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Lessons From the Fall of Luc Bernard


Luc Bernard is bound to be remembered. After Destructiod published a highly critical review of Eternity's Child, his first major title, upstart indie developer Bernard engaged in a vicious flame war with Destructoid members in the comments section of the review and eventually admitted that he was intoxicated. A few days later, he wrote an entry for his personal blog announcing his exit from game design and his intention to publish no further projects after the WiiWare release of E.C.

With his career aborted, Bernard's legacy seems clear. He will be an inside joke and a "remember when?" for hip, self-referential gamers, and Eternity's Child will be fetish object aficionados of campy, botched games.

But are clique-ish comedy and so-bad-its-good nostalgia the only gifts that Bernard's career have given the gaming community? No, it holds some valuable cautionary lessons as well, particularly for those who advocate for electronic gaming as an art form.

Let's remember what it was that made Bernard a figure of hopeful anticipation for independent gamers in the first place. First, his concept art and screen shots are visually impressive. They have a hand drawn, carefully detailed aesthetic that evokes cartoons and comics. This gave the impression that his games were more than simply attractive, but also artistic.

This appearance of artistry was further bolstered by characters and content promised by each game. Bernard's games were self-consciously courted controversial subject matter and promised dark, mature characterizations. Eternity's Child was supposed to confront environmental degradation and global warming and would feature a transsexual protagonist. Imagination is the Only Escape, a proposed DS title controversial enough to earn an article in the New York Times, was to star a young boy fleeing persecution during the Holocaust. The Rose Princess, another of Bernard's unfinished projects, would feature a robotic cross-dressing, alcoholic, drug-addicted rabbit prostitute.

These complex subjects and gritty characterizations, combined with Bernard's unique visuals, seemed to evoke the deeper accomplishments of other art forms. They recalled films like Pan's Labyrinth and A. I. or novels by Bradbury and Burgess. They also shared themes and tones with graphic novels and comics--another form that once struggled for legitimacy--by Frank Miller and Alan Moore. In short, they seemed to be evidence of the ability of video games to be art.

However, for the attentive, there were always small warnings. While the early demo videos of Eternity's Child that showcased its awkward animation are a favorite object of internet I-told-you-sos, what always concerned me was the near total absence of gameplay details in previews and interviews concerning Bernard's games. For example, a three and a half paragraph synopsis of Imagination is the Only Escape offered by Bernard is 100% pure, undistilled plot with no mention of control or level design or even genre. Meanwhile, an article length preview of The Rose Princess expounds at some length about plot, characters and stylistic elements of game, even mentioning that it will have a soundtrack composed exclusively of cello music, but contains only one sentence about gameplay. And that sentence only presents an empty buzz phrase: "Glam Action RPG." This paucity of gameplay details provided a definite foreshadowing of the broken and poorly executed controls and design that reviewers would later lament in E.C.

So what went wrong? How could so much work go into a game's characters, concepts and visuals and so little into its basic mechanics? How could a game be so apparently artistic and yet nearly unplayable?

Because it was trying to be artistic by standards of art forms other than its own. It was exactly by emulating visual art and film and literature and comics--the stylistic choices that earned his work so much initial praise--and failing to focus on creating a title that was successful as a video game, that Bernard created his own undoing. Eternity's Child was, in some ways, too cinematic and too literary--particularly the endless text introduction--without possessing the qualities that define greatness in its own art form.

And this isn't a problem exclusive to Bernard, although he is an extreme illustration. Many games devote extension development time to generating massive, lengthy cinema scenes, hoping their games will be praised in the gaming press a "like playing a movie." Remember the claims that Metal Gear Solid 4 was more movie than game? And how many failed games have had impressive cinematics or have been stuffed full of literary references?

I think, as gamers, we need to understand that video games already are an artform. But they are not an art form that will be best perfected through the imitation of other forms. Film did not establish its integrity by subjecting itself to the standards of literature. For example, Taxi Driver and Notes From Underground both explore the effects of isolation and violent self-obsession, and both are widely hailed as classics, but they achieve their classic status through mechanisms particular to their form. Note From Underground contains extensive passages of internal monologue and self-reflection, something that is difficult to impossible for film, while Taxi Driver depends on detailed performances and carefully composed shots and scenes that are equally impossible for literature. Similarly, a game that wished to explore the same themes could not be successful simply by plagiarizing Notes or emulating Taxi Driver. It would have to use the tools and techniques unique to games--like direct personal association with your character and the illusion of control over its fate--to create its own meditation of these concepts.

The result might be something with little to no plot or dialog and totally lacking in conventional cinematography that was also absolutely successful... as a video game.
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About Nuganone of us since 10:18 PM on 08.15.2008