Sunday, November 30, 2003

Videogames Are Not Films, But They're Not Boardgames Either.

Greg Costikyan wrote a post in his blog a couple of weeks ago entitled "Chess" in which he got into the whole subject of games, stories and character. He finds that people from outside the field of gaming tend to approach it from the vantage of story and character, whereupon his question is; "What is the story of Chess?".

This is a good argument, because it illustrates the fact that a game like Chess is nothing if not possibilities, whereas a story is one road. But in response, I wrote a "story of chess" in his comments section, illustrating my favourite game of chess. Fair enough, he says back to me, but that is YOUR story of Chess, not the THE story of Chess. And he's quite right.

Nonetheless, I think that there is a relationship between stories and games that cannot be ignored, because one leads into the other. It is a common wisdom in gaming circles that games do not need stories to function. They can have them, but they are not necessary, goes the mantra. And so an unconscious order of precedence is formed, which I touched on in my last post. Is this precedence correct? I'm not so sure.

The reason I'm not so sure is the same reason that I wrote out my story of Chess in response to Greg's article. That reason is this: Games become stories.

In any game worth a damn, the game becomes fun because the experience provides tension and release, and helps to evoke emotions in the player in real time. Whether it's the thrill of the kill, the satisfaction of a princess well saved, or the bitter frustration of not beating that high score, games and emotions are intertwined. Sometimes, these emotions thread together for us into a sort of living drama. In creating a drama that others can appreciate, a story of sorts eventually emerges.

The best examples of this kind of thing are some of the great sporting events of the 20th century. Ali vs Foreman. They think it's all Over. DiMaggio's famous record. Games become drama because of their structure, their elements, their beginnings, twists, turns and conclusions.

Take the analogy a step further, and consider that every film that you have ever seen is essentially a group of people organising themselves and recording a series of formalised sessions of Lets Pretend. In the theatre, they do Lets Pretend every night live. In a novel, the writer plays in his own head. You see, it's not just games vs stories. It's games AND stories.

Games are potential energy.
Stories are the record of potential energy put to use.
They're just two sides of the same timeline, separated by the split hair of Experience.

We set out to play a game, we experience it, and then we talk about it afterwards. Game, Experience, Story.

Videogames blur the distinction even further, as many of them use story pieces to guide the flow of experience from one point to another, and this cannot be ignored. The story elements in games are generally laughably bad, of course, which helps fuel the conviction of many people that games and stories do not belong in the same console, but they are getting better.

Recently, I had the occasion to play Max Payne 2, for example. MP2 is a very interesting game, for those that haven't played it. It uses comics sections to tell its story rather than simple CGI. The creators of the game obviously understand the use of elements as well as any game studio these days, because even though the gameplay is predictable, the depictive elements are very strong throughout. I found that as I played the game, for example, I did not get into being the character of Max Payne or Mona Sax. But I did get into watching him get through his story and willing him on to do it. As I had control, so I pushed him further through the whole game until the end.

And the end of Max Payne 2 is where the payback comes through. It has, for me, the best closing line that I've read or heard in games in a long time. I found myself thinking about it for days afterwards, and then going back and playing through the last battle again, just to experience the ending again. I don't remember doing that since the ending of Final Fantasy VII.

My thoughts brought me back to a common gamer mantra: Videogames Are Not Films
I have no argument with that. But They're Not Boardgames Either.

It is common practise for designers and critics to try and find some means of reference for videogames, to be able express their feelings on the subject. In this view, videogames are a sort of spiritual successor to thousands of years of regular games. So, Greg Costikyan uses the primo example of Chess to illustrate his point. However, there is an audiovisual aesthetic dimension that is not generally captured by boardgames like Chess that are very much a part of videogaming.

The situation is analogous to the differences between cinema and theatre. Theatre is live, cinema is not. Cinema controls the viewpoint, theatre does not. Theatre requires suspension of disbelief, where cinema generally doesn't. And the language differences in writing a play vs a screenplay are many.

Boardgames are systemic, with rules that are explicit. This is not true of all videogames, or even the majority of them. In most videogames, the rules are implicit, enforced by the game's internal engine. Boardgames are also static, in the sense that the pieces just sit there, and the board itself has no activity outside of what the players do. This is also not true in many videogames, where the depicted world around can and does do things of its own accord. Boardgames are almost always social experiences because you need to two to tango. But videogames, like films, can be entirely solitary experiences.

There is no denying that there is common ground between videogames and boardgames, or between videogames and any other kind of game. But videogames have a dimension all of their own which makes them better than those formalised games in some ways, and worse in others.

It is no accident that we have referred to this new form of entertainment (via console or computer) as games, of course, because what else do we have that can describe it. In cinema's case, the cinematic arts have themselves gone through a very long process by which they slowly separated themselves from the theatrical arts. In the earlier days of cinema, theatre was about the best reference that could be provided. Cinemas were even called movie theatres (and they still are in the US).

But today, we can see that Plays Are Not Films. And Films Are Not Plays either.

By the same token, where the film used to be called the "Moving Picture", we have taken to calling these tenth artworks "Video Games", which is a highly possesive term. Videogames tells us that these things belong the in the twin camps of videos and boardgames. Is it any wonder that the modern media second-strings them as a result, when the games industry itself seems so ready to define itself against everything else instead of its own-generated creative form.

Not all videogames are games (some are really toys), and there is yet to be a solid reason as to why they should all toe some line that is established for and part of a whole other sphere of entertainment.

While it is a good starting point to use normal games as some frame of reference, it behoves us designers to understand that they are only just a beginning, and as theatre analogies cannot hope to define film, so we must not let games analogies define this precious new art. Maxims about story vs no story, orders of precedence of game over story etc. simply can no longer apply, because they don't fully encompass everything that the form can be.

Part of what we need to do is to rename the form to get away from the possessiveness of Videogame. The "movies" eventually became "cinema". Taking "pictures" eventually became "photographs". Serious "comics" are now "Graphic Novels". Rather than dwell in the dungeons of genres and acronyms, what will videogames become?

Whatever the new terminology might be, it would do well to simply be one or two words, not long words, not some 'interactive fiction' rubbish, and a word that is of the form itself. In film, they settled on the name of the substance itself.

Digital play?


Particleblog's comments have moved to The Play Room.

Saturday, November 29, 2003

Is Innovative Gameplay a Dead End?

If the film world was like the game world, filmmakers would be constantly obsessed with reinventing the camera. If the book world was like the game world, authors would be forever attempting to create new kinds of letters to get beyond the basic 26. If the music world were like the game world, musicians would be forever trying to invent new notes. If the art world were like the game world, artists would be forever trying to invent new colours.

Which, in all of those respective fields, is clearly a giant waste of time. There will of course be new cameras, new letters. Somebody might invent a new music note one day, and someone else might even invent that new colour. But in the main, these factors are not what drive these other media onward. What drives them on is their capacity for ideas and their ability to constantly depict the human condition in eternally refreshing ways.

In the games industry, designers mostly reject the whole idea of using videogames as a way to depict anything (never mind the human condition) and instead are mostly focused on trying to reinvent the camera, the note, the letter and the colour. Many game designers have gotten stuck trying to reinvent gameplay, and their products are consequently neither refreshing nor eternal.

In a film, a book, a painting or a song, the creativity is not in reinventing the components, but putting them to good use. Every creation is, in essence, a series of elements woven together in the right way to make the piece come alive. The available elements are very broad, from types of instrument to different brushes, particular actors or stylistic tricks. The real challenge is creating something original using those elements, and that's where the soul of a project really comes to fruition.

But not in gaming. In gaming, there are a very broad set of elements that can be put to use. From game mechanics to play styles, audiovisual possibilities and controls, games can really be very broad in their scope. Yet they rarely blend well, and when they do they almost never blend into something that approaches any kind of soul. This is partly because of the industry's tendency to clone other material. But I think it's much more to do with designers and their obsession with gameplay to the point of paying attention to nothing else.

Are designers afraid? Are they unimaginative? Or too riddled with preconceived notions? I believe that these three questions summarise neatly the core of the problem.

Designers are afraid.
Perhaps because games are a new medium, and a heavily commercial and stigmatised medium, designers simply do not feel that it is their place to try and make a game anything more than entertainment. To make that first tentative step into the world of being a true artist is daunting, especially when no-one has ever done so before you. It took thirty years for filmmakers to begin to make work that could be described as artistic, and even then those efforts were mostly halting. It took many years for film directors to actually gain some level of respect. Designers seem to be in the same position. They are in many ways the heir to the director's chair, but they would seem to be completely not ready to actually direct.

Designers are unimaginative.
The industry culture is not exactly healthy when it comes to creative expression, and much of that is related to its habit of thinking too much like a business for its own good. Furthermore, many of the designers working today come from the 80s culture of games all being bright lights and blips, and many secretly yearn to get back to their roots. But they have the problem that those kinds of games are no longer culturally relevant to any other than historicist gamers. Many designers are completely out of touch in that regard, and their ideas often appear as respawned versions of those in earlier decades. I think that the unimaginative problem that designers have stems both from a lack of confidence in their modern-day tools, and also a twisted sense that the past was better than the present. Also, many of the designers of today are in fact hired in a company from the QA ranks on the basis that they have played lots of games and therefore must know lots about games. This may be true, but it has nothing to do with whether they'd be good designers. QA people are very important, and they must be listened to as bug catchers, but more importantly as editorial feedback. But this does not mean that they would be good creators off their own bat.

Designers are too riddled with preconceived notions
The whole field of design is highly notional, but in a very fractured way. There are no central codices of game design that are universally accepted and applied, despite several attempts having been made to codify them. Some designers will talk about every game they want to make in terms of everything else they've ever played. Some designers maintain highly prejudicial views about the supposed stupidity of mainstream gamers, and so treat their mainstream project as a series of sops. Others have simply insane notions about the absolute need for licenses. And most have the idea that gameplay is actually the be-all and end-all of all gaming, and all the rest (graphics, story, audio, etc) is mere poppycock.

In otherwords, the problem is that most game designers simply do not have enough confidence to be the artists that they should be, and so they focus on the one aspect that they are supposed to be experts in: innovative gameplay.

Is innovative gameplay even possible?

Videogames have been around for forty years and more now, and they are still the same basic set of rules, verbs and mechanics that they have always been. Gameplay itself is not a quality that even started with videogames. It started with games. For thousands of years, humans have played games, sports, enacted fantasies, tested their skill and strategy. All that videogames do, is translate those experiences onto the screen, and enrich the fantastic element. It is the translation of fantasy into a depicted reality that makes videogames interesting.

The difference between a game of Fifa and a kickabout with your mates in the local park is that the Fifa experience is enriched with audiovisuals that make it interesting, and controls and AI reactions that make the game more tactical. But at root, they are the same thing. The difference between Max Payne 2 and Cops and Robbers is merely a matter of formal structure over freeform imaginations. For every single videogame that has ever been published, there are equivalents that exist before them. What the videogame does, is literally take the game and put it in a video setting. The videogame adds rules, add texture, creates a world. But videogame designers don't innovate gameplay, as such. The synthesise it into a different context.

So why the obsession with reinventing the wheel?

I think that it's a defensive reaction to the state of the modern industry. Many designers come from the older, much freer and much younger days of gaming. In those days, like the formative era of any artform, things were much looser than they now appear to be. The greater public and its money had little or no interest in the videogame, and even when they did, the limits of the technology kept the free-willed experience of it alive. Many other designers have come from this period when, as children, they were filled with the wonder of these games. Between the two groups, there has formed a strong contention that those days were the best days in gaming, and that ever since the market became involved, that everything has somehow been polluted.

The current strong obsession with both retro gaming, and some really insane levels of defensiveness against the symbols of the old order (in particular, Nintendo) reflect these obsessions. There is a strong component of the design community that essentially wants games to stay in their 'silent movie' phase forever. But, to quote the Guardian quoting the Spectator recently "No power on earth can sustain an idea whose time has gone."

The major thrust of this essentially conservative retrenchment is the evolution of the whole idea of innovative gameplay, and discussions on gameplay, gameplay theory, and so on. There is a very good reason why this has happened: Designers feel that the business has essentially poisoned almost every aspect of their precious past (even the mighty Nintendo is synonymous with doubt these days), but the one area that they still have which complete control over is game theory. Game theory makes designers sound important. It makes them sound relevant. As long as a designer can sit with a straight face and talk about emergent mechanics and reward structures in their platformer, they are safe to obsess on recreating the genius of Mario World. (Even though the genius of Mario World is really to take the play instincts of children with plastic figures and add rules like gravity).

What we must realise is that the 'Innovative Gameplay' is much more a political movement than a creative one. Gameplay, as a term, gets misused terribly in this context. It is a badge of 'Those in the know', along with a whole lot of entirely false oppositions. "Ludology vs Narratology" is the prime example, where designers deliberately try to undermine the idea of story in a videogame by saying that such things are inherently not of the game, but an extraneous element. 'Games are Not Films', in otherwords. Which is almost a point of religion to many.

This is what happens when a subculture evolves into a popular culture: Purists get left behind in the ghetto because they fail to grow with the culture. That is what has happened in videogaming today, and it is no surprise that the relevance of designers and their input has waned. In the quest to be innovative, designers have taken their eye off their job. Videogames are not about gameplay. They are about the experience of playing them, of which gameplay is only a part.

Games have the potential to be depictive entertainment, and they are at their strongest and most popular when they successfully depict a world. By 'world' here, I can mean anything from the simple fun aesthetics of Mario to the dark brooding Max Payne, to the rolly-polly hilarity of Grand Theft Auto. The whole attraction of games is only in small part based on how they play. It is much more based on the emotions that they project and the experience that they deliver. This can involve story. It can involve soundtrack. It can involve any one of a number of perspectives.

The trick to successful depiction, and therefore successful games, is quality application of elements. As I said earlier, successful creators in all media are successful by weaving together a series of elements in the right way to make the piece come alive. This is where designers are failing at their jobs.

Designers will think nothing of copying the same old tired fantasy, sci-fi, horror, or childlike 'wonderscapes' as the base of their games, but then spend ages solely working on the combat mechanics. They will succinctly ignore the possibility of using particular kinds of mood music, preferring to tell a musician simply that they liked Jak and Daxter's music, so can they have something like that, only orchestral, with 20% extra tempo. They will input very little into the visual side of the game that they are supposedly designing, again because they just don't realise the importance of these elements.

And all this despite the fact that every major critical and commercial success since God Knows When has been so because it weaves its elements together in the right way. Everybody says Rez is basically Space Harrier. It's not. Rez is Space Harrier with competent visuals and wonderful music, and a believable world that depicts something.

Grand Theft Auto 3, one of the most successful and acclaimed games ever, is a success because it depicts a world in glorious detail. Max Payne 2 is an entirely simplistic shooter, yet it is very engaging because it pays close attention to its visual aesthetics, its music and its story elements. The much-lauded bullet time is really incidental. Mario 64 is as memorable for the really vibrant Nintendo-ness of the graphics, and the wonderful music, as it is for the excellent controls. Mario Sunshine, on the other hand, gets rightly slammed for being spectacularly uninventive compared to its predecessor, despite having a whole new set of gameplay mechanics.

Depiction does not exclude gameplay elements, of course. It includes them to the hip. A pretty game that cannot manage a professional level of collision detection, AI behaviour, or character control can have all the audiovisuals in the world, but it still won't cut the mustard. Focusing on all the elements of depiction is also how games might pave their own way into the realms of respected art. Consider the possibilities of 911 Survivor, for example. By placing a player in that context, the designers of that game are really trying to say something. And yet there is no innovative gameplay attached (you run away a lot, essentially).

What designers must do is step up to the plate.
The new era of gaming has been at hand for a while, but most are too busy with their heads in the sand remembering Head over Heels to see what could be done. Designers really have to become more involved in all the other aspects of the games they are creating, so that they really do DESIGN them as opposed to simply designing rulesets. The designer is the only person in any game project that has access to all of the vision of the game at once, but without the courage or the convictions to make something that matters to him, his lot is to stay isolated in a corner, dreaming of the NES, and what the world was like when he was younger.

My instincts tell me that change is not likely to happen for a while yet, not until the people that come through gaming to design their own are those who are growing and experiencing gaming now. Many things will change in the next ten years, not least of which will be a generational shift in power from the older guard to a newer generation for whom true gaming is not just 8-bit sprites that jump around the place, but something so much more.

Particleblog's comments have moved to The Play Room.