Down the Rabbit Hole


I left a comment earlier today over at Shamus’ site, on his response to Bioshock:

Bioshock being a disappointment is no surprise to me.
Ever since game graphics have gotten good enough to simulate the cinematic experience of watching a movie, gameplay and storyline have suffered. [Not that storyline was ever consistently good in videogames either.]

My theory is due to the profit-driven and highly expensive nature of videogames today, there’s too much of an investment to allow a bunch of random nerds to deliver something kind of experimental which explores the videogame medium’s use of gameplay and story as a unified thing. Instead we get cutscene emulations of an entirely different medium which people already have plenty of knowledge on how to experience (movies), and barely noticeable innovation in gameplay mechanics… Or no innovation in gameplay mechanics, or steps backward in gameplay mechanics. Wouldn’t want to step on the toes of the ‘cinematic’ experience by forcing players to fiddle about inside an inventory menu. Managing inventory isn’t cinematic!

One of my favorite bloggers and culture critics, Michael Blowhard of 2Blowhards, has talked on occasion about what he sees as a “videogamization” (my term) of movies and other media. According to Michael a lot of these trends of things bleeding over from videogames into movies, television, advertisement, and so on. As my comment belies, this is actually one area where I think Michael is wrong — I see videogames doing very little pollination into other mediums, and a lot of pollination from other media coming in to videogames.

As you can also probably tell from my comment, I think this is a bad thing. Videogames are an interesting medium in that they can do almost anything — Games don’t even need a protagonist or a story, you can have a pure challenge. Things that don’t work well in books or movies, such as leaving the main character as a cipher, work perfectly well in games. On the other hand, you can just as easily copy the cinematic style of a movie, or you can make a videogame (a hypertext) that is entirely text-based like a novel, or any combination you wish in between.

The problem is that the industry has taken this turn, urged on by publishers who control their cash flow, of going specifically in one direction. Videogames need to be big, cinematic experiences. Who cares if the gameplay itself is shallow, the characters are sketchy, the story is full of holes, and the atmosphere is mediocre. Explosions, John Williams-style soundtracks, and a big marketing budget will sell these games. Gears of War alone sold millions based on XBox360 fanboyism and an advertising campaign using a song from a popular “unpopular” movie.

Ken Levine of 2K games had this to say:

“I can pretty much guarantee to you that if BioShock wasn’t successful, there never would have been another game like this,” the industry luminary told UK site

Really? There would have never been another FPS-RPG without BioShock? Frankly, I find that hard to believe. Would there never have been another billion-dollar FPS with lukewarm RPG elements? I’m skeptical of that claim too. The videogame literati are disproportionately drawn to good games, and so there will always be more of a demand for games to follow in the footsteps of those games. But the videogame literati also don’t particularly care about games with billion dollar budgets appealing to the unwashed masses of subhuman console fanboys if it means sacrificing (or shoving off to the side) features they liked.

3 Responses

  1. Yeah, I see exactly the same trend in video games in general where cinematic style are being prioritized over everything else, which is quite unfortunate to me.

    Frankly, if I want great cinematic experience, I’d watch a cinematic movie. If I want a great story, I’d read a great novel. But when I play a video game, I’d want to enjoy the gameplay and challenges within it. A great story and great visual presentation in a video game are lagniappe for me; the gameplay experience is where it’s at for me.

    And this is where Bioshock really failed for me. I think, with some work, it could make a rather intriguing movie. But as a game, it failed to really catch me. The game play itself just felt repetitious to me and it seemed I was only going through the motions just to keep the story moving.

    At least there are mainstream games with decent gameplay out there, like the Half-Life 2 series or Call of Duty 4, even if they do suffer from being linear for the sake of the story.

    Granted, I really haven’t been playing that many games these days, even if I do have the system to run them at high quality. I guess I started to feel I’d never really recapture those experiences where I’d be spooked as all hell when clicking the next turn button in a tight mission in X-Com or hoping that my newly designed ships are actually superior to my enemies in the upcoming space battle in Master of Orion (two games that are neither cinematic experiences and basically have just enough story to setup and keep the gameplay moving along).

    …Well, I thought I wouldn’t ever. The Rampant Coyote did point out ArmA (or Armed Assault), a tactical first person shooter that goes as far as it can go, with a small development team, to give the player the experience of war without putting them through boot camp. And it has managed to get me hooked on it (especially the coop multiplayer) without featuring great cinematic scenes or even much of a story. Really intense game (more so than X-Com was to me), and a real blast to play with a good group of people with.

  2. Thanks, I’m glad I’m not the only person who feels this way. So much of the reaching for the ideal of movies wastes the interesting potential of games to tell different types of stories, and ignores the different demands of the medium compared to movies.

    Just as an example, the Halo game series features a main character whose face is never revealed. This isn’t an impossible thing to do in a movie (V in V for Vendetta did not have his face shown, for example), but the effect in a movie is entirely different from the game. Halo’s Master Chief is largely a blank slate for the player to inhabit, and the choice of not showing his face (and rarely having him speak) facilitates that. In a movie these techniques are going to have the opposite effect. Not showing his face and downplaying his dialogue are choices that will emphasize otherness, not make him a vessel to be inhabited by the persona of the viewer.

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