewer, and the character is particularly hard to cross for empathy in that case. I suspect that most people typically only see one side of the character’s dilemma, and can’t connect because they don’t understand why he/she acts conflicted or makes the other choice. By putting you directly in the situation and it becomes more compelling simply because it’s easier for a person to understand the complex emotions behind the moment, because it’s happening to them.
Now what in god’s name could we, society at large, be doing that could be framed in a personal context to make a player realize guilt over a what was actually a much larger social issue? Noooooo, nothing would fit that description.
Now, before I start, let me say Will Wright is a really smart guy. Made (and will continue to make) lots of popular, and good, games. I even ostensibly work for the same company he does (although we are many, many degrees separated).
But who the fuck does he think he is coming along taking a shit in my proverbial fucking cereal?
Let me explain – at the South-by-Southwest Festival this year, Wright gave a talk that covered storytelling in games. I can’t even link to proper coverage of it, I can only link to coverage of the coverage. But he goes on about how story in games is flawed, player stories (like the experience one has playing the Sims, or soon, Spore) are much more compelling. How all the traditional stories in games fall flat and the future is, basically, his games. Oh, and the cereal shitting thing is a Kevin Smith reference.
Um, door number 3 please? For starters, looking at storytelling in games at this point and saying, because they suck, a game can’t have use any ”traditional” storytelling methods is pretty flawed logic (Raph Koster, this means you too).
There’s sooooo much to be explored in the middle, taking authored storylines and weaving them around players, that to dismiss it simply because you don’t think the mission structure in Grand Theft Auto stacks up… Craziness! Baby, bathwater, you get the idea.
So, ok, he’s entitled to his opinion, and his talent and success also entitle him to more power of broadcasting that opinion. But what sort of ticks me off, is that there are young potential game developers out there now, maybe they’re studying in a game design program, and they think, well gee, Will Wright said stories in game suck, I’m not gonna explore anything having to do with stories in games because he’s smart so obviously he’s (w)right.
Fuck that! Sigh.
He is right about one thing though, an emotion games can convey unlike any other medium is guilt. But we’ll leave that for another time.
I was watching the behind the scenes dvd for God of War 2 (yeah, I’m a total dork when it comes to those things, I always get the collectors edition game if it has interviews with the developers, despite our reputation for not being as photogenic as creators in other entertainment industries).
In it Cory Barlog, director of the game, describes his postion as Game Director at SCEA, and it sounds quite a bit better than this. Basically, he describes it as working with every single person on the team to make sure their work meets the vision for the product and meets the level of quality the he wants to achieve.
Now, some game development studios have this explicit position, others just have people in various roles on the team trying to do the same thing. But it does seem a bit more mature to explicit define one person as having this role.
Or, you could, like EA, have “producers” direct and “directors” produce. We wouldn’t want to use consistent language or anything. I mean, filmmakers have been creatively collaborating in large groups for a century, what-in-god’s-fucking-name could we learn from them?
It does seem very unlike an American studio though, I sort wonder just how much of Sony’s Japanese heritage affects the Santa Monica studio – developer’s in the east seem much more ready to accept the notion of the “director”. Kojima, Itagaki, Mizuguchi, Suzuki, Suda51, Ueda, Mikami, Kamiya, Sakaguchi, Naka, and of course, Miyamoto. And more – that’s off the top of my head. I would have a much harder time naming western developers who would consider themselves “directors”.
I’ll admit, I was surprised to read about David Jaffe’s concept for the game Heartland, which he was working on before Calling All Cars!, but that got cancelled.
I mean if you look at the games he’s worked on in the past, like the Twisted Metal games, and you listen to what he says these days, he very much sounds like the sort of designer that stereotypically overvalues a simple, positive, play experience. Have some adrenaline, some excitement, blow some shit up, fun, wheeeeee (or wii).
So in Heartland you would have played an American soldier defending against a Chinese invasion. Sounds pretty fucking cool - take some standard shooter gameplay, add lots of interesting player choices trying to figure out who is actually the “bad guy”, see Americans siding with the Chinese or be forced to take collateral damage, and whammo! You already have a game with about 100 times more depth than Grand Theft Auto or The Sims.
Ok, to be fair in my fore-judgement of Jaffe, I do know at least a few developers that work at large corporate studios (*cough*me included*cough*) that would like to work on games with such themes, but instead have to work on sugary fluff (the last game I worked on had a guy with a hammer as big as he was). But I was still a bit surprised.
While it no doubt got cancelled for a million other reasons, Jaffe seems to despair on his blog:
“I mean, sure we could have made Heartland- and may still make it one day- but from a MESSAGE standpoint, what’s the point? So here’s a game that says: I HATE GEORGE BUSH! I HATE THE IRAQ WAR! I HATE HOW AMERICA HAS LOST ITS REPUTATION AROUND THE WORLD IN THE LAST 6 YEARS,etc,etc,etc….it’s like….so what? The folks that agree with me will nod in approval, the folks who don’t will call me an ass…”
But that’s not the point, right? The point is to change people’s minds. Have them pick up a shooter by the director of God of War (oooh, pretty explosions!). And be forced into situations where you have to think about political issues today. And maybe change your opinion. Or better yet, act on it. Because even if most people agree with that opinion, what are they willing to stand up and do about it? Imagine a world where a game actually inspired someone to that level of action.
Oddly enough, with Jaffe being up against Harvey Smith at this year’s Game Design Challenge at the GDC, it does sort of seem like the type of game Smith would work on. Go figure.
The game The Shivah is a game about a rabbi in New York City trying to solve a murder. Naturally, it explores religious themes.
Now my general understanding that the so-called category of “serious” games were those comissioned by organizations outside of the entertainment industry (government agencies, non profit organizations etc.) to make games about their relavant topics to entertain+educate at the same time. Seems like a useful thing, sure.
But because the game industry as a whole simply has no conception that a game can have explore themes meaningful to the world outside the game industry, The Shivah gets lumped in with the above. At GDC this month, the developer of the Shivah gave a talk the Serious Games Summit.
Now, to be be fair, the folks who were actually organizing the GDC probably just didn’t have a better place to put it, I’m sure. But that’s the problem, right, there’s no place for it! The game industry steadfastly refuses to give up the notion that games *must* be fun. Never mind there’s all sorts of entertainment that you’d be hard pressed to classify as “fun”.
Which is why Chris Hecker was right in his rant against the Wii, but I’ll get to that later.