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?


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