July 2nd, 2009
I sat down to write up ideas for yet another new project (this one's for Crysis!), and wound up bashing out a rantifesto on the motivations behind it instead, and it centered around what I see as the big barrier that games need to cross. Some people are aware of it, some people want to see what's on the other side of it, but considering how the industry keeps behaving and what it keeps producing, the important people seem to not care. Regardless, we need a new word.
If you're a film snob you'll probably know exactly what I'm talking about here, but in cinema there's the same dividing barrier, where you have movies on the one side, and then on the other you have films. Films are the works of cinema that provide some artistic or literary look at life or the human condition - they're character-driven, they leave us with questions, and in one way or another they turn the lens on ourselves and our nature. Movies don't - they're purely for entertainment. They're your summer blockbusters and popcorn explosion flicks, and they're driven by plot and by events. In short, films show you things that happen in real life, and movies show you things that don't. Which is entirely the point of both of them.
(It's not really a dividing barrier so much as a spectrum, with the pure schlock of "Independence Day" at one end, and at the other ... well, if I had to pick a film that tries to confront as much of life as possible while being so un-fun you never want to watch it again, I'd go with "Synecdoche, NY.")
Books have the same spectrum - on the one hand you have literature, and on the other you have the kind of books they sell on the end of the aisle at the grocery store, ie beach reading. Nobody goes on vacation and looks at their week off as a great chance to belt out that Dostoevsky volume they've been putting off (unless they're a real lit-geek) - they'll pick up a Tom Clancy or John Grisham or Sue Grafton. But, you'd be hard pressed to write a thesis of any respectable length on the motivations of a particular character in "The Da Vinci Code."
Games have not carved out both ends of that spectrum - just the kitsch, for twenty+ years. Movies are to games as films are to ... nobody knows. Something nobody's really made yet, or explored. It's at the point that we don't have a word for it, having only managed "art game" up to this point, a term which conjures entirely inappropriate parallels to abstract "art films" instead. Some commercial games have tried to go there, and there are a few indie things that can be considered pushing the boundaries away from the Hollywood game, but year after year what gets commercially produced are far and away totally popcorn games. Occasionally some talking head at a conference will talk about a game that can make you cry or somesuch, then it's another year of tired identical escapism releases, then more heads talk about the same thing at the same conferences the next year.
The best we've managed so far is "moral ambiguity," meaning, we still make power-fantasy games about slaughtering legions of dudes, except now the player isn't sure if he should be doing that or not, which doesn't matter in the end anyway because his only choice is to either continue slaughtering or turn the game off. It's good that we're feeling something, it is, but really, it's skin deep. That's the reaction we should have to a shooter anyway.
What's more accurate is to say that games have not made the leap away from film that film made away from theater. In the early days of film, the camera more or less emulated the audience, and films were more or less theatrical plays, filmed. Sets were built with three walls, the actors had their cues on where to stand when, and delivered lines in slightly exaggerated theatrical style half-shouted at the imaginary back row. The camera might pan back and forth or move a little the same way the audience would move their heads when watching a play, but that was it. Gradually, however, the things that the camera could do that the audience's heads couldn't came to be used for effect - it moved around the scene, closed in on actors' faces, captured more subtle performances, framed people and objects in ways that subtly insinuated, cut between shots at moments that implied and suggested. What separated film from theater came to be understood, and used to underscore and accentuate the themes that the films touched on.
Developers are in the same early mode, being content to merely emulate the previous medium: movies. The fact that the player can make decisions and the experience can react to the player is not often used to any effect - in the most successful games, a story is laid out in advance and the player is largely dragged through it, and a great deal of effort and innovation goes into making the leash around the player's neck as invisible to him as possible. In many cases games are chock full of cutscenes, little movie sequences unto themselves, in which the player plays no part - he simply watches. Cuts, camera placement, framing, and above all the action are managed very closely, and they're the reason the game switches into a cutscene in the first place.
That's going to have to end. Game designers are going to have to learn to let go of the details of the experience and guide the player through broader strokes (and before that, we're going to need some more meaningful broad strokes than "badass dude with powers saves America and/or Earth"). In whatever space into which games will likewise someday transition (hopefully), interactivity is essential. The player's decisions are used to evoke certain effects that film and other non-interactive media cannot. The game's ability to react to the player's decisions is used as well. What effects those may be remain largely to be explored.
HonestGamers turned Warren Spector's assertion that games will not grow into their own until we learn and acknowledge what makes them different from other media against his own creation, looking at Deus Ex in terms of the choices it allowed you to make and the depth to which it allowed you to sink into the world. Unfortunately, that kind of game design never really caught on - id and Epic were content to drive games harder towards graphical fidelity and higher system specs instead, and now asset production time is by far the biggest dragon staring down any development schedule. In the face of that dragon, unfortunately, when games are almost never on time or within budget, giving the player any more than one thing to do at a time represents a linear increase in cost that project leads haven't had the ambition to incur since the days when "Unreal Engine" wasn't followed by a number. (Plus, the talking heads buzz-labeled it "Emergent Gameplay" and then proceeded to beat all sense and meaning from the term, so now we're sick of it.)
That's where I want to go - maybe not to push squarely into that territory immediately, but chip away at the boundary. Make things that are clearly interactive, clearly worth playing, but clearly can't be called games. Take at least a big stride towards making something worth 'playing' for some other reason than how fun it is. Provide something that's close enough to that line, or just far enough over it, that it isn't universally panned as pretentious or incomprehensible by the jaded throngs who'll wish it was more gamey, but still provides a stepping stone for later projects (by myself or any artist) into the domain of the interpretive.
To summarize, here's a sweet recent quote by the creator of Dear Esther:
"Bludgeoning a zombie with a crowbar is fun. Existentially bludgeoning an invisible zombie with an identity crisis - that's got to be worth a pop."