Why Video Games: Our Introduction - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Why Video Games: Our Introduction

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Part of being a well-rounded writer means critically exploring new venues of thought.  With video games now taking a huge place in public discourse, we decided it was time to think about our relationship to the young medium.  Why Video Games will be a semi-regular feature, focusing on think pieces about video games, the fun we have playing them, and their role in shaping different means of expression moving forward.

Joel and ClementineI had my first inkling something was changing in my relationship to video games two years ago.  My health was probably at the lowest point it's ever been, I was on pain medications 24/7 while waiting for surgery on my kidneys.  Since I had little to do but zone out with my laptop every day I started logging into Steam more, seeing a variety of the games on display, and settling on the Telltale Games version of The Walking Dead.  I didn't know that much about the series, just that I had an urge to dust off my old adventure gaming skills and that I'd heard good things about the first season of five episodes, each about two hours in length.

So, for the next few nights, my fiancé and I got ready for bed and I'd load the next episode.  She was curious about my decisions, sometimes surprised that I didn't take a course of action she was suspecting, and I was increasingly impressed by the blend of storytelling and mechanics Telltale had pulled off.  By the fifth night with the final episode, in a twist neither of us were expecting, we were both in tears.  I'm not talking about a "dust in the eyes" situation, I'm talking about full-blow teardrops hitting our pillows by the time the credits rolled.

Thinking about the experience over the last few years, and increasing the range of my gaming experiences in the process, have led me to believe that we are in the midst of a revolution of games as storytelling.  But that the language needed to convey the experience of those games is at best limited.  I'm well versed in cinematic terms, but some of the worst trends in video games have come from an open embrace of well-worn cinematic tropes, and are at their best when they attain some fiendish cocktail of multiple storytelling mediums in a way which is entirely unique.  If nothing else, I'm restless when I don't have the terms I want to describe an experience, and strive to learn more.

To that end, we'll be starting a new feature at Can't Stop the Movies.  We'll be going through formative games, past and recent, blockbusters and bargain-bin-gems, cult hits and trailblazing titles, to try and figure out just what is going on with these games.  Joining me is my good friend Seth, and after telling us a bit about yourself I'd like you to answer - why video games?‏

SimCity Mac ClassicThe second question is easier to answer than the first. I can sum up video games as an interest more easily than I can sum up myself in a few sentences. That being said, most of the following words are accurate descriptors: gentlemen programmer, game developer, short film maker, artist, musician, audio engineer, husband/father, teacher. In other words, I dabble. I like to keep a lot of plates in the air. So naturally, when invited to add "critic/reviewer" to my pile of activities, I couldn't resist - because I really can't. One lives only one life at a time, after all. Must do all the things. This is also how I play games, by the way. For instance, I will play a Red Mage when given the chance. I don't understand how people can choose between swords and magic when one can have both!

So... why video games? In short, because I really enjoy solving problems, but I hate homework. This is where it starts. In high school, I was the perhaps the only person to have a calculator confiscated in both Math class and Advanced Chemistry.... because I was programming games instead of paying attention to lecture. I got Cs and Ds sometimes. Sometimes I got As and Bs. But what I always did, to the best of my ability, was to engage the skills. I exhausted the programmer's manual of the Ti-83. I wrote my first action games, first adventure games, and first RPG on that platform. Everything was so direct, and it was a constant reward to be able to manipulate a device like that. All it took was a generous upperclassman showing me an example of an interactive game loop with an updating bit of text on the screen to represent a character. I asked how he did it, and he showed me the important bits of the code. This later became muscle memory. I could setup a game loop on a Ti-83 with my eyes closed or while having a conversation. While that was not the beginning of games in my life, that was a key point in my quest to become a developer.‏

‎Otherwise, I might have only been a gamer and not have had the breadth of experience as a creator-of-things, not have built up the confidence as an individual to wind up in this conversation. That being said, there are a couple of very important experiences as a gamer that I could write an entire article about- but I think they'll eventually pop up in conversation as we launch this ship. In short however, the first time I built a city a SimCity, the first time I saved my game on Dragon Warrior (NES), the first time I defeated DOOM: Knee Deep in the Dead (DOS) (without strafing!), and the first time I learned the lay of the land in Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind without using the map are all notable moments that have propelled me down the path of video games.‏Dragon WarriorCSTVIcon_AndrewHathawayA few of the games you brought up, as well as the technical details you've already shared, are why talking about video games is such a challenge.  I talked about The Walking Dead, probably the best adventure game of the last five years, and you discussed the old school SimCity, which has an analogue in the excellent Cities: Skylines, and Dragon Warrior, which is still going strong to this day.  But all of those games are completely different from one another and it's difficult to mount a comparison.  Sure, we're building cities in both SimCity and Cities: Skylines, but the level of depth to each is completely different and interacts with the player in separate manners.

But when I'm talking about movies I can talk about lenses used in one film versus another, what the close / medium / wide shot is doing in this particular scene, whether the music is diagetic or not, if the frame is following a specific geometric pattern and so on.  There are terms which are useful and I can mount a reasonable comparison between movies from completely different genres depending on the direction, cinematography, screenplay, and so on.  When it comes to video games, what language do we use when we want to talk about DOOM versus SimCity?  Is there a relationship between the necessary and "But thou must!" of Dragon Quest (I see you called it Warrior, thus confirming old school gamer status) and combing the landscape of Morrowind for that last vicious crab?

It sounds kind of funny to say these things out of context, but it's an industry which has grown from cabinet-sized novelty which entire buildings needed to showcase a full range of game to a pocket device able to play literally hundreds of different games at a single touch.  Video games seem to derive their meaning from the relationship forged with the player much like a film director is aware of space, color, lighting, costumes - the mise en scène - of a movie.  Is it even possible to compare games of different genres?  Do we want to?

I'm just kind of philosophically spitballing right now, but since you're much more versed on the creator side of things, what are some of your general musings you hope to find direction as we talk?‏

CSTVIcon_SethGordenOoooh. Yes. So, relationships between game and gamer. Also... the thing we might get into, which perhaps is not something that most game discussions get into in such a direct way... is a thing I'm going to call the fantasy for our purposes right now. And this is a thing which game developers had as an idea before there was the phrase game design, or schools that taught it, et cetera. This is the rough concept idea like "Oh, I'd love to do a game where I get to be [something]." Before there were well trod paths of interactivity, before there was genre. There was just a bunch of programmers slapping together their best idea on presenting a particular fantasy, because it was fun to try to do that with an interactive machine.‏

‎When you have no precedent, when you're doing the hard work of pulling something from nothing, that's the real genesis of video games. And I think when you have so many different tones, different technologies, access mediums, controls mechanisms, genre, prices, and so forth...this might be the only "true" through-line amongst them all - the imaginative approximation of some experience.

‏‎Even when talking about scientifically accurate simulations, where verisimilitude is of the utmost important, the illusion is still an approximation of things we count as reliable in the real world.‏  And no matter how much real science a developer can lay down in a game, I can promise every one of those once started with some programmer saying, "Wouldn't it be cool if we could do one where we can [fly a plane]?" or what have you.‏  So, I think what I want to dig into is the discovery of the fantasy that is the genesis for the delivered experience, and from there get into the relationship with the player in that context - which will be one way to evaluate how well that experience is being delivered.‏MorrowindCSTVIcon_AndrewHathawayI can already tell I may need to finally break down and read some Thomas Nagel as we begin our game-specific discussions.  This is because of what I think you've identified as a useful through-line, the basic question of, "Wouldn't it be cool if we could do x?"  Well, to do x, often you need to be y, which brings us to one of the great neurological and philosophical questions of what it's like to be a thing?  It's been more commonly expressed as, "What Is It Like to Be a Bat?" and considering we've got video games where you're a piece of bread or an octopus, I'd say that's as good a through-line as any.

This is also a useful differentiation from a lot of the other information I've seen which breaks down the player / game relationship as an avatar.  It seems we're a bit beyond the question though, and really getting involved with a video game involves transcending that space between the screen, player, and avatar and fusing the three together.  I like that as a starting point because it appeals to my academic side of "What makes millions of people effectively become this thing?" and the perpetually restless gamer inside of me who remembers the climax of God of War II and getting so involved with the fight I started physically jerking my controller around like Kratos' blades.

To get academic again, it almost seems that when the avatar / player / representation breaks down it's when we end up with the Hegelian split between an object and a thing.  A simple explanation is an object becomes a thing when you can no longer use the original item for its common purpose.  This may prove a really useful idea to ponder when we're dealing with games which have popular cheat codes (everybody now - up, up, down, down...) or debug rooms.  I've lost satisfaction with some games when I've cheated just because I wanted to "See the end" and felt like I missed out on some core part of the experience.

I like to go off the deep end when it comes to this aspect of things, and realize it might not be what you're ever really thinking of as a developer.  There's the old maxim that you get a bunch of critics together on painting and they'll talk about what it "means", but you get the artists together and they'll want to know how the paints blend together.  Which means if I go too far, I may risk turning this conversation from its "object" to its "thing", so I want to volley back over for your thoughts before I hit that border.‏

CSTVIcon_SethGordenSo... we should comment briefly on perspective and avatar, since you brought that up. Not all games have them. Like SimCity, you're a disembodied city manager that could be anything. It could be a bird in the sky that flies around. Doesn't matter, though. The through line is "Wouldn't it be cool if we could build a whole city [and watch it develop and help it grow]?". That's the question the game is answering, so that's the root of the game.

As for the philosophy, it's also important to note that video game err on the side of the interesting. They're almost uniformly unconcerned with being a correct answer to any proposed fantasy.‏  Most of the time, a developer benefits from having certain constraints. Doesn't matter whether they are tech constraints, business constraints, constraints of knowledge, experience, company bureaucracy, or anything. All of those can be good (or terrible), but each of them can serve to help you barrel down one path and not another. Certainly, some games suffer because they're trying to go in two or more directions (same as movies or other things, I imagine). But on the whole... there is no point where a developer is asking themselves about the nature of being actual bread itself. Instead, it is more common to ask something like "What is the most interesting way to be bread?" And thank goodness. If all bread got up to what bread does in that game, what a different sort of world it would be.‏

And if you want my philosophical two cents... all games (under the surface somewhere) after they have asked and answered their question of fantasy to the best of their ability... if it's a job well done.... the player will be left with the question: what is the most interesting way to be human? Not the correct way, mind you. But the most interesting. What sort of story does a person want to live out? What are my controls and areas of influence? Let's try some stuff. Let's see what rewards are in store. Let's learn and let's play. But most importantly, let's be interesting.‏God of War IICSTVIcon_AndrewHathawayThis is a good boiling point to put the kettle away on, because you've brought up something I agree strongly with and something I don't.  On the agreement, the player figuring out the kind of story they want to build for themselves is something which can lead to some illuminating, be it good or bad, truths about themselves.  For the disagreement, I'd still say you're an avatar even if it's "city manager".

Let's take your omnipotent god bird approach, because it's awesome and it's a useful illustrative tool.  Typically games, much like many things in life, are defined by what you can't do.  You don't get stat ups in games like Rayman, so they're not RPGs, but if there's a city building mechanic, like in the Breath of Fire games, does that mean we can compare them to SimCity?  I don't know, don't think so, but in those cases you're still something.  In Cities: Skylines I know that even if I'm a bird, it's not one of the birds I see in the game, because they aren't creating zones and plopping down specialty buildings like I am.  I could be a hyperintelligent cube, for all it matters, but I'm still "city manager" first because nothing else in the game is.

We'll have to build on some of these ideas as we move forward, but for now this has been a good philosophical ground zero for our start.‏

CSTVIcon_SethGordenYes. This sounds like fertile ground in which this discussion can grow. As we explore the space, I will probably continue to strip off the genre tags, and separate things like mechanics from the question of fantasy and we'll see what they're made of. I'm pretty excited. Onward!

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Posted by Andrew

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