Monday, March 27, 2006


The Next Great Story

So here's an interesting article on CBS about the future of gaming. The articles asks whether or not the gaming world will ever see the equivalent of Moby Dick (a great story told through the literary medium) or Citizen Kane (a great story told in the film medium). You already know my thoughts about this. My intuitive response is to say that yes, of course we'll have great video games which speak to the human condition in a way that is revealing and wise. Sure, games are fun (they are called "games" after all), but my suspicion is that as the industry develops, players will increasingly have the chance to experience something cathartic.

Before you laugh, consider the nimbleness of games -- their ability to consider different endings, the freedom games give you to leap from world to world and pick up narratives where you left off, which is closer to the way we experience real life (especially if you are the kind of person who gets on an airplane and establishes and re-establighes relationships in different countries). Literature has a harder time doing this. To illustrate the point, one interviewee in the article refers to War and Peace.

If we take Leo Tolstoy's "War and Peace" (the Russian epic that reconstructs Napoleon's invasion of Russia and its turning point at Borodino) as an example, Jenkins says that it is as if Tolstoy desperately wanted to be game designer Will Wright or Sid Meier. Tolstoy wanted a medium that allowed him to simulate this event and then rearrange the pieces to see what the outcome would be. He was looking for a way out of the static narrative.

Jenkins elaborates, "The last hundred pages [of "War and Peace"] is this essay that Tolstoy wrote, saying 'if the Russians had done this differently, then this would have been the result and if the French had done this differently then this would have been the result.’ "It's not hard to look at 'War and Peace' and say that this wanted to be a video game.

Certainly the technology is pretty much there to give game players a rich and visceral experience.

Video games, as visceral and social experiences, are getting better and
better. This can be partially attributed to technological advancements. Now we
can see alien worlds and the coronas of twin star systems; we can see the sweat
and the stink and the bowels of our opponents. It is wonderful. We can talk to a
person on the other side of the globe that we just scored against. We can be
awed and stunned by the beauty and the art of gaming.

So, what's missing? Really good stories.

Game companies do not seem to believe that telling better stories is in their best interest. They've generally relied on the graphics and the bells and whistles to sell games. With a few exceptions, they've never tried to sell us on emotion or character. This can be partially blamed on us, the gamers. Soon, however, gaming companies might have to change their ways.

I mean, I agree of course. Then again, there has always been a cry for games to have better stories, just as people have been talking about expanding the appeal of games beyond the sight lines of 25 year old males. The problem is that I tend to be one of those people who is completely focused on the potential of the industry, rather than its day to day realities. This has always been a problem. ;-) How to convince a CEO to invest in a kind of story-telling that hasn't yet been explored, and to make it a priority to draw in a new kind of viewer? You'd need some kind of CEO with vision and a great deal of faith. I'm imagining it will happen some day, and I hope it happens before I'm too old to enjoy the fun.

Why am I so convinced of all of this? Last year -- or maybe two years ago -- I played the great game Knights of the Old Republic (KOTOR), which had been recommended to me by a young friend. This particular friend was very smart, very brash and occasionally sardonic, but when he spoke of KOTOR, his face took on this look of complete and unabashed awe and almost some humility. I thought I had to investigate a game that would cause such an emotional response in an otherwise-sometimes-defensive teenager.

And he was completely correct. It was a GREAT game (as is Halo for completely other reasons). Before long, my partner was immersed in the game too. We had different protagonists; predictably, mine looked like me (the game gives you the option to custom make your own hero or heroine who can take on a variety of ethnicities, hair color and skin tone) and his looked like him. The game gives you the option to behave in any number of ways -- good, evil, sarcastic, neutral. And suddenly we discovered that the game also gave us the option to romance someone else inside the game.

Wow. What a goal. Not only could we save the universe (or inflict mass suffering, but I'm just not that kind of girl) we could also fall in love. So, I watched him try to woo another female, and he watched me woo a male (Okay. So there was also a girl I could romance. What can I say? The chance to flirt with two people at the same time was just too exciting, though I eventually had to pick just one). And we would sit there encouraging each other with comments like: "No! Don't say that to her. Say this to her! That will get her attention!"

It's not exactly cheating. But I did feel this connection to a complete virtual character. And it's not surprising, really. People project onto celebrities or writers or even inanimate objects all the time (I know those shoes will make me cool). Why wouldn't a virtual character be as enticing?

When I finished the game, I was desperately sad that I would never, ever have the chance to interact with these characters again. It was the kind of feeling you have when you leave a film and are devastated that its over, or finish a book and feel caught in the story's atmosphere and grip and you don't want that feeling to fade. The message boards discussing this game are littered with comments like mine.

On a practical note, the company which created KOTOR does have long term plans to go public. They have also joined forces with another game company, and have opened an office in Austin, Texas, which means that I spend time looking at the job openings, which, in and of itself, is another indulgence in fantasy.

Austin is a great town to live in! Hope you don't mind me reading your blog. Thanks, nicely done.
Excellent post, Marie. Thanks for the link.

I'm within the target demographic for gamers, and balk at the fact that as a whole my peers don't put enough emphasis on meaningful stories. Most don't view their own favorite media as a legitimate artform... for the moment.

While it makes me sad to think I won't likely see (play) the equivalent of Moby Dick or Citizen Kane anytime soon, if I can see the words 'progressive' and 'video game' together in my lifetime, I'll be glad.

P.S. If you haven't already, try picking up KotORII. Even if it was rushed in production it's still a good sequel.
When you meet my husband, you'll have a lot to talk about. :)
Goodness, folks. I suck for having missed your smart comments.

Zeph -- you left no way to reach you so I have no way of knowing if you'll read my comments back to you or not! But I did play KOTORII and enjoyed it and am just hoping against home that I'll have a chance to play KOTORIII one day, if Lucas Arts can get itself together to supply us with another story.

In the meantime, I'm supposed to finish my novel before I get the XBox 360, so I have no idea what games I'm missing there, though I know I want to take a shot at Oblivion when I can.

Kaytie -- I guess I better meet your husband soon!
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