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A Recurring Whinge

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A few minutes ago I finished watching the season finale of Six Feet Under. (Yes, I'm going to catch hell from my doctors for being up at this hour.) The show is basically a dark comedy centered around a family that runs a funeral home in California. The thing that originally led me to it is the fact that it was done by Alan Ball, the same guy that did American Beauty, which is one of my personal favourite films.

I've never really been much of a TV watcher, mainly because I find the vast bulk of TV to be utter banal crap. (Of course, the same goes for most films, too.) So instead, I wait to hear about potentially good stuff, then rent the DVDs courtesy of Netflix.

I like the approach because it lets me absorb the content at a controlled pace, without commercial interruptions, and in a seamless progression. It's taken a few weeks, but I worked through all five seasons of Six Feet Under more or less to the exclusion of anything else.

In stark contrast to most television programming, the show is really pretty powerfully written, and draws on some fairly deep human themes. By the time the series finale came around, the show had thrown some hefty punches - some predictable, and others not so much. But, in classic Alan Ball fashion, it left just enough open to interpretation that it inspires a lot of introspection, even while (from a narrative perspective) pretty much every loose end was tied up in a remarkably elegant way that exploited the show's recurring mechanics for great effect.

At the moment I'm wishing I could spontaneously start channeling Oluseyi so I can do the whole film-critic thing and actually sound like I know what I'm talking about. Anyways, the upshot of all this is that it got me back to thinking about something that's bothered me for a long time about games as a medium.

There just aren't too many games that embrace storytelling and character development to such a degree of depth that they can achieve the same kind of emotional response as a good show or film (or a book for that matter). Back in the days of heavily text-centered RPGs and epic point-and-click adventures (thinking of games like Dreamweb, The Dig, and so on) we got a little bit more of that, but still not nearly as polished or brilliantly executed.

When was the last time you sat down and played a game that was so evocative you actually felt genuine emotion for the characters? Has a video game character's death ever really succeeded in making you cry? (There's a couple legendary ones that always get mentioned - Baldur's Gate comes to mind - but that's about it.) Has a game's plot ever truly moved you to feel despair or exhiliration?

I can only speak from my own experience, but I just don't get that kind of depth from gaming. At best, there's an adrenaline rush or the joy of defeating a difficult challenge. Maybe some frustration or a little disappointment. But not emotion. Even games that are renowned for their storylines generally fail to nudge the needle much.

Personally, I think that's a shame. I'd dearly love to sit down with my 360 and play interactively - even if the degree of interactivity is limited - with a universe that is as compelling as what guys like Alan Ball can create on the screen.

I've spent enough time in the game development world - professionally and otherwise - to understand why this doesn't happen real often. It's a hard sell; the target market is ill-defined and publishers and investers are (rightly) wary about dumping cash into a product that may not attract any customers. It's technically difficult to achieve a game that meets today's quality demands and still has much depth of any kind, let alone sophistication.

Trickier still, it takes a very rare combination of skills. You'd need great writers, great artists, and a solid technical team to be able to do something like that. The isolated studio model of the game industry is not well suited to such a thing; Hollywood has a major advantage here in that you can cherry-pick the best talent. Hire this writer, that director of photography, this lighting guy, and that other crew to do the audio work - et voila, you have a great production.

Game developers can't do that. If your staff writer is mediocre - he can push out dialogue and sells boxes, but isn't exactly Kurt Vonnegut - then you're screwed. What are you going to do, try and get him fired? "Hey, boss, we could make these other kinds of games that are totally kind of cool except nobody's tried them before, oh and we'd have to fire Alfred and hire some crazy genius writer instead for ten times the cost."

Good luck with that.

I think the industry would have to change substantially to make such a thing truly possible. This is fortunate, because I also happen to believe that the industry (and most of software development in general) is going to change dramatically in the next decade or so, as it finally dawns on the population at large that the current models just aren't efficient or particularly effective.

So while it's sometimes painful to compare the deficiencies of gaming to other media, it's also worth remembering just how young the medium really is - and how long other media have required to become polished and start producing true masters.

I'm looking forward to the days when we really get game development right, and the true masters begin to emerge.
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This is a side thought which didn't really fit in with the flow of the rest of the entry.

I think another major complicating factor is the way that visual media can exploit specific depictions human behaviour. Facial expressions, mannerisms, and general body language are powerful cues which we have a lifetime of experience with. To be able to see these cues directly on screen allows a quick suspension of disbelief (provided the actors are good) and provides a mechanism for creating a connection between the portrayed fiction and the viewer.

For games, we have no such ability. The fidelity of visual representation is still far too low to serious expect to accomplish things like showing people's expressions. Worse still, capturing and modelling such subtle details as habitual body language and postures is extremely difficult - especially when such details are impossible to verbalize, or even recognize on a conscious level.

We can immediately tell when a familiar person "isn't acting right" based on miniscule changes in the way they move, even without being fully aware of the specific changes themselves. We can even recognize people entirely by their characteristic movements.

How is an artist going to be able to model all of that? Motion capture technology and other developments can barely get us believable responses to fairly macro-scale movements - see any shooter, for example, where a guy dives out of the way of an explosion and bashes his head straight into a wall, then gets up like nothing happened; this just doesn't look real. It isn't practical to create all these little animations by hand; imagine just showing a single person in anguish. You need to screw up their face, wring their hands, shed a couple tears maybe, take some ragged breaths... it's a huge amount of information.

The brain is going to expect that information to be present. If it isn't, our belief in the fidelity of the situation is severely damaged. If it's partially present but inaccurate, the results are even worse.

So in a sense, the desire to establish an emotional connection to a game character is self-defeating. The harder we try, the more apparent the limits of technology and practical man-power become, and the less we can find to connect to.

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Interesting. Personally, I think game developers should focus on what makes games different from other media - interactivity. That is why I think games that think they are movies aren't fun - the obvious linearity ruins the players experience. Writing for games requires a completely different skill set, because to be effective you have to allow the players make choices, while still keeping a compelling central plot regardless.

This is my one complaint against one of my favourite games, Deus Ex. I'm not going to pretend that the story was breathtaking etc - it was acceptable, with enough interest to keep the player going. There is no particular emotional connection to the main character, although there are memorable minor characters. However, despite the amount of choice the game offered the player in every other area the story kept moving in one direction. You couldn't alter it (I don't count the multiple endings, because they occur far too late in the game).

Maybe I'm wrong though, maybe if the quality of writing improved I wouldn't mind the linearity.

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The problem with storytelling in games is that you've always got in incorporate the player as the protagonist, and the player is an incredibly unpredictable actor. It's hard to maintain a proper sense of pacing when the writer cannot control the main character.

You've also got the problem that the main character isn't just acted by the player, they in effect are the player. You get storytelling problems when the knowledge that the character should have vastly differs from that the player has. That's one reason why you see so many fish-out-of-water game stories, or games about amnesiacs.

I think that game storytelling involves a skill set different to that from other media, much in the same way as there's a difference between writing a novel and writing a screenplay. You need writers who understand the interactive medium and can work with its strengths, rather than work against it.

Unfortunately, there's one final factor that really puts the dampers on this; good storytelling games don't sell. The last game I've played that I consider to have a really good interactive storytelling line would be Grim Fandango from Lucasarts (the only graphical adventure company that really "got it", from my view). But it didn't sell nearly as much as its development cost warranted, not when they could get a far bigger profit from a Star Wars action game tie-in.

I'm not really meaning to be bitter about this (although I do miss the Lucasarts adventure games) but unfortunately it's a sad fact that big budget games need big sales for their development to be warranted. Maybe the indie scene will pick up the mantle and start making great pieces of storytelling, but you need a good mix of coding as well as writing for interactive storytelling, and indie coders tend to make action or puzzle games, while indie artists and writers go for making graphic novels or webcomics.

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