Just a game

I’ve never been fond of television, but I recently started watching The Wire, which is a US drama concerning the battle between the police and drug dealers in Baltimore and how it affects different aspects of the city’s population. Critically acclaimed it’s one of the finest pieces of story telling I’ve ever had the privilege of watching, exquisitely written with some incredible acting. Given its theme I compared it to the supposed Godfather moment gaming experienced last year when Grand Theft Auto 4 finally hit households and Grand Theft Auto came up embarrassingly short in comparison in terms of quality of narrative despite being an utter joy to play. It made me wonder why is gaming still lagging behind TV, literature, stage and cinema in terms of simply telling a story when you consider the financial gains, technological advances and mainstream acceptance of gaming made in the past decade?

For me the inherent problem gaming has is that I’m never challenged by the narrative and Grand Theft Auto is a prime example of this problem. The promise made by Rockstar going in was that it’d be a different type of game to its predecessors which often reeked of a simplistic rags to riches plot augmented by pop culture

references and somewhat crude humour. To begin with the promise seemed to be delivered with a character driven look into the lives and problems of the immigrant in America enhanced by delicious writing and the best voice acting heard in gaming. Yet after five to ten hours it fell away, the character of Niko changed from being a man having a crisis of morality in the crime world to a murdering psychopath doing anything for money and the plot fastened to the rails of the previous Grand Theft Auto games as you, as usual, began working for the Mafia. The world even began to lose consistency as the more serious plot clashed with the traditional Grand Theft Auto crude humour found on the TV and radio. How can I consider the conversation I’m having with Roman about war atrocities serious if an advert for America’s Next Top Hooker is on in the background. Of course familiarity is comfortable and it didn’t force me to loathe the game in the same way a shockingly new plot point would have but it’s apparent fear to challenge was intensely disappointing. For five to ten hours I was indulging in not just an interactive movie but one that was damned enjoyable and held intellectual worth, it fell down when Grand Theft Auto 4 started being a game and stopped being a story. After all, Niko approaching and turning down jobs for moral grounds isn’t as fun as coldly blowing away dozens of cops even if it makes for a more complex character and people bought the game to have fun. As long as games though are viewed as just for fun we’ll never approach the moment when they are no longer just games.

But then perhaps I’m looking at this at the wrong angle. After all in cinema we don’t look to Hollywood for a deep moving experience, Hollywood is the domain of the mindless summer blockbuster and it’s the lower budget indy films that invariably provide the quality these days. Last year saw Braid light up the gaming landscape with what could be argued as the perfect artistic gaming mix of music, plot, sound and gameplay. This is a game that had the legendarily harsh wilderness that is the internet gaming community performing textual analysis and formerly smutty podcasts having group discussions on symbolism in the game. Unlike Grand Theft Auto 4 this was a story first and foremost with a message and real artistic worth. Unlike Grand Theft Auto 4 this was made by one man and will cost you just 1200 Microsoft Points. Crucially though it shows where the line between high quality cinema and games is blurring, namely XBLA and PSN. They may be providing simple puzzle games and retro remakes but with titles like Braid could that be where we find our future Cannes Film Festival highlights?







14 responses to “Just a game”

  1.  avatar

    Watching the Wire? You’re in for a rare treat. I couldn’t watch it without subtitles, but believe me when I say that Omar, Clay Davies, The Bunk, Marlo, Prezbylewski, Herc, both of the mayors, Duquan, Bubbles, Snoop and a host of other characters are some of the best characters ever.

    Good on you for pimping The Wire. It has to be watched by everyone.


  2. Andrew avatar

    How about any, you know, older games. From what I know of GTA IV, it is typically a lot like older ones – especially the disconnect between personality, plot, story and gameplay – as you said, merciless killing..

    But how about Hitman, Thief, Max Payne 2, Deus Ex, Baldur’s Gate…nevermind many point and clicks (Day of the Tentacle, Sam and Max, Full Throttle, Grim Fandango). There’s been real gems of gameplay intertwined with well written stories out there. Enjoyable ones which are not terribly deep might also include Half-Life 1 & 2, Call of Duty 4, Halo, Beyond Good & Evil…etc.

    Many stories which really only can be told well in games are above, especially ones heavily involving the character and choices (there’s tons I’ve missed of course).

    To me, I liked most of Braid’s gameplay, but the plot and story was utterly meh and unforgiving (and frankly to me totally disconnected from the gameplay). The stark contrast of both your two choices of what should be outstanding game stories are really odd considering the available resources though. πŸ™‚

  3. Andrew avatar

    Oh, and I forgot of course text based adventures – some say the peak of writing in games, where the disconnect between revealed story and gameplay were minute, and certainly cutscenes had no hold on what was said to a player.

  4. Snozzeltoff avatar

    The Wire is awesome, i’m just starting on the 2nd Season.

    “Good on you for pimping The Wire. It has to be watched by everyone.” – I totally agree.

  5. John.B avatar

    Well of course we will be able to find the games we personally feel have extremely high standards of writing (I’m surprised MGS hasn’t been brought up) but I feel my argument still stands. No game exists with quality writing as standard throughout. Some games have nice touches, some are hilarious and some manage to forward narrative styles (Prince of Persia Sands of Time being one) but none have the consistent depth and style of other styles of story telling. I could’ve compared GTA4 to the likes of Deus Ex, Bioshock, Half Life but GTA 4 for me is the much lauded example that best illustrates all these games. Great touches but never the whole package and certainly not for the whole game. It’s like when writing it a friend asked me about Mass Effect and if I should mention it, but similar to GTA4 it failed to come through on it’s promise of an advance. The speech options and way in which dialogue is handled is superb, but the plot is cliche’d and some of the acting suspect.

    I chose Braid precisely because it’s the antithesis of “hollywood” gaming, it’s the posterboy of low budget one man art games and it’s rare in that it’s gameplay is led by plot, and an abstract plot at that.

  6. MrCuddleswick avatar

    I completely disagree with you John B. I thought GTA IV had a very mature narrative that was often surprising. You criticised the story for abandoning Niko’s moral choices as the game went on, and painting him more and more as a murdering psychopath, but my interpretation was that Niko became consumed by his work, in a similar way to Michael Corleone. As in The Godfather, in the end it was the people that Niko cared about most that suffered, and he has to live with that.

    I love Braid but in terms of story telling I think it far from excels. It’s very intelligent and the themes are open to interpretation, which is good, but it’s really like the Mulholland Drive of gaming. Very smart, very stylish, but doesn’t connect with everyone it could because it’s too complex. I love Mulholland Drive and I love Braid, but I have equal respect for the likes of GTAIV and Bioshock because I get the impression that they’re also written by intelligent people who have something to say, but they’re wrapped up in a package and narrative that engages the maximum number of people.

  7. Andrew avatar

    I don’t see what being made by one person has to do wit antithesis of, cough, pretentious quote hollywood pretentious quote.

    The low budget thing – do you realise how many years, hours, and sheer amount of money Jonathan Blow spent? It was hundreds of thousands of dollars, not at all cheap. It has good production values because it did, really, take a lot of time and money. πŸ˜‰

    Anyway, how about text adventures? Ever played Zork or any of the classics? You seem to fully have no knowledge of any games from more then a few years ago which is a bit sad πŸ™

    I also never mentioned GTA IV or Bioshock as good writing πŸ˜‰

    I do admit, you might have a half a point that *in general* the emphasis on games isn’t the good writing (while many games don’t need it at all, some are in dire need of it). The point is that there have been some brilliant game stories – perhaps of limited genre, but still good to play, watch or read, where you seem to imply hollywood and TV is winning that battle.

    Generally one thing better done in those mediums is Drama, because people usually fail in dramas, which if you forced the player to do as often as the people on shows like The Wire does, it’d become unplayable and unfun. I think this is fine, although there might be a future niche for these more hardcore stories, the fact is; playing the loser is not fun πŸ™‚ even narratologists realise this. That barrier keeps a lot of “great” stories away from games – I don’t think anyone would want to play AS Citizen Kane, or BE the Godfather or his son, etc. etc. etc.

    You do simplify it both ways rather a lot. There needs to be more interaction in plots and stories then the simple cutscenes we’re still lumbered with (and MGS4 is the worst example of this), I think these and the limits I’ve pointed out are problematic for game stories, as is the fact you miss out a great amount of brilliantly written games from your analysis πŸ™‚ (I realise it might not be intentional for you to get in depth but you posted it here, so it’s up for discussion).

  8. John.B avatar

    “Very smart, very stylish, but doesn’t connect with everyone it could because it’s too complex.”

    This is a VITAL point and a fair one. Granted Braid is not for everyone, but that’s not the point. It’s a complex story and only those who are able and want to engage will. Does that make it a lesser experience than a blockbuster title for all, of course not.

    “Anyway, how about text adventures? Ever played Zork or any of the classics? You seem to fully have no knowledge of any games from more then a few years ago which is a bit sad”

    My knowledge of text adventures is admittedly limited, however my research for this post led me to discount them as simply speaking they have very little relevance in the modern era of gaming. Granted some showed nice touches, although when you are essentially writing a branching story it’s much easier than balancing plot and more advanced gameplay.

    You still speak of “great stories”. I never doubted there are good stories told in gaming, games that have swept me away but there’s a difference between a great story and something of true literary worth. You can have a game with a rip snortingly great story, great fun but has no worth. In gaming we have done arcade no brainers, we’ve done blockbuster but we’ve still never had a game with true depth. The same goes for the old Lucasarts games, hilariously funny but no depth and no point to telling it aside from accompanying the gameplay. It’s important to differentiate in this respect between good aspects of story telling, good stories and true pieces of artistic worth. Artistic worth is more than a fun story, or an innovative plot twist or narrative advancement.

    And for the record the simplification was due to word count, as was the choice to take GTA 4 and Braid as polar opposites. I could have done a series on game writing as there’s a lot there but I though it’d spark discussion. Jackpot.

    Double Oh, and Braid. Cost a few hundred grand? Halo 3 will have costs tens of millions. In of itself Braid is expensive, but compared to the market it’s cheap as chips.

  9. Andrew avatar

    No one single person on the Halo team was spending hundreds of thousands, to compare that cost. I doubt anyone apart from studio heads get hundreds of thousands a year to make a game. Compared to many, and I mean many games (and films) being made, especially indies (And many non-indies) it is extravagant spending, something Jonathan himself has commented on, and it shows in the game – you can hold it up as great, but not a cheap – because it is frankly far from it.

    Not everything is halo funded either – while there are large studios making the vast majority of chart toppers, there are a lot of middle-ground games you rarely think of, but in any case…

    I just can’t continue this discussion although it is an interesting one – your varying attitudes on what is “worthy” is so bemusing, I guess you think anything in black and white silent film is rubbish (“cheap!”, “made by so few people!”, “no depth!”, “no literay worth!”, “fun but no worth!”), no comedy has any depth (what?!), and that things must be drama like The Wire to be worth watching I …guess?

    Cest la vie, that’s your pretentious sounding opinion (especially on text adventures), because it sounds like you simply don’t like games or their writing, story, plot, characters, settings, genres or ideas, to be honest. Discussing their merits with one who blanket statements them is rather hard to put forward a point against, since you seem to refute them so, well, brashly I guess. πŸ™‚

    Some book critics still say film/TV never have “great” stories, and you sound like a film/TV critic saying games never have “great” stories. There are more then just the written narratives, plots, and dialogue written by writers that make great game stories, I haven’t even got into that side of it, and really there’s not much point continuing as I said, hehe.

  10. MrCuddleswick avatar

    I think in fairness to John b i don’t see him as pretentious or scoffing at older games at all. Saying that text based games of 15 or more years ago have little relevance to a discussion of the modern gaming market seems reasonable to me. I do disagree with the honourable article writer on the question of whether GTAIV has a good story with depth, and i’ve also got to mention Bioshock again. Surely any game that can pull the rug out from under the player so cunningly has some artistic depth to it? Let alone the adult themes, the consideration of philosophy and the artistry with which the game world was imagined and created. “Writing” a game shouldn’t just be about the narrative, it’s also about the bits inbetween the cut scenes as has been mentioned. The rare games like Bioshock may have the potential to have more power than films one day because they require so much more investment from the audience.

  11. John.B avatar

    With regards to my pretentious opinion, well that’s your view of me and I can’t really change it. All I can say is it’s wrong, I recognise older games value of course and have been into gaming for a good while now however when discussing story telling and the problems gaming has telling a story things like text adventures are almost in a different world to what gaming is now. I’d say the same is almost happening for point and click games, albeit Phoenix Wright and Hotel Dusk very much saved that genre with some interesting ideas on the DS.

    The rug pulling now, Bioshock. I didn’t see it coming and it was extremely well done. Now, this is a difficult thing to do yes and it does show a good aspect of writing. The general themes through Bioshock are also well fleshed out and the manner in which the story is explored (through the diaries) is interesting. However, after the rug pulling the story pretty much collapses into a “game” story and becomes cliche’d nonsense to the point where the final battle is a bit cringe worthy given the style and subtle aspects that occurred previously. That’s my problem with gaming, we’ve always had fantastic moments and some truely inspired touches but they always have to live with clunky story aspects in there to make for a better game and not a better story.

    A lot of this will be personal opinion of course, however what I started doing was looking past whether I enjoyed a story and treating it as I would a book and looking for depth. Worryingly, I found little.

  12. MrCuddleswick avatar

    Well, that’s just it, quite right. In almost every case the gameplay is separated from the story, and how to bring them together? I don’t know. They’re making a game not a film, so they’ve got to put things like bosses in i suppose. If they didn’t it might not work. That’s something that i thought at the time GTAIV had some success with-i felt myself really getting into the role of cold-blooded killer not just because of the characterisation in the cutscenes, but also because of the way niko moved and talked in gameplay. While i keep praising GTAIV, i’d have to agree that beyond that and maybe bioshock there’s not much else, and clearly not everyone agrees with me on even those two.

  13. Michael avatar

    Well, what an interesting debate! Having not given it as much thought as any of you (I have a thing of thinking as I write, sorry) when it comes to BioShock, the entire story (and themes) was tied into gameplay. There was so much choice – how to tackle enemies, what you did with the little sisters, whether you looked for the diaries, even the route you took to an extent. But, ultimately, you had no choice. I love that the whole game is crystalized in a single moment, a single cutscene. You think you have choice? No, you have to sit and watch the game’s only cutscene where control over your character is taken away. Fantastic! I do agree that the game after that went downhill. But, of course, how could you end the game?

  14. MrCuddleswick avatar

    True, true. Anything after the twist would have seemed almost irrelevant.

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