An Analytical Discussion of the Industry, Culture, Progress and Nature of Video Games.

July 7th, 2006
Game Am Cry, Part I

     Playing video games is a rather clinical activity. Compared to other media it could be considered downright sterile: Films are, in their proper presentation, immersive; sit in a dark theater where your eye is overwhelmed with image, and your ears concussed with sound. Television in its little box is less an experience of the senses than of length. Compile a season of television and you may have a story arc that lasts more than twenty hours, which is a long time to spend with characters, giving writers a real chance to fill in the blanks and dig some depth. No wonder we tend to get more attached to TV characters than ones in film, and TV series tend to be more cultishly adored and obsessed over than films. TV is more of an immersion of time, then. Books, while leaving the senses to sit unstimulated, are an engagement of the mind and imagination of course, and are highly exulted as such. And so on, but games are still games, and while other forms of media will, through their own aspects, engage the emotions, games are rarely able to get a rise out of any deep-seated place in us. Their magic comes from control, as no other form of media (outside of the awkward stabs of voting-enabled movies or choose-your-own-adventure books) has that capacity, to the extent that gaming allows. This is the premise of gaming, but it has basically been without real emotional content. Excluding of course that part of our hearts and minds from which emerges the 'throw the controller in frustration' emote, our inner aspects remained mostly untouched. But that one comes up often.    

    I don't wish here to engage in the over-debated topic of when games will be emotionally complex and more like art. We're not going to go there. What I will point out is the controllability that makes games games is also what, in some ways, disables emotion. And, outside of the views of Vladimir Nabokov, the emotional attachment to unique characters and their stories is a huge chunk of what makes something not just good but art in the big artsy kind of art way, the prestigious kind that people bother to respect and ignore. What makes us react with instinctive emotion to characters is the fact that we don't control them. Characters in pre-video game media, in spite of what we may want them to do will always go their own way. They will do and say what they are written to, they will get hurt, fall in love, make jokes, change, learn, maybe live happily ever after, and maybe die. They're like friends and real people that way, except we can't change any of it. It's a human reaction and connection that we instinctively have, just as we instinctively react to the human beings around us.

    Video games seem almost entirely designed to prevent such connections from happening. Even games with high emphasis on narrative and character development get lost the second you step out of the cutscenes. At one moment, the hero you control will be told something like "You have to get to the tower to save the princess/scientist/McGuffin or the world/our love/cute puppy is doomed!" and there will be dramatic camera angles, an arching musical score, intense line reading, and in the next moment, your HUD will say you're low on health and are somehow carrying a rocket launcher in your backpack. It is basically a proclamation that you're just playing a game. Games that skip the cutscenes and basically force you into certain parts of a narrative (e.g. Half-Life) have gotten around some things, but immersion doesn't solve the problem because you control the character, and can make the character do uncharacteristic things. This is actually important so follow on with me here. 

    A favorite trick of mine when fiddling around in a game is, in the most climactic moments of a game when I'm heading up the huge staircase to confront the final boss or when I'm told I have to run and defuse a big explode-y bomb before a timer goes off, is to make the character I'm controlling just run around in circles. Snake has to get out of the building before it blows up so let's just make him do a little stutter step dance while jumping up and down a lot. This isn't in the spirit of the game of course, as the game's creators would want me to faithfully run up the stairs or hustle to defuse the bomb, but I'm in control, and I can do with the character that which pleases me. And that which pleases me is making Master Chief jump off a cliff or shoot his fellow Space Marines. The character as a fictional person would never do that, and the fact that I can make him do it bluntly informs me that I'm playing a game, so I don't get attached.

    Consider that video game RPGs (which stands for Role Playing Game and should therefore bring with it some inherent drama) are, to all but a small group of hardcores, essentially statistical contests. They should lend themselves to drama and character, after all, you can have avatars and dialogue with other players, but the fantasy of World of Warcraft or Final Fantasy XI are, to me, lost in the calculus of buffs and alts. When I played Dungeons and Dragons as a kid (the tabletop kind and ah! there's the expected twinge of embarrassment) 'min/maxing' was a derogatory term for players who weighed every choice for statistical advantage and ignored doing things in character. If a WOW player didn't act like this, meaning if he communicated to his fellow players in character  and sincerely about the Orc Shaman he controlled he'd be openly mocked. After all, he's just playing a game, why take it so seriously? The only MMORPG I can recall not overweighted by numbers and containing some kind of actual role playing and emphasis on the life and identity of your avatar is Second Life and that doesn't count because it ain't even a game!

    My complaints raise a lot of different issues about things like game immersion or the nature of character but I'm not writing this for that. I mean, an enthusiast for Post-Modernism would stub out his cigarette, push his horned rimmed glasses up the bridge of his nose and tell me that the idea of a 'character' (and they love their quotation marks too) as something solid and certain is absurd, and then he'd probably quote me some William Gaddis, but those kind of people and that kind of thinking is never any fun or of any interest when it's taken really seriously or considered in the context of popular media. Instead, I'd like to mention and maybe do a little examination of moments in games that have moved me personally. Admittedly, this is a very subjective list and it is basically providing me an opportunity to reminisce, and the very problem I'm addressing might be solved, or at least partially tackled by upcoming games like Mass Effect, but it's interesting to think about what drama was like in video game's primordial forms. These example are best found in my next posting.

July 7, 2006

Gameboy: A Drama in One Scene

(Scene: The front seat of a Ford Taurus sedan. STEV is driving. ALI is in the passenger seat. They have been dating for nearly 4 years and are comfortable with each other. The car ride is a long one, and the scene takes place seven hours into an all-day drive that started at 9:00 in the morning. STEV and ALI have run out things to talk about, but the silence isn’t uncomfortable – just two people, stuck in a car, with nothing left to talk about because the topics of “who sings this song” and “check out that crazy sign” reached their conclusions miles ago.)

ALI: (Picks up a book. Reads part of the first chapter.) This is boring. I can’t handle this right now.

STEV: You can play my Gameboy. It’s in the back seat, in the bag.

ALI: It might come to that. <pause> Okay. Where is it.

STEV: In the bag. The Bag of Technology.

ALI: (Reaches over to the backseat and finds the Gameboy. She flips open and turns it on.) What game is this?

STEV: Final Fantasy.

ALI: Do I want a new game?

STEV: Yeah. Just hit New Game.

ALI: (Looks. Mumbles:) “There are no empty data files. If you continue, you must overwrite an existing file…” (Normal voice:) What?

STEV: It’s okay. Just don’t save over slot three. <pause> If you save over slot three I’ll throw you out of this car.

ALI: (Dismissively:) Fine. (Looks at screen.) So how do I name my people?

STEV: (Quickly:) With the bar on the side, but what’s really important is what people you take with you. You don’t want a team full of warriors, and I’d suggest that you take a white mage. And then you have to think about whether or not you want a thief – which will turn into a ninja later – or a monk. See, I have a monk, because they’re kick-ass, but they die a lot because their weak. And thieves are bad at first, but then they turn into ninjas. And ninjas can use cool weapons and can learn some low-level dark magic. And speaking of dark magic, you might need a dark mage. In fact, I think it would be best if you had a dark mage. They’re sorta weak against bosses, since boss-resistance is so high, but they come in handy in dungeons and some of their spells affect your own characters, which is good for you. I would also have a white mage, too. I didn’t take one. I took a red mage. But I kinda regretted that decision because red mages can’t learn revive. Which is a bummer. But if you have a white mage, you might not have that problem.

ALI: <pause> (Exasperated:) This is too complicated. (Switches off Gameboy and places it back in the backseat.)

STEV:  (Frustrated:) If I had a sudoku game, would you play that?

ALI: Yes. Yes I would. <pause> Do you have a soduku game?


End of Scene.

And what does this teach us? If I had a Nintedo DS with Brain Age, or even Sudoku Mania, my girlfriend would have been invited into the world of electronic gaming. Unfortunately, she met the fate of many new players who pick up a video game for the first time: Frustration, bewilderment, and performance anxiety.

Now, would my girlfriend go out and buy a Nintendo DS for herself to play sudoku? Of course not. She’d read, or print sudokus off the internet. She doesn’t need a DS in her life, no matter how many commercials Nintendo airs showing non-gamers enjoying their product (or sending it to George Bush for his 60th birthday). But if I – a “gamer” – had one in the house, she’d use it. And like it. And then perhaps graduate to softer fare like Nintendogs, or even something more hardcore like Castlevania. Then, I’d finally realize my dream of having a girlfriend that enjoys videogames (disclaimer: Ali enjoys watching Zelda and Prince of Persia – if there’s nothing good on Food Network).

And this is Nintendo’s Trojan Horse business model, whether they know it or not: Place a Nintendo DS (or Wii) within a household. Sell good, relatively hardcore games for the gamers (Castlevania, Metroid, Red Steel, Madden, etc.) who are willing to spend $300 on a system, and throw a few titles in for newbies (Brain Age, Wii Sports, etc.). The love begins to spread exponentially through the household as non-gamers begin to experience the freedom and joy of electronic entertainment.

There just needs to be a pusher in the house.