Introduction

Magical Wasteland is written by Matthew S. Burns.

Recent Comments
Search
« To Jane Doe, Electronic Entertainment Expo, 2012 | Main | Fake Non-Fiction Best Sellers »
Tuesday
May012012

Dumbness in Games, or, the Animal as a System

Taylor Clark writes about why he called most games “dumb,” exhorting us to make them smarter. His main criticisms are around aspects like story, characters, “insipid dialogue,” and the like (when you are a writer, every problem looks like a writing problem). He cites the example of Vanquish as a mechanically good game that sinks under the weight of its own ridiculous plot and abrasive stock characters. Why can’t we change that around?

For a long time I felt a similar frustration with this industry, wondering why we hadn’t addressed this yet. It doesn’t seem like an overly difficult thing to try to solve. How hard could telling a decent story possibly be? How hard is hiring a real writer?

After nearly ten years of working on the kinds of big-budget titles that Clark implicates, I’m less sure that there is a good solution. It may even be that there isn’t one.

* * *

The people who make games are not, themselves, dumb. Some of them may be emotionally underdeveloped, and very publically so, but for every negative example there are hundreds of intelligent, reasoned, well-rounded people who make video games for a living, whom we haven’t heard of because they don’t blog or Tweet or sit for press interviews. And artistic legitimacy matters to many of these people. There is no shortage of game makers who would like to prove that games can be complex, intelligent, nuanced and everything else we associate with goodness and highness in the arts. Which is to say that if games are “dumb,” it’s not for lack of trying to make them not dumb. So if it was really possible to make a finely-tuned, action-packed big budget video game that is also “smart” and not “dumb”, I want to think that we might have done so already.

Instead, we’re at what feels like a mysterious barrier. We have some of the world’s most talented people and a magician’s box full technical tricks, but something’s not quite right; something always seems to go wrong when we try to put that higher level of emotional maturity into our next big game.

In the course of my career I’ve seen some “real writers” come in to help a game put on a better, more mature face and not seem so adolescent. They prodded the developers to abandon the old stereotypes and helped them invent more complex characters— characters who had a life before and after the events of the game, who were of ethnicities outside the usual Hollywood handful, who mulled over realistic internal conflicts. We spent a lot of time on those elements. These games eventually came out, and while they were commercially and critically successful, they utterly failed in their mission to bring “good writing” to games. In the end, they were what Clark calls “dumb” games.

What was the point where it broke down? There was no evil executive coming in from on high telling us to make the game more lowbrow. The team was not a bunch of sniveling adolescent boys (a couple were, to be honest, but most were of the aforementioned good type). I think instead that the problem was structural— deeply structural to the product itself, at a level where no amount of “smart” versus “dumb” choices can really change things. One of those games centered around shooting aliens with guns and lasers. Another was about navigating an environment and punching people until they died.

The very second you try to wrap actions like those in a “good story” that does not somehow address what happens during the mechanical part of the experience is the second you fail to write a good story. The dissonance of the Uncharted series is a famous example: the experience implies two completely different worlds. One is where Nathan Drake is an affable hero, and the other is where Drake murders hundreds of fellow human beings and feels nothing. Though the developers took care to paint over the seams where they could, even the cleverest narrative design couldn’t change how completely incongruous that really is, on a basic, fundamental level.

* * *

At that point— with the model already broken, what can you do as a writer? Make your main character a sensitive man and he falls flat: he obviously isn’t sensitive to the fact that he just killed dozens of people. Make him a dangerous psychopath and he’s impossible to like, unless, maybe, he’s out for some lazily justified revenge (oh, look, we just stumbled on the plot of so many games!).

This point about dissonance has been made before in several “mechanics versus narrative” debates, though narrative versus mechanics, like art versus technology, is ultimately a false dichotomy. (Someone always points out that lots of games exist entirely free of narrative. To me this is like pointing out that some animals don’t need backbones. It’s true, but that doesn’t help us, because we are animals that happen to need backbones. Some games need narrative in order to work.) It’s the reason why games that explicitly exclude combat— Dear Esther, Journey, and others of their kind— seem so promising right now. As an industry, we still haven’t developed anything as mechanically complex as our combat, but at least we’ve figured out that we can remove it.

To return to Vanquish, then, I feel like you couldn’t really take its “mechanics” or “gameplay” and tell a sensible story around them, because those things are not some kind of discrete element that we can pluck out and place inside another context. A game is a whole system; the pieces that we like to dissect are its organs. You can take issue with and maybe even improve the components, but what you really want is a brand new animal, a new system where all the parts work together. By saying that Vanquish is a great game but could benefit from better story and characters, Clark implicitly proposes a mythical beast— the kind with the head of one animal and the body of another.

* * *

Another way of saying this is: it is extremely difficult— maybe impossible— to come up with a story and characters that, when placed within the context of most current video games, don’t feel inherently silly.

Explaining his choice of the word “dumb,” Clark references Tom Bissell’s thought about great art being “‘comprehensively intelligent,’ meaning that it’s intelligent in every way available to it.” This is a fine notion and I’m all for it. I’m just unsure that this kind of intelligence is truly available to most of the kinds of games we’re talking about here. 

References (1)

References allow you to track sources for this article, as well as articles that were written in response to this article.

Reader Comments (29)

That really is the devilry with the currency of almost all games being violence, eh? Great way to point this out, not that we'd have reason to expect any less.

I think Clark really torpedoes most interesting conversations that could fall out of this by making "dumb" his evaluative criterion. One, there's a implicit value judgement there, which means for most people, any attempt at rational discourse has now fled. And two, what the hell does "dumb" even mean? If it's just in the context of writing and narrative, well, there's a lot being left out here.

The problem with "comprehensively intelligent" is that it's also almost unevaluable, right? (No slight to Tom) If something's story is pretty "smart" but its mechanics are mostly "dumb," is it still smart overall? Clark lists Red Dead Redemption as a smart game, but unquestionably, its shooting mechanics are "dumber" than those of say, Gears of War. They're less responsive, less precise, they have poorer game feel, etc. But obviously there a lot more going on with John Marston than The Fellows COG. Where do we place Deus Ex and its amazingly robust systems and its execrable voice acting? How much "smart" do we need to get above the Here Ye Be Smart marker?

So look at something like Left 4 Dead, which is not only a shooting game, but shooting of zombies, which is quickly eclipsing space marines as the most staid of all game tropes. But I'm guessing Clark wouldn't call its characters/writing/story "dumb." But is that because the stories we primarily attach to L4D are about playing it with others and the embedded narrative is distinctly secondary? If the characters/writing/whatever in L4D had to carry a version of the game you played exclusively by yourself, would it work? Or would it just denigrate into scared people shooting zombies? (Which apparently isn't a recipe for greatness, if why people say about The Walking Dead TV show is to be believed) As you say, we can't transplant components and expect to construct greatness. What we'd almost certainly get is a nightmarish chimera.

To make a loathesome film analogy, maybe all Clark is really saying it would be nice games that are tonally similar to Oscar movies received a similar amount of attention. Maybe he sees games are mostly summer blockbusters and would like to have an Oscar season too. That's less salacious though, I guess. I just imagine most of the conversations that will fall out of this and ... yeah.

But hey, we got this out of it! So that's something real good =)

May 1, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNels Anderson

Honestly I think you and him are in vehement agreement. Clark dedicates a lot of that article talking about how absurd it is to try and wed "good writing" to games that are primarily the tender story of a guy and his gun.

There are two ways out of this problem, I think. One is to figure out ways to put a new narrative dressing over the same mechanics - Pokemon, for instance, holds that monsters "faint" when they run out of HP; I have notes lying around for a riff on Galaga in which your mission is to bring the space bees to explosive orgasm with your tickle ray. Ape Escape had you sneaking up on monkeys and capturing them, versus sneaking up on a soldier and killing them in a Metal Gear game.

Another is to just accept the essential absurdity of a narrative in which you slay thousands of anonymous grunts and make an equally absurd framework for it. Clark sneers at the Japanese games that take this tack - but I myself would much rather play something that embraces this essential insanity. I had a blast with Bayonetta. Psychonauts was a joy. And in much smaller contexts, I adore the surrealist work of Jeff Minter - his games make no pretense of being anything but games.

Making games that have "mature" narratives requires finding new game mechanics that don't rely on repeatedly pushing the hurt button, and that map to human interaction. But, well, how do you make that fun? Visual novels are a thriving genre, to be sure. And maybe Tim Schaefer is about to resurrect the point and click adventure. And I believe that Mass Effect was about 50% dialogue trees and 50% shooting grunts. (Never played it so I can't be sure.) But is there a way to do these things in a fast-paced, exciting way? The core appeal of video games, for much of their history, has been the half-unconscious reflex loop. And rapid assessment of a stylized combat situation plus navigating through it is a pleasurable experience that can be carried out in the low-energy state one sinks into when playing games.

(The only non-combat reflex genres I can really think of are racing, sports, and abstract puzzlers. Oh, and the resource juggling found in tons of "casual" games that have you serving customers. And let's be real: how much of the actual money in games comes from sports stuff? It's not glamorous most of the time - you don't get to make a world, you're just reproducing the real thing - but it sure pays the bills.)

(You can do fantasy racing - Mario Kart, Wipeout, etc. But fantasy sports games are few and far between, and out of fashion - where are the NBA Jams and Cyberballs of yesteryear?)

There may be some compelling mechanics that will integrate seamlessly with a "smart" narrative. There's a huge possibility space of game mechanics to be explored, huge numbers of things that were tried back in the Cambrian explosion of the 8-bit days and abandoned - some because they weren't much fun, some because they fell out of fashion, some because they couldn't be done well on the limited hardware of the time. I suspect that there may be a valley of Not Really Being Much Fun between the mechanics we have now and these mechanics that are both "smart" and fun. I don't think an AAA game is going to pioneer any of them; huge productions have to be conservative as budgets balloon.

May 1, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterEgypt Urnash

I'm sure you're correct that making "dumb" games "smart" is a lot more complicated than making the protagonist sensitive or adding in some clever dialogue, but I don't think it's as defeatest as you imply.

You cite Uncharted 2 as a game with a strong dissonance between its writing and mechanics and while I'd agree with you, it's still pretty darn moving in spite of the incongruous mix. If all shooters and mainstream games were that well written I suspect Clark's attitude would be less dire.

I'm looking at Michael Abbott's Smart Games Catalogue (http://www.brainygamer.com/the_brainy_gamer/the-smart-game-catalog.html), and while most of the games on there are from less conventional genres (Flower, Braid, Phoenix Wright), there are plenty of relatively mainstream games as well. Even Clark cites Bulletstorm as a sophisticated title at one point (something I wish he elaborated on). I'm not saying it's easy to suddenly make say, Vanquish, smart, but I don't think its impossible either. Heck, the recent Binary Domain followed a similar conventional framework (i.e. it plays a lot like Gears of War) to much better effect with what I thought was a pretty sharp script. I don't think something like that is too much to ask for.

May 1, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJeffrey Matulef

Just because we haven't done it yet doesn't mean it's impossible. :) This industry is what, like 40 years old? The fact that you can say you've worked in games for 10 years and intend for it to sound like a lot really shows how young an industry this is. I think that if you talk to most writers in the AAA space, you will hear that there is certainly a lot wrong with the current setup that creates the discord between design and narrative that you're talking about. For instance, in most cases, writers don't even come onto a project until its mostly done, and in other cases, game writers are so tied down by having to adhere to a pre-existing IP or having to listen to multi-million dollar marketing teams that they simply cannot suggest the types of sweeping changes that might make game writing something a bit more intelligent. I don't believe that this is an unconquerable problem - but it might be if we keep telling ourselves that this is as good as games are going to get. I definitely think that it's a bit early to give up and say that what Clark is asking for is a "mythical creature."

May 1, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCat Musgrove

As someone who has spent several years writing about and discussing how "dumb" games are, this is a buffet for thought. Thanks for writing it.

Another point I'll add is that dialog that sounds witty coming out of the mouth of Bruce Willis or Harrison Ford tends to sound "dumb" when uttered by a plastic-faced, glassy-eyed doll with a jaw that moves like a ventriloquist's dummy. We've gotten past the uncanny valley in still frame, (sort of) but when it comes to animations we're still a long ways away. Nathan Drake might not seem quite so strange if he could wink, smirk, and show tenderness the way a Hollywood actor can.

May 1, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterShamus

You cite Uncharted 2 as a game with a strong dissonance between its writing and mechanics and while I'd agree with you, it's still pretty darn moving in spite of the incongruous mix. If all shooters and mainstream games were that well written I suspect Clark's attitude would be less dire.

Actually this is exactly the kind of bar-lowering that has allowed us to be happy with garbage stories in dumb manshoots. You're effectively saying "it's pretty good, for a videogame", and so long as we find that qualifier acceptable we will never feel ashamed enough to push ourselves to find new mechanics and expressions.

Partly to blame are critics, articulate and well-meaning as they are, who are so excited to see even a tiny little glimmer of intelligence in games like Bioshock and GTA that they let them off the hook for a bunch of other dumb crap that non-gamers - people outside the bubble - pick up on within seconds. THAT is why we are still a cultural laughingstock.

Sorry if that's jerky, but we really did allow this to happen. Fortunately the industry has expanded and fragmented beyond AAA so we won't die holding our breath for blockbuster shooters to break new artistic ground.

May 1, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJP

So I thought this was incredibly well put. To simplify a bit what you're claiming is that grafting above-average writing and characterization onto 80 of punching dude is an inherently losing proposition.

I don't think this is necessarily the case, if only because I think there is such thing as a smart genre exercise: one that either approaches its trappings in a way that is particularly clever and self-aware, or executes with a high degree of style. Like Nels, I hate to reach for movies to exemplify this, but "Cabin in the Woods" would be a fine example of the former and "Crank 2: High Voltage" would be a good example of the latter. These are movies that say something interesting (really interesting) without sacrificing the 2 hours of stabbing/punching we approach them for. Why couldn't games do the same?

May 1, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterIroquois Pliskin

@Egypt

Some of us are making fantasy sports:
http://vimeo.com/strangeflavor/barabariball

May 1, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNoah

@Noah

Oh, I'm not saying crazy fantasy sports are entirely a dead genre. But I was mostly thinking of big-budget stuff, since that's the context of the post. When lots of money goes into a sports game, you get Madden [INSERT YEAR HERE], not Ballblazer.

(I may also be wrong in this - I don't follow AAA video games as closely as I used to, and AAA sports games are even further on the periphery of my awareness. But that periphery is populated entirely by Realistic Sports, Often With Licensed Rosters.)

May 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterEgypt Urnash

Perhaps we will see AAA developers shift to new kinds of games where the mechanics don't manifest an inherently dumb story, as you said before, removing combat is one way of doing that, I am so ready for more 'Journeys' and such. Heavy Rain kind of dodged this bullet altogether without really solving anything by making the mechanics exactly what the story was doing, and while I enjoyed it immensely, it wasn't doing anything interesting mechanically or systemically as far as I could tell.

Thanks for writing this, I needed to hear it after reading Clark's article.

Olly

May 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterOlly

I recently interviewed Randy Smith of Tiger Style Games (Waking Mars), and he had some interesting insights on how making violence the central mechanic in your game constitutes a form of "laziness." It seems to me he was also getting at the key tension you're discussing here. Randy said:

"I’m very frustrated by how violence is used by videogame makers as an excuse not to flex their creative muscles and by the impact this laziness has on our industry and our art form. Sure, if you’re making a game about terrorists or war, combat makes for a great mechanic, but don’t we have enough games about those subjects? Every mature medium that exists is capable of dealing effectively with a wide range of topics, but videogames have pigeonholed ourselves into a tiny range that we have actual mastery over, a trend which has only calcified more as the industry has grown larger and wealthier. This has created a positive feedback loop whereby the highest quality games are about violence and our other common subjects, so our audience has the expectation that games must always be about those things, which in turn makes it hard for a game to succeed when it’s about anything else.

It’s completely depressing to me whenever I get excited about a game that’s supposedly about traveling through time or being the new kid at school, and it turns out that once again the actions are about fighting your way through an endless stream of enemies. If the interactions are about violence, then the game is about violence, period. It doesn’t matter what the static narrative is about. It’s risky work, but Tiger Style aspires to be one of the studios innovating to discover gameplay about some of the topics video games haven’t mastered yet. My belief is that since it was possible to invent combat gameplay, it’s possible to invent any gameplay, and we just need to keep working at it until we discover those effective conventions and abstractions."

May 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJohn Peter Grant

I laughed when I saw JP's comment, mostly because I felt so totally indicted. I've just embarked on a series of columns where I hold "baka-ge" -- literally, "idiot games," the dumbest of the Dumb -- under a falsely academic lens. The project, which is incredibly derivative, was inspired by the NYU Game Center's recent "bad games" exhibit, which I felt simply wasn't dumb enough.

In cataloguing my own list of stupid games (I love that, in philosophic simultaneity, Professor Abbott has been cataloguing the "smartest" ones), I don't even know whether I'm being facetious, myself. In fact, I think I'm pretty earnest about these games! So JP is right: when I see a glimmer of anything remotely intellectually interesting, I seize on it and extrapolate it, projecting whatever meaning and narrative I like onto the game itself. (Terry Cavanagh's face when I talked about the deep human truths embedded in Hexagon...! "Well, it sounds very nice when you put it that way.") Of course I come from a fiction writing background, of course I believe engaging stories are possible. I can't wait for these stories to tell themselves without my intervention but, for now anyway, I pin an awful lot of stories onto games their authors probably never intended. Is this normal? This is normal, right?

But I also love when stupidity goes for broke. There's nothing giddier.

The biggest crime, for me, really is banality. And isn't that what we're all saying here? In the original editorial, Clark uses a parenthetical aside to hone his language: by "dumb" he means "unfulfilling" or "emotionally simple." Well, in that case, I agree! Down with dumb! Dumb is boring! But it's dangerous to conflate "mindless" and "silly" with "boring" or "derivative" because, while these assessments can be true, they aren't always true.

I'm doing a very bad job of trying to respond both to JP and to the articles themselves. Of course Mr. Burns is discussing what Mr. Clark himself is describing, which are big-budge titles with inane dialogue and characters that cannot compel. In the meantime, I mostly play space shooters and games where people poop on one another. When someone implores games to "grow up," I'm torn between nodding my head and rolling my eyes. Please don't take Crackdown from me! Now there's a game that never audaciously purports to have a human core, and "character development" means getting more muscley as you progress. It's a game's game; leave your brain at the door.

Maybe I'm not as optimistic as I like to think I am.

(Incidentally, I enjoyed Clark's article in the Atlantic, despite my endless tee-hee-hees. It was very much written for the Atlantic reader, and I appreciated its swagger. I also think it's fitting that I have left Mr. Burns the dumbest comment here. I shoot from the heart, not from the brain, apparently.)

May 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJenn

Sorry to spring back into the comments section with nary a thoughtful pause, but I think I have it finally.

What strikes me about your column, Mr. Burns, is that it addresses authenticity in a way Mr. Clark's op/ed couldn't. Certainly a player knows when she is being "had," and when the emotional or intellectual components are being used as mere dressing, most gamers -- even the ones with no real academic stake in the conversation -- know, at the very least, that they are being tricked.

A talented musician-friend on Twitter tried his best to describe the innate "B.S.-meter" to me. "They don't know why, but they know," he said, and very succinctly. I think that's true. (The "tacked-on" thing is also my major complaint with Braid, incidentally, even though I never once doubted Blow's sincerity. It is a writer's game in many ways, but when I do hit those walls of text, I stall. Even as a writer I feel the metaphors work best without the text. Similarly, I have complained in the past about the indie need to "assign ponderous meanings to mundane in-game tasks," which is why Fez works for me so well, I think.)

I enjoy, for my own part, the irony of some tacked-on intellectual appeal -- there's my own little project that I mentioned before, which takes real delight in making mountains from molehills, and then there's that final cheesy resolution-soliloquy in Psycho, where a professional steps in to make sense of all the horrors, and it's just so goofy -- and, to a point, all that is great fun because it's so self-effacing.

But when a game is flagrantly insincere and disingenuous in its execution of its motives and methodologies, it really doesn't snow anybody. We are all very acutely aware of the seams.

Jeffrey Matulef, whose name you can find here in the comments, recently wrote a Crackdown retrospective, and most of Twitter had to agree that the game really works. Without mincing words, it is my favorite AAA title. This circles around to "dumbness" again: the game is so, so stupid, but it's magnificent in its earnestness. I don't think there's a scrap of real dialogue in the game, either. And this is really what I intended to say before: it all comes down to authenticity, and most people are really sensitive to that, because we are people, and we are capacious and generous in that the heart is the living room of the brain.

P.S. I almost want to delve into the subject of violence and banality, because John Peter posted a blockquote that really moved me, but I think I've already spent my real estate here. Thanks, Matt!

May 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJenn

I think the comments about Crackdown and similarly "dumb but earnest" games are spot-on. It turns out, games that are content to be dumb in a very straightforward and earnest way are still incredibly fun, and we never want to see them go.

But this attitude is secondary to the main point. Crackdown is fun, but serious games should also exist, but they seem very difficult for AAA studios to make.

May 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMalky

I'm very sorry I was grumpy in my first post, folks. I didn't mean to sound like I was attacking any specific person.

It IS good to praise games for displaying some intelligence and creative audacity... if we never did that, creators would have far less incentive to create such games. So it's a balancing act. The tone of our critiques are important: "Yes, it's good that this thing is interesting, but the rest of the game falls behind it...", etc.

"Well, it sounds very nice when you put it that way."

This is really the crux of the matter. Gamers, developers, and certainly press all want games they can love and find worthy of their highest praise. It helps us feel intelligent and cultured, like we're involved with a medium that is doing important, serious things. Writing a particularly clever reading of something helps us feel clever.

However, we must never confuse this as the highest good. The cleverness of a writer should never be exalted above the cleverness of an actual game. The more out of sync those get, the more we are lowering the bar for future creators in a very real way - eg, "go ahead and create an idiotic, overreaching mess of a game, we know what you meant to do and will sing your praises as if you'd actually achieved that. I will sound supremely clever figuring out how to spin this for you."

This has and will continue to create an insular, apologetic culture that will be the oblivion of our medium.

May 3, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJP

"Games" generally involve competition. While violence is definitely an overused means of expressing this, it's easy to see why it's so often utilized. Interactivity generally involves freedom in the sense of a participant's agency. Narratives generally prune away possibilities no matter how "open". It's not a direct opposition, but it's a difficult marriage at best and clearly conventional approaches are starting to dead-end.

One thing, however, should be clear: Dear Esther isn't the answer. It's just as miserable a failure as Vanquish... except at the other extreme. To suddenly posit faux-profundity-on-rails as the only answer to thickheaded AAA shooters is to commit the cardinal sin of false dichotomy and to insult the diversity and complexity of video games (and the various experiences they provide) that already exist.

But good job overcorrecting for Clark's mistakes so badly you ended up almost as far off the mark. At least you've got plenty of like-minded people to keep you company.

May 4, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterG. L.

JP: Just to be clear, when Terry said that, *I* was the one who was being very silly. The game really did not need my reassurance or intervention; it is a good game without me. I feel like I should stress this since we're now abusing that quote, as if it were an actual interview quote and not just something I'm recounting, in our comments.

This said, I think I'm beginning to lose my tenuous grasp, even only in the course of this conversation, on what I am and am not permitted to say about a game. I mean, I do take your point, but how much insight is too much insight, please? Is there a concrete line drawn somewhere?

May 5, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJenn

The problem of combat being so central to video games is actually very similar to the same issue in pen 'n' paper RPGs. The central point there is that in the vast majority traditional RPGs, combat is the most mechanically complex part of the game and resolving fights takes a disproportionately large amount of time. The two most common solutions are to strip down the combat mechanics, or to frame combat as a form of conflict and come up with a system that is used to resolve all conflicts, whether physical combat, a verbal negotiation or something else entirely.

The first method works pretty well for RPGs, although it tends to require a much greater degree of creative input on the part of the players who do still want to engage in combat. If pretty much every fight is going to come down to the same dice rolls, you better be good at visualising and describing exciting fight scenes or it's going to get dull, fast. The second works well for some, but I dislike the way it adds mechanical complexity to actions I'm used to being handled in a much simpler fashion. Busting out a set of conflict resolution rules every time I want to persuade someone isn't my kind of fun. I'd rather just role-play it out or, if absolutely necessary, make a simple skill check or two.

Applying the same solutions to video games just exacerbates the flaws in each. If we simplify or strip away the combat, the game can suddenly become rather dull, or even cease to be a game, in the strictest sense of the word, entirely. Mass Effect is sometimes referred to as "guns and conversation". If we decide we want to make a Mass Effect-like sci-fi game without so much shooting, we're just left with conversation. A game that consists of nothing but wandering around talking to people until you do it in the right order is going to be pretty boring. Without the guns to balance the conversation, there is no real tension or challenge.

The alternative is adding game elements to activities that usually lack them. As with RPGs, I'm not sure that's something that I want. Taking my Mass Effect without shooting example, is making a game out of the conversations appealing? Is hammering buttons every time the player wants to achieve something in a conversation, whether reassurance, persuasion or intimidation, actually going to be fun? Or is the player going to be frustrated by their ability to portray a character being hampered by the need to succeed in some kind of mechanical challenge?

I think the only way narrative games can be made smarter is by making them better simulations. We're still very much at a "Choose Your Own Adventure" stage of narrative, with obvious branching points, or a few details changing in a fairly fixed story. Until we're at the point that the interaction between characters and the world they inhabit is complex enough to carry a narrative on its own, we're not going to be able to go beyond piggybacking stories on action-based mechanics that they don't particularly mesh well with.

May 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBigJonno

Dwarf Fortress. Let story emerge from procedural generation and play.

May 6, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterefnord

Sorry, Matt, but I think,

1) Your argument, while clever, is nonsense
2) Y'all didn't hire good writers for the games you mentioned in your article

Here's what I mean:

So, your argument is that it is difficult for writers, who have never killed another human being, to write "good" characters that kill other human beings because of the mechanics of the medium they're writing in, as opposed to their (the writers') lack of experience with killing? Am I correct in that assessment? If I am: are you kidding me?

I mean I get the connection you're making with it being difficult to write characters for a game when those characters spend most of their time killing. I get that, and I agree with that. But, that has nothing to do with the inherent mechanics of games and more to do with the old artistic rule: Write What You Know. I doubt that any of those game writers have killed another human being; I doubt they have killed multiple human beings; I doubt they have killed multiple human beings as a method of achieving an unrelated goal. I am also willing to bet that a large majority of them have not even deliberately killed another mammal. So of course when these people try to write a character that kills people they can't rely on their own experience, so they fall back on what they are familiar with: silly, unrealistic, and "dumb" action story clichés.

Which brings me to point 2. Clearly these "real writers" you mention weren't talented, skilled, or versatile writers. Hell, I'm going to go so far as to say that they weren't even "real" writers. If they were then they would have remembered the adage "Write What You Know", would have realized that they know dick-all about killing people, and then would have written the characters with that understanding in mind (which in part would have involved dropping the pretentious "mulled over realistic internal conflicts" bullshit; you can't write "realistic internal conflicts" unless you've REALLY experienced them; ha ha, oh man, "mulled over realistic internal conflicts", what a bunch of bull, ha ha, who were those guys? Sophomore English majors with minors in Philosophy?).

So, what was the point where it all broke down? At the point where the writers didn't realize the limits of their sophomoric skill+experience.

May 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPhiltron

"The team was not a bunch of sniveling adolescent boys (a couple were, to be honest, but most were of the aforementioned good type"

An even bigger issue than the subjective "dumbness" of AAA computer games is the fact that they are written, overwhelmingly, by one sex. That's not to say that publishing houses are wholly bereft of female artists, team leads, and developers. However, read the credits to a AAA title sometime (apologies in advance), and the imbalance is striking.

Returning to the point of your post, even if, somehow, intellectual honesty gains support amongst big budget developers, gamers will still be forced to view any of the new, "smarter" games through the lens of the male gaze.

May 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTottal

Absolutely. The inherent problem is that the mechanics need to work in tandem with the characters themselves, of course you can't write a human who shoots everything he sees, you can't, it's an impossibility. Nathan Drake cannot have intelligent writing, because the focus of course is his actions, which are extraordinarily *unintelligent*.

We have to create a game that explores more nuanced mechanics than killing things, really a game is a world, but the creator of that world can give it whatever characteristics he or she wants, it doesn't have to revolve around the rules of our Universe. The fact is, no one has tried to explore anything other than the obvious to entertain, every big budget is of course concerned above all with profits, understandably.

I think it's possible to explore other parts of the human psyche, to entertain intelligently, but we have to experiment to get there first. We need to make deeper worlds, with more feeling, and the deeper characters will follow.

May 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBananaoomarang

But.
What if the whole point of Vanquish is to be narratively ridiculous and abrasive? What if it's just a Guns N' Roses song?
http://bonmots-and-blood.com/2012/05/03/rock-n-roll-high-school/

May 6, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterbon mots & blood

Have you played the Witcher 2? It still falls short in a lot of ways, but I think it's the closest we have to making interesting characters, interesting plot and interesting conflict working together. It probably helps that it's based on a series of novels. The combat makes some sense, as you are killing monsters, and most of the humans you fight have context (war etc).

Just make sure to play it with the polish audio and english subtitles, because some of the english voice acting is awful (mostly all the incidental characters).

May 6, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterdude

Just wanted to say, great post. This has been a really interesting, productive discussion.

Vanquish, I think, is a perfectly chosen example to highlight for this. I agree with Clark -- it's poorly written. I agree with you -- we can't graft good story onto it due to the mechanics. I think the solution is: Admit that such games do not warrant and cannot support compelling narrative, so cut it out. We all skip those cutscenes, anyway. They add nothing and more often detract from our enjoyment of the brilliant mechanics. So why include them at all?
Basically, we can't judge games purely on their mechanics unless the mechanics are all that is there to judge. If your game will buckle under the weight of narrative, maybe just give it theme or context -- Cannabalt comes to mind here. Cannabalt tosses you into the thick of... something. You immediately grasp why you're running. The background animations convey urgency and danger and lend a depth that a simple one-button running game really wouldn't have based on mechanics alone. Yet it does not, could not, support narrative. It is a "smart" game.

That said, people who are implying that narrative is antithetical to ALL games need to, honestly, broaden their horizons. Video games are capable of being more and doing more than simply being electronic sports or board games. They can be a medium that's generative with respect to story and capable of communicating ideas and emotion. Of course, what they can't do is everything at once, and the sooner developers jettison the idea of narrative as a necessity, the better.

May 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDysphemism
Comments for this entry have been disabled. Additional comments may not be added to this entry at this time.