Tuesday, February 05, 2008


Although this blog is focused on game design, I have a lot of other interests such as art and music (and detective novels). One of the things I notice is that these other things can create a really strong "sense" that I don't see in games.

For example, if you look at a really great science fiction story, the whole thing revolves around a specific set of images. A faraway planet with a tremendous red sun, a scientist's lab with ten-foot beakers full of monsters, a battle between titanic space ships... these images account for much of the "punch" of the story, and each evokes a particular sense on its own.

This is true of most things that aren't games. While most movies, music, comics, and so forth are shallow crap, you can find plenty of examples that are deeply moving in some way.

But... I don't really see that in games.

There are a few games that try, but very, very few succeed. On the order of only two that I can think of.

There's a difference between this and making a statement. Plenty of games make a statement, but I don't care about that. I'm talking about making the audience feel something strongly from the game, not feel something strongly because of what the game says about modern life.

The more I think about it, the more I think that the answer lies in the dynamics of the medium - playing to the strengths of the medium.

For example, I can draw a nice picture of something. A faraway planet with a city of pyramids, say. My skill isn't the greatest thing since sliced bread, but I definitely feel that there is a sense there. A sense of the feeling I'm going for.

Now, if instead I choose to draw a comic, the same image has less appeal. It is much weaker to me, as if it's suddenly just a backdrop.

Well, that's because it is suddenly a backdrop. It's just one panel.

But comics can portray strong imagery, too. Not in the same way, and probably not the exact same things, but they can do it. They do it differently.

While an illustration works by filling out the page in a single, immersive moment, a comic's strength lies in the artist's control over the passage of time and space. So the comic would build a similar feeling using multiple, smaller, probably more focused images carefully arranged such that they "fill in" the overall imagery bit by bit, forming a strong, deep impression.

A movie or animation is similar, except that the artist has less control over the passage of time and space. This is in some ways good - there's a much finer grain to the passage - but is in some ways bad - you can't jump around as easily and clearly as a comic can.

Even simple changes like whether you use black and white or color (even what kind of color technology you use) changes your medium enough that you need to be careful when portraying your imagery. Careful to use the medium as it is best used, rather than as your habits dictate.

You can also make the argument that a momentary image in a movie or comic (a scene, roughly) is very different from the overall movie... but, again, I think that the overall movie depicts something using scenes in the way that scenes are depicted using shots and shots are depicted using lights and lenses and actors and settings.

The question is, why don't we see this more in games?

It's more than simply not having any artistic games. We have many artistic games these days, ranging from text adventures to RPGs even to action games. Most of these games suck pretty hard, though, and almost none of them give you a feeling. Instead, they simply make a statement. There is also an unprecedented level and quality of art in major titles, but, again, it falls flat.

I think the problem is that people are not using the medium. Instead, they are using the methods other mediums use.

For example, in Mass Effect, when you land on a planet it is gorgeous. It looks so good. If Mass Effect were a movie, you would be blown away by the beauty of these desolate landscapes.

But in the game, it means very little. You're busy driving your little truck over all sorts of bumpy ground, and you don't really get to look around much. The sky might as well be white static for all it matters.

It's like a comic: an illustration can be beautiful, but it's just a backdrop in a comic. Instead, a comic uses the ability to hop through time and space to structure a moment more fully.

The physical beauty of a game is just a backdrop. To make an image properly, you need to use the inherent strength of the medium: the way the game plays.


Problem is, moments don't last very long. A beautiful image isn't a ten-hour experience.

Of course, neither is a movie a single beautiful scene.

So... the next step, past The Marriage and Passage, is to use play bits in the same way that a movie uses scenes. Not exactly like movies use scenes, because games aren't movies and bits of play aren't scenes. But... similarly.

I think?


Patrick said...

You are correct.

Scott said...

I get what you're saying, and agree wholeheartedly. However, I'm not sure exactly how you think a videogame ought to go about taking advantage of its medium in the same way a movie or comic would. Do you have any further thoughts on the matter?

Also, which two games? The one that springs to mind for me is Half-Life 2, but again I'm not quite sure what quality you're describing.

Craig Perko said...

Well, I think that Passage might be an example of the vague direction we might go. I think Half Life 2 is an example of creating art in spite of the medium, sort of like recording a really great Broadway musical and then calling it a movie.

The problem is that this is pretty much a new field, regardless of how old it feels to some people. We can look at comics now and say, "oh, the idea of panels was THE way to go, it opened up such a dramatic new way of thinking about things!"

But comics were around for thousands of years before panels were invented. Even the Egyptians used comics. The media basically languished, relegated to "story illustrations" until the advent of panels. Panels allow even beginners to understand the medium, understand what they can do, how they can express themselves in a medium-specific way.

Games have been around for even longer, of course, but computer games are a very different beast, like the difference between comics and story illustrations.

We probably won't understand the best ways to use computer games until we radically change the way we think about how to play games, in the same way that panels radically change how we read comics.

I don't know what the answer is, obviously. But I have some ideas of what it might be.