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.

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1 Comments

Brilliant as always. You are a gentleman and a scholar, Mr. Bouchard... and a subtle reminder that a parable from the pulpit is usually more effective than a rant from the soapbox.

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