I've been playing games for a long while now, and while I wasn't around when they first came out I've seen the huge evolution from NES to the Xbox 360. Through the years I've heard people say things like: they're art, they're a sport, they're a toy, they'll replace tv shows and movies, all different claims made by different people on different periods of time. While I don't plan to explain on which I agree or not I will say that I've always sided with the people that just talk about "interactive media", because almost every other stance forgets that what we usually call "video games" is just a format (a type of presentation that uses the tools the interactive medium provides as best they can with their goal usually set on entertaining us) and when they forget this the analysis and discussions are regarding the content, not of the medium itself.
I won't talk about interactive media per se, but I will talk some about the "video game" format, and the ones I've experienced this last week that made me stop and think about their evolution so far and wonder about the future of storytelling on interactive media.
Call of Duty: MW3
Call of Duty games are the biggest selling ones of the last few years, and while some may dismiss them based on their popularity, and others mock their patriotic stories, they’re the closest thing out there to an ideal “living the movie” that millions of people seek.
The first two Call of Duty games gain its popularity and its appeal in the way they recreated the conflict around you, with situations and effects easy to relate to WW2 movies like Saving Private Ryan (the BEEEEEEEEEEP effect of grenades near you, the whole landing on D-Day) or Enemy at the Gates (the snipers battles on the russian campaign), and being part of missions that were even seen in Band Of Brothers, the scripted beginning and end of missions did enough to hook you up and give meaning and context to the gameplay, and the AI partners running by your side in the middle of enemy fire, mortar shells, etc, complemented their representation.
The scripted events became, if not the best part at least the unique offering, of the WW2 CoDs. Fast forward to MW3, there are scripted events on every level, all over the place, with added cinema techniques to help involve the player in the experience. There are high speed chases, “tense” stealth missions, there are location changes (each different mission), camera changes (switching from the ground troop view to the copter/ac130 view), there are dramatic scenes (characters dying) and even a mission that uses reverse chronology (a part is played then fades to black, text shows up that says “20 mins before”, taking the player to the proper start of the mission).
(I’m sure someone is willing to bring up HL2 and how they did a better job than CoD around that time, and while I might agree, the lack of more episodes or HL3 doesn’t let one see how much they’ve improved or not in storytelling techniques. And no, I don’t believe Portal 2 does anything special to tell a story, I love the gameplay and the humor, but it ends up being a first person puzzle game with funny commentary.)
I think MW3 is a perfect example in the evolution of the videogames/movies merger, although just like the types of movies it’s alluding, it requires a certain degree of suspended disbelief to not question what they’re doing, and a commitment from the player to “play along” (as in, not try to break or go against the game) and just like Hamza did in real life during The Call of Duty XP: agree, believe and enjoy the ride.
I’m really interested in seeing how well done scripted events (and the different camera views) would work on other genres. I got a taste of it in Skyrim while attacking a city and it was amazing. Also, it just so happens that Skyrim is the next game I’ll talk about.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
Some people look down on scripted events and completely linear stories, after all, if they’re playing videogames, if they’re doing something that requires input from them, why not let them have choices? Why not let them impact the world in whatever way they want? If they wanted to follow a straight path and mainly “absorb” what others wanted then they could just see a movie instead, right?
Skyrim is the sensation of the moment, an open ended game, with a huge world, an insane amount of quests, a “smart” engine that places them differently and of course, dragons. Most people I know are in love with it, a couple have some issues with the graphics (“My modded oblivion looks better”) and others start arguing if the story is better or not than Morrowind or Oblivion.
Reading comments on dtoid, I found one that got my attention. Done by Eternal on the video about giants, he says “Skyrim won 25+ awards BEFORE IT EVEN WAS RELEASED. Now go read the reviews for the game. You notice what is never mentioned is the ‘engaging storyline’, ‘memorable characters’, ‘deep and complex gameplay mechanics’” and goes on to say “If Call of Duty is the Michael Bay of videogames, Then the Elder Scrolls is the James Cameron. They make pretty games with fantastic art direction that try and seem smarter than they are and thus it appeals to the average consumer”.
I’m not going to talk about the gameplay, but I will talk about the story and say that I disagree, and I’ll even go ahead and compare it to one of my favorite books. Skyrim, and the type of game it proposes, is the Hopscotch of videogames. Hopscotch is one of the best known novels of argentinean writer Julio Cortazar, it has 155 chapters and at the start of it there’s the following note:
“In its own way this book is many books, but it’s mainly two books. The reader is invited to pick one of these two choices:
The first book lets itself be read in the common form, and it ends in chapter 56, at the end of it there are three stars that represent the end. As such, the reader can disregard the rest with a clean conscience. The second book allows itself to be read by starting in chapter 73 and following the order that’s indicated at the end of each chapter. In case of confusion or forgetfulness, it’s sufficient to consult this list:
Hopscotch is a book that goes against passive lecture, against the passive reader, against “the type that doesn’t want problems but solutions, or fake problems from someone else that allow him to suffer comfortably while sitting on his couch, without compromising with the drama that should also be his.”, it asks for more involvement from the reader and tries to break away from traditional storytelling. As you can tell from the note, there’s a clear choice on what you want to do, get the straight “main” story or “hop” through the chapters, reading parts of the three sections the book is divided on (“From this side”, “From that side”, “From other sides”) and getting to know the characters, the atmosphere, the situations better.
Cortazar used self-insertion, and as the character of Morelli (an author), he talks about his book, and it basically wants, asks and dreams of a way of telling a story that leaves as much work on the writer’s side as on the reader’s side. I feel he says it better than I do, so here’s what he says:
“Somewhere Morelli tried to justify his incoherent narratives, sustaining that the life of others, as we acknowledge it in the so called reality, isn’t cinema but photography, we can’t apprehend the action but only its eleatic cut fragments. There’s nothing else but those moments where we are with another whose life we believe to understand, or when they talk about him, or when he tells us about what’s happened or projects upon us his intentions. In the end there’s an album of pictures, of fixated instants.
That’s why it wasn’t rare at all to see him talk about his characters in the most spasmodic way imaginable; to give coherence to the series of pictures so they would become cinema (as the passive reader would’ve enormously liked) would mean to fill with literature, presumptions, hypothesis and interventions in the hiatus between picture and picture. Sometimes the pictures showed a back, a hand resting on a door, the end of a field trip, the mouth about to scream, some shoes in the closet, people walking by the Champ de Mars, a used stamp, the smell of Ma Griffe, things like that. Morelli thought that the life of those pictures, which he tried to present as sharp as possible, should put the reader in the condition to adventure, to participate almost in the destiny of his characters.
What he would know by imagination, would immediately form into action, without any artifice destined to integrate what’s been written or has yet to. The bridges between one instance and another of those vague and barely characterized lives, should be presumed or invented by the reader, from the way they comb their hair, if Morelli didn’t mention it, to the reasons of their conduct or inconduct, if it looked strange or eccentric. The book should be like those drawings proposed by Gestalt psychologists, that way certain lines would induce the observer to trace imagined lines that close the figure. Sometimes the absent lines would be the most important, the only ones that really mattered.”
Reading Hopscotch in the linear way is decent, it’s good, there’s an interesting story and a proper novel, but it does nothing special because one isn’t allowing it too. The second and proposed way is miles more rewarding, not because it touches every chapter, not because it puts “everything in order” as some would say, but because it opens up the possibility of multiple readings, it shows you that at any given time you can pick up the book, read whatever number of chapters you want in whatever order, and you’ll get something different each and every time (look at the table of chapters, see the last three). Some may judge Skyrim's story just based on the main quest, I'd say don't be so closed minded, it's meant to be enjoyed as a whole and you'll only get as much back as you invest in it.
Despite how much I’m enjoying my time with Skyrim, I have to admit that for the most part it’s still mainly a story of action, of magic and wonders. If this medium is so flexible, if this is the medium of the future, then shouldn’t there be other great stories that manage to be amazing without dealing with “epicness”, grandscale wars or saving the town/world/galaxy/universe? I’m happy to say there are. (I feel like Catherine might classify on this, but it’s a game I haven’t played so I can’t be sure and I can’t talk about it for the same reason)
To The Moon
As it’s often the case, there are ideas and experiments on graphics, mechanics, stories, etc that you’ll only be able to find in indie games. A few months ago I saw this trailer of To The Moon, it had beautiful sprites, great music, a unique premise (think Eternal Sunshine, but implanting memories and making dreams come true, before someone dies) and that sold it to me, even if it decided to come out on the brink of the giant tidal wave of big releases. I’m going to try to be cautious to not spoil anything about it, so excuse me if I go vague on some points.
I started this whole thing talking about video games as a format of the interactive media, this could be superficially explained by pointing how different the simulators used for teaching, the interactive books on the “kids software” section, YouTube, and video games are. Alternatively, I’d have to say that we’ve learned “video game” as a word, as a concept, not only as gamers but as a society, and it puts them in a position similar to Kleenex and Q-tips, where a specific brand (like how older people call any video game a Nintendo) or presentation pretty much defines them as a whole.
To The Moon stands on the edge of being an interactive book, a movie, a game, and while I know a lot of people that dismiss it for lacking gameplay, it doesn’t matter, it shouldn’t matter, it might be just my ignorance of similar products, but to me this is a unique story, told in a unique way that deserves everyone’s attention, that deserves to be given a chance.
-To The Moon, the game:
What makes a game? What separates or merges it from sports or art? There are linguistic and semantic discussions that come up whenever someone says something is or not a game, in the end I would say society defines it, and society will eventually accept or not the labels some people are fighting so hard to get. For now, To The Moon has enough to be considered a video game, you have control over characters, they can interact with some areas of their environment, there are puzzles for you to resolve, the interface is that of an old SNES game, the sprites and backgrounds are reminiscent of oldschool RPGs and it’s sold as a game on online game retailers. None of the inputs required from you are that hard, and I’m not sure if you can’t lose or if it’s just “too easy”, and while I’m personally inclined to say it’s a “non-game”, I find myself unable to say this isn’t a game by definition.
-To The Moon, the interactive book:
I don’t know how much they’ve changed by now, but I remember being on first or second grade when our English teacher would take us to the computer lab of the school, they had a couple of interactive books on the computer, which would be like a regular children book but with animations and with speakers turned on for us to hear the characters and the narrator talk. We took turns clicking parts of the environment in the background and seeing the characters do funny things with them, after all the available options were clicked, the teacher would go to the next page and we’d keep going until the book would end.
To The Moon reminds me of that, when I started playing it I figured it would be like an adventure game, but it didn’t really have enough challenging situations to compare it to them, so in a way, you’re reading this book, you’re given options on things to interact if you want to, but from what I can tell, in the end they don’t make a difference and taking the time to see what happens with the available options just rewards your curiosity with a funny comment. It might sound like I’m criticizing it, but I loved those interactive books as a kid, and this one being done with the classic RPG view/interface makes it more comfortable and appealing to me. It might be presenting itself as something more complex than what it is, but it’s done so well that you forget about it.
-To The Moon, the movie:
I think we’ve all heard criticisms of the long cinematic sequences on RPGs and some other games like MGS or read about how Heavy Rain is just a movie that needs you to press buttons to keep going, we might have even heard people say they’d love to see a certain game as a movie/anime/series instead of playing it. Usually video games reward you for playing, they give a sense of accomplishment, of doing something, of making a difference, but right after “finishing” it I didn’t get that feeling, it was more similar to the one you get after seeing an incredible film that gets to you. To The Moon could’ve easily been a couple hours long movie in sprite format, an instant machinima classic that you’d be likely to remember more than any of the best scenes from your favorite RPG, and good enough to show it to your not gaming friends and even to those movie snobs that know oh so much about films…
-To The Moon, the result:
…but it choose not to. In the gameplay trailer of TTM (it does have some spoilers), its creator just asks of you to embrace his creation with an open mind, without expectations or demands of what his “game” should deliver to you. I didn’t understood till I played it, and I can’t emphasize enough how glad I am that I did, TTM has an almost perfect balance of interaction, of story, of art and music, it opened my mind to this particular way of reading/playing/receiving/absorbing a story, inspired me enough to write this whole blog and if you give it the chance, it might have as much impact on you as it had on me, and make you think of the future and wonder what else could be achieved.