Thursday, June 02, 2005

People Who Agree With Me

I read a couple of things online recently by people who echo a couple of my problems with video games.

First this Penny Arcade bit mirroring the reasons I gave up the hassles of PC gaming:

For my part, seeing what wonders PC developers have in store, I think I've bought my last video card. I didn't even get top of the line this time, I squeaked in under four hundred dollars, but I've had it up to fucking here subsidizing the next generation of consoles with my early adopter money. Before Doom 3, I was satisfied with a hitch or two here and there when I was really putting a machine to work - but seeing the way it is supposed to look, on hardware with the strength to manipulate those realms effortlessly made it clear. They've priced me, as a financially stable adult, straight out of entertainment software on the personal computer. I crave the esoteric strategy titles and wild experiments found on PCs, but it no longer makes a lick of sense to maintain this rig in the face of four hundred dollar, triple core consoles. The WOPR taught us as much in WarGames: the only way to win that game is not to play it.

And next, this bit about the videogame experience vs. watching a movie, from a slightly dated article predicting another video game industry crash:

Ah, Rogue Squadron. How pretty are your graphics, how immersive the feeling of fantastic space battles. And how infuriatingly repetitive the experience. "It's just like living a movie! A plotless ten-hour movie edited by Michael Bay's retarded brother and running on a skipping DVD player!"

Video games are not the new Hollywood. Hollywood is the new Hollywood. Films (well, good films) present their tales with masterful pacing and suspense and actors we love. Films are relying on an art form (drama) with a thousand years of popularity under its belt.

Games try to trump that with interactivity, letting you control the outcome. But the more control the gamer has, the more the pacing is ruined by brainless repetition (leaving the task to the gamer presents the possibility the gamer will fail 30 times in a row).

This is especially true if you suck at games, like me. Interactivity is an attractive feature, and this doesn't really apply to games that are more about the fun of playing. But if it's storytelling you're after, well, games are a frustrating and time-consuming way to tell a story whose outcome is likely to be less dramatically satisfying.


Zack said...

Obviously I am going to comment on this. Probably twice, possibly not even including this comment.

Some people have made the mistake of thinking of video games as movies with controls added, sure, but this is stupid. This is wrong, as wrong as it is to think of movies as music with pictures. Obviously every form will have its own strengths.

However, don't discount storytelling in games. It is there, and it is good, but it just doesn't look anything like storytelling in movies. You can't just add win/lose conditions to an interactive movie scene and call that a meaningful experience.

Zack said...

The first link (PA) I largely agree with, except that I was there when Quake 2 came out. The second link is just nuts, though. This comment is a collection of minor quibbles; the big point I want to make will be in the following comment.

First off, he elects to compare good movies to shitty games, which is unfair. He says that a movie-to-game conversion is inferior to the original movie, which is true, but the reverse is also true. Keep in mind that the all-time best game-based movie is Mortal Kombat, and that was such a terrible video game that I don't know if we can draw any meaningful conclusions from that. He compares Rogue Squadron to a Michael Bay movie, and then uses that to support his claim that video games will stop selling ... because if Michael Bay has one glaring shortcoming, it's ticket sales, right?

The truth is that a lot of games are bad, and a lot of top-selling games are bad. But if you want to claim that books, movies, TV, or movies are superior, look at the charts some time. People are retards.

He states that film draws upon a thousand years of popularity. Yet I feel like I can safely claim that games have been popular longer than any art form. Lion cubs play. Puppies play. Children learn play on their own, and partake in it with ferocity. Play will always be popular. So will story, of course.

I do agree with him insofar as the games which ARE fairly characterized by his rant are poor games. But he talks as though these traits are essential, and they aren't.

The Atari that made the Jaguar is not the same Atari that made the VCS/2600, 5200, and 7800. The company was splintered around the time of the big crash. Sega is, of course, a special sort of slow motion disaster.

Zack said...

Basically, what this guy is complaining about is one shitty school of design which has been commercially very successful, or some natural consequences of lazy game design. That's all.

Games can tell stories well, and they do it in ways that films can't.

Consider Front Mission 3 (I never played 1, 2, or 4). It's a mech wargame, but character driven. At the beginning of the game, your character chooses to go into town or stay behind. It's a really trivial decision, yet it starts a chain of events that results in your character, Kazuki, being on either the North American or the Asian side of a huge war. The game's length largely depends on how much sidestory and background you want to go digging for. Unlike Rogue Squadron, the game does not require repetition of the same levels. When you have finished one long, tragic story arc, in which either your sister or your love interest dies (depending), you can go back, make a different trivial decision at the start of the game, and experience the unfolding of another tragedy. You now have to kill people who were your friend in another life.

Front Mission 3 had some serious gameplay issues, and I wouldn't necessarily recommend it, but as a medium for its story, it was perfect. The game easily tackles the paradox between the visceral fun of making things explode and the heartbreaking, pointless, arbitrary deaths of war. By contrast, the excruciating Gwyneth Paltrow vehicle, Sliding Doors, which shared with Front Mission the whole butterfly effect thing, was awful. In contrast to Front Mission, Sliding Doors was forced to impossibly convey parallel realities in a fixed linear sequence of images and sound. If you ask me, a story like Front Mission's can only be told when the audience has control over the telling of the story. If not games, then what? Choose Your Own Adventure books? Improv theater? I think not.

Mega Man 2 is, in its own humble way, a brilliant, cyclic anti-war story, but I don't feel like getting into it. Just ... it wouldn't work as a movie, because you'd only watch it once. The addictive gameplay compels you to play over and over (just like Karaoke Revolution, Taiko, Tetris, whatever), and the story can eventually become a deep part of you, in the same way that a song's chorus will stay with you forever because of its repetition. A classic NES game like MM2 or the original Super Mario Bros is almost like a pop song like that, and that catchy, addictive structure certainly can be used to tell you a story that breaks your heart. I can't think of a game that actually does this more than half-assedly off the top of my head, but surely there is one. If not, there will be someday. Worst case scenario, I goddamn make it myself.

If you limit yourself to linear stories with beginnings and ends, then sure, games aren't for you. But games don't have to be linear like films, so it's unfair to judge them as films.

Finally (I think), games with addictive gameplay and storytelling games do not among them cover the whole spectrum. Where do you put a mindfuck like Rez, a game designed specifically to trigger synaesthesia in its audience? Games are not as essentially tied to storytelling as film is, so ... you shouldn't expect the game industry to attract, proportionally, as many genius storytellers as film does, and you shouldn't expect the best games to be focused on storytelling. There is storytelling in games, and it is worth exploring, but there is also a whole lot more to games and other interactive media, and I hope to high heaven that it doesn't limit itself to storytelling (as worthy a pursuit as that is).

You and I both know I could keep going, but maybe I should stop.

lyan! said...

I think there are plenty of games that do a decent job of integrating movie stuff into the game -- though the most memorable one for me did have that 30-try thing to it: The Getaway. I liked the genre I guess, but I don't know, i thought it pretty decent. it wasn't as versitle as it could have been, but it was pretty darn good, and had a few extras that gave it some extra replay value.
Anyway, I personally think that eventually the graphics'll get to a point where they're merely fine-tuning the motion and stuff.
But I can't help but to watch the G4 network and think how the videogame lifestyle is emerging as a beast in itself. And with that, or at least in the desire to make something that'll attract more players, a videogame producer is going to invest more effort in creating better stories...
You know what, I don't remember what I was talking about.
All I know is that I'm losing a lot of faith in mainsteam movies, while I'm always a little excited with videogames -- even though, like movies, there's about 30 bad ones made for every one that I'd consider playing. I just think there are a few more people in the videogame world who are more interested with innovation than money. You know, like two more.

Kenny said...

Yeah, the way this guy puts things is kind of simplistic and a bit unfair. I do know that for me, as someone with little skill and less patience, the repetition of certain games grows tiresome fast. I did say that this doesn't apply to games where the gameplay itself is the point, like Rez or many of the other games that I enjoy.

Front Mission 3 sounds pretty cool. The trouble with other "branching" storyline games is that a lot of times, while you can continue if you screw up, you're still left with the feeling that you're playing the "wrong" path and getting the "bad" ending. Which, well, you are. And, ultimately, video games require much more of a time commitment to get that kind of satisfaction.

You're right, though. They're different mediums and ultimately it's unfair to compare them--they have different strengths.

As far as Sliding Doors, a better example of movies exploring the butterfly effect is Run Lola Run. Interestingly, Lola has a very video-game influenced feel--from the music to the fast pace, to the repetition of starting the plot over, as if Lola is on her next life and playing the level again. Even the running forming the central action. So while Lola explores the alternate-life effect, it does so almost within a video game structure.

Kenny said...

Correction: My wording implied that I've played Rez. I haven't.

Zack said...

Run Lola Run is certainly a better movie, but I think my comparison still stands. Playing a game, you can have a set of save states, which can't possibly all coexist but are all equally real. Run Lola Run does imitate a vidoe game, but that videogame is Super Mario Bros, which is brilliant, sure, but very linear as games go. Front Mission, Dynasty Warriors, Tactics Ogre ... these story-driven games are all unfathomably different than anything film is capable of. Better? No. Just different.

I have heard some folks say that graphics will plateau, and that graphics then won't matter anymore. I don't buy that. I agree that photorealistic graphics, once achieved, won't become any more photorealistic, but ... things can become abstract and stylized in any number of crazy ways. The part of our brain dedicated to visual processing is like this big [gestures emphatically]. Games that pander to it aren't ever going away.

You're right that a lot of game stories are heavy-handed about what the right decision is. Usually, these decisions are rewarded with better items, secret cutscenes, etc.
But there are plenty of exceptions. Take Chrono Trigger. At one point, you have the option to forgive the villain Magus. Thing is, this guy killed the best friend of one of your characters in cold blood, and then turned the character into a humanoid frog. So you choose to either kill Magus and lift the frog curse, or to spare Magus and gain a powerful ally. I always thought this was cool, because it's a complicated moral decision, and because the decision I would consider wrong (sparing this asshole and leaving your friend cursed for life) is the one "rewarded" by the gameplay. So Chrono Trigger actually makes you work a little harder if you want to do the right thing. It punishes you, which is probably more realistic.

When I was in high school, I spared Magus, but when I replayed the game years later, he disgusted me, and I slew him for Frog's sake.

What's my point?

Anyhow, Rez is highly recommended but nigh-impossible to find. The US version is almost impossible to find. The Japanese PS2 and Dreamcast versions are easier to come by, and the game barely has any text, but you'd need a modded or Japanese PS2 or a Dreamcast with a boot disc. Probably not going to happen. Oh well. If I ever find Rez for cheap at a swap meet or something, I'll send it along.