November 2007 Archives

Games Rock

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jacks.pngLast week, RJ Layton posted a scathing editorial on the relationship between movies and games - not about the generally terrible results of making movies based on games or games based on movies, but rather about the use of cut-scenes, full-motion video, and non-interactive segments in game design, as well as the apparent cinephilic mentality of game designers. The post has already generated quite a bit of discussion: a response from Jamie Antonisse, a follow-up in which RJ speaks to a specific example of this phenomenon, and my own bizarre romp through rhetorical fallacy. As entertaining as it was to draw analogies to body image and substance abuse into the conversation, I feel like I have more serious things to add. A lot of them, actually, and maybe I'll get to some more of them eventually, but today I'm going to concentrate on one important point: emotion.

RJ and Jamie both bring up emotion, its role in storytelling, and its devilishly cinematic associations. I'd like to focus a little more closely on this complex relationship between emotion, film, and games. RJ seems to be of the opinion that a game which focuses on story and emotion, or at least one that markets itself around those terms, is likely to have hold cinematic qualities in esteem; in his words, "controllers with no player holding them, some pretty music, and a close-up of the a character’s face." Which isn't to say that games are devoid of admirable content with emotional significance. RJ illustrates this point with exemplars like the sense of triumph that comes with beating Punch-Out!! or the sense of pride that comes with managing urban growth in SimCity. Jamie echoes this by describing sadness and bemusement as "filmic" emotions, which are better expressed in movies than games, in contrast to other emotions like triumph and frustration, which are better expressed in games than movies.

I think, as far as the exploration of emotion in games goes, Jamie strikes gold with this point, but he doesn't delve as far into it as I'd like. I would similarly organize emotions around two categories, passive (or filmic) and agency-based. Passive emotions are a response to some external stimulus. Agency-based emotions, alternatively, are a response to first-party actions. Passive emotions cover a broad range and include simple emotions like joy, sorrow, and horror; relational emotions like love and jealousy are more complex passive emotions. Agency-based emotions include triumph, remorse, and pride. These emotions imply a previous action on the part of the person experiencing the emotion.

In crafting a narrative experience, cinema can utilize the whole extensive range of passive emotions. It's no surprise that movies have become adept at using these emotions to tell stories. After all, storytelling in film - or at least the contemporary incarnation of the medium - is based entirely around building emotion to a cathartic point. But no matter how a movie presents its story, it is still an instance of a passive medium, and as such it's limited by the distinction between emotions. The narrative of the film has no direct access to any of the agency-based emotions.

Let me stay on this for just a moment, because even though it follows logically, I think it might be a controversial point. Jamie mentions, in his post, feeling a sense of triumph in the movie Return of the King. I'm making the claim that a movie cannot make the audience feel triumph, because the feeling of triumph implies an action - specifically, a successful attempt at overcoming an obstacle - as the basis for the emotion. A movie cannot truly inspire an agency-based emotion, but it can use character identification to simulate it. Return of the King, like any good movie, makes the audience identify with one or more characters as, through the course of the story, the characters experience emotions. In this case, the character portrayed in the movie makes a successful attempt to overcome an obstacle, and experiences triumph in response to this action. The audience, if they are identifying with the character, does not feel triumph directly but does feel joy in sympathy with the character's triumph.

Identification is a device that the film industry uses - very effectively - to trick the audience into thinking they are experiencing an agency-based emotion. But in every case, the audience's feeling is once-removed from the emotion in question. The absolute best that a movie can hope for is that the audience becomes so deeply immersed in the film and sympathizes so deeply with a character that they literally forget that they are removed from the action on-screen. If this ever happens, it is exceedingly rare; and if it were to happen, it would involve some sort of hypnosis or delusional psychosis or other strange psychology that I'm not comfortable with. The point is that, in any reasonable example, the experience of a sympathetic response isn't the same as the actual emotion on which it's based.

Access to a complete range of emotions is one of the greatest advantages games, as a medium, have over cinema. Games can inspire any of the passive emotions that movies do by telling a story in a traditional, cinematic sort of fashion. But games have an extended emotional repertoire, and some of the agency-based emotions that are exclusive to the medium pack a serious punch. Triumph, as has been frequently mentioned, is common in games. Shame is used in Guitar Hero through the boos and jeers of the audience before the player fails a song. Honor and remorse are employed by Bioshock in its touted rescue/harvest mechanic. Humility is a component of the excellent work of interactive fiction, The Baron (on which I will spend more time in the future). Frustration is part of the emotional range of any of the multitude of games that are purposefully difficult.

My personal favorite example of agency-based emotion, because it effected me so strongly when I experienced it, is the use of regret and self-loathing in KOTOR, when the player feels compelled by his or her allegiance to the dark side to betray two of the protagonist's companions. This experience demonstrated to me that the power of effectively-used agency-based emotions can absolutely dwarf that of passive emotions. At the moment, the video game industry has not matured to the point that these emotions are being used to their full potential. But story in games is being continually explored and expanded, both by independent game designers and mainstream games. The effect that interactivity has on emotion will be developed and refined until games regularly deliver the same level of emotional narrative that cinema is used to. At which point, the ability to tap directly into the full set of agency-based emotions will give interactive media greater affective power than passive media has ever had.
mario64.png1UP has posted a glowing preview of Super Mario Galaxy, due out this month on the Wii. As 1UP points out, the esteemed Mario saga is credited with inventing the platforming genre with the original Super Mario Bros, and then reinventing it with Super Mario 64. They claim the newest game reinvents the genre yet again. Early buzz has been overwhelmingly positive, but this article makes the first mention I've seen that Galaxy may be Game of the Year material. In a year that includes the breathtaking - albeit over-hyped - Bioshock, the beloved - what else? - Portal, and the mind-blowingly fantastic - oh please oh please - Mass Effect, that's saying a lot, and it's also great news for Mario fans. I've been looking forward to the game for a while, despite the fact that, well, it's a platformer.

Still, as much as I rail against the platforming genre, I absolutely loved Mario 64. How much of that was the novelty of exploring 3D space in a new sort of way? Some of it, certainly - but not all of it, because even today I can play the game and thrill at the experience. It's just a marvelously well-put-together game, and I have fun playing it despite all the jumping around on platforms it asks me to do. So, will Super Mario Galaxy live up to this precedent? I'd hardly dared hope, but with advance reviews as encouraging as this one, it's starting to look like a real possibility.

Reification

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jacks.pngThis is an intervention. As someone who loves games, I'm very concerned about the medium's unhealthy relationship with cinema.

I'm not the only one who sees a problem. Others have spoken out, time and again, and voiced their support. But it's a big problem, and one that must be faced, so I'll say my piece as well.

I understand how it happened. Games were young and impressionable; movies were older and popular. Popularity is hard to resist. Games looked at film and film seemed glamorous. And, well, pretty. Movies were entering the age of special effects, after all, and had practically reinvented spectacle. They had a tendency to show off a bit. Games, on the other hand, hadn't undergone the same technological development that cinema had. As a graphical medium, they were, at best, plain. And they knew it.

So games harbored the desire to be as pretty, as popular, and as well-respected as movies - and more, on some level: they wanted to be movies. This aspiration guided their development. They adopted the language and mannerisms of film - incorporating lens flares and other artificial camera effects, for example, and relying on non-interactive sequences to support the narrative. They frequently referred to their stories as "cinematic," using the term as a blanket affirmative. And they fixated on their appearance, often to the point of neglecting other important characteristics like story, accessibility, or artificial intelligence.

Movies can hardly take great exception to their younger sibling's emulation, even if the games industry's recent success has been a source of some small jealousy. Imitation, after all, is the sincerest form of flattery. But it's clear to me that this attitude has passed well beyond the bounds of a healthy respect, or even an infatuation, and into the realm of dangerous obsession. Games are being produced in which the story is conveyed entirely in non-interactive sequences, and bears no relationship to gameplay. Some of these games go so far as to use cut-scenes as incentives, to reward players for enduring long, boring, or repetitive bouts of interactivity. Worse still, many games have taken to limiting their emotional range to correspond with that of film, severely inhibiting the impact they have on players. All of this comes at the expense of natural, interactivity-based design decisions, which are habitually suppressed. These impulses are only allowed to bubble to the surface in private, experimental settings, and never where they might be exposed to a larger audience.

This preoccupation with movies is starting to have adverse effects on the health of the industry. Games seem to have forgotten that the things that make them different are the same things that make them special. Perhaps what's called for here for is a period of rehabilitation, cut off from the injurious influence of cinema. It sounds extreme, I know, but the situation is desperate, and the only way it can be resolved is for the games industry to learn to trust its own strengths, rather than depending on film for support. It would mean reevaluating all the assumptions that have been made over the years, and replacing the myriad design conventions that favor cinematic qualities over interactive ones. This would certainly be a difficult process, but one that would ultimately be of benefit to the medium.

In the end, it's my sincere hope that the games industry has the wisdom to admit that it has a problem, and the strength of will to overcome it and establish a healthy relationship with movies. Videogames are still a young medium, and it would break my heart if they missed out on all the experiences they can have by using cinema responsibly. But it must be understood that the current behavior has got to stop.

On a personal note: Games, you never had to put yourself through this. You don't have to deny yourself and try so hard to be like cinema. You were always my favorite, just the way you are.