...A plumber of infinite jumps, of most excellent platformer: he
hath borne me on Yoshi's back a thousand times; and now, how abhorred
in my N64 it is! My gorge power-slides at it. Here hung those floating
coins and fleeing Mushrooms that I have kissed I know not how oft.
Where be your "It's a'me
Mario" now? Your barrel-jumping?
Your repetitive jingles? Your flashes of Mario Party merriment,
that were wont to set the table on Donkey Kong's roar? Not one now,
to mock your own mustached grinning? Quite chap-fallen
lives left? Now get you to my Princess Peach Toadstool's chamber,
and tell her, let her Mario Paint an inch thick, to this favour
she must wall-jump; make her laugh at that. Prithee, Bowser, tell
me one thing
where are the masterpieces of videogame storytelling;
the stories that resonate with the human condition?
Where is the meaning?
Pardon the silliness, but I was thinking about
narrative in video games. The existing narrative mediums, be they
movies, novels, poetry, television, plays or comics, have their
classics their art pieces. Now, these works aren't simply classics
because of the writing. In Mike Mignola's "Hellboy," the
art is as much the storytelling medium as the words. In "Apocalypse
Now," Francis Ford Coppola crafts a mood that transcends the
script. Movies have directors and conductors, television has the
writers, plays have the actors
in short everyone is a part
of the narrative process as much as video games rely on writers,
artists, programmers and animators to each fill in one color of
Taking that a step further, existing classics
may also carry a message or serve as social commentary. In Alan
Moore's "Watchmen," the message is: Who watches the Watchmen.
Ingmar Bergman makes films about the dignity of people and their
relationships to one another. Choose your medium and you'll find
a relevant message that affects and changes people.
But can games make the same claim? Where are the
morality plays? The reflections of the human condition? The rage
against the dying of the light? Many mediums have their measure
of expressing and evoking the human consciousness, but why haven't
games developed a deeper meaning or significance? Is "Metal
Gear Solid" our closest benchmark to a thoughtful warning?
I'm not saying games are crap or insignificant.
In matters of gameplay, or storytelling, or graphics, or technology,
there are some truly innovative games out there, be they "Civilization"
or "Half-Life 2" (more complete lists of the "greatest
games" can be found here: http://www.gamespot.com/gamespot/features/all/greatestgames/
What I am saying is that writers have been so focused on searching
for the medium's voice, that I think they've overlooked the capacity
for the medium's message.
Now admittedly, some games do try. As my friend
Amy said, the Japanese have tried placing deeper meaning in some
of their games. Villains may not be truly evil, but may operate
from a skewed sense of good. They discuss themes of heroes and villains
fighting their fate, either to be destroyed by it or embracing it
to survive. But again
there are few parables and morality
plays in games. "Fable" and "Knights of the Old Republic"
may allow you to choose your destiny as either good or evil, but
there isn't any real consequence for that choice. There is no wrong
or right in that choice.
Amusingly, Rockstar's "Grand Theft Auto"
series has some of the best potential to explore drama and human
relationships, responsibility and repercussions. Do they do that?
No. But could you imagine Rockstar making "The Godfather,"
not as excuse to deify violence or embrace slaughter, but as an
exploration of family and obligation? Unfortunately, Rockstar does
the exact opposite, not only ignoring the true potential behind
the communities whose skin it glorifies (and often misrepresents)
but they actually draw more scorn against the game industry for
their gratuitous portrayal of violence and sexual content. Then
again, it isn't their responsibility to push the envelope.
Unfortunately (and admittedly), videogames suffer
from several limitations that hamper their ability to create a critically-acclaimed
work of art, one that transcends the mediums. No "War &
Peace" or "Romeo & Juliet" or "Lord of the
Rings." Oh certainly, we will borrow and steal from true genius,
but quash any attempts to truly push our own boundaries. But still,
it's a daunting task to create something with meaning. The problems,
as I can see them, are:
1) We are a young industry. To paraphrase J.T.
Petty (script writer for "Prince of Persia" and "Splinter
Cell 1 & 2") and to quote the MTV.com article, "Petty
considers game development to still be in its silent-film
But is that entirely true? I'm not sure. Silent
films gave us classics like "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari"
and "The Ten Commandments." Do we have equivalents in
videogames that went beyond just redefining game play or technology?
We are young, yes, but we're still so enraptured by the technology
that the narrative itself remains largely unexplored.
2) Action is not Conflict. Yet action is the bread
and butter of videogames, and it seems to be our principle tool
for portraying conflict. Understandably, the same conflict that
fuels something like "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf"
is not what constitutes good videogame action. Conflict in videogames
remains external; we rarely explore the character's head in games
because the exterior world is visceral, immediate, more interesting
and more satisfying; the world of the mind as portrayed in games
is, at best, a terrifying, twisting landscape (cue the final level
with twin bosses Basal Ganglia and Cerebellum). Until then, everything
about the character's internal workings and struggles either becomes
heavy-handed exposition or non-existent or a part of the action.
Take "Max Payne." Good game that carried off the characters
emotional turmoil relatively well because:
a) The first-person narrative
b) The character wanted revenge, and revenge is supported by game-play
3) In making goal-oriented action games, do you
rob the resolution
the message of its impact? Face it, to
deliver a message, you may sometimes need to rob the player of a
satisfying resolution the way a story's protagonist must suffer
to bring the moral across. Not everything ends happily, ask Willy
Loman from "Death of a Salesman." But videogames are about
empowerment, which means you must either steer the player to the
unhappy ending - in which case the resolution feels wholly unsatisfying
to the player who made an investment of time and cash - or you rob
the player of their control to enact the final moment in a cut-scene,
which can be a game-killing colossal sin.
4) The Play for the Casual Gamer. Face it, the
Holy Grail of videogames is attracting the interest of the casual
that untapped motherload of promised success and fame
beyond the dreams of avarice. Unfortunately, casual automatically
limits the ability to craft a narrative masterpiece. Casual implies
something that is quick and fast, capable of rewarding the player
after a minute of play. I'm talking about narratives as full course
meals when casual is all about the fast food of gaming (immediate
gratification, no waiting). Tack on to that the fact that around
10% of gamers finish games, which means close to 90% will never
see the ending of a game, and companies are resistant to the idea
of putting too much effort into crafting a game beyond reusing their
resources. That's not to say companies don't care about story or
simply that it's difficult convincing them that
the effort is worth the investment.
5) Speaking of companies
another major problem
is that games pass through so many layers of criticism that what
emerges at the end is a story that appeals to the lowest common
denominator. Essentially, any significance that the story might
have possessed is often stripped away through attrition. A word
removed here because it's too politically charged; an idea changed
because it might offend the wrong group. At first, each change seems
innocuous enough that it doesn't merit attention. Eventually, though,
the sum of changes is somehow greater than the whole.
I guess that while I do understand the quest of
storytellers to create a new narrative framework for games, I think
some have lost sight of the fact that HOW we say something is not
as important as WHAT we have to say.