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.

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I almost forgot!! For those interested, the games/movie debate has been continuing in full force over at Sean's blog, Softcore Gamer. Ethan Kennerly has weighed in as well with some interesting stuff... check the comment section of the entry.... Read More

4 Comments

I'm completely on board that videogames in particular, and interactive media in general, is not a real-time shadow of cinema. I further agree that no discussion of a videogame is complete by just a cinematic analysis. For that matter, no coverage of anything interactive is complete by just a cinematic analysis.

And there are genres of videogames that would be crippled by the constraints of cinema. I've been one to point out that a driving game has more similarities with a physical car and the design of a dashboard than it does with a driving movie. SimCity, Tetris, and other more mechanism-centric games are some of the purest examples of videogames sans cinema, for whom any reviewer is misguided to compare them to movies on Russian block puzzles, empires or mayorships.

This misguidance, as you note, is due to ignorance and videogame illiteracy. Lack of background in a tradition motivates aversion to a tradition. It's easy to pop shots from the hip at a misunderstood medium. Especially when the target medium is as large as movies. Which videogames are. I've waded through the debates on the immaturity of the videogame medium and how it, unlike its uncle, cinema, lacks great Art. I've debunked that. Cliff Blezinski has debunked the myth that the videogame industry hasn't had its great Art, its Citizen Kane (by citing StarCraft among others).

But I won't fall into the same trap of shooting from the hip at a target for which I have insufficient focus. I won't say movies suck. I'll agree that the current USC graduate pedagogy, of "teaching" interactive media from watching movies, sucks. For the same reasons you point out: if the movie were the role-model, then the logical conclusion would be to make movies, instead of a screen-based experience in which the user influences the content that is delivered during real-time. As an interactive media MFA, it sincerely frustrates my educational goals that the vast majority of the time, interactive media is not the topic of study.

That's really all I have to say that is closely coupled to your topic. But your post launched me on a tangential trajectory, which I believe is aimed at a fruitful destination from your origin that I read as: don't compare videogames to movies.

I wouldn't swing the pendulum that far in the opposite direction. To start with a minor semantic note, it's odd that you say videogames can have post-cinematic narratives, as I don't see narratives as particularly closer to videogames than cinema is. Narration is only one part of the experience of play. For that matter, narration is only part of the experience of cinema. There is a primal joy, fun, that subsumes narrative in the psychology of play. But if instead of all videogames, we limit our domain to narrative videogames, then narrative cinema is comparable.

Almost every problem that a videogame is solving is older than computers, especially narrative. Cinema has been working on screen-delivered narrative for over a century, videogames for less than half a century. Namely, cinema has been honing cinematography and storytelling on screen. Videogames can still learn tricks of the cinematic trade and apply them to videogames in the ways that work in our medium.

Cinema has a lot to offer narrative videogames. I'm reticent to admit that I learn more about videogame design from my television writing class (CTWR 421), than I have from any of the game design or general interactive media classes offered at USC. Writers are planners of an emotional experience; and screenwriting is the blueprint to one example trace of an emotional experience in a screen-delivered narrative. And the cinematic tradition of screenwriting has honed some effective techniques that deliver a level of quality that's not great, but the good stuff is emotional. Moreover, screenwriters have expertise in reviewing, editing, and brainstorming. As World of Warcraft content designer Jeffrey Kaplan said, his creative writing education taught him how to refine his design [of the user experience]. In the most crass and devilish perspective, the cinema industry has been like this evolutionary algorithm that has been solving the problem of keeping a pseudo-educated primate glued to an unresponsive screen. As a side effect, they've dissected formulae for screen-induced and character-driven emotions. Since videogames have a similar general market and output device (the screen and speakers), and some compatible mechanics of emotional exploitation, there's plenty of opportunity for theoretical synthesis and practical cross-pollenization.

In the examples you mentioned, you seem to embrace what you've been pushing away: animation and audio. These are some of the base elements from which cinema is constructed. The Punchout of Mike Tyson is an animation being cued.

Legend of Zelda, for me, is a case in point of a videogame that should borrow more, not less, from cinema. I'm not its greatest fan. I've only played a handful of their titles. But I revere The Wind Waker. The puzzles encouraged the illusion of my cleverness. The animations and sounds captivated me. The overall visual and aural aesthetics enthralled me. They owe, though, a lot to Disney's films and Chinese and Japanese painting styles. Without Disney, Wind Waker would suck. And Wind Waker's chief oversight during the early game is a cliche story with shallow characters. Their visual character design was interesting, but the story delivery, especially the text and dialogue, was painful to read. The time in which I mashed buttons the fastest in that game was its dialogue. You could argue they shouldn't have tried to shoehorn such dialogue in the first place. I'm open to that. But since they did apply dialogue and cinematically conventional story delivery mechanisms, the writing could have demonstrated compelling characters with emotionally interwoven conflicts. For a tiny fraction of the budget, we could all get yet one more dimension that deepens the play.

God of War was a commercial and critical success. It is an animation tour de force. God of War II is even more animation and movie-centric. The camera is controlled for you in a way that is both more cinematic and is usually more satisfying than a user-controlled camera. Yes, I agree that its simulation is unsatisfying; that it, along with Dragon's Lair and Indigo Prophecy, doesn't stand the test of replay. Yet a nearly cinematic experience, such as House of the Dead, successfully borrows heavily from cinema. These are largely linear experiences, employing about as much branching as a caterpillar's body.

Yet God of War II works. You might say for the wrong reasons (that it is cinematic), but I'll refute, there's nothing wrong with cinematics as a reward. Almost every game, especially Legend of Zelda, Grand Theft Auto III, have used animation and audio as a reward. As Cliff Blezinski put it a couple years ago, the music in Grand Theft Auto Vice City is the reward for stealing a car.

The primary reward in Guitar Hero is the noninteractive audio. A song that the user has probably heard many, many times before he or she played Guitar Hero. Except for glitches and feedback, the audio experience in Guitar Hero is a noninteractive song, ripped off from the well-established music industry. It's not interactive. It's completely bound to its progenitor.

Personally, I'm not into articles that title themselves one way, like "movies suck", and contradict their titles in the body for shock value. However, I do admit that my loathing for such in the face of it might have motivated this consciously (and I hope) levelheaded consideration.

The modern videogame is a complicated beast. It is a multi-disciplinary collaboration of engineers, artists, designers, producers, and entrepreneurs. During this collaboration, it would be wise to admit wisdom from any tradition. Personally, screenwriting, storyboarding, discrete mathematics, agile software development, pattern-oriented programming, analysis of algorithms, graphic design, cognitive psychology, evolutionary biology, neurolinguistics, human-computer interaction, and product design have heavily influenced my videogame design. If I were to drop screenwriting and storyboarding because of their movie-origins, I'd be losing valuable tools from my kit. If I were to push away from movies in particular, and cinema in general, I'd be wearing blinders.

There's a reason why the name "videogames" stuck and "computer games" didn't. Although the etymology doesn't serve my point, the result does. Videogames are part cinema and part game. To use Jamie's presentation of Buckminster Fuller, I agree with you that their synergy as a videogame has a potential that should not be confined to a set of simultaneous, immutable audio-visual streams (AKA cinema).

At the AAA level (such as Ratchet & Clank), videogames and cinema are continuing to converge, not diverge. So comparison is hard to avoid. As one designer in Daniel Arey's interview documentary, Designing the AAA Title, put it, the videogame industry could be doing a much better job of fostering creative talent. Part of that is the misunderstanding of the medium, which you point out, but part of that is the misunderstanding of play, in general.

Play is about imagination. Videogames, at least most of them, are real-time interactive animations, coupled with real-time simulations, and a user interface, to which users instinctively map metaphors and overlay stories. Humans are story-making machines. The play of children is wrapped in stories. So for narrative videogames--which do launch their users on the path of imaginative stories--they would do well to ask their uncles in cinema how they got their viewers to the end of the rainbow. And, as you say, those uncles that want to say something about videogames, they had better understand our medium before giving advice.

RJ Layton said:

I'm flattered that my post could inspire such discussion! Great posts, Mr. Bouchard! Also, I would like to thank Ethan for his great comment. I would like to add more to the discussion.

I agree with a lot of what you said, Sean, but I would hesitate to divide emotions into those that are the domain of cinema and those that are the domain of videogames. My argument is that cinema, for all of its history, may not be the most powerful medium for evoking emotion (if that is indeed the goal), but also certainly that it is not best method for engaging the player in an interactive setting.

The trouble is when people suggest, "Why aren't there any games that make you cry?" The first response I want to use is that there have been some that have made people cry, but more importantly, I want to respond with a question, which is: "Why do we feel we need to rely on cinematic techniques to make you cry?" I certainly understand that cinema has had a great deal of time to work on evoking these sorts of emotions, and that we can gain a lot of information by studying how this is done.

What I reject is the usage of cinema as a crutch, as it all too often becomes. I reject the idea that cinema has done it best and therefore will always be the best at it. I reject the assumption that cinematic qualities are something that games should aspire to.

Ethan, I share your frustrations with the division in that much of our studies are not directly related to interactive media. We've spent a lot of time watching movies or film clips, and while that is educational, it certainly doesn't feel as though it has been counterbalanced with a focus on interactive medias. We don't have any classes where we study games as we did in Bruce Block's visual expression class, for example.

On a sidenote, I really enjoyed your "Fun is Fine" piece. Fantastic stuff.

However, I respectfully disagree with much of the rest of your post. I will make efforts to keep it short. For one, Wind Waker is probably my least favorite game in the Legend of Zelda franchise, and a lot of it comes down to what you said: "Without Disney, Wind Waker would suck." Wind Waker relies so much on its visuals and audio, far more than the interactive elements of it, that as a gamer I found myself extremely disappointed and even bored with the tedious nature of some of the gameplay, or the lack of difficulty and challenge in general, even while enjoying the incredibly animations and skydomes. It's focus on cinematic qualities are its downfall in the game. The fact that Wind Waker is still better than most games is a testament to the game design decisions made for the Legend of Zelda series as a whole. Even Aonuma, the producer for the game, apologized for its dullness, citing especially the fetch quests towards the end of the game.

The parts where I strongly disagree, however, are where you comment about animation and audio. When you knock out Mike Tyson, the reward is not watching the animation of Mike Tyson fall to the mat. That is the result, and it contributes to the rewarding feeling. However, the truly rewarding part of knocking him down is the fact that you managed to do it, that you made it happen. If I had gone through the game on my first try and beaten Tyson, it wouldn't have been rewarding in the same way, and it might not have been rewarding at all. Just because the animation is triggered doesn't mean it's the reward. If it was, it would be just as fun to watch somebody beat Punchout!! as it would be to do it yourself.

Similarly, I wholeheartedly disagree with the statement that "the primary reward in Guitar Hero is the noninteractive audio." This is not so. If simply hearing the song was rewarding, I would just play it on my iTunes. The reward for playing Guitar Hero is not just hearing the song, it's the feeling of actually playing it. It's the fact that I pulled off that awesome riff, because I'm a rock star. It's that emotional hook that makes the game successful, not just playing a song for the player. I don't like playing songs on Medium difficulty on Guitar Hero anymore, because it's not challenging and I'm not getting the physical feeling of "rocking out." Also, as far as other audio aspects to the game, you're ignoring other, more important aspects to it. When I manage to pull off certain riffs, I get a cool guitar "shred" kind of sound letting me know I earned some bonus abilities. When I use it, the volume increases and the crowd goes wild, and starts clapping and cheering me on. The reward is in the doing. The resulting animations and sound are there to enhance the user's experience, to amplify the reward, but they are not the reward itself.

On a closing note, don't you think that a big part of why "videogames" stuck and not "computer games" is because of the confusion of people who don't realize that inside a gaming console is a "computer" of some sort? The word "computer" evokes an image of the PC, not of a game that may take place on any screen.

FingerPaint said:

I'm always fascinated by articles or posts that go: we're doing it wrong, why are we doing things wrong? It would be like telling Gutenberg two days after he printed his first book: Why didn't you include an index and chapter headings?

The argument is interesting, but it doesn't get you closer to your goal. Stating that video games and computer games aren't movies is a valid point and we need to look at that, but does it tell us anything more about how to make video games? I think the comparison between movies and video games is a valid one if used properly. Let me explain what I mean. When we started creating websites we had no idea what to do with the new medium, so what did we do? We looked at media that was similar enough to use as a foundation. In the beginning of website design we used a lot of design principles from color magazines. Those, in turn, are modernizations of newspapers. We took what we knew, used the things that worked in the new medium, tossed out the things that didn't work and used the result to start thinking about what would make a really great and effective website. That's the situation we're in right now. We're in that place because that's how human development works.

When I see people struggle to add story to games I applaud them because at least they are trying. My personal favorite BioShock isn't perfect and it's a long way from an immersive story, but boy are they making strides.

Hm. There's a few things that are not connecting together in my mind.

About The Wind Waker, so the end is dull. It does not follow that the Disney animation style was dull. The Disney-inspired animation techniques contributed to my enthrallment, and many people's enthrallment with Wind Waker. Animation techniques, which are a part of cinematic techniques, contribute to the interactive entertainment value of The Wind Waker.

Imagine Punchout without animation. Not at all interesting. I know you're advocating Punchout without animation, but I'm not understanding how the animation is not the principal visual component of the reward. Of course the interactivity, the challenge, makes it entertaining, but the carrot for the user is the animation and the story of having defeated the opponent. These are taken from boxing, but were capitalized on by cinematic classics, such as Raging Bull and Rocky, which most any boxing game could do well to consider, rather than dismiss for its origin in cinema.

Imagine Guitar Hero without the audio. Without the animation. Not fun. Of course Guitar Hero without interactivity is not fun either. It is the combination of visual, auditory, and user interface techniques that produce the entertainment. The primary audio is directly from the music industry, and the visuals are, by definition, animation. Its animators no doubt have in their vocabulary and intellectual toolkit many hallmarks originating in animated film and television.

I'm not really clear on what there is to disagree about this. It's obvious, right?

I used to design interactivity independently of its aesthetic components, and there are simulation-centric games that can benefit from this technique, but interactive entertainment is a synergy of simulation, user interface, story, and look and feel. Cinema contains a treasure trove of story and look and feel. Advocating an industry not to dip their hand into that, because "movies suck" (as a basis for videogames) yields an unnecessarily aenemic design toolkit.

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