Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Dear Richard Morgan: Games aren't books!

I spent a few minutes reading through NowGamer's interview with Sci Fi writer, and Crysis lead writer Richard Morgan about narrative in games, and yeah there are some things that make sense, but there were quite a few opinions that I seriously find fault with. especially in the perspective of video games.

Social commentary for the masses.. 

The first comment happened to be about Bioshock and how the texture made the game compelling. That part I can agree with. The lure of Bioshock was it's strange locale, and the bizarre community of people who inhabited it. When asked about Bioshock's story not being able to stand on it's two feet without compelling gameplay, this is Morgan's response.
"Well, with BioShock, it also got mainstream press coverage and it didn’t get that coverage because you were shooting shit. It got that coverage because people thought ‘Oh wow, there’s actually social text in this game’. So, similarly, just because you’re making a game about aliens in New York it doesn’t mean that you can’t include those kinds of values. I think people mistake what good fiction is. Bradbury, in his book Fahrenheit 451, he says that ‘good writers touch life often’. The closer they get - the pores if you like? - the writer reveals the blemishes on the up-close stuff. And I think that’s the trick when creating your NPC. You’re not going to have like in, say, Arkham Asylum, ‘The Joker’ and the stupid girl with the big tits. That’s ****ing bullshit, man ... that’s comic book. What we’ll do is that we’ll create characters where you generally feel that there’s a weight and a gravitas, a depth to them. You can identify, you can actually see where they’re coming from."

Bradbury makes some excellent points in dealing with fiction, considering Fahrenheit 451 was an excellent novel with really interesting characters, however in saying that something like that couldn't be found in something like Batman is kind of splitting hairs. The Joker and Batman's relationship in a way mirror that of Guy Montag, and Chief Captain Beatty. You could even go further in saying that Harley Quinn (the "girl with the big tits") in that analogy would be the Joker's Clarisse McClellan in playing muse to his chaotic anti establishment whims. In that revelation you can't say there isn't a gravitas and depth to them depending on who's really handling the characters. Just look at some of the themes provided in Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. Hell, even Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns provides an interesting amount of depth while adding social commentary for good measure. But I think I'll stop there since we're talking about games, not comics.

But tell me how you really feel...

It's kind of funny that the main draw of me reading the interview was a rather misleading title on Kokugamer that stated Morgan said that Halo is "bullshit". From what I read, it was a little different than what the title suggested. Here's what's said about that when asked if anonymity of character makes providing character depth more difficult.

"I don’t like the Halo series at all. Okay Halo is not actually bad, it’s just, you know, average. The reason that its fiction doesn’t work has nothing to do with the fact that you don’t get to see Master Chief’s face, it’s because of lines like ‘Okay … I’m gonna get up there and kill those guys’. Halo is full of these bullshit archetypal characters and there’s no real emotional effect."
So how do you go about solving that problem?

"Well, the first thing you do is you make it more complicated, you ensure that your characters have agendas which don’t line up with the player’s. So they’re not necessarily deliberately antagonistic to you, they’re not necessarily on your side, they’re just there, and they have their goals and sometimes those goals will line up with yours, sometimes they won’t. It’s a really basic technique, but it’s one that seems to be sorely lacking in games for the most part. I don’t think there’s any problem with enforcing fictional values into a game. It doesn’t really matter if the principal function of that game is to shoot shit. In the same way that there’s, you know, good and bad AI, so there’s good and bad fiction and no one would argue that, well, look, we’re only shooting shit so we won’t bother with complex AI. Well, no, because complex AI makes the game more kick-ass, so similarly, why should we bother with interesting characterisation? 
Again, compelling characters do make the gaming experience more interesting I can't disagree with that. I also feel that the whole "badass space marine" archetype needs to be put on the shelf for a couple years due to it's gross overuse, but I still don't believe that's what made Halo a fun game in it's heyday. Every gamer who's enjoyed playing any FPS knows that the main draw is in the multiplayer, and the Halo games were no different. It is very easy to see that Halo in a lot of aspects was just emulating Aliens in it's character dialogue, premises and action sequences. That doesn't really make Halo a science fiction masterpiece, but it certainly doesn't make the game any  less fun to play with friends either. That makes it incredibly interesting to see people dumping on the Halo games after the fact, when in reality they should be looking into why the games were so successful in the first place. Here's a hint: It definitely wasn't the narrative.

Archetypes and Doom...

Coming off of what I just said about how certain archetypes need to be places on the shelf for a few years here's another statement about Morgan's opinions of deviating away from that mindset.

Two part answer; firstly I think you don’t have to step a long way from those archetypes. You can still have a big tough guy, but what you will do is you will search for additional hooks that will make them think ‘this character feels real to me’. And I’ve put a couple of companion characters into the game where they’re not too dissimilar to archetypes in other games, but what I’ve done is try to give them all little signatures which just fit. I mean, play Gears Of War; those characters, you can’t imagine them doing anything besides running around shooting monsters. So you look for these little motifs that give you some kind of creative realism. That’s all it takes to move far enough away from the archetype. Like you say there are people who won’t get it, but there are people out there who, all they want to do is race through the game in the shortest possible time, skipping all of the cut-scenes. But if that’s you, then I say again, just go play Doom.
I generally dislike this notion. It pretty much goes completely against all reasoning in game development. "If you don't like my grand story, then go play something else!"  Yeah I'm sure the investors who graciously gave however millions of dollars in the hopes to get back tenfold would love to read that over their morning lattes. Personally, I tend to follow the belief that games are about interaction. The story takes a backseat only as a secondary means of keeping the player completely engaged in the setting and the events of the game taking place.Yes a game could still be successful by having an "okay" story and interesting Gameplay mechanics (Gears of War), But the same couldn't be said about the opposite. Often, this reasoning gets completely lost  due to the strange nature of "genius mentality" Which is when most of the effort gets pulled into superficial things like graphics or the "brilliant story" causing a fundamental lack in the more basic, yet critical areas like..you guessed it: Controls and Gameplay mechanics. He tends to go on a bit more about this strange logic.

"I can’t believe that there are players out there who rush through Dead Space, or BioShock, without taking any time to just look around or to take in any of the story strands. Why would you pay fifty bucks for a game, then ignore fifty per cent of its content? It’s like, ‘hey I’m reading this book, but it’s a bit long, so I’m going to rip the last half out’. It’s like my books; my novels are written with a whole bunch of stuff in them … if you choose to read them on fast-forward, you’re the poorer for it. There’s loads of stuff in there that takes a more considered approach to understand. If you don’t want it, I can’t force you to take it. But, at the same time, it’s there for people who do."

I must reiterate that this is an interactive medium we're talking about. This isn't a movie, or a book. If  I am playing a game, then I'm usually trying to complete the objectives. Occasionally, I'll take time from doing this to say "oooh purty." (Note: that's not exactly how I talk outside of writing articles) but that's only in passing.  Any time taken to "stop and smell the roses", especially in FPSs, would most likely end in that person getting pwned for not paying attention to the more important things going on around them. Besides, most people do their exploration and discovery after completing the first play-through, and that's if the game is even that interesting to play again!

The relevancy of Cutscenes ...

Cutscenes in games are pretty much looked at the way that Rick Deckard looked at Replicants; They're either a benefit or a hazard. If a cutscene is beneficial to the game than it's definitely not a problem, however if Final Fantasy and other games like it have anything to say, the modern cutscene could be likened to taking a shortcut through a 3 mile minefield! The interviewer asks Morgan about cutscenes and the concept of telling the story through gameplay and of course, the following is his reply.
"There are a whole bunch of different ways of looking at that. Sure, there are people who will say ‘No Cutscenes!’, like the designer in The Incredibles; ‘No Capes!’. No cut-scenes? That’s a bit dogmatic because, look at Uncharted 2, it’s full of cut-scenes and it’s actually a great videogame. But a 20-minute cut-scene is embarrassing.

So length is a concern? Kojima syndrome?

Well, what happens a lot of the time with me is that I’m writing the cut-scenes and I sit down and write it, then I get to talk to the animation director who’s like ‘this is 45 seconds of dialogue, what are we going to look at while all of this is going on?’. So I’ll have to go back a pair it down. So you’re aware of what the limitations are. You can’t just say ‘I’m giving you this, so you’d better just like it’. We create the stuff then find a way for it to work around the game’s dynamics. Looking at the game as it is at the moment, it would be a much poorer game with a ‘No Cut-scenes!’ mentality.
 One would think that discovering elements that drive the overall story in real time and not through a period of inactive observation would be more immersive. Going back to Blade Runner, Ridley Scott had this interesting concept about allowing us to discover the clues along with Deckard in order to not hold the audience's hand, but let us figure things out and in turn to ask more questions that arise from the answers. This should be the mark of a good narrative in an interactive medium, and you sure as hell don't need cutscenes to accomplish that feat! Games like Metroid Prime showed the story through the information scanned into your visor from terminals and relics. Snatcher did this through audio cues on the discovery of important information (this was before Kojima went cutscene crazy in his later games).Cutscenes don't have to go away completely, but they're not the lifeblood essence of what makes a great narrative. And seriously, if you're finding yourself having to shoehorn dialogue into a digestable segment that takes control away from the gamer then you're already on the wrong track to begin with.

The interview was an interesting read and a really good look into how gaming is continuing to be a round peg being hammered into the square and star holes that are literature and cinema. Perhaps one day we can come to the realization that games are a unique medium unto it's own which can do things the former mediums are doing in a more dynamic way. The problem is can we do it without sacrificing what makes a video game compelling in the first place?  If you have anything to say regarding this post, I encourage you to email me with your opinions. I would be happy to post them and any further responses.

Until then, dear gamer.

Game on!

Source(s): Now Gamer, Kokugamer

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