April 17, 2010

The Perils of Dirk the Daring

As the primary competition to the House of Mouse in the 1980s, Don Bluth's films offered a dark and manic alternative to a pandering children's formula, but their lasting appeal more often stemmed from the fact of the animation itself--secure in the knowledge that, when it was allowed to run wild and free, anything was possible. When the time came to settle down and deliver a few ponderous lines of dialogue, everything screeched to a halt, but the plot, the characters and the humor occurred naturally when everything was thrown into a frantic chase. Bluth kept his films alive through forward momentum, and one can find the ultimate enforcement of this philosophy in "Dragon's Lair" (1983), the first coin-op laserdisc game and an early contender for the claim that video games were capable of legitimate artistic expression. It may stand as one of co-creator Bluth's best efforts because, by necessity, it has been trimmed of all the narrative fat. Far more importantly, however, it gave him the opportunity to forge an entirely new perspective on his work, and his audience, that could not be accomplished by the standard rules of animated film.

The original plan came from game designer Rick Dyer, who was looking for a way to give computer games a bit more visual appeal than the computers could accomplish at the time. He created a series of mechanical and computerized devices--"Rolodexes" and rolls of cash register paper, graphic adventures that featured hand-painted illustrations--but, unfortunately, they didn't catch on with toy companies. He eventually developed the idea for the fledgling medium of laserdisc, taking a concept called "Secrets of the Lost Woods" to Bluth's studio. Hoping to rework an animated movie as a coin-op arcade game, Bluth and Dyer later described the creative process between their respective teams as "throwing rocks over the fence"--a careful compromise between aesthetics and feasible gameplay. It was a process that eventually produced the tale of Dirk the Daring, the "valiant knight" who ventured into the titular lair to save the Princess Daphne. The game would send the player to a random chapter on the disc, a random room in the lair, upon which time Dirk would blindly stumble into danger. The player's input was tied to sequences we now call "quick-time events"--a series of miniature cinematics whose completion depended on the player's ability to press the right button at the right time. In the originator of the idea, the control scheme entailed the four directions of the joystick and a "sword" button.

Objects around the screen would occasionally flash to point you in the right direction, but the correct input often relied on some esoteric detail in the animation: Dirk has just put his sword away and there's no time to unsheathe it again; the tumbling stack of goblets will surely wake the dragon when it hits the floor. Making the right moves would allow that piece of animation to continue uninterrupted, until it was time to move on to another random chapter. The wrong input would abruptly end the scene, taking the game to another chapter depicting Dirk's screaming death--consumed by flames, run through with a sword, devoured by a sentient blob of oil. In contemporary and modern interviews, Bluth describes "Dragon's Lair" not as a game so much as an "interactive movie" that tricked you into believing you had control over Dirk's actions. But there was also a sense of urgency that Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books could not achieve--whether or not your progress was predicated strictly on your ability to "twitch," you were still an integral part of the experience. You would not be able to watch the movie all the way through if you could not twitch properly, and there was a palpable chance--nay, a probability--of failure.

The plot was no more complicated than any of the other premises that defined the early days of video games, damsel-in-distress fluff that had little weight beyond life and death, success and failure. But it was precisely that transparency, that self-conscious adherence to formula, that made "Dragon's Lair" so compelling as an interactive work.1 There are moments in Bluth's narrative films, both before and after "Dragon's Lair," that seem dismayed, bound as they were by the necessities of static scripts and happy endings. No matter what inescapable perils he could put Fievel and Mrs. Brisby through--sent into the inner workings of a plow, or halfway down a cat's gullet--he had no choice but to let them live every time. What Dyer and "Dragon's Lair" provided was a world where Bluth could subvert the formula he introduced--to forge a bond between life and death that relied strictly on talent, chance and memory. Bluth has tried similar tricks since then; even a cliché mess like Anastasia (1997) presents a desire to defy the rules of human existence as told by history. However, his closest narrative approximation to the game may be All Dogs Go to Heaven (1989), a film that thrived on glorious unpredictability. Following the lead character's death and ascent to heaven in the first ten minutes (and a song entitled "Let Me Be Surprised" before he made his way back to Earth), that picture was fraught with tonal inconsistencies predicated on the very real possibility that someone here was going to die. Not-quite-anthropomorphic dogs change color at will, trapped in a constant juggle between safety and danger--death, and hell, loomed over the proceedings in a way that other animated films consciously suppress.

But it was in "Dragon's Lair" where Bluth could truly disavow those boundaries. Dyer and his team mapped out an extraordinarily simple story, one of good triumphing over evil, but it was the player who was ultimately responsible for seeing it through. It was a matter of trial-and-error (even if the chapters were randomized to individualize your trek through the lair), but because you ostensibly knew how it was "supposed" to end, it was
your job to pay attention, your job to see the movie to its logical conclusion. Perhaps the same could be said for Mario's quest to save Pauline from Donkey Kong, or Pac-Man's quest to eat every dot in the maze, but there was little sense of conclusion to these early games, because they were designed to continue indefinitely--even in the event that you could clear the screen of threats, the girl would get kidnapped again; there would be another maze of dots to navigate; there would be another frog to guide across the street. Failure was the only possible conclusion, so who could point fingers? A high score was the only true measure of your success. "Dragon's Lair" nominally kept track of your score and your life total, but they were arbitrary numbers. There was only one real objective, and that was to finish the movie in piecemeal fashion.

Similarly, the specific level of "control" given to the player meant a very different perspective on the protagonist, and that made Bluth's cartoonish approach so important to the experience. Dirk was given enough personality to segregate himself from the player, but still exuded such helplessness that his fate was placed squarely on your shoulders. His only form of communication was a cowardly shriek, and his deaths were detailed to look so painful and pathetic that you had no choice but to laugh... and then maybe feel a little guilty for it. In the words of Bluth's producer and partner Gary Goldman, he was "our Charlie Chaplin," an ersatz Little Tramp who had very clear goals and could prompt laughter and sympathy upon defeat. Of course, it was really your defeat; he was the just the one suffering for it. Pac-Man and Mario were strictly ciphers for the player, and therefore couldn't reprimand you too harshly if they were killed by an errant obstacle. Your failure was their failure, and their death sequences only expressed a mutual sorrow that you couldn't complete the task at hand. Even rough contemporaries that followed a linear path, like "King's Quest"--which featured sharp, sarcastic messages as your character died some hilariously awful death--could not capture that sense of duty, because you and your avatar were acting in concert. Simultaneously linear and random, "Dragon's Lair" kept you at an arm's length and forced you to play by its rules, which made Dyer's "illusion of control" the most interesting aspect of the game's metaverse.2 Although he had been given a course of action that was strictly predetermined by an uninterrupted sequence of animation, Dirk was only "Daring" in the sense that he did everything you told him to do.

With this in mind, the game creates an interesting paradox between the player's action and inaction (indeed, wrong moves often resulted in death sequences distinct from those determined by no action at all)--and by participating in that paradox you took it upon yourself to resolve it. Without your help, Dirk is a hapless schmuck with no survival skills; with your help, he's subject to poor "advice" that threatens his destiny as dictated by the script. The "game over" animation was an absolute riot, and one that emphasized how the individual player was to blame
3--his arms folded and his face twisted with scorn, a zombefied Dirk dropped in from the top of the screen and faded into a skeleton, which then dramatically collapsed into a pile of bones. Whether you failed to guide him or sent him off the beaten path, the message was clear: if you got the poor boy killed, it was your own damn fault.

That was particularly important to remember when Bluth physically resurrected that pile of bones for another go, another life in another random room. That particular conceit of video games ultimately made Dirk as unflappable as the Tramp (and his relationship between life and death as unpredictable as that of Charlie B. Barkin), but there was nothing to this world beyond what was already there--Dirk and the lair. There's something strange and self-contained about it, and y
ou became an intruder and an interloper in what should have been a simple rescue mission. Contrary to the idea that viewer/player interactivity confused artistic intentions, "Dragon's Lair" established it as the crux of its artistic intentions. The particulars of what the player was capable of were indeed determined by logic, but the "logical" endgame was almost beyond the point. Ultimately, you made Dirk the victim, the fool or the hero. Try again, if you must; redeem yourself and make him the hero. With the lines between fiction and reality suitably blurred, that sense of responsibility--in this instance, responsibility for the fate of the Everyman--may be what we're looking for in video games when we demand an emotional connection to a work of art.

Naturally, the success of "Dragon's Lair" would pave the way for inspirations and imitators. A minor genre of laserdisc games would follow several years into the waning days of the arcade as well as the burgeoning days of the (CD-based) console. Two such games were animated by Bluth's studio: "Space Ace" (1984) and "Dragon's Lair II: Time Warp" (1991). Neither was as successful as the original, perhaps because their higher budgets and lusher backgrounds complicated the issue a little too much:
maybe they were too linear and narrative to foster that precise distance between the protagonist and the player--or maybe the idea of Dirk and Daphne escaping the Dragon's Lair to produce children (and a sequel) was too far-fetched. The original "Dragon's Lair" offered little in the way of premise and gameplay, but they were still there, and they suggested that you could artistically immerse a player by calling attention to his vicarious role in the action.


1 "Dragon's Lair" satirically confuses its threadbare plot with mythical tropes: Dirk does not ride a white horse, but he is carted around by a flying suit of bard; and his ultimate quest is to rescue the aggressively objectified Princess Daphne. (Her shapely figure was literally taken from the pages of PLAYBOY, as the production could not afford to hire models.) In that sense, the game may represent a subtle parody of its homophonic counterpart, Dragonslayer. Don't forget that the titles of both game and film are written in the same typeface.

2 "Dragon's Lair" also assured that the player could not maintain too much distance from both game and film, in case they had memorized the patterns--along with the random chapter and scene selections, the disc contained animation sequences that were mirrored images of other scenes, which meant that you had to pay attention and make sure you were going in the right direction.

Rather than utilize the exact same screen across the entire game, Dirk's "game over" death was always matted over a background representing the room in which the player lost his last life. Your failure was, indeed, an individualized one.


Anonymous said...

Good reading - would love to see a FFC take on Heavy Rain, my personal favorite narrative experience of 2010 thus far.

Jason said...

With the lines between fiction and reality suitably blurred, that sense of responsibility--in this instance, responsibility for the fate of the Everyman--may be what we're looking for in video games when we demand an emotional connection to a work of art.

Playing Devil's Advocate here, but if that's the case, what does that mean for more modern games that the sense of responsibility is being extended beyond the fate of your virtual avatar, and more into the realm of his/her actions, and by extension, the player's?

Take "Infamous," for example. It's fairly open-ended, and the main character has a few key characteristics set up to flesh him out beyond the level of generic cypher. Now, how you choose to interact with the world around you - nominally in the form of which missions you choose and in which order, moreso in how you choose to interact with NPCs and whether you are merciful or ruthless in how you handle opponents - changes the power sets available to you, changes how people view you on the street, and affects the world around you.

I know that, in my first playthrough, I had to consciously make an effort to make the "correct" moral choice (read: selflessness vs. selfishness) presented to me; I'd always save people on the street as I ran by them; and I'd only ever constrain bad guys, only killing them by accident or as collateral damage. You, Ian, on the other hand, wanted to make choices based only on personal feelings, not moral certitudes; would rarely save civilians; and murdered defenseless toughs as they lay on the ground.

Now, the game's sense of responsibility is less in Cole McGrath's (the main character/player's avatar) favor, and more to the world around him. So while the game never really casts a critical eye towards the player's decisions, what does it say about these two different playstyles? About these two different players? About my more conscious choices versus your unconscious ones?

You've said that it was relatively difficult for you to "get into the role" (paraphrasing) of Cole McGrath, and thus you didn't really like your brief time with "Infamous." I'd say that Cole's position as a cypher is important in allowing the player a blank slate to project into the game's world, and this is important in the emphasis of moral choices and consequences in "Infamous" versus, say, "Prototype," where the emphasis is on exploraction and mayhem.

So, is the (relative) divorce between the player and the played object (Cole) a distance that can't be crossed in the "games as art" divide? Because I think that the questions and implications a game produces from your (un)conscious choices and involvement are far more interesting than the ones made in terms of "push button or else you die." I'd rather be questioning my role in the events of the world around me, and the moral ramifications of my actions as such, than in pondering the nature of my relationship to the character in question.

Sorry for the essay above. I think yours is better, at any rate.

Anonymous said...

i'd also be interested in a piece about heavy rain - since i found it to be absolutely godawful.

renfield said...

Absolutely fascinating piece. I'm thoroughly hooked on this potential for next-gen games to be genuine cinematic experiences, and it boggles my mind to think that people were achieving this 30 years ago.

The standards of video games are high enough at this point that I routinely see critics take them to task for cliche characters or unsatisfying storylines, regardless of the graphics, physics system, level design, etc. Heavy Rain, though universally agreed to be ambitious as fuck, is reportedly mired with disappearing subplots and plot details that don't add up if you make decisions in the wrong order.

Another game that was revered as all hell was Metal Gear Solid 4, which that has you sitting and watching, i dunno, like 4 hours worth of cinematic sequences in between the interactive portions. That's probably a conservative estimate. Furthermore, the cinematics have identical graphical qualities as the gameplay, and there are even several sequences that take place in split screen, with you controlling a character on one side while you try to keep track of the plot developments on the other. It's quite immersive, in other words, but I couldn't believe how retarded and overwrought the story itself was. I think games are quickly reaching a point where that sort of thing will be inexcusable.

What about: Myst and its sequels? The Grand Theft Auto series? Fuckin' Bioshock? The profoundly terrifying Dead Space? There's something really crazy and profound going on here, and the topic essay hits upon it in very satisfyingly. Many thanks.

Here's another related piece of interest:

renfield said...

Here's a source for Dragon's Lair emulation for those interested:


Anonymous said...

Frankly, Jason, I'd have to play through "Infamous" in its entirety, but isn't that saying the game sacrifices perspective in favor of its two-way street? Its objective-morality scale is based on a reward/demerit system that determines which path you follow. From where I stood in the game, that point tally confused the weight of your actions and how they reflected gameplay and moral decisions. A similar question of unconscious response can be posed to the more straightforward--though deliberately amoral--"Grand Theft Auto" series, but there are two aspects of that "Infamous" good vs. evil scale that affect the gameplay right off the bat. It meant that two rights can make up for any wrong--and that the game translates your choice between "A" and "B" as the means to get one ending or the other. Not knowing the whole story, was I mistaken there? I know that there are certain points of no return--but what if you had chosen the "bad" path to begin with? Would it reflect on your moral decisions, or would it have been a way to play through that particular narrative? What about playing through the "bad" path after you've finished the "good"? Or switching horses midstream?

Renfield, have you ever played Hideo Kojima's "Snatcher" for the Sega CD? It crams about eight different sci-fi/cyberpunk stories (Blade Runner, The Terminator, Invasion of the Body Snatchers...) into one narrative, which can be pretty overwrought--there's a Snatcher inside each one of us, you know. Still, it has a bizarrely unique charm.

Also, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that "Dragon's Lair" looks freakin' beautiful on Blu-ray--and it's about as faithful to the original arcade cabinet as a home version can possibly be. The regular DVD can't jump chapters in the same way, and is thus forced to present the game in a strictly-linear fashion--and it can't respond to your actions frame-by-frame.

renfield said...

Good point about the "Infamous" point scale. One of GTA4's most brilliant improvements on its predecessors was doing away with most such statistics. While hinting that your decisions will have consequences that play out in the game world, the game doesn't let you know how and to what extent it keeps track of and enforces this, uh, karma. The experience is more organic and immersive as a result.

For example, after first loading up the game, I clumsily ventured out into the terrifyingly realistic (comparatively) streets of Liberty City, unused to the Euphoria physics engine. On foot, I soon collided with another pedestrian, who immediately took great exception: "You are in the wrong place. Leave now!" Did I just make an enemy? Should I avoid this alleyway in the future for fear of getting jumped? In all likelihood the program isn't actually charting out your relationship with each pedestrian, but lack of confirmation otherwise combined with the environment's seemingly bottomless level of detail made me feel as if I was participating in a living, breathing world.

In this formulation, decisions probably more reflect the player's own baggage. Note that in "Fallout 3" you gain access to different storylines and subquests depending on your negative or positive karma, so the motivation stems from simply wanting to experience more of the gameplay itself. In GTA4 I found myself genuinely concerned about the well being of Niko and his people, and made decisions accordingly.

Not familiar with "Snatcher," will self-educate.

What about "Planetfall"?

Here's a few more obliquely related, but absolutely fascinating rants about gaming:

This guy imagines an insane totalitarian state (or not?) emerging from the current fad of online multiplayer games like Facebook's Mafia Wars. It's lengthy, but builds to an insane Neal Stephenson-esque climax.

This lady designed a game that teaches you how to bring peace and prosperity to third world countries.

Sorry, but I forgot how to hyperlink.

Jefferson Robbins said...

The game-vs.-cinema divide kind of flummoxes me, in a period when we'll make a movie out of just about any intellectual property and aim to make "art" in the process. The Dark Knight for comics, Pirates of the Caribbean for Disney rides, and ... what? ... for video games. (Other FFCers might argue on behalf of Silent Hill.)

The tipping point where games achieve parity with cinema may be when cinema embraces games fully. They could barely get Paul Verhoeven to mutter the term "video game" when he was interviewed about his next project. One day maybe Uwe Boll will die, and video games won't be seen as a concept ghetto to be ransacked once in a while for quick profit and minimal screenwriting effort.

Similarly, perhaps video game adaptations of movies will cease being poorly-scripted add-ons, and game creators will begin to take seriously their responsibility to story and theme. Warren Ellis complained in an online Q&A (which of course I can't find) that writers are simply never consulted in time when a game is in development; they're always brought in for emergencies, far too late in the process. A game harvested entirely from the mind of Warren Ellis is a game I would play.

Anonymous said...

Speaking about the GTA series, any thoughts on Vice City Stories? Having a truly sympathetic character clashed with the amoral GTA universe. For me, having a character that I could somewhat identify with decreased the enjoyment of the game. GTA4 thankfully reverted back to the Tommy Vercetti model.

On an unrelated subject, is anyone else in love with V's Morena Baccarin? I never watched Firefly or Stargate SG-1 so this is my first time seeing her. Beautiful, classy, and quite talented. The only problem is I hate everything else about the show, the other actors, the idiot storyline. So I avoid watching it, which kills me. Am I crazy or does anyone agree with me?


DJR said...

The two games that have resonated with me as art more than any others have been the first two Silent Hill games. You could tell the developers really cared about storytelling, emotional texture, and how all the creepy shit going on as well as the gameplay itself reflected these concerns. Ingenious, haunting games.

Anonymous said...

Has anyone else seen Ebert's recent article on Video Games not being Art? It's set the video game community pretty aflame in retaliation.

Find it here.

I think he suffers from a fairly large ignorance to games to even take on the issue, but even worse is his reasoning.

renfield said...

Many people think that GTA4's Niko is the most sympathetic character of the series, I suppose because he's a hapless immigrant, but it doesn't quite pan out for me. Although you can occasionally decide to spare a life, Niko usually acts autonomously according to his bloodthirsty instincts. Furthermore, he is unconscionably cruel to his friends and family. I agree that it's contradictory to task you with so many senselessly violent missions and then bend over backwards to make the character remorseful, contemplative, etc, but I still found Vercetti so repugnant as to make the original Vice City virtually unplayable.

I imagine CJ (San Andreas) will always be my favorite character, but that could be my own predisposition towards the whole hip hop culture. His endless, circuitous quest to free his brother from prison is downright Homeric, and in that light even his ruthlessness seems more of a tragic flaw than an inherent inconsistency in form.

Ebert's article is quite frustrating, mainly because this Santiago woman doesn't bring up any of the crucial issues. I mean, doesn't the fact that graphic artists are on the video game staff settle this issue? And to anticipate one argument against this: advertisements (which employ artists) are works of art as well...you may be selling a product as opposed to your philosophy, but I could personally give a fuck less where the impetus lies. If it takes artistic vision to create it, it's art, right? Otherwise 99% of Hollywood films aren't art, since they are beholden to corporate interests. Not to mention, say, the works of a majority of classical composers? Who really wants to go there?

renfield said...

...she also doesn't cite the games I would to convince Ebert he's fulla-shit either.

I recall that Tarantino has been interested for years in adapting "Half-Life" for the theaters. This game was quite groundbreaking in its cinematic-ness...it starts as a movie, and gradually allows you to move around and participate in it, building a sense of urgency and vulnerability before releasing all hell upon you. My god did that game terrify me. Moreover, its endless series of faux-endings (you spend 90% of the game believing you are about to beat it, only to find yourself in the most perilous situation yet) seems to me to be the perfect structure for this, ahem, art form. I once again invoke the adjective Homeric for this baby.

Why does Ebert even give a shit, I wonder?

Hugh said...

Maybe Ebert's just reacting against the video game industry's overinflated view of its own narrative brilliance. I remember reading a 'video games as art' article where one prominent game designer claimed that not only could video games achieve the narrative depth and complexity of War and Peace, but - due to the interactive nature of the medium - it could actually surpass Tolstoy's achievement.

I think one of the reasons the current debate about these issues is so unsatisfactory is that people on both sides are too keen to talk about the medium of Video Games in terms of other art forms. Ebert is a prime example of this.

The defining characteristic of video games seems to be their immersive quality, which places them in a distinct category of 'art', in that the consumer is also a participant. That's one reason why i think a game like Silent Hill 2 or even something like Portal makes a better case for video games as art than a narrative extravaganza like Heavy Rain or MGSIV. Narrative always seems to run the risk of impinging on the interactive element. Half-life 2 might let you walk around during the dialogue-heavy exposition scenes, but it's hardly 'immersive and interactive'.

Anyway, I hope Ebert's argument spurs the video game community to bring an intellectual weigh to its claims for video games as art, and thanks to Ian for this blog entry, which is surely on the right track.

ps. Just occurred to me - if films are art and their objective isn't solely to entertain, does that mean that the future of gaming may include games that reserve the right to not be fun to play.

Wait, i think 'No More Heroes' has that covered.

Ryan said...

Ian: Ebert may be uninformed, but his points (auteurism, thematic quality/purpose) demand answers. "FUCK YOU OLD MAN" is not an answer.

I think you're wrong. That's exactly the right answer.

I just finished playing Mass Effect 2, which alongside Heavy Rain is the best game I've played this year. It's absolutely fascinating, set in a fully realised universe (with dozens of different races with unique histories and deep characters) about the consequences of actions and the aggressive fight for survival in a multicultural environment. In this game the majority of your actions have consequences and it deals with - amongst other things - racism, slavery, rape, genocide, interspecies relationships and so on, so on. The graphics are beautiful (with the exception of Bioware face) and in playing it one comes to care about the characters, leaving an impact when some die (which they nearly invariably do). Your choices in that game not only impact the outcome of the narratives, but also future games in the series via the ability to export your save to the next in the series. All of this demonstrates how video games as a medium can tell stories and do things in ways that other mediums cannot. There is no denying that it has emotional impact as well as many different narratives alive with ideas. That it is art is undesputable.

But here's the thing: Roger Ebert doesn't give a shit. I can write a hundred thousand word thesis on it and he's still not going to hear me out. He's never played this game and will never play this game and is just kicking up a fuss because that's what jackasses do. Since he was hospitalised, and had his operations, and became mute, we all felt for him, which we should, but let's not forget that he's never been a great film critic. A popular populist film critic, but not a great one. (Why would anyone trust the word of a man who gave Jurassic Park III a 3 star rating? Or, a more meaningful attack is to read his deeply negative Episode III review which still got his second highest rating - consistency? Nada.) I think he's a great political commentator, for the record, and I enjoy his Tweets against the GOP and Sarah Palin and the Tea Party Fuckers and so on, so on. But what kind of idiot writes another article negatively critiquing something they've never actually experienced? I think that TED speaker was an idiot, for the record, barely touching on any points worth a shit, but much of his response was just as juvenille as Gabe and Tycho. Braid as a fortune cookie? Really?

Fuck you, old man.

DJR said...

Silent Hill 4 is more fascinating as art than it is fun as an interactive experience; in fact, its second half makes a good case for a game, as Hugh says, being intentionally not fun to play, which exposes how ill-equipped most of the gaming media is to insightfully engage with and write about such a work, designed from the ground up as art first and gaming second. Its second half, as obnoxious and flawed as it can be, is a nigh-brilliant commentary on the empathy of the gamer. Complaints about clunky controls or level designs seem oddly perfunctory in contrast.

Bill C said...

An honest question for the gamers here: do you see yourself playing this stuff when you're 40, 50, 60 years old? To me, that's a component of the games-as-art debate gone unexplored, and distinct from fogeyish criticism of the pastime. You outgrow videogames, no? (Maybe the current generation won't.) But do you outgrow art?

Bill C said...

Also, are sports art? Maybe that's a more logical place to start.

Ryan said...

No, you don't outgrow video games. Video games seem to have grown with us, though - they've become smarter and more sophisticated as time has gone by, making it much easier to argue for them as art. I'll be playing video games until I die, man. I'll be watching films until I die as well. Do you outgrow films?

Sports aren't art. A game of chess isn't art. Mass Effect 2 is art because it's sophisticated, powerful storytelling wrapped in a scifi action package. Silent Hill 2 is art because it's psychologically engaging in telling a story abstractly and affectingly. Do video games have to have a story to be art, is the storyline the actual artistic part (in addition to the graphics and sound etc)? I don't think so - Super Mario Bros is art because it's weird, like an acid trip in which a man consumes a mushroom to grow large and jump on turtles.(And even that series has grown more sophisticated - the ending to the most recent outing (Super Mario Galaxy) was fascinating and disturbing.) I don't feel Pong is art. Ebert himself responded to one of the comments on his article that "most movies aren't art," and I'd agree with that. Transformers 2 isn't art. Many video games fall into that category.

Anonymous said...

Incidentally, Bill, what do you find more unwatchable, Gilmore Girls or Glee? Why are you still putting yourself through Glee?

Dan said...

I've certainly outgrown games. I felt it happening when the PS2 arrived, and these days my Nintendo DS sits unused and my PS3 is for blu-ray. It's like switch was flipped in my head.

I can appreciate the quality of graphics, but have zero interest in any of the so-called modern classics (Call Of Duty, GTA, etc). My 13-year-old self would be astonished. And I'm of the generation that grew up with video-games, so they were part of my life from an early age in the '80s.

Quite a few of the games I watch friends play seem to involve a lot of inactivity, with them just watching what's essentially a CGI animated movie. Time better spent watching a Pixar, if you ask me.

I'm not anti-gaming, though. I think they ARE an artform, too. But for some reason I, and many others I know, just kinda lost interest around the age of 25.

Bill C said...

@Ryan: I seem to have gotten your hackles up, but I promise I was being rhetorical.

@Anon: I won't be putting myself through "Glee".

Bill C said...

Also, I have a half-formed theory that people don't outgrow movies or sports the way they might videogames because we become more passive as we get older. Again, I haven't thought it through much...

David Clager said...

I should have probably included the Santiago response when I first posted the Ebert article, though it's still not that grand, focusing more on Ebert's game ignorance than the 'is it art?' question, offering only a hefty load of ambiguity.

I think Renfield hits it on the head, there's as much artistic vision going into games as there is films - how does shrink wrapping it and putting it on a store shelve void anything of it's original artistry?

I may be jumping the gun at 22, but I've already spent that last few years thinking I've outgrown it, curbing the habit, but still find myself coming back to some games for the sheer scope and atmosphere they present - chief among them Shadow of the Colossus.

@renfield, my favorite GTA protagonist is still the silent hero of GTAIII. He represents something I think is lost in a lot of modern games that have 'hollywood' style narratives - room for the player to project upon the character(s). With every detail able to be specifically chosen, and every thing that could possibly said scripted, acted and included, I think there's less room for the imagination to flourish. Older games with minimal dialog and graphics were at their best when they offered just enough to really let the imagination pick up the pieces and round out the world to subjective desire. A favorite gaming memory of mine was fleshing out the auxiliary characters alongside the main fellows in Final Fantasy Tactics. While modern narrative games are admirable for what they set out to do, I think they remove the player from the immediate experience. But I should refrain myself before I mix my David Hume with my Hideo Kojima.

renfield said...

@Bill: When people discuss, say, Pele's contributions to soccer, they often point out the "artistry" of his approach to the sport. And to address the other point, there are certain games I've come back to over the course of my 18(ish) years of gaming and from which I've gained new and different insights into the artform. "Yoshi's World" is probably the best example I can come up with. I've been feeling a strong urge to revisit "Grim Fandango" recently as well.

As to how I'll feel in another 40 years, I simply hope that I don't turn into an asshole about my approach to experiences. Many people grow up on Coltrane and end up listening to Kenny G later on. I aspire to not be that guy.

@Mr. Clager: I think two separate genres are at work here, and the Grand Theft Auto series abandoned one in favor of the other. We have on the one hand voiceless protagonists upon which we project our own shit. For me, Gordon Freeman is the archetypal example of this. At some point during the first Half Life, you come upon a bit of graffiti scrawled by one of the marines who have been trying and failing to kill you: "Die Freeman!" I knew it was MY badass gunplay, puzzle solving, and general tenacity that had provoked this response.

The other category is more difficult to discuss as far as video games being a unique artform. Somebody posted a piece in response to Ebert's that posits the following: "Heavy Rain" is essentially useless because you can either force the characters to do things that their characteristics don't support, or you can guide them through their appropriate actions, at which point it's basically like watching a video that you have to continually unpause as you watch it. Video games have come far closer to perfecting the former category than the latter, in my opinion. That said, I have to disagree with you as far as the Grand Theft Auto franchise, by virtue of the fact that it was ridiculous for your character to never say anything during cinematics where everybody else is talking (when this protagonist shows up in "San Andreas," CJ ridicules him for being a mute, and rightfully so!).

One last point: Ebert's idea that video games can't be a part of the auteur theory is hopelessly, repugnantly ignorant. It is only recently that it's taken such extensive personnel and resource to produce video games. Initially it was common for ONE GUY to design and program games from beginning to end. Discounting that, even, it's absurd to say that (to name the popular example) Hideo Kojima ISN'T an auteur, since by all accounts he's downright Kubrickian in his obsessive control over every last detail of his projects.

Hugh said...

I think sports can be art. When i think about the genius that went into creating a game like tennis or chess - games that, by design, have infinite variety and perfectly judged parameters - i can think of those games as a kind of ingenious artistic creation. I do kind of cringe when people talk about the playing of said sports as art, though. To me that smacks of sunday morning sports columns waxing lyrical about 'the beautiful game'.

I think the closest video games ever get to being art is when they take this approach, and use the ability of the medium (which can transcend physical limitations) to create something the simplicity and variety of games like chess and tennis. Portal is a good example - too linear a puzzle experience for my taste, but the simple conceit of that game provides the potential for endless elaboration.

It may not be art (and i'm a member of the jury that is still out on this debate), but it's certainly in the same ballpark.

David Clager said...

@Renfield: I can't read "Grim Fandango" and not put my two cents in - the last great 'point and click' adventure game. I still listen to it's soundtrack from time to time, along with the occasional attempt to get it to run on today's computers. I was raised on LucasArts' library, Monkey Island, Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, Full Throttle - Tim Schafer would probably make a good example as an early Game auteur himself. I agree with you identifying two genres, these examples kind of straddle the dichotomy we're talking about with modern games.

@Hugh: I like you definition of sport as art, placing its merit within the design. Chess to me is one of the most beautiful pieces of art throughout the ages - there's a game I'll (hopefully) never give up. And you beat me on dropping Portal as an example, the sheer concept of it is a shining example of artistic vision, and incredibly unique at that. But what, if I may pull some teeth, does that make ChessMaster?

Also, Gabe and Tycho brush Ebert off as an old man on the wrong side of a generational divide - which may very well be - but while they don't think the conversation worth engaging, I think it a decent opportunity for the discussion to be hashed out. When's the last time we saw a bunch of videogame nerds (attempting) an aesthetics dialog?

Ryan said...

Not at all, Bill, I'm just putting in my 2c - I am put off by the idea of "outgrowing" video games because it makes them sound like toys, which I feel we've come a long way from. Ok, there are definitely some video games that really are toys, but often they have artistic merit also.

Hugh said...

@David: Sorry to steal your Portal thunder. I also neglected to mention Echochrome as perhaps an even greater example of a game using an ingenious (and simple) design conceit as the basis for endless puzzle elaborations. It's almost a hybrid between architecture and gaming, but one that can't exist in the physical world, and so indigenous to the gaming medium. I can't say the same for Chessmaster, though, i'm afraid.

Hugh said...

Oh and I read the Penny Arcade 'response' to Ebert. They say they're washing their hands of the whole debate, and then proceed to put forward an argument in their comic strip. 'If a bunch of artists do it, how can it not be art?' - Sorry, it didn't fly when Duchamp tried it, and it doesn't fly now.

DaveA said...

It's an interesting discussion, but frankly, I don't understand why someone would actually get fed up about this. At least in the time I grew up, the most interesting things happened in those areas which were not considered art. I still remember the lawsuits in Germany against Buttgereit's Necromantic, and how he himself was hesitant to label them as "art" (he did later, and won the lawsuit). I think he was afraid that this "official label" would take the edge off his films, and maybe he was right. Ebert will never change his mind, and that's a good thing. While I completely stopped gaming at about 25, I do think that computer games are still in their infancy and that they have their time well ahead of them. I'm pretty sure I will start gaming again, it just takes one title I'm genuinely interested in (yes, I've actually played a little bit of Heavy Rain at a friend's and it's laughable. Is there something more awkward than a game trying very hard to push your buttons?)

Anonymous said...

What parts of Heavy Rain did you find laughable?

Alex Jackson said...

The more video games consciously try to show that they are "art", the less that they actually convince me of it. Ico and Shadow of the Colossus are aesthetically accomplished, but navel-gazing and pretty boring to play. Most of the time I found myself just walking around a lot and wading in the environment. I suppose that they resemble fine art more, even, than most feature films. But they also better resemble chocolate box art. I don't feel myself being engaged like I should when I'm looking at good art. At worst, they're like expensive shiny toys and at best they're something you might hang in your living room.

I haven't played Heavy Rain, but I saw the trailer. It looks like somebody finally realized that My Dinner with Andre The Video Game gag on "The Simpsons".

What was that homemade game where you walk to the right side of the screen and get older and can find a mate and keep walking with her? It was pretty stupid, I thought. Reducing decades of marriage to a minor video game accomplishment as you found some kind of easter egg that you didn't need to get to finish the game. And a long lived life as no real accomplishment at all. I guess that's art, but it's facile and nihlistic art.

Grand Theft Auto Vice City and San Andreas are entertaining enough video games and I think they actually somewhat minimize the "wandering around aimlessly and enjoying the detail" aspect. Or wandering around and enjoying the detail isn't as big of a negative as it is with Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. But as art they are crass and juvenile and make little meaningful social commentary.

Alex Jackson said...

The first time I ever had an "artful" experience was actually with a game that critics and audiences pretty much rejected-- Manhunt 2. Admittedly, the gameplay wasn't very innovative and the game was too short and too easy. (I wouldn't have finished it if it wasn't too short and easy!) But I found myself extremely impressed with the story. A guy wakes up in an insane assylum and has no memory of who he is or where he's been. He investigates and discovers that he was psychologically engineered as a top secret experimental weapon for the government. Yeah, that's not too innovative either. But Manhunt 2 does it remarkably well.

I was extremely impressed with a few moments in the storyline, like where my killer has to strangle somebody before they can successfully call in reinforcements or where the doctor calls out his trigger phrase over the loudspeakers (which is a line from The Tempest, classy!) and you have to shoot them down. I dug that I got to play through a flashback. The ending is rewarding and is some kind of conclusion to the story. When it was over, I was sastisfied just like I would have if I'd seen a good movie.

But I think the story is more effective having been told through a video game than through film. The constant dying, playing and replaying of key moments, and the partial interactivity gels with the subject matter, which is essentially the story of a guy who is losing his grip on what's real and what has been implanted. Other "video games as art" needn't be so literal about it, but as a format our experience has to simultaneously be conscious and disassociated or dreamlike.

Partial-interactivity is probably the key. If we're going to ask if video games are art we must not only establish what we mean by "art" we must establish what we mean by video game. If there is no skill required then I don't think it can be called a video game. At the same time, I like Ebert's definition of art as requiring authorial control. That's one key component for me. The other is that it articulates some social, aesthetic, or ethical position. I agree that basketball and chess are not art in themselves. Neither are Pac-Man or Super Mario Bros. Not really, not to a sufficient extent.

But I think that both these criteria, requiring skill and showing authorial control/articulating values do not necessarilly contradict one another.

DaveA said...

@anon: I only played the first 30min of the game, so maybe I should keep my mouth shut, but I don't think the main problems I had with the game would change later on.

My main beef was that the game always tries, and it tries very hard, to evoke some kind of emotional reaction from the player. It seems that the creators had the often cited argument against "gaming as art" in mind: "Did a game ever make you cry?", and so they take every cliché they could find in the books and plunged them on the screen. It's like the game grabs you by the shoulders, violently shakes you and screams IT'S YOUR SON MAN, YOUR SON! Now, with me actually having a son, let me just say that this kind of stuff makes me laugh. It doesn't feel "real" at all, it just feels like watching a bad movie where you magically know the dialogue beforehand ("Why don't we talk a bit? How's school? Is the teacher nice?" "I'd rather watch TV.") And you know, it's OK to let it rain all the time (it's the damn title, I get it), but it'd be nice if people actually would get wet.

Ryan said...

I don't have children so I can't comment on the authenticity of the opening, but I thought the two contrasting experiences (first, a father simulator interacting with his wife and children, the second still a father simulator but following the loss of a child) was fascinating for trying to put across the monotony of day-to-day life and then the monotonous despair following serious grief - both of which contrast with the subsequent scenario, the main storyline involving the serial killer who seemingly preys on children. It made me care about that father character, and his relationship to his son, and then did a pretty good job introducing the remaining protagonists and playing out its surprisingly unpleasant and unsettling storyline. I'd like to hear other complaints; I thought it was, for the most, well written and beautifully executed.

(Everyone gets soaked after the first hour or so - it's a major plot point. The valid criticism is that none of these idiots have an umbrella or a rain jacket.)

@Alex - Thank you for your thoughts; have you played Braid? Also, is there any chance you can add something to your site showing updates? Thoroughly enjoy reading your stuff but I can never tell when you've added new reviews/content.

DaveA said...

Yeah well, as I said, my criticism is more like speculation, since I barely played the game. On a more general note: I cannot think of anything more devastating than the loss of a child, and I tried to think of movies which managed to deal with this theme, without turning into exploitation. The only one that came to my mind was Don't look now. The feeling I get from Heavy Rain is that it is overcompensating. It tries so hard to engage you that I can only respond with cynicism. It could very well be that I would have responded differently when I was younger.

Bill C said...

"I tried to think of movies which managed to deal with [the loss of a child], without turning into exploitation..."

ANTICHRIST!!! Erm, sorta. THE ACCIDENTAL TOURIST, definitely, but who'd want to play *that* videogame?

JF said...

I haven't played Heavy Rain, or really anything for about a year, but I did play David Cage's previous attempt at an interactive movie, Indigo Prophecy, which was an interesting failure as a game and a thoroughly inane movie. It seems his problem is that he thinks the best way to prove that games are art is to have them be interactive versions of direct-to-video knockoffs of movies that were never that good in the first place. It's true that videogames have the unique ability to render shoddy storytelling more engaging than it would be in another medium, but most of them don't go around trumpeting themselves as Mature Works of According-To-Hoyle Art worthy of Hitchcock comparisons and the like when they're really just the kind of shit people only rent by mistake, except you get to press buttons and twiddle a thumbstick now and again. It's like Cage (David, not Nick) exists in this alternate version of Adaptation. wherein Donald Kaufman deludes himself into thinking he's Charlie.

Anonymous said...

As for the "age" question, one franchise I'd like to tackle eventually is Shigesato Itoi's "Mother" trilogy, which was a fairly earnest attempt to explore emotional motivations through the video game medium. Itoi was in his mid-forties when he made "EarthBound" and was pushing sixty when he completed "Mother 3"--and those two games, in particular, concern a character who becomes "simultaneously an old man and a young boy." (Seen here at right.) Would be interesting to see how that pans out after a few decades of experience.

Walter_Chaw said...

Don't Look Now

Patrick said...

I haven't played "Heavy Rain", but I've just watched roughly the first half of a playthrough on youtube, and I have to say that this game really manages the illusion of control extremely well – I guess in the end the changes the player can affect aren't too powerful most of the time, but it seems that they are. Despite not playing myself, I am feeling the tension there.

I'm not sure whether Heavy Rain manages to bring across the feeling of loss at the death of a child – the opening (tutorial) sequence however illustrates the difference between before and after – and when you make your son smile again by teaching him how to throw a boomerang, that feels like an achievement. And then you try to juggle a few balls, but fail, it that seems like an aftereffect of the accident and your loss – even though the failure was just on your part, not scripted. I'm really, really impressed by what I see of this game.

Of course, it's not just experiencing the characters and situation – it is still a game. I wonder if anyone chooses not to let the father suffer for the chance to save the son, 1) because that's heroic, 2) because that's where the action sequences lie, and 3) because it's the "right" thing to do. Maybe you can play a father who doesn't have the guts to do it – but will anyone really try (and try not just for the sake of breaking the game)?

Stephen Reese said...

Great convo, folks. The games I feel are art have mostly been mentioned: Myst (and especially its sequel Riven), Ico, Shadow of the Colossus, Braid, Echochrome...I'd throw in Katamari Damacy, Crayon Physics Deluxe. Going back, I'd mention the original DOOM and Alone In The Dark and most of Infocom's catalogue (especially Zork). 'Regressing' further, the list would balloon from a Top 10 to a Top 100, because I think the range of creativity was wider and deeper when the medium was but a zygote.

Isn't the best way to evaluate games as art to examine what makes them artful in their own right, on their own terms? I don't want or expect a game to be a story; it can't use my emotions for a palette like a song or film can, or infect my consciousness as a novel does. The relentless push to equalize gaming with these other artforms by trying (and failing) to co-opt their tropes and effects, I think, has stunted the medium's expressive scope by not taking advantage of its own unique limitations -- which, if embraced, can foster all kinds of application. Gaming is the kid who hasn't grown at ease with what makes him different; he still wants to be like the older, cooler kids; doesn't grok they'd respect him more if he relaxed and was himself.

What I believe games can do (and as I said, I'm biased to think they did it better in the early days, when the focus couldn't be on dazzling graphics and sound, but instead gameplay), is make it fun to adopt and explore unfamiliar ideas as participatory experiences with satisfying reward. They're toys, yes, and that's not pejorative. It's toys, after all, that enabled expansion and development of mind when we were toddlers. They helped us learn how to imagine, to abstract, to build conceptual facility and problem-solve. 'Play' was a model for real growth.

Remember when seeing a new cabinet in the arcade was like meeting a person from a foreign culture who spoke a language you could only learn by interacting directly, exploring possibility to its edges and testing the boundaries? Discovering a new game meant embracing a new, fresh way of thinking, and because the graphics and sound were so simplistic, your imagination (not the technology) was responsible for filling in the perceived gaps of meaning, narrative, involvement, immersion.

From the wide-open sandbox of something like Sleep Is Death to the focused mousetrap of Portal, aren't the best games the ultimate toys? By playing with them, we can grow our brains (no matter how old we get), especially if we let them be what they are, and do what they do, instead of forcing them to pretend they're something they not: a film, a book.

These days, I think the most interesting electronic toys are showing up in the Flash medium. They're small, self-contained bursts of individuality that invite you to engage and exploit unexpected ideas and thought processes, each. Authorial voice is in full effect, because one guy can build one of these Pandora's Boxes without an enormous budget and a staff of artists to labor at a photorealistic and lifelike environment. Take a look at some award-winners from last year. At least 8 struck me as art:


Ryan said...

Thanks for the thoughts, Stephen - "They're toys, yes, and that's not pejorative" - I disagree with this, only because I think the right word is "simulation" over "toy". You wouldn't call a program that simulates gravity in an environment that physicists test with a "toy" - it's a simulation. With that in mind, perhaps the interactive element of a video game that simulates a scenario can have more of an impact on the audience than another medium (often forgiving any number of storytelling cliches or flaws that would be blatant in other mediums).

Stephen Reese said...


Thanks for bringing up simulations, cuz I forgot to namecheck a couple sims that profoundly affected me (SimAnt, after which I never killed another of the buggers, instead delivering food to their hills in my driveway; and SimEarth, whose gameplay did more to solidify James Lovelock's Gaia hypothesis for me than James Cameron's Avatar ever could).

On the other hand, I can't agree that 'simulation' is a better term for videogame, because so many games, I'd argue, aren't concerned with simulating a 'real' experience. I'm still of the mind that the further the gamespace is from attempting a realistic analog, the more utility it offers by way of encouraging abstraction and imaginative exercise. So though I "wouldn't call a program that simulates gravity in an environment that physicists test...a 'toy'", I certainly wouldn't call it a 'game', either.

>perhaps the interactive element of a video game
>that simulates a scenario can have more of an
>impact on the audience than another medium

Not sure "more of an impact" is quantifiable, or really the point. I'm interested in what *kind* of impact a game has, and how it differs from other media - a qualitative measure. I do think you're right that the notion of interactivity is key to understanding game experience. I contend a game can't manipulate emotions beyond twitch, awe, confound, carrot-dangle and pleasure-center prod because there's too much agency afforded the player (we can't identify/empathize with a virtual 'character' because we *control* him, possibly far more than we're even able to control ourselves in 'true life'); corollary to that sense of being in charge is the focus on doing not viewing, applying rather than attending, participating over passively absorbing - the POV that gives games their power.

Patrick said...

Just wanted to add that after finishing the Heavy Rain Walkthrough, this game is a cheating asshole for the way it tells its story. Unfathomable, sinking to the depths of first Dan Brown and then even lower.

Ryan said...

Can you elaborate without spoilers? Because if you're referring to the identity of the Origami Killer, I think you're completely wrong.

Bill C said...

@Ryan: If I were you, I'd be very careful about using "simulation"--that's precisely the buzzword thrown around congress to demonstrate that violence in videogames is honing teenage aggression the way flight simulators teach pilots to fly planes.

Ryan said...

Sure, but a "simulation" doesn't mean a "realistic simulation" - when you shoot people in a game, they play out whatever death animation has been programmed for them; when you shoot people in real life, they get seriously injured or die. But that's WHY it's a simulation - it's an environment with rules and guidelines that allows a particular scenario to occur, guided by the programmer and completed by the player.

So, in GTA you drive a burning car off a cliff and the game's programmed gravity makes it fall, hit the ground and possibly explode. In Super Mario Bros, you can jump into the air and the gravity causes you to come back down and squash a Goomba. That's the programmed world's rules, as part of the simulation.

Patrick said...

Ryan: Yes, that's what I refer to, first indirectly and then directly.

Indirectly, i.e. sinking to the levels of Dan Brown, means you controlling a viewpoint character who is told the identity of the killer but you, as player, don't get to hear the name. In fact, the person who tells your character even hangs a lampshade on it by asking the character to come closer and whispering the name, which... no. If I control a character, I get to hear this.

And, of course, then directly by showing us scenes we played through previously and retconning them. That is not good storytelling, that is lazy cheating going for the easy shock. Mind you, the game could have played fair as well without losing much, but it didn't.

Of course, the game also employs a female character that gets to shower, fight off attackers in her underwear, do a sexy dance, do a striptease, get undressed for sex, get leered at by a motel guy and actually, it's a small wonder she didn't have to seduce the old woman in the pensioner's home for some lesbian action. But that's par for the course.

Patrick said...

And the video game violence argument is understandable, but wrong. It might make sense theoretically, but empirically, it just doesn't. I mean, just consider how many people are gaming these days, and then take a look at crime statistics – they should explode because all those people are playing GTA, WOW or some other game with killing. But the numbers stay the same or go down.

In fact, at the end of the 18th century, when Goethe published "Die neuen Leiden des jungen Werther", people were claiming that this epistolary novel would drive teens into suicides. And after the novels, television, rock music, Dungeons & Dragons, and video games. All this damn newfangled culture stuff we don't understand, must be dangerous.

Ryan said...

I don't understand why you take issue with the whispering of the name - dramatically the reveal works better a couple of scenes later, leading to some of the best set pieces in the game. The pawnshop scene doesn't retcon itself - go back and watch it again. The game stops player control for a moment to allow ANOTHER CHARACTER to look at OBJECT which makes a specific sound before giving control back, in which time the deed is done before handing control back. (In that reveal that you claim retcons the scene, you hear the specific sound.) The most major complaint about the game is that the identity of the killer and their actions across the game make no sense, which is to misunderstand the thing completely.

As for Madison Paige, with the exception of the club scene (which is, albeit loosely, part of the plot) you don't HAVE to objectify her with nudity, sex, etc at all. That's all in the hands of the player. You also don't have to make another character cut off one of his body parts, or have other characters commit murder - and I think that's interesting, especially since half of those action have consequences and change the way the plot plays out. When you watch Transformers 2 Michael Bay's already decided to objectify a thousand women onscreen, but in Heavy Rain that decision, and subsequent outcome of the entire game, is in your hands. It still runs one of many different possibilities thhat David Cage has programmed it to, but you're not forced to see the female character nude, or to see her fucking, or even to see her survive. The playthrough you watched is one of a thousand different ways the game can be played.

Patrick said...

Ryan: yes, and I obviously missed the parts where you could make the PI do a sexy dance or have the FBI profiler fight off someone in his panties, too. Sorry about that.

And I know the flimsy excuse of the cutscene, but that just doesn't fly. You control the character at the time, and to top it off, just after the cutscene he *thinks* "Hm, I wonder why (the guy I just murdered) is taking so long. I better check that out."

And while I don't care whether it works better or not – if I'm playing Madison, and Madison gets the clue, I get the clue – I also disagree that it works better the way they do it. Just because you have a shock reveal doesn't mean it's better. If we knew the killer but out characters didn't – and therefore couldn't act on our knowledge –, that might be just as powerful or even more so. And it wouldn't violate the way this game seemed to tell the story beforehand. I mean, we even experience a character's nightmare – we're very much in their place –, but for the reveal.

You can do an unreliable narrator, of course, and the killer might have turned out as one, but it just doesn't work the way they do it. I get that people want to defend the retconned moment because the game was great fun to play, but it's still cheating. And I wouldn't even be sure whether the way the retcon is presented is even possible, timing-wise.

Patrick said...

Oh, also re: Madison, your defense just reminded me of all those vibrators sold for "novelty use only" – how are the producers supposed to know people use them for sex? Madison is introduced in her underwear thinking, "I can't sleep, I need a hot shower". Gee, if players choose to do that, it's their choice.

Patrick said...

Maybe you're interested in the Q&A at Ebertfest: Charlie Kaufman and others talk right after a screening of Synechdoche, NY:

Ryan said...

And I know the flimsy excuse of the cutscene, but that just doesn't fly. You control the character at the time, and to top it off, just after the cutscene he *thinks* "Hm, I wonder why (the guy I just murdered) is taking so long. I better check that out."

Actually, what he thinks is "It's been a while since Manfred went into his office. I should take a look." I concede the point, that thought is fairly ridiculous - it's only there to get the player to go back there so the game continues. The cutscene matches up - when Lauren turns her back, he goes in, kills him and has time to return, including opening the window. I honestly think it works - you spend the game controlling the murderer as one of the four playable characters, and everything he does, all of his thoughts, all of his actions, seem to align with the motivation of finding the serial killer. Replaying the game after knowing the truth, basically everything he thinks and does reveals him to be finding and destroying any evidence that might incriminate him whilst also looking in on the "innocent survivors" of his "tests" which, to me, makes him a much more interesting and developed character than the usual Jigsaw rip-off that would be employed in any other fiction. He's not an unreliable narrator - everything he says and thinks takes on a double meaning after the reveal.

I can't speak against David Cage being a pervert, which he clearly is. I didn't see Madison naked once across my playthrough, no shower scene nor sex scene for me. Why she suddenly wants to have sex with Ethan after finding him horribly wounded - again - is completely beyond me; actually, I think that's a much better criticism to have of the whole thing: how does she develop feelings for him in the first place? Why do the 10 year old children act like 5 year olds? Does David Cage have no idea whatsoever how human beings interact? Yet, I think it works, and only in this medium would it work - in deciding how to control different characters (making Ethan and Jayden assholes instead of sympathetic, making Madison/Scott help Ethan/Lauren instead of leaving them to rot) the consequences change, sometimes in a minor way, at other times for a much larger outcome. The way character's thoughts are communicated to the player is interesting, sometimes for more depth into what the characters are thinking and feeling, and at other times just to steer the story. The game wants you to feel things, and I found it particularly effective (particularly the "tests", and the loss of various characters across the narrative). Blah blah blah.

Patrick said...

I agree with what you say about the game otherwise. The only other thing I wish would be a game where you could play an asshole and still get a relatively good ending. The usual morality systems are so often unfriendly = evil and friendly = good, which means I have to be a dick if I want the evil ending, and I have to suck up to everyone to get a good one. This game was better, but if you don't rescue the child, you always get a suicide at the end.

I think the tests were the parts where that kind of morality play really came through. I wonder if you could play the story with rescuing the kid but without the father making the tests, relying on the other characters to solve the crime.

One question, though: if Scott's arc makes sense even if you know what's going on, what's with the whole angle about the rich dude's son? Why is he questioning the son and the father several times about whether the son is the killer? Why does he even risk the wrath of the old man?

Patrick said...

Also, why does Scott go to his old friend the clockmaker, whom he then has to kill to protect his identity? Why not go to some shlub who has no idea about typewriters anymore and also doesn't know Scott's got one? As a matter of fact, since Scott was in the old man's list under a pseudonym (I wonder how that worked, given that the two knew each other), why even kill the guy?

Ryan said...

BioShock 2 has an interesting spin on the morality-choice system by having several irredeemable characters who it asks you to judge, leaving their fate in your hands; some of them give you a reward for letting them live, and others the game neither rewards nor condemns you for killing, presenting an intriguing ambiguity to your actions. It also forces you to kill two "good" characters you are sympathetic to and like simply to mess with you, which I found cleverly unpleasant. It might have been better had it actually punished you for letting some characters live, alongside having a stronger storyline and so on, but there were plenty of moments that challenged the accepted norm of morality-choice found in current games.

There are endings where Shaun is saved, but Ethan dies, as well as endings where Scott walks free for his crimes, even appears at Ethan's funeral. Madison and Jayden can both get to the warehouse without Ethan, with some paths having them contacting each other to provide the other with the address.

I think Scott is investigating Kramer because his son killed a young boy in a similar way, to make it look like the Origami Killer, and presumably he wants to find out why. Although Scott Shelby is insane I don't think he's a psychopath - he seems to care about Lauren and others he finds "innocent" (which doesn't include the fathers) and a copycat murdering young boys is something he'd want to stop. Killing the clockmaker ties up that loose end, getting rid of anything that might lead investigators back to him (both the list and the old man) though is probably unneccessary. I think that if at that point Scott didn't follow up on Lauren's epiphany he may have appeared guilty to her (when she came up with the idea in the previous scene he didn't seem to think the typewriter lead was of any real value, but she pushed it and it leads to the scene).

Something I can't figure out is why Ethan wakes up with origami after his black outs, which seems like a fairly big plothole that only exists to make him look suspicious..

jer fairall said...

RIP Lynn Redgrave

Patrick said...

Well, but Bioshock, and I assume Bioshock 2, also had the "morality system" of either setting the kids free or killing them, which never seemed like a real choice for me.

Emmitt said...

Off topic but I found this funny. There's finally a movie that broke Ebert's rating system.

The Human Centipede