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Thursday, December 29, 2011

Give Me a Million Branches

Posted by on Thu, Dec 29, 2011 at 1:03 PM

In an editorial titled "I'm Tired of Saving the World," Jason Lomberg at Joystiq writes about the trouble with video games:

Most games would rather task you with saving the world than with rocking a baby to sleep or patching up a failed relationship. This intransigence on the part of developers to create idiosyncratic stories that resonate with the individual is holding the medium back.

Why should gaming's prime inspiration be Michael Bay instead of David Lynch, David Mamet, Paul Thomas Anderson, or even Mel Brooks? An interactive medium like this has the potential to tell complex stories in ways that are sublime, irreverent, and evocative.

Gaming could explore the human condition by interfacing with the player like books, movies, and TV never could. Instead, we do battle with rogue Russian nationalists, storm Normandy for the 47th time, or fight off an alien invasion. I can't relate to any of this.

Outside of the occasional casual game (Jetpack Joyride currently owns my cortex) I don't play video games, partly because my hand-eye coordination is atrocious, and partly because I choose to read books instead, and I know that video games would swallow up all my spare time. I don't own a console—do they still call them consoles?—and while I try to keep up on what's popular in the gaming world, I basically don't know what I'm talking about.

But that's never stopped me before, so...

I don't think video games are quite at the point that Lomberg mentions here. Video games still seem, to me, to be very branch-oriented. You're given a binary choice of yes or no, and the game responds to that choice. I've played around with and enjoyed free-roaming games like Grand Theft Auto, but the first thing I do when I play those games is I try to figure out where the ends of the world are. I feel my way around the boundary and figure out what's possible and what's not possible. Soon enough, everything feels very small and closed-off. And games that I've played which are more story-oriented have long cut-scenes that basically take the choice out of the player's hands, reverting back to movies.

I have no doubt that video games are art. And I have no doubt that they are genuine narrative devices. But the thing that makes them a unique and exciting medium, to me, is that you are the protagonist of the story, and your choices affect the narrative. Maybe I want too much choice, and that would make the game cease to be a game? I want a Batman game where I can play a manic-depressive Bruce Wayne who just decides not to fight crime, or decides to reveal his secret identity to the world. Or a crime game where I can try to become a legitimate businessman on the earnings from a big bank heist.

It's entirely possible that I expect too much out of games right now. Maybe that's why my attention has always been more focused on "games" that are just online worlds, in which real human beings interact with other real human beings and the binary branches open up into virtually infinite possibilities, as they always do when other real human beings are involved. (I was interested in the idea of Glitch for a little while, but then when I started reading the forums, I became disillusioned pretty quickly.)

I just don't think a Paul Thomas Anderson-esque video game is possible yet, because the great thing about P.T. Anderson movies is that they each feel like enormous alternate worlds, where people make nontraditional choices and have to deal with the strange consequences of those decisions. If somebody made a video game that dealt with human situations like death and heartbreak and grief as patiently and as skillfully as The Descendents, I would be forced to buy my very first console. Or whatever they're called nowadays.


Comments (20) RSS

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Heavy Rain had some of the more mundane day to day type drama in it and it worked ok. Helped to build up emotion for the save your kid story that followed.

Considering how we are barely able to model a convincing AI for a go here, shoot that, kind of game I doubt we are even close to modeling human relationships to a degree needed to make the game fun. Unless the idea of repairing a broken relationship involves buying flowers, not calling your wife fat, or other tv solutions that are easily turned into button presses.

I am also not really sure how much fun it would be to play a game that is basically just the same shit I have to deal with when I am not playing a game. I play games to be something else for a while. Being a wizard, SEAL, emperor, or spaceship captain is a lot more fun than what I normally do during the day. Not sure why I would want to play a game about things I could just go do if I wanted.
Posted by giffy on December 29, 2011 at 1:17 PM · Report this
icouldliveinhope 2
I've been foraying into a lot of nontraditional indie stuff on Steam -- partly because I'm a mac user, but partly because I enjoy the variety. The Tiny Bang Story and Lume are made by the same publishers, and they are infinitely charming point-and-click adventures. Mind you, you are kind of saving the world in Tiny Bang Story, but it's more like gently nursing the world back to health, and with no dialogue and extremely minor characters it hints at heartbeak in fantastic, subtle ways. It's also one, insular plotline, but, you know. I do have faith that eventually someone will combine Fallout 2 and this kind of fare without it being The Sims or whatever.
Posted by icouldliveinhope on December 29, 2011 at 1:21 PM · Report this
JonnoN 3
You just don't play enough games.
Posted by JonnoN on December 29, 2011 at 1:22 PM · Report this
undead ayn rand 4
David Lynch to Binding of Isaac
Mel Brooks to Doublefine's works.

I'd say they exist in similar indie niches, your big budget multibillion dollar franchises are always going to be shit.

I'd say that a similar level of setting, story, tone, humanity or scares is pretty tough to portray in a nonlinear fashion, though, even if you could stop the publishers from dumbing down original IP.
Posted by undead ayn rand on December 29, 2011 at 1:26 PM · Report this
care bear 5
I can't stop playing Jetpack Joyride. It's becoming a problem.
Posted by care bear on December 29, 2011 at 1:26 PM · Report this
Grant Brissey, Emeritus 6
I agree with you. Also I'd venture to say the target demographic for the video game industry is not really interested in rocking a baby to sleep or patching up a failed relationship. Therefore: not enough money in it.
Posted by Grant Brissey, Emeritus on December 29, 2011 at 1:36 PM · Report this
ceefurn 7
There are plenty of indie games that fill the roles he's talking about. That's where the real good stuff is these days, anyway. The mainstream gaming industry is not interested in furthering the medium, they're only interested in profit. The indie scene are the influential bohemians here.

That said, Skyrim is a game where you could make a bunch of weird decisions and see different outcomes every time. I'd also suggest something like Nobi Nobi Boy does the same.
Posted by ceefurn on December 29, 2011 at 1:42 PM · Report this
icouldliveinhope 8
@4 is pretty spot-on -- if only indie game-makers, like those behind stuff like The Binding of Issac, would get larger budgets, or perhaps some art grants. I think there's going to be a pretty amazing shift in games once public perception changes a little bit more, away from games as pure entertainment/distraction/escapism to recognizing more of their potential as interactive art. Right now in terms of big-budget endeavors, the closest you're going to get is hyper self-aware games that parody the current state of things, like Saint's Row 3, or moderately-budgeted console games like Caroline that have a lot of potential for what you're pushing for but fall a little flat for one reason or another while scrambling for a more mainstream angle (in Caroline's case, its weird gender attitude embedded in the stakes and monotonous puzzle-based dungeons).
Posted by icouldliveinhope on December 29, 2011 at 1:44 PM · Report this
icouldliveinhope 9
Also I'm pretty sure there are games where you have to rock a baby to sleep, but more in the girls-don't-play-video-games genre (FASHION BABYZ WORLD OF ANIMAL HIGH SCHOOL)
Posted by icouldliveinhope on December 29, 2011 at 1:45 PM · Report this
Dougsf 10
First we must tackle the issue of video game heroine mid-riff, then we can take a look at developing games with complex interactive relationships.
Posted by Dougsf on December 29, 2011 at 1:54 PM · Report this
icouldliveinhope 11
@10: Less occupied with midriff as much as gaze and character complexity -- but I guess the midriff prevalence has become kind of a mascot for the larger issues.
Posted by icouldliveinhope on December 29, 2011 at 1:57 PM · Report this
I am currently playing Bully on my PS2. The storyline is a new kid who must survive boarding school and unite the cliques against a psychopath student.
Posted by TechBear on December 29, 2011 at 2:14 PM · Report this
Everyone should read EXTRA LIVES by Tom Bissell. It engages and examines the video game industry in new ways, and constantly asks these types of questions about the evolution and purpose of narrative in games...
Posted by Vlad on December 29, 2011 at 2:15 PM · Report this
@15... Wow. The trolls are out in force today.
Didn't I see you grumbling on another post earlier? Oh, wait-- I'm not sure because you're *anonymous*...
And shouldn't you be off fragging a 12 year old, or whatever it is trolls do when they aren't commenting?
Posted by Vlad on December 29, 2011 at 2:30 PM · Report this
undead ayn rand 17
@10: "First we must tackle the issue of video game heroine mid-riff, then we can take a look at developing games with complex interactive relationships."

Surely there's no strong correlation between chainmail bikinis and the lack of complex, dynamic relations amongst manchildren.


@15: Nobody ever said your Transformers Tittysplosion first person tentacle RPG won't still be manufactured, simmer down.

@16: People get hella defensive about just how much they love their crap culture. Yes, we get it. Avatar and Megan Fox were created in a lab to stimulate your pleasure centers, this is obvious, otherwise people would stop making those games and movies, eventually.

Doesn't mean we can't be interested in anything more!

Posted by undead ayn rand on December 29, 2011 at 2:47 PM · Report this
Zebes 18
Games can only branch in directions predetermined by the developers; there's a lot of hullabaloo about emergent gameplay these days, but that can only go so far and is largely limited to action sequences rather than anything with narrative weight. As fun as Paul's idea of a game about a Batman with a wealth of opportunities sounds like, that is, logistically, very difficult to pull off in a manner in which the branches are meaningfully distinct from one another.

Also, looking at mainstream games for deep plot development is as pointless as looking at summer action flicks for the same thing, because your big A-list shooters occupy an analogous position.

Also, action titles and "idiosyncratic stories that resonate with the individual" are not mutually exclusive. My favorite games are the ones that manage to blend both an adventure aspect with some kind of deep character development; Planescape: Torment comes to mind (and it's also old by now).
Posted by Zebes on December 29, 2011 at 3:28 PM · Report this
Timrrr 19
For all his bluster, @15 does make a valid point:
Video games have you save the world because that's the kind thing you want to do, but can't in everyday life.

You wanna rock a baby or fix a relationship? Just go visit one of your married friends for the evening.

But if you wanna defeat aliens and save the world? Well, unless you have a truly exceptional circle of friends, that one's not happinin so much for ya outside of the gaming world.
Posted by Timrrr on December 29, 2011 at 3:40 PM · Report this
Umm.... if you really want a free-roaming, limitless-choice, no-boundaries world playing game, then why don't you play a tabletop RPG? Learn the basic rules and you're off and running whatever Batman-as-a-romantic-comedy scenarios you can dream of.
Posted by Drew2u on December 29, 2011 at 5:54 PM · Report this
watchout5 21
In before Star Wars The Old Republic OWNAGE. Please tell Jason Lomberg to go play the new star wars mmo. Yeah it's like $70, yeah it's only online, yeah it's got a subscription, yeah it's got some bugs that Bioware really needs to work out for people who have almost beat the game, but HOLY DAMN THIS GAME IS EPIC AMAZING IN exactly the way he's being a whiner about. (seriously dude, put some man pants on a make a better game yourself if the game selections out their are terrible, another great one Fallout New Vegas is almost never talked about)

"[Video Games] has the potential to tell complex stories in ways that are sublime, irreverent, and evocative." - I would totally describe SWTOR as this kind of experience, and I say this as someone who was addicted to WoW for about 3 years 3 years ago.

In WoW you are a troll, or you are an undead *class*. There's absolutely no other depth to your character. You read the same walls of text as everyone else, you kill the same monsters, you save the same people, you experience a single story line even near the end you look the same and continue to do the same quests in the exact same way. SWTOR changes all that.

My Sith Assassin is a bit over halfway through the story line and I've created her as an evil, torturing, horny, murdering, psychotic freak of nature that will do or say anything to kill people for fun. A kind of sadistic, even if I roll up next to you and can help you unless you can offer me something awesome I'm just going to leave you their to die and then laugh about it. You can also play the complete opposite of this. In many ways I have fallen in love with this character, and at any time I can choose to be different. I'm willing to admit this isn't the furthest in character development someone could go before really experiencing "An interactive medium like this [with] the potential to tell complex stories in ways that are sublime, irreverent, and evocative." but there are no other games on the planet right now that offer anything close to what Star wars has right now. It makes you feel more in control of the game than you really are, but some of those decisions you make will effect the game later on, your story and how your character interacts with the world. Give it 2 or 3 months, this is going to be the game of 2012 unless gamers are lured back into WallOfTextville
Posted by watchout5 on December 30, 2011 at 3:36 AM · Report this
brandon 22
Have you tried the Mass Effect series? It does have cut scenes but you get to make a LOT of choices.

And Allen Wake was a weird psychological thriller.

But I agree, there needs to be more than dragons, invasions, war and aliens.
Posted by brandon on December 30, 2011 at 9:45 AM · Report this

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