September 28, 2007

Games, a Backward-Looking Medium

by Andrew Stern · , 8:09 pm

If you’ve read this blog over the years, then you’ve heard it all before, but perhaps not quite so succinctly, eloquently, and certainly not as an op-ed piece in the New York Times! But here it is, by journalist Daniel Radosh.

If games are to become more than mere entertainment, they will need to use the fundamentals of gameplay — giving players challenges to work through and choices to make — in entirely new ways. … Like cinema, games will need to embrace the dynamics of failure, tragedy, comedy and romance. They will need to stop pandering to the player’s desire for mastery in favor of enhancing the player’s emotional and intellectual life.

There is no reason that gorgeous graphics can’t play a role in this task, but the games with the deepest narratives were the text adventures that were developed for personal computers in the 1980s. Using only words, these “interactive fictions” gave players the experience of genuinely living inside a story. The steps required to advance the plot, though often devilishly perplexing, felt like natural behavior rather than arbitrary puzzle-solving. Today’s game designers should study this history as a starting point for an artistic revolution of the future.

4 Responses to “Games, a Backward-Looking Medium”

  1. Ben Humberston Says:

    Well put! Understanding that almost all genres of games are derivatives of the “mastery” desire is the first step to broadening their ability to affect us. Declaring the current types of games to be the entire spectrum of types is similar to seeing visible light and declaring it to be the only type of electromagnetic wave. There is a large, mostly untapped spectrum that will certainly elicit more than a competitive or “winning” mood. I hope that this fact is on the cusp of truly being discovered by the video games industry. If it is, then perhaps we’ll take the step from the Wii’s “everybody can play because it’s simple” to “everybody can play because it addresses wide emotional ranges”.

  2. Kotaku Says:

    Games Are A ‘Backward-Looking Medium’

    It’s nothing that hasn’t been noted in a million blog posts over the years, but in an op-ed piece in the New York Times, Daniel Radosh is saying it again. Too much emphasis on graphics, not enough emphasis on…

  3. BitterOldPunk Says:

    “Looking backwards” and appropriating the techniques of past artistic media is a necessary step for a new expressive medium finding its aesthetic footing. And we will soon reach a point of “good enough” in gaming graphics — graphics hardware and software toolsets will be sufficiently robust to handle anything a designer can throw at them. Then we’ll see whether sophisticated story-telling is something games can do well. I’m not sure it is, and I’m not sure that’s what designers should be shooting for (although I’ll be in line for Mass Effect the day it comes out, so color me conflicted). Games are better at building a space within which a player builds her own narrative.

    I had my own personal “Citizen Kane” video game epiphany playing GTA:SA. Trying to elude a swarming army of cops, I crashed an armored car through a roadblock, took a couple of bulletss for my efforts, jacked a police car, fled the city, abandoned the car in the woods and ran on foot until I eluded a helicopter and found a dirt bike, then lost myself on the rural backroads. I topped a hill as the last of the warning stars blinked out and the last siren dopplered off into silence. I turned on the “radio”. Willie Nelson. Before me was a ramshackled barn bathed in moonlight. Crickets chirped. Willie sang. The transition from frantic urban mayhem to placid countryside had happened in less than two or three minutes, and the whole pursuit took less than ten. But in that time the game had taken me from gleeful violence to frightened rabbit to clever sneak to grateful survivor. It wrung me out. That THAT song would be on the bike’s “radio” while I happened to be right in front of that barn as the chase was ending wasn’t scripted, it was the happy result of game mechanics interacting with player decisions in the game’s probability space.

    That may not be art, yet, but I’ll leave that for experts to decide. I feel like it’s pretty damn close, though.

  4. andrew Says:

    Bitter, I’ll agree that games like GTA:SA are making good progress towards interactive action stories. But that’s a pretty narrow slice of the potential of interactive stories. In such games I’m interacting with or experiencing very little of the things I care about most — communication between people, domestic life, intimate relationships, and the messiness, nuance and complexity those brings along with them, as I describe here. In interactive stories, I crave the themes and content that constitute the majority of the most important and celebrated TV shows, movies, books, plays, including Citizen Kane… Important not because some highfalutin critics say they’re important, but because they are the most important to the population and culture at large. Pulp Fiction, or The Sopranos, for example, are successful because of their characters and language, not their action.

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