Narration v. Interpretation
Posted on Sunday, November 1 2009 @ 05:06:18 Eastern
“What the **** was that?”
A month ago a friend and I went to see District 9 at a surprisingly packed cinema. Despite often viewing new releases together, we have totally different tastes in films. He likes traditional Hollywood blockbusters with firm starts, middles and ends. He thinks Die Hard is a cult classic. Conversely, I argue that Children of Men and Reservoir Dogs are true pieces of art. My friend dislikes any form of entertainment that utilises any ambiguity in its plot – hence his above comment on District 9's climax. This article is a short analysis on what different people like in entertainment and how videogames attempt to deal with such varying tastes.
I imagine that the entire comments section will dispute this, but the success of most titles come down to two things: Narration or interpretation. An example of the former would be Call of Duty, with a firmly established story that follows through from start to finish – the Die Hards of videogames. Interpretative titles are like Flower. They allow the player to make their own decisions about what the Hell is going on. A lot of titles fall between these two extremes. To demonstrate I've made something I like to call, 'The What The Fuck Scale'.
I hope mentioning some of those games has caused you to do some nostalgic reinstalls.
Recently films have turned away from their typical 'Easily Understood' side to experiment with different storytelling techniques. Videogames have followed suit in clever attempts to inject a new level of novelty into the industry. It's ironic, considering films have always tried to tell stories but videogames began as an ambiguous entertainment medium and then implemented stories in the late 80s. Now they're moving back into their rawest form. Some developers are even turning around sand saying, 'hey, these ambiguous titles have gained a cult following – we should make our games like that!'
Despite the popularity of is strange new movement, the community is divided. Folks like the guy I saw District 9 with don't like to be confused by stories that fail to explain their endings. Other players rejoice at the lack of proper narratives. Left 4 Dead is a great example of this; there's a lot of exposition hidden away on graffitied safehouse walls and randomised dialogue, but it's all optional. This means you can always keep up with impatient team mates who just want to rush through the campaign, but can go back to these bite-sized, non-linear lore developments. I'd go as far to say that titles which provide all the required information players expect but present it subtly are the most successful at storytelling - games lying between Halo and Everyday Shooter on the scale fit into this category. Shadow of the Colossus is the lead example in this sector; there's clues as to the backstory of the world littered around and are hinted at within the limited interactions between characters. Telling the story never really takes priority over gameplay. Similarly, games that present their story poorly are not regarded highly. Look at World of Warcraft – no one trawls through reams of text to find out a bit of plot in the midst of a fast-paced raid. Fortunately, Wrath of the Lich King tries to put most plot development in solo quests, so players can read at their leisure. But they're still walls of writing instead of bite-sized chunks. Hand-holding narratives are inappropriate in such environments. Storytelling is vital to most modern-day games, but poor presentation can serve as a title's fatal flaw. Some ambiguity can be a good thing.
I predict that the stories in future games will become both more complex and ambiguous. Developers are more willing than ever to trust gamers to figure out stories using their own intuition and creativity. Some people will even argue this new direction, where interpretation overtakes hand-holding narration, brings videogames closer to art. Games will also continue to be by-the-books tales of World War heroes and fantasy worlds. Some won't even tell stories. But plots comprised of intelligent messages, subtle metaphors and less bloody cutscenes are garnering more attention. Halo made videogames acceptable to 19 year-old fratboys. Maybe a popular interpretative title will make videogames acceptable to 50 year-old art elitists. This is really about developers having faith in gamers and hoping we won't just turn up our noses at concepts that don't immediately make sense.
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Games Are Not Art
Posted on Sunday, October 18 2009 @ 13:52:02 Eastern
I swear I wrote this entry when I was either high, or really tired. Regardless, I still make a good point. Somewhere.
I want to take you on a journey, reader. Imagine you are strolling through the cobbled streets of a small town somewhere in the south of France. The white buildings are baked in the morning's light, and the scent of freshly-made pastries fills your nostrils. You begin to cross the town square to drop by the bakery before beginning another day in this beautiful wonderland. On the way to La Croustillant Tarte, you are accosted by the local street painter. He offers to sell you beautiful paintings of the surrounding landscape at ridiculously low prices. At first you doubt this man's talents. You shake your head, claiming that this scruff vagrant couldn't possibly craft such masterpieces. After a few minutes of receiving a heated sales pitch from this man, you walk away carrying his entire collection. You are very happy, as you only paid a tenth of what the work is really worth. To many in the videogames industry, this man is like the indie games developer.
Now you are stood in a world-famous art gallery. It's huge, easily bigger than any of the Tates or the Louvre. You are looking at a wall-length painting and two men in suits are stood at either side, facing you. One is babbling incessantly about the features of the piece, needlessly highlighting the obvious glossy texture of the oil and the broad brush strokes. His accomplice shifts his weight from foot to foot nervously, silently praying you buy the painting based off the inane ramblings of the marketing bloke. You and the mute exchange eye contact and he looks away first. He appears to be feeling guilty. Guilty that he's trying to sell you this generic, boisterous monstrosity. Guilty that he's trying to pass it off as art. In this situation, many New Games Journalists will claim that the silent man is like the well-paid studio producing a wanktastic FPS and his yapping associate is the publishing house.
When people speak of comparing videogames to art, they do so in these terms. However, using elongated metaphors like the two above does not make such elaborate points any less inaccurate. I'm sick of every videogame journo or forum member claiming that Peter Molyneux is the William Turner of gaming, Half Life 2 is as beautiful as Madonna On The Rocks or Dante's Inferno is as epic as Dante's... oh, nevermind. The point is that most games, in their present format, cannot be classified as true art. Similarly, their producers and publishers cannot be likened to even contemporary art creators in music and film – although videogames often employ people from both of those fields. There are many reasons for this, but I'll only focus on one, key aspect that is often overlooked. As always, feel free to (politely) contribute to the discussion via the comments.
The major issue that presents itself is the gaming part of videogameing. Anyone can see that videogames are more immersive than a book or film and can evoke just as much emotion as a song. Furthermore, the forever-increasing graphical capabilities of consoles are causing some games to look better than Pre-Raphaelite paintings. These factors have nothing to do with why gaming isn't an art. Allow me to explain.
Anyone watch Charlie Brooker's 'Gameswipe' a few weeks ago? A notable segment was when Mock The Week host Dara O'Briain talked about a level in Gears Of War where he kept getting repeatedly killed. Eventually Dara just gave up after only completing 14% of the game. With this statement, Dara had inadvertently identified what alienates games from the other art forms. Art is not hard. Some pieces are difficult to understand, but most of it is immediately accessible by anyone interested. You can pick up a book and read any chapter you want. You can skip to any scene in a film. You can look at a sculpture from any angle. This restriction on accessing content is what makes videogames different from other art forms.
The 'challenge' element of videogames has been present from Day One. It's also exactly why FOX News can make obtuse, ignorant statements when sensationalising moments like the sex in Mass Effect. These people have the audacity to make such bold, irrational claims because they don't have the time (or ability) to play the game for themselves. Neither do their audience. It's not like a nude painting where folks can decide instantly whether it's offensive or not. Since videogames are shrouded in a veil of complexity and require hours of investment to complete, they are not as accessible as traditional art. Their beauty is not seen to be as astounding as a mural or movie because it's not available to everyone. I believe if everyone could play games, then the transparency would allow everyone to appreciate them as art. But that's simply not the case.
I've probably confused you with that wall of text, so let's back up a second. Do you remember when E. E died in Metal Gear Solid 2, or when Aries got shanked in Final Fantasy 7? So do I. Both were wonderfully orchestrated moments of videogaming perfection and number among the tens of examples I'd brand as 'art in a game'. But guess what? If some poor unskilled fellow couldn't kill Vamp or figure out FF's battle system, they'll never experience such glorious scenes.
For millennia art has been available to whomever wished to view it, from stick-figures of cavemen carves into limestone to the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. There was no one around to say 'Oh, you can't look at this until you've seen 50 miserably boring paintings before it'. The challenges in videogames that proceed artful parts of the experience are what make videogames worth playing. The 'art' part is a reward for suffering through a puzzle or boss battle so we appreciate it more. Can we take that aspect away and just make videogames interactive stories? Yes. Alternatively, games could have a simple 'skip' feature (see Braid and World of Goo) to enable progress when the player hits a stumbling block.
Art has always been about complete accessibility. Any wanker can sit down and watch a movie or read a book, but completing a good game without a walkthrough can be a chore. I imagine many people gave up on MGS2 or FF7 before the end, so their opinion of these titles is going to be a lot lower than my own. Then again, maybe this is a new side to art – as such examples surely reflect the competency and patience of the player, rather than the quality of the game?
This leads us to one clear conclusion: That having to actually play games is both the artistic and er... unartistic side of videogaming. Videogames are not accessible to everyone unless its some crapware for the Wii. Moreover, the games with touching moments are often the hardest. This trend appears set to continue for the foreseeable future, that means videogart (coin it!) will not be accepted as other forms have been for many years to come. Whatever happens, we can't go about comparing paintings, sculptures, books, music and films to videogames. We're looking at a whole new medium here and it should be treated that way.
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Scenes In Videogames That Creep Us Out
Posted on Sunday, September 20 2009 @ 14:16:44 Eastern
A few weeks back I made this blog post about my unusual fear for large, underwater creatures in videogames. The comments section turned into a discussion about what freaked out comrades here on Game Revolution and it emerged my fear wasn't so abnormal. I didn't even expect that entry to reach Vox Pop, so as a sign of appreciation to the community and whoever put it on the front page I made thisthread. Basically, it asked people to say what unusual stuff freaked them out in videogames and now I've made a list based on that forum topic. Feel free to continue the discussion in this entry's comments. Here's a round-up of what you guys suggested. As always, images belong to their respective copyright owners, not me.
1. Wallmasters, Floormasters and Skulltulas (Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time)
As suggested by myself and MattAY. Wallmasters and their grounded counterparts were basically giant, disembodied hands which reacted differently depending on the situation. Wallmasters lurked in the high ceilings of certain dungeons and drop down directly on top of Link if he stayed still too long. Floormasters were little buggers to get rid of, as they'd split into smaller pieces after the main body had been defeated. They weren't as scary as their ceiling-dwelling cousin, which you could only kill if you acted quickly after hearing a 'wooooosh'ing sound whenever you were in a room with one.
Skulltas were huge spiders with skulls on their bodies. They'd block passages and often hid out of site until they were ready to pounce on you. As a child, they never really frightened me as much as Wallmasters did. Link is introduced to these arachnids very early on in the game, so I was possibly desensitised to them by the time I went against the bigger ones. However, the cursed half-spider, half-human family did give me the creeps. I think mainly because they looked so strange and unnatural.
Rakon suggested that Zelda's zombies (ReDeads) also gave him the shivers. I initially agreed, but then I remembered the silliness that happened if you wore the Captain's Hat around them in Majora's Mask.
Ocarina of Time was able to offer a lot of disturbing or shock moments. The graphical direction of series' latest titles has really prevented these from happening since, but surely that's good for an action/adventure game?
2. Deathclaw Sanctuary and Feral Ghouls (Fallout 3)
Feral Ghouls are basically the zombies of the Fallout world. Although Fallout 3introduces you to many Ghouls that still have their sanity, encountering the crazy ones is a tormenting experience. They all live in dark, dank underground places and can be hard to spot. Often they'll be upon you before you've even noticed them, if their screech hasn't given them away. I personally think zombies are an overused concept in horror titles and we've been exposed to them for too long to find them scary. Context is the thing that makes them creepy in Fallout and I think encountering one in the open wouldn't be so bad. Cheers to both used44 and TheDiesel for this suggestion.
Deathclaws are different. keepithowitis says just their Sanctuary scared the **** out of him but I run a mile whenever one spots me out in the Wasteland. Unless you carry an arsenal of heavy weaponry, then getting attacked by one at close range is essentially a guaranteed death. Going into a cave full of them is almost suicide, as you are practically dead if one catches you by surprise. I think the scariest thing about these mobs is their raw power, not their looks.
3. Breaking the Fourth Wall (Metal Gear Solid 2, Eternal Darkness and Batman: Arkham Asylum)
This is something that was suggested by Lars, Ted_Wolff and used44, while being contested by keepithowitis. Breaking the fourth wall is done by a number of games from Pokemon to Banjo-Kazooie, but can be surprisingly scary if pulled off well in the right setting. I recall MGS2's moments being spooky because of the haunting music and aesthetics that accompanied them. Moreover, seeing the Colonel (a bloke you've trusted the entire game) suddenly flickering from being normal to talking skull and back is definitely unnerving, especially if played in the dark. Eternal Darknesspushes the boundaries further, appearing to delete your save files and turn off your TV. Its easy to see why this is scary; when you get too freaked out by a game its easy to turn off the power and go do something else. If that game then starts exerting influence on the real world, then you slowly begin to doubt the limitations of a videogame and feel it could penetrate your life. Possessing such a feeling, if only for a second, intensifies the experience.
"You m-must continue your m-mission!"
4. Atmosphere (Dead Space, Fatal Frame and Condemned)
Although I feel that 'atmosphere' is the most traditional way to build tension in a game, a lot of you guys suggested it in one form or another. Dead Space and Fatal Frame mainly achieve this through throwing a lot of creepy **** at you. A lot of the time you don't even know if you can beat enemies. I remember playing the opening levels of Dead Space at a trade show and I feel the scariest parts consisted of encountering monsters I simply didn't expect. Ergo, I couldn't defeat most of them.Fatal Frame presents a similar situation, as only having a camera to defend yourself with feels extremely insecure. Music also plays a factor in making these intense games, as both its presence and absence from certain scenes makes things extra scary.
Condemned is just crazy. The majority of the game has you running around areas full of insane tramps. Have you ever been on a bus with a really weird drunk who keeps spouting absolute crap to anyone who makes eye contact? Its unnerving and I feel Condemned purposely taps into that very real sort of fear we all experience by encountering such strangers in real life. Well done to Lien for mentioning it.
5. Total Mind****ery (System Shock 2, Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne and theSilent Hill series)
I figured this would be a fine point to end on. Tykk, madster111 and Lien all mention the above titles. When a game is able to mould your own psyche as it does the virtual world, then you know you're playing a horror. Whether its walls made of blood, computer programs pretending to be God or demons going crazy, these games really know how to make us think 'WTF?'. If played with friends these sorts of scenes provide a good laugh between the bunch of you. If played alone, they can be seriously frightening and detrimental to mental health. While Condemned tries to relate to reality to provide scares, these titles go out of their way to be absurd as possible. When facing such fantastical horrors, zombies from Resident Evil and predictable cutscenes from FEAR just seem mediocre.
Feel free to discuss the above... again!
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Fear Of Large, Underwater Monsters In Videogames
Posted on Friday, September 4 2009 @ 10:11:18 Eastern
I've got a really weird phobia dating back from when I was around 8. Whenever I play videogames with large creatures from the deep I get a chill running down my spine. Its a really weird, unpleasant feeling that comes from my head rather than my gut.... read more...
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My Thoughts On World Of Warcraft: Cataclysm
Posted on Saturday, August 29 2009 @ 12:23:31 Eastern
Don't mind me - I'm just jumping on the bandwagon.
Cataclysm is the newest expansion for World of Warcraft. Its slated for release in 2010 and featured a return to the two main continents of the world. Blizzard have... read more...
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No Writing Is Better Than No Writing
Posted on Sunday, July 5 2009 @ 10:23:12 Eastern
Hey guys. Today I'm going to talk about something that should be important to all gamers. The design of most blockbuster games comes down to the writing behind it. For almost twenty years we've seen some great stories being told through this great me... read more...
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My Thoughts On E3
Posted on Saturday, May 23 2009 @ 08:21:40 Eastern
Since reaching peak attendance in 2005 (which was a whopping 50,000 people), E3 has been in decline. This is down to a million things, but the ascension of blogs such as this site are definitely partially to blame. Back in the day, ... read more...
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What IS Wrong With The 3AM /Gquit?
Posted on Monday, March 30 2009 @ 02:14:21 Eastern
Whilst the anecdotes in this post are specific to World of Warcraft, the overall themes and discussion points can be applicable to any online game where people gather in guilds or clans to play.
This is a very relative topic to me. In WoW... read more...
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Super Mario Kart: Most Influential Videogame, Ever?
Posted on Thursday, February 26 2009 @ 12:14:26 Eastern
According to Kotaku, Super Mario Kart is the most influential game in history, as decided by the Guinness Book of World Records. At first, I considered agreeing with this decision. I had spent many years of... read more...
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Melaisis In Nothrend - Part One
Posted on Monday, December 22 2008 @ 03:41:56 Eastern
Opening Note: Tales of epic journeys have been told for centuries and when Wrath of the Lich King (the second expansion for World of Warcraft) was announced, many of my fellow journalists took the opportunity to shadow or reprise such hug... read more...
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