Games as Thought Experiments

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If I don't write down the thoughts in my head the moment they are there, I lose all motivation to do so. Therefore I wish to make no pretenses regarding having prepared or thought out this blog post in any significant detail. I didn't.

I recently saw another blog that discussed the fact that games often feature things we fear. I particularly enjoy any sort of insight into games beyond their playability factor or capacity for entertainment. Chiefly, how games interact with our psyche and the role they play in our understanding of and our ability to deal with the uncertainty in this world.

I think that games are the next evolutionary step that art has taken. I'm not an art major, and I couldn't define specifically what 'art' is. However, games provide a promising new frontier for art. Early tribes painted on cave walls and performed rituals in hopes that they would have a successful hunt. This type of art dealt cathartically with a very real concern in their lives; that of being able to eat. Later, Greek and Roman tragedy dealt with all sorts of issues, such as forbidden love, murder, thirst for power, exorbitant wealth, and the inevitability of death. In the 20th century, psychology and the grandeur of the human mind came to prominence in the form of the psychological thriller. As civilizations have progressed, all forms of art have dealt with our aspirations and our fears in an ever more intimate manner.

Games, I believe, still haven't grown into themselves as of yet. People are still mostly engrossed with the technical prowess of games and their multiplayer capability. But I think it's reasonable to make the assertion that this is typical of any beginning stages of technology. Computers of the late 60s and early 70s had a devoted group of geeky tinkerers who saw the amazing capabilities of these early machines but were mostly bewildered as to the possible role that they could play in the lives of ordinary people. Now they provide countless features that make our lives more efficient.

My hope is that games will be able to make the most of their non-linear storytelling and divergence from classic Aristotelian models. Games will become thought experiments that truly contemplate the results of our actions by having numerous outcomes. We will be at helm more than ever before, steering the course that the game narrative takes. We will able to shape the outcome of the game to a set of choices that we made throughout, and perhaps gain some insight into the nature of the problem itself, whether it involves nano-augmentation, nuclear war, political corruption, etc etc.

Most people are familiar with the early examples of this style. In the first two Fallout games, you go around a post-apocalyptic northern California, exploring various settlements and choosing to interact in different ways. At the end of the game your choices cultivate in several images of different towns you have visited, and how your visit has changed them.

In Deus Ex, you are given the choice throughout the game to perform a fixed set of tasks in a number of different possible ways. At the end, you have three choices regarding the future of mankind. Modern games like Mass Effect and Fallout 3 have continued to refine this trend.

Unfortunately this method ultimately falls flat. Don't get me wrong, these two games are truly great, and represent their respective genres quite well. However, there is still a certain laziness to this method of non-linearity, though mostly necessitated by the hardware limitations of computers at the time. You'd perform quests, accomplish different tasks, and then see a brief picture or animation at the end of the game as confirmation of your deeds. Once the game was over, it made no difference whether you decided to rescue that girl from the raiders or not. All was done.

As processing power continues, and the gameplay interface becomes more sophisticated with the adoption of voice and facial recognition, it is my hope that numerous narrative outcomes may be interpolated into the storyline itself to a greater degree, allowing wholly different people, locations and events to transpire based on the direction the player character takes. Imagine having a quest to assassinate a political figure. What if you failed, causing a completely divergent story based on the outcome of that hub event? Think back to some of the most epic and amazing moments in video games. I personally think back to some of the battles in the Halo campaign. Imagine an event of that scale and design being one of only many choices, such as how and where to deply your troops. Or whether to fall behind and secure a hostile region or to withdraw? As games gain the memory, the power, and the overall capability to have more cool awe-inducing things occur on screen, I hope it will be coupled with a more sophisticated narrative that gives the player the ability to play through the results of their decisions to a greater degree. If so, games can truly one day be legitimate thought experiments for whatever topical issues they care to address. They will be art on an entirely new level.

On the Nature of Games and Film

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Well, this is my first blog post, and whether or not it is ever read I'd like to have this in writing. Recent conversations with people about games and films have inspired me to share certain thoughts about the connection between games and movies.

If you consider yourself an enthusiast of games and movies, then you have undoubtedly suffered through the abhorrent result of their odd connection at least once in your life. Maybe you were standing in line, giddy and eager, for a movie based on that game you played after school in 5th grade. Maybe you were sitting at the edge of your bed, twitching with excitement, hearing the whine of your console powering up to a new game based on that movie that changed your world a few years ago. Unfortunately, it is likely that you have experienced the crushing disappointment at what invariably comes next.

Atrociously poor quality. In movies, this manifests as a ridiculous cast, shoddy dialogue, and a warped narrative unfaithful to the game's. In video games it is technical glitches, a bland, inflexible plot, and brain-deadening repetition. This seems to go as far back as games do. Ever played E.T. or Total Recall? Ever seen the Mario Bros. film?

Why is it that games and movies bring out the worst in each other?

As aficionados of both, you know that both have merits. I don't need to get into why films are a credible medium. But why are games?

I think that the world is only beginning to move past the misconception that all gamers are the archetypical losers that live in basements feasting on junk food with a face full of acne and a headset they use to shout obscenities at each other under the protection of anonymity. These people have mostly migrated to Xbox Live multiplayer.

Real games are truly a source of credible art. Modern technology has given them the ability to play full musical scores and have a range of realistic sound effects, so sound editing is now utilized almost as creatively and ironically as it is in film. For example, the Fallout series. Likewise, modern graphics have allowed incredibly artistic renderings of both real and fictional places, as in Fallout 3, Mirror's Edge, and Half-Life 2, to name a few. And in spite of the usual fixed-POV, the mise-en-scene in games is often quite clever, Bioshock being the best example that comes to mind.

What about game's ability to tell effective stories? Well games have been doing that since the 80s, and one could make a legitimate argument that the technical prowess of modern games has seriously diminished their storytelling abilities. Whether or not this is the case, and I do believe it is, conceptually at least games can tell exciting, thought-provoking stories. I don't care about the more esoteric reflections regarding ludology vs. narrative. (There was an interesting article about that here on Gamespot a few days ago, I'll post the link if I ever find it again).

Take Deus Ex, for example. This game ruminates upon the implications of plausible futuristic technology, and takes you on an exciting adventure all over the planet. You meet a wide variety of people, discuss political systems in depth, and in the end, even have a substantial choice that will change the world. It may not meet the Aristotelian model of storytelling, but it is riveting, stimulating, and incites further exploration into literature, politics, and world history.

So games really are credible. They are the launching point of further inquiries into technology, history, whatever. Or sometimes they're just really fun.

Which brings me back to my main point. Why do games and movies bring out the worst in each other? Quite simply, they keep trying to imitate each other. Games lose their flexibility and become repetitive, and films, well, they just sort of give up and retell the original story in a distorted and confused way. Then they fail at the box office and lose lots of money. And make the directors just a little bit more like Uwe Boll. It brings no good to anyone, this rigid adherence to the story as told by the other medium.

Movies and games should be complementing each other. Sounds simple enough. Movies should be expanding, not changing, the storylines of the games they were based on. Games should be doing the same thing, giving them the freedom to allow decisions and character customization. Guillermo del Toro is a proponent of this new **** James Cameron also touched upon it at E3 2009.

For example, look at this Bioshock film that's coming out. I'm willing to bet that it will retell the story of the protagonist and his struggle through the remnants of Rapture. Why not make a film about Andrew Ryan, his rise to power, and eventual fall as conflicts with Fontaine begin to escalate? This would allow for a quality movie, depicted fully by the film medium. It would allow for strong political themes and a decent story that would draw in people who have never played the game. It would also cement the game's reputation (if the movie was good) and pave the way for further films, games, product lines, etc. It certainly seems feasible from a business standpoint, would draw in a wider variety of people, and wouldn't give me the impetus to conjure up a poorly-worded and impassioned blog-post. So that's about it.