Games Are Our Movies, So What Are Our Films?

Thu, Jul 2nd, 2009 | 5:40am

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."

Hellkeeper said on Jul 2nd, 2009 at 7:36pm:

Well thought article. It sums up many things I think, and it also explains why I find it so funny to see all the big talking heads speaking of emotions, players crying, or games as being existentially relevant.

Because for now, they are not (well, most of them), and the few games that try to make a step further toward a film-iesque approach are often destroyed by there own flaws or by decisions made when deadlines came to an end.

cardo said on Jul 3rd, 2009 at 2:39am:

I love some of the points you raise in the evolution and eventual distinction of each medium.. such as theatre and movie; and even between film and movie that I hadn't really considered as in such a context.

I do feel though that game genres and goals are moving apart gradually and in the past few years it's becoming ever more noticeable. With platforms like the Wii pushing for personal interactivity and family/group involvement for fun pickup and play titles against the other end of said spectrum recessing back towards the movie genre with action games generally becoming ever more cinematic but ultimately linear in doing so inevitably.

With the recent E3 there seems to be a further possible genre branch which could bring these two together with the advent of such tech as Microsoft's Project Natal and Sony's eyetoy/wand combos. Judging by the impressive Peter Molyneux Natal demo showing their Milo character I wondered just how well this would work and whether true artificial intelligence in a game is the only way to truly immerse the player without scripted open ended gameplay. Either way I can't wait to try that stuff!

Good reading Lun :)

Lunaran replied on Jul 4th, 2009 at 1:07am:

I'm going into old man mode here, but Microsoft still can't write speech to text code that can understand a damned word anyone says, so I wonder what frustrating ways that "Wiimote jitter" will manifest itself with Natal. Imagine Milo repeating the same recording of "I'm sorrey, I didn't heah you" nine times in a row in his charming little south English voice, then asking if you're feeling okay without understanding why you've begun shouting at him.

I do wonder how much was canned for the presentation rather than truly simulated and functioning the way they describe, because I've seen firsthand how much smoke, mirrors, and duct tape holds most E3 presentations together.

If the means of control is body language, there's still code reading it, and thus you'll quickly be able to "feel out the edges" of how it reads you, and then the game becomes one of how to control your hands and eyebrows just right, much the same way that you can game the accelerometer controls of Wii Sports to be a stellar athlete while lying in a pile of potato chip crumbs on the couch.

There's some conflation here, though. A simulated person isn't the only thing I can interact with using Natal any more than Natal isn't necessarily the only way I can interact with a simulated person, we're being shown both things at once as if they're inseparable, and neither one is necessary for what I described in this post. Designers finding meaningful things to express and using interactivity to express them need neither an AI boy nor a webcam that can tell if your eyebrows are scrunched up to happen, and if nobody's tried it by now I'm not sure any of those things are going to jog anyone out of their comic-book-to-game-adaptation ways. The Wiimote was just as promising, and by and large all we've gotten out of it is swordfighting and gestural motions replacing the dozens of buttons on the other controllers.

The last comment under the first link in this post

( )

really struck me - until games become easy enough to create that the capability of doing so doesn't rest solely with "maladroit computer nerds," we're only going to get the kinds of games that maladroit computer nerds want to make. Harsh, but I think it's very true.

Electro said on Jul 16th, 2009 at 12:46am:

Where the hell are you these days Matt? Email me!

Joel McDonald said on Aug 1st, 2009 at 5:14am:

Good post--it's actually right along the lines of the Rev Rant video I just finished watching -

The call for a game-as-film type identifier is interesting because that's exactly what I've been wanting for a while now. You know, something like "interactive media" except less pedantic and unwieldy. I sort of like Ian Bogost's notion of "procedural rhetoric" to describe impactful games, but it's probably too technical to catch on. Having said that though, there was a Gamasutra article (or maybe blog post... is there a difference any more?) where the author makes the case for a new word for art games and many of the comments made the valid point that we *shouldn't* have to come up with a new word for meaningful games but should instead come about it from the other end and legitimize the word "game" by slowly earning the respect games deserve. A good parallel would be comics and graphic novels--introducing the term 'graphic novel' didn't have the effect of suddenly legitimizing the comic book industry like people may have wanted.

Of course, you're probably far less concerned about the name we ascribe these games-as-film than actually making games-as-film type games. There does seem to be some faint shimmers of hope on the horizon though, what with the burgeoning indie/art game scene and the industry luminaries such as Clint Hocking, Warren Spector, and Jonathan Blow.

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