22 January 2011

To make a movie, write a book or craft an experience. - by Kamruz M

      Posted 01/21/11 08:51:00 am  

A game can be measured by the merit of the experience that it delivers its player. I think one can separate the types of experiences that games provide into those that are native to the medium of videogames and those that are lifted off of other mediums, in short native or imitation.

Whenever a game comes out that has an ambitious plot that is presented to the player via thousands of lines of text, then the creators of said game deign to give the player an experience lifted from the medium of literature. That is to say, you are then reading text relating that this character said this and that character said that, just like a book would do it.

Similarly whenever a game comes out that tries to impress the player with lengthy sleekly produced static sequences, traditionally in the form of a video being played, then the player is being presented with an experience imitating the medium of cinema. You are then just passively looking on while the plot is being presented to you just as if you were watching a movie.

While there are countless examples of games lifting liberally from other mediums with hardly anyone complaining about the fact I will still argue that whenever game creators overwhelmingly employ these alien techniques in the medium of games then they are doing the medium a great disservice, because these products demonstrate a fundamental misunderstanding of the experience potential within the medium of games.

The video game medium is distinct and it has unique ways to give its user an experience native only to itself. Once hardware began to exceed the requirements for pure gameplay and approach the artistic ambitions of game developers time came for the scope of the experience games provided to grow as well. Unfortunately, then, as much as now, developers at large failed to recognize how this added potential is best utilized in service of providing players a richer experience. That is to say an experience native to the medium, one which only a video game could provide and instead most creators looked to borrow experiences from other mediums, in effect games began to imitate these other mediums, starting to resemble movies or books.

One of the earliest examples of a video game whose experience is a pure product of the video game medium is an oft forgotten game named Another World. There the creator sought to have the player's experience with the world of the game be the plot, instead of say, having the plot be read by the player via text or watched by him via a cinematic sequence.

Another World made use of ambience, immersion, atmosphere and a lack of text or static cinematic in favour of intuitive exploration in order to create a native video game experience, and one of the first examples of a uniquely native video game narrative.

This vanguard title, though, unfortunately, had its achievements largely go ignored by the development community who instead, opted to continue borrowing narrative techniques lifted unchanged from the medium of cinema and literature. The 90's saw both the rise of text heavy RPG's as well as FMV heavy action games that were met with widespread acclaim and acceptance.

However, about ten years ago game creators became increasingly aware of the awkward nature of marrying reading of plot, or watching it unfold, with gameplay sections and there were many cries of foul. Video game creators then began to address this awkwardness by pondering upon ways to better mesh cinematic or literary narrative into their games. Some solutions where the dynamic cutscene, which is when a player character is trapped into a space and has to wait while pre-determined NPC interactions further the plot, all this while the illusion of freedom is maintained by allowing players to control their character, yet being unable to botch up the ongoing narrative sequence. Another method is to instead of plot be provided in text instead provide it via audio, typically in the shape of audio logs that the player can find and listen to without a break from the ongoing gameplay.

Despite this focus on seamless meshing of borrowed narrative in the years since Another World we have seen some releases by developers who demonstrate a similar intuitive understanding of the importance of experience over plot and the nature of a successful medium native narrative. The year 2000 saw the release of Vagrant Story which with its bite sized static sequences, minimalist amount of text, and large reliance on unassisted exploration of lonely atmospheric locales was oddly in conflict with the typical RPG sentiments of the time, which favoured more, more, more of the above. The creator, Yasumi Matsuno demonstrated there an understanding that plot exposition need not be the raison d’être of the RPG experience.

Contrast this to Final Fantasy XIII where the creators, when pressed to reflect on criticism aimed at the game’s linearity, responded with the valid excuse that it is hard to tell a compelling tale in any other setting. They are correct of course, but they also there demonstrated giving their grand narrative plot and “cool” characterizations priority over what, in my opinion, is what the RPG experience is all about, which is the experience of adventuring in an alien world.

I cannot say I remember the plot of Final Fantasy XIII, nor that of any of the other games in the series, nor that of the many other RPG’s that I have played. But what I do remember vividly of FFXIII is how beautiful and wonderful some of environments in the game were, especially in grand pulse, where you could explore them free of exposition or sleek cinematic. The result of Square forgoing gameplay entirely as found in their two full length movie efforts, The Sprit Within, and Advent Children, were in my opinion terribly insipid, so I know what I want more of from their games, and what less.

2001 saw the release of the landmark title ICO by the hands of Team ICO, helmed by Fumito Ueda, who is quite possibly one of the only video game creators to my knowledge with a consistent track record for creating games that provide a pure distillation of the video game experience.

ICO, their first effort, is a game where the characters put their lips to utter less words than is in the first paragraph of this article but nevertheless manages to provide an experience with an emotional impact standing like a sun next to the candlelight of most other, by comparison, clumsy attempts at weaving an emotional plot by way of thousands of lines of text, hours of cinematic, or other traditional forms of static exposition.

ICO did this by using only narrative techniques native to the medium of video games. It used as the backdrop a hauntingly atmospheric, yet artistically beautiful locale, which in combination with intuitive puzzle design and suggestive imagery lead the player by an invisible string, one connected directly to their heart. The result was a triumph of the medium of games, but when viewed by merit of other mediums it seemed pitiful with its wafer thin plot and shallow characters. Alas its shortcomings are inconsequential because ICO is a video game, and as a product of that medium it provided players one of the richest most unforgettable experiences the medium is capable of providing.

Despite there being now more than a handful of examples demonstrating the true excellence of the medium many game developers are still preoccupied with making games with cinematic or literary sentiments, and with good reason I might add.

For one, the video game medium, with its 40 year history, and undeniable economic prowess, is yet, like any other medium when it first came to be, the host for much snobbery by patrons of the more ancient, more respected mediums and is therefore beset by an inferiority complex. Movies underwent a similar rite of passage, being lambasted, and regarded as a base field but after a while film makers figured out how to prove everyone wrong by working out the strengths of their medium, and capitalizing on them.

Secondly, if you reckon that your goal as a game maker is to tell a grand sweeping tale then the pure game narrative approach is not fit to host this vision. A pure video game experience is not fit to project a complicated literary plot, rather its focus is to just provide users with a rich immersive experience. The essence of playing a good game is a lot like being on a personal adventure, one which would make but for an insipid tale in retelling because, you had to be there. Due to the popularity of the other two mediums, literature and film, most people are used to think of story telling as something done with characters, words or text. But a game goes about this differently, it tells its story through experience, spectacle and immersion.

The irony here is that precisely because literary or cinematic narratives are such an ill fit for delivering a good video game experience, even if you do manage to pull it off your work may still lack the impact of a masterfully done pure game narrative. There is a reason, after all, why ICO and Shadow of Colossus are on so many top 10 lists, and why Fumito Ueda himself cites Another World as one of his majour influences.

Perhaps A lot of the confusion stems from the widely regarded sentiment, both in game creators, as well as people from other creative fields, that it is a tragedy that video games cannot play host to a truly great literary story. Indeed this has been a point of contention for many who criticize the medium, and regarded it as something base. Certainly video games in form and function are at best poorly adaptable as a literary story telling medium, especially when compared to fields as refined as cinema or literature. But to regard this as a tragedy, and hold the opinion that games are broken until this is fixed is to undermine the unique qualities of this medium. Video games are about the experience they provide and there are experiences that video games can provide which no movie or book could hope to approach.

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Dolgion Chuluunbaatar
21 Jan 2011 at 8:08 am PST

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