More cut-scenes at 11...back to you Jane!
November 8, 2003 11:52 PM   Subscribe

“In a world being torn apart by international conflict, one thing is on everyone’s mind as they finish watching the nightly news: 'Man, this would make a great game.'”, yikes. Playing headline based games could put you in some uncomfortable shoes indeed. I've played wargames that made me really want to not be in a real one - maybe this needn't be as vile a concept at it seems at first blush. But maybe games can't give the nuanced, serious treatment of such topics as, say, movies such as Benini's "Life is Beautiful"
posted by freebird (14 comments total)
In my view, it's critics, more than anyone else, who are impeding the progress of games into art.

Proposing non-replayable "ephemeral" games for the sake of forcing players to face the consequences of their actions? Give me a break. The entire potential of games lies in the ability of the audience to interact with the "artwork" in dynamic ways, including enhancing their experience through repeated interactions (during which they can also consider the consequences of decisions made by their previous incarnations). Frasca's mistake lies in trying to fit a round narrative peg into the square hole of an interactive system. Narratives are most effective when the author has control over its components; the art in narrative lies precisely in how and how well this manipulation is used. It is quite possible to have an engaging, primarily narrative game, but games should not and must not be constrained by notions of narrativity borrowed from other media.

Games, by their nature, are participant-centric. They are systems. Meaningful interaction between the game and the "player" doesn't have to be forced through ridiculous measures like "you can only play this game once". Game designers can allow for "nuanced, serious treatment of topics" within games by giving the participant, surprise surprise, a nuanced, serious, multifaced, and most importantly, engaging way of interacting with the system that they've built. Assuming that the system is worth interacting with, of course.

Which explains why that September 12th "game" (also by Frasca) was such a failure--both as a game and "treatment of a topic". (I've seen far more engaging political cartoons, of which this was but an animated version.) The interaction was minimal, and the system was ludicrously simplistic to the point of being uninteresting (and more than capable of being adequately represented without any interactivity whatsoever). Realism, relevance, "seriousness"--those should all be subservient to actual gameplay within, you know, a game, just as a novel's language cannot afford to fail to engage the reader in some meaningful way, plot be damned.

The day that serious games are worth playing will be the day that serious games are taken seriously.
posted by DaShiv at 3:02 AM on November 9, 2003

suplementary link:
the ever wonderful grandtextauto.
posted by juv3nal at 3:22 AM on November 9, 2003

Well said, DaShiv.

Personally, I'm always surprised when people wish for games to be taken seriously. Any time a medium is taken seriously, society then tries to enforce its norms, and it gets a lot harder to make an independent statement.

When games are taken seriously, then Congress will have to respond to pressure groups scrutinizing games to make sure they have proper respect for human life and racial diversity. An industry consortium will then adopt a "voluntary" code of conduct, and the possibility of games that actually say anything will disappear. But at least we'll have serious games about social issues that are suitable for children and compatible with the culturally sanctioned definition of meaningfulness that you can see on Oprah.

Interesting that he uses Maus as an example, because mainstream comics were taken seriously and therefore sanitized back in the 50s. Maus was originally published in installments in an underground 'zine that wasn't taken seriously and didn't follow the code. That's what allowed Speigelman to get away with an unflattering portrait of a Holocaust survivor, an unacceptable idea at the time. The books and acclaim came much later.

Game designers with artistic aspirations should be careful what they wish for.
posted by fuzz at 4:57 AM on November 9, 2003

Freebird let me counter your claim a little more succinctly than the other posters:

Purchase and play "Planescape: Torment", and then come talk to me about games not giving nuanced treatments to serious subject matter. PST tops most philosophy books I've read in its handling of the philosophical landscape.

The fact that MOST games do not give delicate treatment to their subject matter is the fault of the market in the majority of cases, and the fault of the developers in the rest. There is nothing inherently limiting about the medium and we have physical proof.
posted by Ryvar at 6:30 AM on November 9, 2003

Ryvar: I loved Planescape, but wouldn't call it a serious, nuanced treatment of anything. Are you sure we played the same game? Mine had a floating skull that followed me around trying to pick up girls.

I think what freebird is asking is if it's possible or acceptable to make good games about subjects which normally would be considered "too serious" for play. I don't know... I don't think I've played any.
posted by Voivod at 9:33 AM on November 9, 2003

The fact that MOST games do not give delicate treatment to their subject matter is the fault of the market in the majority of cases, and the fault of the developers in the rest.

The fact is that most human endeavors do not give delicate treatment to their subject matter, because this is core human behavior; why should games be any different?
posted by billsaysthis at 10:45 AM on November 9, 2003

Yep, I for one am making no claims about whether games can or should be taken seriously, nor address serious matters. I think the question is ill-posed and will leave it at that.

Mainly, I was intrigued by the concept of current news events being cranked out as game content. There seems a potential for unbelievable trivialization, obviously, and I suspect that's where this is headed. On the other hand, current news sources can already be accused of trivialization, and I can imagine immersive games that actually deepen understanding of the experience. What if game missions *were* much more like real events - the horrors of being on either end of friendly fire, say. Or just a glimpse what it's like to actually be on a modern battlefield - yipe!

Of course, it looks as though you can only play the Americans, and experience "our soldiers' acts of patriotism and bravery as never before possible", so a balanced, empathetic view may not be the goal. But what if you could experience some Shock n' Awe as well, or maybe even some bravery and patriotism from the "Bad Guys" perspective?

I do know that Close Combat made me *never* want to charge a machine gun nest, or think that WWII battles were really glorious, maybe even better than any 'antiwar' movie..."SARGE! Saaaaarrrrge......"

on preview, good points about the downside of being 'taken seriously'. So have, say, Science Fiction and Comix been destroyed by their success, or has it gotten easier for people to publish interesting work?
posted by freebird at 11:46 AM on November 9, 2003

Voivod: We didn't play the same game perceptually.

Planescape had 11 factions each of which represented a different real-life philosophy (or in a couple cases religions) and not only provided indepth alternate-context examination of them, but had quests which were explicitly meant to highlight the nuances of each.

There was certainly fun, and low-brow, window-trapping here and there if you were into it, but the majority of the game was like an infinitely more entertaining and interactive version of Sophie's World.
posted by Ryvar at 4:21 PM on November 9, 2003

What I enjoyed most about Planescape: Torment is that compared to other games where the goal is to avoid death by getting stronger while hacking down everything in your path, it uses quite a different framework by which the consequences of one's actions are considered. As an immortal character, any actions the Nameless One undertakes that results in his own death is less-than-relevant, but how they affect others become the measure by which these decisions are judged. That his ethos and alignment changes dynamically in response to the decisions he makes (in addition to other gameplay elements like which of the disparate faction(s) he chooses to associate himself with) rounds out the experience of the game as an inquiry into how our actions shape our identity and change the ways we affect the world and its inhabitants. Supposedly the upcoming game Fable, from Peter Molyneux, will be much along the same lines, and IMO this line of inquiry is well-suited to an interactive medium.

Or you can just look at Planetscape: Torment as a game where Morte follows you around while cranking out necrophilia jokes. ("Did you see that zombie? She was totally checking me out!") Some people think that Picasso's Guernica looked like it was drawn by a schoolkid, and more power to them, even though others have found the painting much more rewarding than that. I don't know if Planescape: Torment is truly "art", but at the minimum it succeeds as a game by being extremely playable and engaging, and that's enough for me.
posted by DaShiv at 6:47 PM on November 9, 2003

an inquiry into how our actions shape our identity and change the ways we affect the world [...] where Morte follows you around while cranking out necrophilia jokes. ("Did you see that zombie? She was totally checking me out!")

Oh man, now you gonna get all faux-Pynchonesquelike up in here, and take games seriously and totally destroy them. I think GTA speaks truth to power in the sense that, as a scathing indictment of post-capital(ist) love, it reifies the other while juxtaposing it with drowing in a burning porche with pimps shooting you.

actually you've convinced me Planescape needs checking out, as I've heard elsewhere.
posted by freebird at 8:58 PM on November 9, 2003

Drowning. The drowing is just in the Underdark:Panopticon expansion.
posted by freebird at 9:01 PM on November 9, 2003

I've never read Pynchon. Been too busy playing games, really. Literature that aspires too hard to be canonized is something I have only so much patience for, in small doses. You know, how videogames shortens one's attention span, etc.
posted by DaShiv at 9:32 PM on November 9, 2003

q.v. 911 Survivor [thread]
posted by dhartung at 10:10 PM on November 9, 2003

Literature that aspires too hard to be canonized is something I have only so much patience for

Indubitably. Just remember that not everything that ends up in the canon 'aspired too hard' to be there - some of it is actually very good.
posted by freebird at 11:31 AM on November 10, 2003

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