Friday, January 09, 2009

Should video games aspire to be films? Passive vs Active viewing

by Stefan Delatovic
[I make a substantial comment below -- Geoff]

As technology continues to evolve and graphics approach photo realism, video games are providing an increasingly cinematic experience.

Should video games really be aspiring to be films though? Wouldn't it be better if they were trying to be great video games?
Narrative film is a great thing, so I understand why games would like to emulate them. That time Nicholas Cage swapped faces with John Travolta? Movie magic. But film isn't interactive. I noticed that I couldn't shoot Travolta as he chewed scenery. My girlfriend noticed that she couldn't build him a three-bedroom apartment and manage his relationships.

Video games that get the closest to cinema seem to receive the highest praise. Grand Theft Auto IV - which featured a credit sequence and opening footage clearly aimed at being viewed as a film, was hailed as the greatest game of all by many reviewers. The game had a lot going for it; a living world more realistic than any seen previously, well-drawn characters and a compelling story.

The one thing that let it down, however, was gameplay. Personally, I found the game boring as hell. I wanted to see how the story was resolved, but I was too bored to continue.

See, when I start up a new film I lie back on the couch and prepare to observe. When I boot up a new game I have a controller in my hand and I'm eager to use it. Whenever I am viewing a video game cut scenes, one thought simmers in the back of my brain: "I really want to see this, I want to follow the story, but I wish it would end so I could play."

A good story and characters are boons for any game, but everything is driven by gameplay. If a game isn't fun to play, then everything else is wasted.

'Games as movies' ties into a general belief amongst many that graphics make a game, a belief I cannot personally understand. The Wii, the most graphically inferior console of the current generation, is a solid gold candy bar of fun.

Bioshock was elevated to a fantastic game due to its excellent atmosphere, design and a compelling story, but all of that was wrapped around solid gameplay with a neat mechanical twist.

Super Mario Brothers destroyed my childhood from a time management standpoint. It's characters were insane and its story nonexistent. But it was fun, and continues to be fun, as it introduces new game mechanics, if not new narrative elements.

Little Big Planet, a terrifyingly fun game and a truly innovative product - could never be produced on film.

If games must aim to become 'interactive movies', then there must be a better way than simply scattering overly-long movies between the fun bits.

[Star Wars Clone Wars Lightsaber Duels has a few seconds of story between the battles -- an even those I have never seen because I hit the button to skip them in an effort to get to the next fight. This is a really good point about the differences between games and films, which are so often compared or contrasted in reviews -- Tim Callahan said the thing that bothered him about the Clone Wars movie was it was like one giant cut scene, and he was frustrated by his inability to "play" it. When a video game offers me the chance to shape the story by choosing what direction to send my character, I don't feel empowered -- I feel like I am missing some possibly better story. I am very much in love with the passive nature of movies, in which decisions are made for me and I am along for the ride. I do not want to make narrative choices in a game, I just want to swing a sword around.

I have a kind of clunky pop psych idea about this that maybe we could use as a springboard to something useful. I feel like one of the reasons I like the movies is that I like not having to make decisions -- I make them all day, and most of them get on my nerves, and I like sitting down in a place where someone else will tell me a story. If I wanted to make a series of bad decisions I have my life. (I am the same way with sandwiches: I do not want the guy asking me 30 questions about various sandwich toppings; I want to ask for the Number Four or whatever, and be done with it). One aspect of this passivity, is how much I love TV on my Netflix cue -- once I decide to watch The Shield, for example, I have 23 disks on the way to my house, and I do not have to make a decision about what to watch next for a good long while. I get passivity from Walter Pater and Oscar Wilde and a school of literary criticism that encourages you to surrender yourself to the object. There are deeper levels to this psychology but I do not think it worth getting into here.

Is there a different psychology to people who like video-games where they control the story? Are these people more "creative," more artists than critics? Or are they more disenfranchised -- I have this image of teenagers playing videogames and loving all the decisions they get to make in Grand Theft Auto because so much in their lives is decided for them by their parents and other authority figures. But this is an old image I think, from my childhood, of nerds living in their moms basement playing -- everybody plays videogames and loves them and many of these people are quite cool, so I hear.

Of course, disenfranchised teenagers who do not get to make decisions in their own lives, or do not feel like they do, also love passive entertainment like movies and TV and books -- but they make them into active entertainment with things like role-playing games and fan fiction and youtube tribute movies.]


Christian said...

This is my constant complaint, when people bring up videogames as "having bad stories;" They always assume that because there aren't monumentally long cutscenes, it's somehow not advancing the story.

Like mentioned: Bioshock does the really clever thing thanks to the mechanics of the game. (I take after Kieron Gillen of loathing the term "Gameplay;" We don't call it "FilmWatching" do we?)

Fallout 3, Portal, Bioshock, Mass Effect, Left 4 Dead, all these games are about the story being informed by your actions, not the other way around. And all of them have very engrossing stories to tell.

Christian said...

The absolute question all developers should ask themselves are: "What did I do to propegate this scene and why shouldn't the player be allowed to move and interact?"

Kenney said...

I still think "story" in games is given too much weight overall. All it really is there for is to give me motivation to go on, not much more. It's not that it can't aspire to be more, but I just don't need it to be and I don't see it done all that well much myself. Really, I'm still of the mindset of games being toys. The "cinematic experience" games tend to bore me, because I can find stories done better in practically every other medium.

I can't find Pac-man anywhere else though.

hcduvall said...

It doesn't help that the creative parts of game design might not necessarily be in the same folks as good story writers, let alone story tellers. Video games sit in a intersection between interactivity and storytelling, and criticism of them probably needs to develop its own terminology (the same way comics need to borrow less from film as well).

How a game plays (depending on the player's skill level, etc) is the biggest variable for me. I can think of a few games where I hit a "moral quandary", but beyond the fact that I find I don't like playing "evil" characters, the difficulty of the games may not support the weight of the choice. If you can only get the badass sword by sacrificing your sister, but you killed the wielder of said sword in 5 minutes...a failure as gameplay (for lack of a better term) and narrative.

Choice may be the wrong goal for games, and immersion should be the point. GTA4 doesn't have a good story if you aren't an amoral killer for the most part (and GTA has always had mediocre gameplay), but it's got a pretty good story for Niko. This is a distinct difference especially when games take in so-called rpg elements. In non video game lands this means you create the role you play, in video games you have to play a role assigned to you to get the best story. Which means I play a bit like Geoff, and I get paralyzed at certain plot points. I'm not replaying this 40+ hour game anytime soon, but I want to see the damn scenes...

This may be a repeat from me (sorry all), but the best game to navigate this business for me has been Planescape Torment, a PC rpg--though I have Mass Effect on the burner and am playing through Bioshock now. What it did distinctly differently than future attempts at choice was that whenever there was an option (expressed as dialogue tree responses) the plot would never really vary regardless of the choice the player made, and so the story was always under the control of the game creators. But what you picked as a player defined the motivation of the character's action. I got to fill the why something was happening and the game continued to fill the what.