Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Literature, Writing and Adventure Games

For those of you who don't know about the Monkey Island series of adventure games... learn about them immediately. For those who do, the creator's blog is http://grumpygamer.com/. Some of his posts and responses to them made me begin to think about some things about gaming.What defines the video game as an activity/art form? A clue is that I had to put the slash in there. When one looks at art, there's a whole range of experiences one is having simultaneously (the look of the Picasso, the feel of the floor, the fact that you haven't eaten anything and have been walking around for an hour, the smell of the museum, a crying little kid, the disgusting white of the walls or perhaps the bad lighting, the adjacent pictures, etc.) All of these things help form connotations and impressions, but they aren't implied or controlled by either the artist or the art form. The point of a museum is to make art somewhat of an activity, by eliminating as much extraneous sensory bombardment as possible and by arranging the art in some sort of way that enhances the experience. You then can have a full day being in the museum, having the coffee and buying their overpriced trinkets and T-shirts, seeing the pictures, taking the tours, listening to the lecture, and going home educated for a nominal fee.

A video game, instead, makes viewing the art/story interactive. By its very nature, it combines increasingly scintillating graphics and story with a keyboard and a mouse. To make this analysis a little more concrete, let's go through the various aspects of what defines the video game.

FRAME: A TV or monitor, usually. This immediately makes the art fundamentally two-dimensional - an illusion of 3-D has to be created (sometimes through obtuse means, like the Visual Boy... ugh.) Of course, this will change, but as of now, people have the uncomfortable feeling of being in a life and death battle in Quake III and not having peripheral vision.

INPUT DEVICES: Keyboard/mouse or joypad/controller. Some games, of course, have their complex pads, either to make DDR or that mech game that was way hyped because you had to buy a ludicrously expensive peripheral.

THEMES: Anything and everything. Don't believe me? Let me list some things games have been about: Simulating real-life activities as diverse as poker and football; a Marine wandering through the abandoned halls of installations on the moons of Mars fighting demons; a US agent fighting Nazi super science; a rag tag group of adventurers saving the world from a comet/an effeminate genetic experiment with a gigantic phallic implement/some other shit; dancing to a rhythm and style determined by arrows on a screen; a plumber who becomes stronger when he swallows mysterious mushrooms procured by slamming his fist into question mark cubes who is determined to save a beautiful princess from a turtle-like lizard beast; etc. etc.

The key point to understanding video games is that they are a synthesis of game/interactivity and story/static....icity. You have games that are basically board games put onto a screen. You also have games (say, hentai games) where the real payoff is not clicking through the screens of dialogue but the cheaply animated pr0n and (if you're stupid enough to read through some of this garbage) the dialogue. Now, how do we balance this out?The reason I mentioned Ron Gilbert is because he mentioned something about cut scenes, striking a long conversation about the nature of the video game as media. Where would I like to see games going?

1) Increased depth of control. By this I mean the idea that we should be able to not simply click to get through a sword fight, but have a complex series of interactions like what a real sword fight of such a epic nature would be like. I want there to be parries, feints, thrusts, slashes. I even want someone to be able to develop a new ability in the game just by logically messing around with their avatar's body positioning and motion. This may be a technology problem, of course, and if that's the case it'll be insuperable until the technology gets better... but I wonder.

2) Quality of story-telling. I actually think that the Final Fantasy and Metal Gear stories rank up with very good Hollywood story-telling, but to some extent I think that the modern cut scene dynamic has made it so someone feels like there's punctuated equilibrium in terms of interactivity. At certain points, someone has tons of options and can do all sorts of things, but then the game builds up with all these FMVs and finally you as a player can do only one or two things. The problem is that the game right now is a closed box: you can't go anywhere the game hasn't fit into its world. What needs to be done is to create authentic worlds that have a culture, political strife, etc. that is key for the story building but can be discovered in millions of ways, and I'm fairly confident that this is also a technology problem.

3) Eventually, games will run a gamut from two poles. One will be essentially the ultimate interactive movie, where the character will be able to view every part of the movie, get into different character's heads, be a fly on the wall AND a neuron in the brain AND someone else's tongue AND the villain, and piece together a story that has incredible complexity (the incredible complexity that is underneath the surface of real experience). The other will be the classic pen-and-paper paradigm: throwing players into complex and rich worlds where they can form their objectives and interests and even identities on their own, but nonetheless where they may be things being built up to.


This is a horrible segue, so forgive me. I often refer to people's writing or stories as their children. You spend quite some time with these things burgeoning in your mind, absorbing from your fallopian tube (I hope that's the right part of the anatomy) of imagination, until finally you make a finished product, a product that becomes increasingly distant and modified by and affecting all sorts of people who are very alien to you, but somewhere deep within you still have a deep attachment to them. The metaphor works on many levels, and I think it helps to explain the dynamic of originality v. unoriginality.To me, something that is unoriginal is pretending to be something it's not; it is a ghost caught replaying the most vivid parts of some lost dream, losing most of the vividness and richness in the process. Something that is original, on the other hand, rises from its zeitgeist, its spirit of time, but nonetheless has a very unique voice. An original piece can make references to and hearken to older material and use that to STRENGTHEN the work by giving it context. To offer an example: An original story could be one written in base 16 numbers that are decoded to make gibberish, but it'd be almost guaranteed to be awful.An unoriginal story is like a kid who adopts the mannerisms of the popular kid in school, whereas an original story is like the child to makes fun of those mannerisms.


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