Friday, April 27, 2012

Patterns and Sociology

It's interesting that a discussion can be boring and trite at 140 characters, but interesting at 1400.

Some folks on Twitter were trying to, again, discuss games and movies and what makes them similar and different. In this case, @spiralchris was talking about movies that were painfully similar (such as Seven Samurai being the basis for about eight other movies) and games that were painfully similar (such as San Andreas and Saints Row).

He got stuck up on patterns, which is when I decided to not bother to say anything on Twitter. Talking about the fact that there are patterns is like saying that everything you buy at the mall is made of matter, so therefore what is the difference between buying carrots vs shirts?

But the fundamental idea - that very similar movies are exposed as copies while very similar games are thought of as just being in the same genre - is one that has come up recently for me as well.

To be honest, I don't really think that similar movies are considered copies while similar games are not. Quite the opposite: nearly every movie that comes out is basically identical to an earlier movie. We talk about Saints Row and San Andreas being similar, but we don't hold it against them. Well, we talk about soap operas - so formulaic they can literally be written by a machine. But we don't hold it against them. Well, I do, but the target audience doesn't.

It's only when you realize that the chain hopped a few links that it becomes an issue. The Seven Samurai spawned a genre, and you didn't even realize it. So when you realize it, you're like, "whoa! Look at that! Look at how much movie A copied from movie B! Crazy!" Never mind that movies C and D are much closer together - there's no missing links between C and D so there's no sudden realization.


I do think we would benefit from making our inspirations a bit clearer. The great myth is that creativity is about new ideas springing full-formed from your skull like Athena. In truth, creativity is mostly about using something you saw somewhere to do something that means something to you.

Let's talk in concrete terms. Star Wars is an extremely popular movie franchise. A huuuuge amount of science fiction culture is derived from Star Wars, but people generally make the effort to conceal their inspiration. For example, Mass Effect is strongly influenced by Star Wars - a high council that dominates politics, knight errants, a mystical power few can use, a sinister evil that warps minds to dark action, aliens who are at that halfway stage one step more than Star Trek and one step less than real aliens, politics as a critical but largely ignored part of the universe... but it's all hidden. Mass Effect is "creative" because it is a "new science fiction setting".

One of the pieces of Star Wars I always really liked was the idea that you can fall to the dark side without even realizing it. Pathetic attempts to do good/evil duality don't have anything on that.

Now, I've written some tabletop RPGs about that concept, but the question I've always had to face is "how far do I have to distance myself from Star Wars to make this game acceptable to the gaming community? It's a concept Star Wars raises, the actual implementation is completely new, but... should it be about cool space knights with glowing swords? Or should I make it about, I dunno, fairies and elves? I'm a science fiction guy, but any science fiction will stink of Star Wars if I make it about this concept..."

There are certain things we consider to be "off limits", probably because of their highly successful legal campaigns. Doom and GTA started genres, but we don't consider those genres to be wholly a part of the Doom and GTA franchises. Similarly, a guy and a girl meeting up and having a rocky start with a sweet ending is a genre, and we don't consider "Sleepless in Seattle" or whatever to be the dominating force in the genre.

But Star Wars and a few others... they should have started up a new genre, but didn't. Magically, they actually killed their genre. The Space Opera genre more or less died when Star Wars became popular.

So, me? I say "fuck it". There's no shame in being clear about your inspirations. There should be shame in hiding them.

1 comment:

Random_Phobosis said...

Well, if you consider that the games (as well as movies, books, music and basically everything) are a form of message, then we use patterns to encode some kind of meaning in the media, for our player to decode it.

If you only use "old" patterns, then upon decoding them the player won't find anything interesting.
On the other hand, if all the patterns are "new", then the message will be too alien for the player to decipher and understand.

The most obvious example probably is music: most people tend to stick to familiar genres (because they already have a vocabulary to understand the message), but seek out new, similar artists ('cause listening to the same pattern all the time is boring).
Diving into new music genre can be very hard, because the message you have no means to decode appears as noise - in this case, literally.

So it's probably wise to strike some kind of balance and use familiar conventions, tropes and cliche while simultaneously exploring uncharted territories.