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Old 11-16-2011, 10:11 AM   #3
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Re: please rate this op-ed piece: “Cinematic” is not a good thing for games...

Wow, Rob. There’s a lot to process here.

In terms of overall writing, it comes across a little bit like a blog post. I certainly don’t mean any offense by that – blog posts are fine. What I mean is that I think it can be tightened up a lot (like how you did for your Enslaved review). It’s pretty long as it is (for starters, I don’t care about the first paragraph about not apologizing – it’s distracting from the actual topic).

The big challenge you have in my opinion is that you touch on so many broad topics but need to be clear and support them all, without being too long.

I dig these topics of discussion, and there are some interesting points made. I’d like to comment on a few places.

Originally Posted by RandomRob
Film is a passive medium. That means film has no expectations of your involvement with it. It does what it does, and maybe you get something out of it. It has a history of countless millions working on it and refining it for many decades. But it’s important to note that with all the stylistic tools film has gained as the result of great technological pushes in the last 20 years, this has had no effect whatsoever on storytelling.

Stylistic tools do not help you tell a good story. They can accent, but they can’t do the job of knowing the audience like a writer does. A good story is born out of the self-knowledge, life experience, understanding of irony, compassion, revenge, etc. that the writer brings to the work.

If you look at a recent film like Zack Snyder‘s ‘Sucker Punch’, there is a disconnect from the film’s desire to entertain with all it’s tools, and it’s ability to otherwise convey the themes and emotions necessary to involve the audience. A similar disconnect happens when a 5 year old tries to tell you a story. There may be great imagination and unintended insights and humor in the telling, but a 5 year old is not going to lay you flat with truths learned from a life rich with experience. They see everything as surface level archetype.

That’s fine for children, but adults live in a world of layers; of confused archetype and subtext, secret loves, grudges, deceits and hidden truths. You will notice I just compared Zack Snyder’s film to a 5 year old telling a story. Actually I didn’t. I said that a awkwardness results from both. That’s because infantile bombast is an accepted and expected part of our film culture right now. The fact that “Green Lantern” is currently one of the most expensive movies ever made should tell you something about where our media is at right now.
I see your overall point here that life experience is important, but I think you need to define exactly what you mean by “stylistic tools” because it comes across as up to my own interpretation by what you mean and it’s a bit blurry. To me there’s a difference between coming up with an interesting story, which requires life experience, and telling the same story, which requires the media. I think that new technology is a tool, yes, but those tools can be critical to telling a story by enabling different ways to communicate. Deep-focus in Citizen Kane (contrasting the symbol of Kane playing with his sled with his life being signed away) or color in The Wizard of Oz (showing that something is different about this place), or bullet-time in The Matrix (conveying to the audience how Neo perceives things). So I cannot agree that “all the stylistic tools film has gained as the result of great technological pushes in the last 20 years, this has had no effect whatsoever on storytelling.” If you have no appropriate or useful way to effectively communicate a particular idea, then you can’t tell the story! And certainly if you can't master your tools, then you are not going to craft a good product, regardless of the story.

Originally Posted by RandomRob
Story, Cinematic, and Choice don’t go together.

Broken Helix failed because it was hamstrung by having it’s team working out 5 different story threads while the gameplay had fatal problems that didn’t get fixed. Videogames can’t make choices matter by apeing the format of film. Nor can they throw their controls out the window at a crucial moment and shoe-horn all the possible complexity of an open design into a Quick Time Event where you are pushed like Pavlov’s Dog to push a single button rapidly. Both things remove you from the action. So they are neither cinematic, nor choice.
I think this point needs far more support. I can name a few counter-examples off of the top of my head of games that offer interesting, meaningful “story and cinematic” choice involving things like character development. Dragon Age: Origins, Heavy Rain, or Façade spring to mind. I would argue that the reason we don’t see more of these types of games is because they are hard to make – it’s far easier to simulate space and physics than it is to simulate a character’s personality. Dragon Age and Heavy Rain essentially use the branching path story line structure, but they are so interwoven that it’s difficult if not impossible for two players to experience the exact same story bits. Façade has a more focused and procedurally generated story that I think is just the tip of the iceberg. The “game” part was simply talking to two people – not the traditional physical space oriented game, but definitely a game nonetheless. When we start to get some more procedurally generated characters processing voice input from the player, then we’ll start to see the medium’s true potential.

Originally Posted by RandomRob
Do gamers want “cinematic experiences” in games? I don’t think they do. I think this is just some mid-90s Madison Avenue buzzword hype that’s gone on too long, and with the benefit of unchecked and uninformed opinion mongering online, off the deep end.
I don’t disagree, but what kind of proof or support can you offer that gamers do <em>not</em> want “cinematic experiences”? Are there polls taken? Are they buying something else?

Originally Posted by RandomRob
There’s good reasons the line gets blurred. Film is a linear medium, so it’s easy to discuss videogames in cinematic terms because it gives you handy reference points. Beginning, ending, call to action, climax, false climax, etc. But none of these things really apply to a game’s narrative, which is about control and response being determined by a player. A game’s narrative is told by your interaction with it’s controls, and how those controls affect the environment.
I don't really think that the game aspect of a game only can affect the environment (meaning space and physics relationships). I think it can affects things like character development.

Originally Posted by RandomRob
A well implemented control scheme makes a player feel ‘free’ within the games environment. Free within limits. Plug in the game ’Prototype’ and run up a building, and then do a crash-dive into the middle of a crowded intersection. All the parts of that control system have been planned out in advance, physics implemented, etc. Nothing is left to chance. Yet if feels open and ‘free’.

That’s the “freedom” gamers want. They want to be entertained, with the illusion of freedom. Real freedom is turning off the console and the TV and leaving the room.
Agree with the first paragraph, but not sure what the point of the second one is, or how it completely ties in with your overall thesis. It seems contradictory to your main thesis since if all gamers wanted was an “illusion” of freedom, then they would want a more linear and cinematic experience where they did not have freedom.

But if you’re just contrasting games with the real world, I would say playing a game is a voluntary action - by playing I voluntarily accept the limits of the game world. That doesn’t mean it’s not “real” freedom. It <em>is</em> real because I chose it - I chose to live within the game world limits in the hopes that playing will let me experience things I otherwise would not and possibly tell me truths about the game world that make me re-evaluate the real world.

Originally Posted by RandomRob
So herein is the core of the issue. “Cinematic gameplay” hype isn’t about what gamers want, it‘s about what businesses want. And games certainly can’t deliver choice while they’re kowtowing to film tropes. Film is a passive medium, and game designers pushed to create cinematic games are turning that uninteractive passivity into forgettable videogame slush.

Why not? It’s easy. Cinematic gameplay is a move AWAY from game design. Fewer designers, less choices, less options, more scripting, more spectacle, bigger art departments, bigger budgets, less authorial control, fewer writers, less play testing, ease of compartmentalization of staff. These are all positives from a company position, and an investment position, but certainly not from the point of view of design.
This is an interesting point, but I would be very careful to make sure you include DEVELOPERS in this because they share as much blame as the suits, if not more so. Why? Because it’s EASY to create linear games, which are all about the developer having control and expressing their "creative personality" (as opposed to the player).

Moreover, I don’t think some of your examples support the idea that “business” wants more cinematic games (by business I am assuming you mean the desire for profit). More spectacle and bigger art departments and bigger budgets means higher cost to make a game which means more risk and less profit.

Originally Posted by RandomRob
The solution? Video game design needs to be reclaimed by the new generation of programmers and artists, and embraced by people who love games not for the story or the character development, but for the games themselves. Gaming needs to get back to gaming. Film needs to get back to film.[
I agree with the sentiment that games should get back to gaming, and films should get back to film, but I'm not convinced that character development is incompatible with gameplay. I just don't think we've reached a point where we can simulate characters in a way (read: minimal pre-scripting) that allows for interesting player choices that affect characters. I think games (the programmers and artists) should focus on letting the player author the story and film should focus on the developers' authorial control.
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