Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Rattling the Cage

It's one thing to have a mindset that's different from the norm. It's another thing entirely when that mindset completely disregards everything that came before it to make a future that's destined for failure. That's how I feel about David Cage's speech at GDC. Obviously, since this is a hot button topic it's got the internet in a complete tailspin.

 Anyone who knows me knows my stance on this whole thing - I don't believe in the slightest that we should abandon concepts and ideas that have proven to held strong over the years in some vain attempt at trying to appear validated as a proper medium. I certainly don't believe that Heavy Rain was an artistic triumph in the slightest for taking a string of common themes and cliches and putting them into an experience that you have limited control over. Shoehorning optional buttons into a DVD doesn't make it any more of a game, so why would we proclaim that this should be the new way that gaming should go?

The Definition of a game

In order to further understand the problem with Cage's mindset we should look into what constitutes a game. To do that we should look at the definition of a game. Wikipedia, you're up.
A game is a structured activity, usually undertaken for enjoyment and sometimes used as an educational tool. Games are distinct from work, which is usually carried out for remuneration, and from art, which is more concerned with the expression of ideas. A game can also be distinguished from play which is usually unstructured, and a puzzle which requires a strong mental concentration and is undertaken alone. However, the distinction is not clear-cut, and many games are also considered to be work (such as professional players of spectator sports/games) or art (such as jigsaw puzzles or games involving an artistic layout such as Mahjong, solitaire, or some video games).[citation needed] 
Key components of games are goals, rules, challenge, and interaction. Games generally involve mental or physical stimulation, and often both. Many games help develop practical skills, serve as a form of exercise, or otherwise perform an educational, simulational, or psychological role. According to Chris Crawford, the requirement for player interaction puts activities such as jigsaw puzzles and solitaire "games" into the category of puzzles rather than games.[1] 
Attested as early as 2600 BC,[2][3] games are a universal part of human experience and present in all cultures. The Royal Game of Ur, Senet, and Mancala are some of the oldest known games.[4]
If we were to take this and apply it say Heavy Rain, what of these key components would stick? Rules? Challenges? There's limited interaction, so we know that's there. Is Heavy Rain mentally stimulating? For some, yes. Others - certainly no. However we could say somewhat of the same things about Dragon's Lair or Space Ace. Those games followed the same premise of "interactive storytelling" but The latter two games have actually done a better job, and still hold some of the key values of gaming intact. HR tends to be a bit more forced in terms of creating a means for the player to feel like they belong and are influencing the choices made to bring the characters to a resolution. Which brings us to more issues with these types of games.

What constitutes value

Here's a little snippet from the Kotaku article - A plea for gamers to grow up

When I walked into Cage's speech, which was delivered in a full room that could seat several hundred, he had reached rhetorical crescendo. "We should be, in our industry, on par not with b-[movies], not with popcorn movies. We should be on par with the best movies out there, in matter of storytelling and characterization and emotion, etc., etc. plus we will add the interactive dimension to the experience."
He was flipping this into a money question, remarking that his 10-year old son had given up playing expensive games on the PlayStation 3 and Nintendo DS for one-dollar and free games on the iPad. "How are we going to justify in the future that people play $69 to play our games?" he asked, translating his artistic plea into one some game-greenlighting suit could understand. "We need to create more meaningful content."

I don't think that gaming really needs to be on par with anything other than being itself. When we start comparing gaming to other mediums we're doing it out of validation. Have you ever known an adult that had a collection of toys which they proudly displayed or Cartoon themed bedsheets and proceeded to hide them when friends or a potential mates come around?  That's the mindset that floats around certain developers when movies or books come around. The reason is because neither of the other industries look at gaming  with anything other than disdain. An immature hobby for kids and man-children alike. Should I be irritated that someone would hold this mindset? yeah, probably.

 But that doesn't lessen any value that gaming holds for me as an individual. Movies and print media aren't necessarily doing so hot these days, either (I went to see I Am Number Four and found out via trailers that Hugh Jackman doing a movie adaptation of rock 'em sock 'em robots). So why are we to believe that shoehorning these elements into gaming and disregarding their dynamic nature would be a way to improve things? Gaming needs to be valued on it's own merits and not on the backs of medium that only do half the things that gaming does. Books can be interactive (Choose your own adventure), and movies could potentially be interactive, but either can never hold a candle to the level of interactivity that games have.

This is why it's baffling for Cage to be asking questions about value when the game that has sold two million has little to no replay value. Why only two million compared to other high end games? The answer is that those games have replay value for days, while Heavy Rain is a game that's difficult to gather new experiences from a second time. Sure there are different branching dialog trees and a new cutscene here or there, but ultimately you're not doing as much as you are with say Mass Effect which drastically alters the course of the game based on player choice, and even then you're carrying over the previous game's choices into it's sequel. I'm not for games being as expensive as they have become, but in order to justify that price you're going to have to give me a reason to want to say "I want this game" Heavy Rain, as well as a lot of other games out there aren't worth the pricetag. Smaller games are cheap because they are simple pick up and play games. regardless of whether they're good quality or not (which goes into the whole commodity thing which is pretty much an issue for another post).

So the real question is if he's saying that everyone including him need to make more meaningful content? because yeah I agree with that.

The (necessary) evil of game mechanics 

So I don't even know where to begin on the ideals presented about how gaming mechanics are perceived as some sort of obstacle of storytelling. Apparently, it's never been that much of a problem for games that provided both an overlaying story while presenting a means for the player to fill in the gaps of the story with their own actions.

I'll be taking the Cage statements tossed out via Ryan Payton's twitter posts in the kotaku article and going from there.

David Cage on Heavy Rain: "I don't know how to tell a good story when your hero can only shoot and run."
There's a little thing in the creative field called "show don't tell" by showing the events unfold during gameplay instead of using hours of boring exposition through cutscenes you're giving the player a chance to be a part of the game, which is the fundamentals of video games - putting the player in the driver's seat in order to right the wrongs which come about during the course of a game.

David Cage on Heavy Rain: "Feeling subtle and complex emotions was the most important thing."
And I was able to feel subtle and complex emotions in games like God Of War I and II without sacrificing any ability to feel like I was an absolute force of reckoning in the process. That's a good game experience. I felt powerful, I felt like my actions mattered, and I was genuinely surprised and intrigued by the way the story twisted and turned. I know that emotion is important to you, but ask yourself really what's important to the gamers? you know - the people who are spending money expecting to be entertained by your product?
David Cage: Game designers think that players can project themselves onto empty shell characters. "I think this is a huge mistake."
So you're saying that all of the games that did this, and had actually succeeded for it that they were making huge mistakes? The silent protagonist is a staple in gaming. Back when the technology wasn't there for a full blown dialogue filled games, and way before developers were making cinematic based games (interestingly, enough back in the sega cd days even their cinematic games were shown in first person perspective placing the player in the story). We've had tons of games where the character was basically an avatar for the player.

Think of it this way - Do you say "Samus has the wave beam" or do you say "I finally got the wave beam" ? Do you say "Mario has 99 lives" or do you say "I have 99 lives" ?  Did Simon Belmont make it to level three or did you? The majority would say the latter every time.

David Cage: "The journey is what matters, not the challenge. Challenge works well with teenagers...but it doesn't work with adults."
Saying this shows that this person has no idea of storytelling or what constitutes a game. If there is no challenge, then why are we even bothering with story in the first place? Stories are about overcoming an obstacle -whether it be emotional, or physical. Remember in school, when your teacher told you about different types of conflict in writing (character vs character/nature/society/technology/unknown/themselves)? The challenge is for the character to find a means to overcome that obstacle in order to achieve freedom from the problem that was originally plaguing them.

Challenge is something people have to deal with all of their lives. Not just as a teenager, but in your careers, in your love life, in your social circles, getting a house, getting a job, making ends meet. All those things are challenges. A few posts back I talked about the average age of gamer being 34 years. There are 40 and 50 year old guys that still play RTS games and FPS games online with others. Some of them are actually really good. So telling me that Adults can't handle challenges is going to leave me as well as a lot of other people looking at you like you stepped out of a different time period.

Journeys by nature are rife with challenges so the two go hand-in-hand. Both are important, otherwise we're just coasting through life and games with no direction what-so-ever.

David Cage: "We need to forget about video game rules — bosses, missions, game over, etc...are very old words of a very old language."
My response to that is "Why?"

Why do we have to forget about the past in order to move into the light of the glorious future?  Why can't we just hold onto what's there and use it wherever we possibly can to get as much insight into what games are about and as we come up with newer ways to do things we begin to incorporate them into the knowledge that has already been amassed?

I don't know if it's just the fact that this statement is said in complete seriousness that disgusts me, or the fact that people are actually saying that this was eye opening for them to hear or read. It's basically a declaration of disregarding the past and establishing some sort of revisionist history where the golden age of gaming begins now, but the problem of that is this is not a golden age at all, and games like Heavy Rain will not usher in an era of fantastic gaming the likes we've never seen.


I really wish I were there for the conference. I feel like I'm only getting this information secondhand, and am just knee-jerking it, but when you see such bizarre gaps in logic being used in an effort to be "original" and "fresh" it just breeds ignorance and failure. And yet the things Iwata said were controversial?

Blogossus has an equally interesting take on this discussion as well, be sure to check it out. I have plenty more things to rant about that I missed out on last week, and I'm sure you readers are oh-so interested in hearing what I have to say lol.

Game on!

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