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Josh Foreman, Blogger

August 9, 2010

9 Min Read

In my last blog I complained about the way cutscenes/cinematics in games erode player Agency, which I take to be the most important aspect of our art form.  I argued that we currently rely on a game/cinema hybrid experience because of technological limitations, but I think there is a strong element of group-think leading the way as well.  And I’m worried that our game/cinema solution is stunting the maturation of our craft for a couple reasons I will get to in a sec. 

But first, I want to confront an ugly truth about our industry that I believe is a primary motive for our reliance on the game/cinema paradigm.  In my 14 years of game development I have discovered that the vast majority of artists, animators, musicians and writers would leave the game industry in a heartbeat if they were offered a job in Hollywood.  So many of us would just rather be in the movie biz, but for lack of connections, talent, experience or some other reason, are stuck in the game industry. 

I’m not sure if there have ever been studies about this secret desire, or how accurate those studies would be; but I’ve worked at several studios on all sorts of projects with all sorts of people in a variety of places and I’ve noticed that this Hollywood envy is pervasive and palpable. 

It’s just way cooler to tell friends, family and strangers that you worked on Batman or Avatar, than to tell them you worked on some space shooter or MMO they’ve never heard of.  The average man-on-the-street would look at you with admiration and envy rather than that consternated “What the hell do you actually do?  Play games all day?” look we all know so well.

I think this Hollywood envy is so pervasive that it hugely influences our thinking when it comes to the way we design and create content.  The problem is that our big influence is a different medium with different goals and expectations associated with it.  So while we call ourselves “games” it is clear that our passions are a mixed bag of gameplay and film. 

This reminds me of the South Park about wrestling.  It’s in season 13, titled W.T.F. if you haven’t seen it.  (http://www.southparkstudios.com/)  The boys are so inspired by WWE that they start their own “wrestling” association.  But they find that real wrestling is nothing like their inspiration.  The actual mechanics of the sport are lame and boring compared with the melodrama and choreographed fights in the WWE. 

I think entertainment wrestling is a pretty good corollary to the games biz.  In both you have game mechanics with interspersed “story” elements.  Both rely on flashy, unrealistic moves and awful, soap opera drama.  Both use “story” to provide a meta-narrative that is supposed to provide motivation and additional drama and suspense to the mechanics.  And both industries are filled with people who would rather be in the movies.  Another good example of this is “story-driven” pornography. 

Is it a coincidence that the stories, acting and general level of maturity is very similar between porn, WWE and video games?  And as a thought experiment, what if you put a room-full of the best Hollywood writers together and forced them to write the next WWE event or porn movie?  Would those productions be significantly better than what is currently being produced?   The issue with all of these products is that there is a primary reason people consume them.  WWE = fightn’ n’ wrasl’n.  Porn = people having sex.  Games = gameplay. 

So while the “stories” that are interspersed into these things may bring additional enjoyment for many people, they can quickly override the point of the experience with sub-par extraneous material.  The writers can forget that the point of their writing is simply pretense for the main event.  Again, some people may love the extraneous stuff, but that does not mean that it’s good or healthy for the product.  Any time pretence overwhelms the substance you end up with crap.  See the death of glam metal in the early 90’s for a fine example of this.

I hope that I don’t have to prove to anyone that WWE and porn is bad art.  They may be popular.  They may make millions of people very happy and make tons of money.  But I can’t imagine anyone with any amount of taste claiming that they are good art.  I think that a lot of what makes WWE poor art is the same thing that is hurting our industry as it strives to define itself in the world of more established artforms.  But the reason I work in the game industry rather than the WWE is because I think that the art and craft of games has a bright and beautiful future that will emerge over the coming decades. 

I’m entranced by the ephemeral possibilities for creating a new kind of experience that mankind has never known.  So I’m frustrated with the current game/cinema hybrid that is bifurcating our energies and creativity, slowing our march of progress towards the promised land.  I feel like we are lost in the wilderness, circumnavigating the same desert over and over, waiting for our god of technological progress to give us a sign that we can cross the Jordan.

But I don’t think we need to be stuck in this rut.  So rather than complain about it, I’d like to see if we can put our heads together and start finding ways break the game/cinema hybrid paradigm.  Not for the sake of destroying stuff I don’t like.  But for the goal of building something much more compelling.     

First of all, let me try to stave off a few inevitable misunderstandings by putting all my cards on the table here. 

  1. I’m not calling for a revolution, I’m not claiming that I’m coming up with any new ideas.  I’m just advocating for a movement that is well underway.

  2. I’m not a writer.  I’m an artist/designer.  I do write, but mostly home-brew philosophy/religion and design documents.  So please don’t take any of these ideas as critiques about how writing ought to be done.  (My poor grammar, spelling, and over-extended/mixed metaphors ought to make that clear!)

  3. I love my writer buddies in the biz.  I don’t want them to leave.  (Unless they get an awesome Hollywood gig)

  4.  This is not a crusade to purge the world of a type of entertainment I don’t enjoy.  (I love many game/cinema hybrids.)  It’s an impassioned plea to my fellow developers to rethink how we approach the craft of making games.

  5. I’m not a purist who insists that story and gaming should never mix.  I’m saying that our current implementation is mostly bad.  And we need to be very conscious of what we mean by “story”.

OK, with that out of the way, I’d like to think aloud about ways that we can transplant the goodies we get from cinematic segments into the game world.  And then if I’m lucky, smarter, more capable people can add on to this in the comments below.  There are two questions that immediately spring to mind. 

First: what are cinematics currently bringing to the game experience?  Second –and more fundamental- do we WANT all the things that cinematics bring to the game experience?  Let’s start with the first question.  Here are some of the things that I think cinematics add to a game experience.  (Assuming they are not wince-inducingly bad.) 

  1. Establishing the world

  2. Establishing characters/player

  3. Articulating motives for characters/player

  4. Articulating conflict

  5. Developing the world

  6. Developing characters/player

  7. Explaining gameplay mechanics

  8. Imparting goals

I’m sure I’m missing some vital stuff, so feel free to pitch in here.  Now my contention is that we could conceivably transplant all these goodies out of cinematics, and into the game world.  Many games have experimented with doing this to some extent, and I’d like to highlight Half Life 2 for the purposes of examination.  Half Life 2 did exactly what I’m saying here: they took all the stuff from cinematics and transplanted them into the game world.  Mostly.  But this was not without its problems. 

I’d like to examine this as a test case.  I think the problems stem from fact that the transplant was handled too literally.  That is: they still made cinematics, they simply didn’t force the camera out of the players hands while they played out.  Meaning that a player could conceivably be staring at a wall while two NPCs are having a dramatic and important conversation.  (Or more often than not, rummaging through boxes looking for health and ammo while only half listening to the dialog.) 

What I mean by being overly literal can be explained by translation techniques for books or subtitles on films.  One can translate word-for-word, but the result ends up stilted and awkward at best.  I’m sure we’ve all sat through a foreign film or two that had this problem.  Bablefish provides another example. 

The other side of the spectrum in translation theory is the paraphrase, where the essence is captured by restructuring word order, replacing idioms, and other techniques.  I think what Valve did with HL2 was to literally translate a traditional cinematic, conferring all the local structure and idioms in an attempt to reap the fruit of that list I put up there.   And the result was not ideal. 

The reason is because it gave the player a false Agency.  It sent the mixed messages of “You are really here making all your own decisions.” And “You better play your part correctly or you won’t be able to move on.”  In other words, they addressed my first question, “Can we transplant this stuff into the game world.” Without addressing the next question, “Do we WANT to transplant this stuff?”  Well, I wasn’t there, so I can’t claim to know their process, but based on the end result it appears that way. 

So seeing the demonstrated results of a literal translation/transplantation, let me try to come up with a freer paraphrase.  How can we get the spirit of these elements from our cinematics into our gameplay thereby preserving player Agency?   I’ll start that on part 2.

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