So recently I discovered this quote by Will Wright in which, as you can see, he suggests that games are not the right medium for telling stories and that games are about story possibilities. Aside from displaying Wright’s apparent ignorance of his own field (after this quote I’m guessing his games are probably made by a sentient Excel spreadsheet) this points out an infuriating problem I’ve seen in the game community. Game developers, from Wright to Jonathan Blow all the way to so-and-so, don’t really understand video games and neither do the people who write about games. This is not an audacious statement. It seems developers haven’t gained an intuitive understanding of games and focus only on what games are on the surface. A lack of technology is not an issue. Rather, the issue is a lack of clairvoyance in an industry dominated by right-brain wielding fan boys whose idea of creativity is creating a flow chart to explain ‘fun’, any of whom could easily be replaced by a sentient spreadsheet.
When I was a wee nipper I realized that games weren’t living up to their potential while I played a demo of Starcraft; not because the demo was bad, it probably wasn’t, but because I played a very different demo. I’m not going to tell that story right now.
There is also the case of when my friend told me he had been waiting for fourteen years for a Horde/Firefight mode to appear in FPShooters. Which goes hand in hand with the case when I waited four years for something like Valve’s Director to come out and then was disappointed when it wasn’t as common sense sophisticated nor as obviously dynamic as I had envisioned that it would be. I’m not going to tell those stories either.
Those stories will come later. In the future. When you’re ready. Probably in the next few posts. The point is that the goal of this blog is to become a multifaceted rubric for what games really are and in so doing slowly reveal their nature and efficacy. I had the idea for this web log simmering in my mind for a while but didn’t want to waste time on it because it is a waste of time similarly to how it was a waste of time for Galileo to show that the Earth revolved around the sun when Copernicus had already done it a hundred years earlier. But the same way that Galileo had to waste his days to get the human race’s cosmic perspective onto the correct track so too I have finally been pushed over the edge by the ignorance of online ‘intellectual’ conversations regarding games. That all comes later though as well.
Getting back to the start of all this: no Will Wright, games are not the wrong medium for storytelling, you just don’t know how to tell stories through video games. Instead of admitting the limits of your own mind you’re claiming the limitations exist in the medium itself. Like that guy in a movie who’s talking to Bruce Lee about whether it’s possible to punch through bricks and the guy tries it, fails, and claims, “Well then, no one can break a brick with his fist if I can’t,” and so Bruce Lee rips out the man’s heart and devours it to teach us all a lesson about faith. He also claims (he being Will Wright not Bruce Lee) that games are only good for story possibilities. Well, the film Run Lola Run was about story possibilities, as was Groundhog Day, and so was Back To The Future. None of those is a video game and yet each is “about story possibilities” in various ways, but within the context of an overarching plot; kind of the way that most RPGs explore possibilities within an overarching narrative.
And while I’m jabbing at developers for making claims about the nature of games, no, Jonathan Blow, games are not best viewed as interactive systems that convey meaning. You’re just viewing them through the bias of your college education which trained you, as a computer programmer, to create systems in order to solve problems. So, to solve the problem of “what are games” you create a logical system to find the answer.
The statements of both those previously mentioned luminaries (Wright and Blow) are equivalent of someone saying movies are only about communicating the linear passage of time. The way a medium functions mechanically is not the idea it conveys nor is it the core of that medium’s artistic merit. The fact that I’ve italicized some of those words is not “about” how some things in the world are leaning to the right. Although some things do lean to the right the mechanical aspect of what you’re reading is not meant to convey an idea. It’s meant to draw your attention to an idea. Yes, video games allow players to technically explore potential narratives, to explore possibilities, and yes video games are interactive systems which teach a player to modify his/her behavior based on simple punishment/rewards, but these things are the mechanical nature of games, it is their skeleton and not their personality. It is the italics of the text not its message. Sure, mechanisms can be used to convey ideas in games, the way a movie CAN convey to us the nature of linear time or the way a book CAN convey to us what it’s like to be blind (literally or figuratively), but this is a choice each individual artist makes when using those mediums. They are not default aspects of those mediums. We can compliment Manuel “Manny” Calavera on his chiseled features but judging his character based on those looks alone is a mistake and yet that’s what most people in the gaming community (whatever that is) are doing with games themselves.
It doesn’t help matters that the near entirety of gaming media is composed of either timid simpletons, vapid philosophers, or sniveling yes-men-fan-boys simmering in their own nostalgia. There are a few intelligent things being written “out there” but even the majority of those tend to prefer dissecting a frog rather than kissing it into a prince. For most game <journalists?> everything about games is amazing even if it’s nothing more than pig-swill drivel; the slightest bit of faux originality is drooled over even if the entire rest of the game is awful. As a professional journalist once said to an amateur critic in regards to his overzealous reviews, “Everything’s a rave! Nine thumbs up, what the hell is that??” I don’t need examples.
But here are some snippets of examples:
“An architecture physics engine that wants to be a comic? Brilliant! Charming!”; “Classic Prince of Persia 2 but juiced up on cocaine and MTV? Give it an award, it’s art!”; “A bubble gum pop song about the value of monogamy told through a linear, fatalistic sidescroller? Poetryyyyy!!!”; “A virtual box of endless Legos? Make room for my super-boner (7″) because I want to have this things cuboid-Shogothian babies!”
While these games are tremendous fun (I’m assuming since I never got to play Prince of Persia: Cocaine and MTV) the amount of hype and adoration about them far exceeds what they actually are. Everything in the game community is lofted onto a pedestal and lauded as Caesar conquering Gaul. But what people forget is that the Gauls were blood thirsty, mustachioed barbarians who ate boar, drank magic potions, and decorated their shields with the severed scalps of their enemies. Europe would have been better off if Gallic culture had remained intact since Europe would then have had a powerful line of defense against the first waves of barbarian descendants sent by Kaiser Wilhelm into France. Instead, thanks to Caesar, Europe was defended by trenches filled with politically bitter chocoholics. This directly relates to games.
The end result of my thinking is that I see a stagnating morass in the collection of modern games, both indie and big budget, while everyone else seems to be licking their lollipops in perverse anticipation.
So my goal here is to bring to the table some sharp-enough-to-cut-a-scalp common sense and then rip out everyone’s heart and devour it.