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The Value of Cinematic Experiences

February 18, 2011 Leave a comment

In its formative years of self-realization, video games have undergone constant reinventions and crises of identity as the industry and those who follow it attempt to give a concrete definition as to what games really, truly are. From time to time, games have been given the label “cinematic” or featuring “Hollywood blockbuster-scale action”. While this is certainly a telling indicator of how gaming has progressed, what’s more telling is how the term has almost evolved (or devolved, depending on your definition) into a slightly pejorative term that indicates non-interactivity or little to no player agency in a tightly scripted roller coaster of sights and sounds.

I don’t exactly like that Hollywood analogy, not so much from the fact that it seems more and more developers are becoming averse to taking risks and opting more to emulate the aesthetics of a non-interactive medium rather than incorporating those parts into a ludic whole; if anything, I dislike that analogy because it simultaneously glosses over a central rift between the two mediums and it sets up unrealistic terms for games in particular. As the cost of producing games and maintaining games as a hobby ramp up, gamers over the years have come to define their software purchases through pure value. Namely, if I pay $60 for a game, how many hours of meaningful playtime am I looking at?

 

 

This year, two of my more  memorable film-going experiences were Inception and Black Swan. One film is a cleverly plotted heist movie that challenges our perceptions of waking reality, while the other weaves a melodrama around the  fracturing sanity of an aspiring dancer dealing with pressure from all facets of her life. Inception has a runtime of 148 minutes, while Black Swan has a runtime of 108 minutes, or a 40 minute deficit compared to Inception’s. If we define these movies based on the value I procured, then Inception is hands down the better value. The action is faster, there’s more moments of interaction between the characters, more variety (a car chase, breaching a fortress, two stealth sequences, and gunfights peppered throughout), and it’s longer. And let’s not forget the winding plot, which brings more meaningful replay value (a second viewing to decipher all the hidden meanings).

I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that any movie critic that quantified his or her review scores in such a manner would likely be out of a job.  On the same note, I’d guess that any respectable critic working in the field of any artistic medium wouldn’t dare offer a review based on such a rubric of value. So, if we’re insisting as a collective audience that games are, regardless of Roger Ebert’s opinions, indeed an art form, why do we fail to treat it as such?

The comparison between film and games is a bit lazy, but I think influence of Hollywood on game design and production isn’t necessarily a bad thing. However, I believe that if gaming is to thrive as an art form on its own terms, developers are going to need to start redefining what it means for a game to have cinematic qualities. People showered praise and adulations upon Mass Effect 2 for its emotionally affecting, open-world gameplay and dialogue, but not all games can exist comfortably within this realm of open-endedness without feeling unnatural.  There’s still a great amount of potential in linear, scripted narratives in games, but I believe an equally great amount of creativity is required to reach this level of potential.

 

 

Narrative driven games are constantly striking the balance between story-telling and gameplay, with a caveat being the more immersive a game’s mythology is, the easier it is to see the cracks. Of particular note are games such as Uncharted 2 and Grand Theft Auto IV, two otherwise tightly plotted and well-written pieces of interactive storytelling that constantly break the fourth wall by reminding you that yes, this is in fact a game. GTA IV’s biggest flaw was the constant angel-and-devil-on-the-shoulder struggle the protagonist Niko Bellic was facing in terms of how the player played Niko versus how the designers conceptualized and edged along Niko’s story of revenge and redemption. Uncharted’s problem was also in the same vein; although the bottled animations and dialogue for Nathan Drake were superb and very naturalistic, the wholesale slaughter of literally thousands of mercenaries and treasure hunters at the hands of a supposed “everyman” made the game’s mythology that much harder to swallow.

A game like Ninja Theory’s criminally overlooked Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, on the other hand, is a step in the right direction partly because all the pieces and visible gears of the game are parts of a greater construct designed in deliberately in such a way so as to sidestep the traps of that disconnect between narrative and gameplay. All elements in the game, right down to the UI and mission blockers that serve to both pace the game and impede early progress are all explained in the form of the Slave Crown that the player character Monkey is affixed with at the beginning of the second chapter. The owner of the Slave Crown, a girl by the name of Trip, has her uses for Monkey and needs his agility and fighting skills to keep her alive. The catch is, if he wanders too far off or lets her die, the Slave Crown detonates, taking Monkey with him.  It is at this point a lively, fully animated HUD pops up on-screen; if you’re going to keep Trip alive, you’ll probably need to know how she’s doing health-wise.

Even the disembodied vertical camera shot that lays out all the traps of a room to the player is explained away as a mechanical dragonfly that scouts out dangers ahead for the player and his companion, while the robot sentries that are scattered about have one primary directive, which is to kill any bipedal organism with a pulse. The different enemy robot types that are encountered throughout the game are introduced within the first two or three chapters, and there’s little to no variation between them. There’s no difficulty ramp in terms of enemy strategy, but the combat does become more difficult due to the number of enemies fought in one segment and the size of the monster room. Awkward camera control not withstanding, the robots are pretty vicious, as each robot sentry the player comes across alternates between a series of attack combos and dodges, occasionally falling back to let his buddies step in and take a few swings. Early combat encounters are excellent; tough fights are overcome by controlling the tempo and rhythm of the battle. Later fights suffer from a tech tree imbalance, where putting all experience towards five or so specific attributes in staff and combat upgrades makes Monkey a counter-attacking, overdriving juggernaut, essentially negating any need to upgrade shields or health even a single notch. Many upgrades feel like a hanging afterthought. It almost feels as if the designers centered the majority of their attention on story and level design as a complement to story.

 

 

As expected, the most affecting part of the game is the relationship that arises out of the two main characters, Monkey and Trip, something potentially gimmicky that is handled maturely and with class. Enslaved writer Alex Garland takes the exact opposite of the Master Chief/Gordon Freeman school of character purpose; Monkey’s got a very distinct personality, as well as an unspoken code of ethics, and it’s clear he feels something for Trip. Moreover, the game’s script never takes the time to do lengthy exposition into Monkey’s past or set up scenarios rife with sexual tension or comedic mishap between the two characters so as to elicit some kind of response from the player. The player’s role in the game, then, is not so much an observer embodied by the avatar on-screen, but almost a silent guardian whose goal is to help Trip by using Monkey as a vessel. Because the characters are not so much likable or relatable as they are believable, the player’s motivation for seeing things through is more or less founded on a the level of curiously invested spectator; the motivations behind Monkey’s decision to help Trip even when she sets him free might not be one that the player shares, but it makes sense because it’s Monkey’s decision.

At the risk of succumbing to the “this-but that” formula of game criticism, I’m going to pull up the previous example of visible cracks in an otherwise spotless foundation. Many of Enslaved’s boss fight sequences require Monkey to chase down the rampaging berserk Dog enemy and get close enough to initiate a QTE-lite sequence to put the boss down once and for all. This is where Monkey’s Cloud device, a hoverboard-like tuft of matter that allows Monkey to jump, glide, and hover at increased speeds, comes in. Riding on the Cloud the first time is nothing short of a joyous affair: composer Nitin Sawhney’s wonderfully subdued score kicks in as the player discovers a new form of movement that provides even more freedom than Monkey’s normal Parkour-ish maneuvers. However, it is in providing the Cloud that Ninja Theory begins to pull down the tapestry around that fourth wall. The Cloud, as explained in the game, can only be called forth in areas without electro-magnetic interference. Fair enough. Also, because of its specifications and partly as a failsafe, the Cloud can only recognize Monkey’s weight and carry one person at a time, meaning Trip’s out of luck. Okay. That’s a good amount of mythology right there, but what the game fails to explain is the Mario Kart-styled “boosts” that are sprinkled throughout areas where the Cloud is available, giving a quick burst of speed when Monkey moves through one. Like waist-high barriers and walls in Gears of War that signal a firefight is about to take place, spotting a boost pocket is the surest indicator that a chase sequence and/or boss fight is about to commence.

It might sound unfair for me to nitpick on the game in this regard, because for the most part, Enslaved does what it does effectively, and with a good amount of heart. If anything, it’s yet another reminder of that rift I mentioned earlier. Cruise any movie’s page on imdb.com and you’ll see posted under the “goofs” section countless anachronisms, inconsistencies, and otherwise blunders that keen-eyed viewers spotted or heard in their viewing of that movie. The closest equivalent in the games industry might be a bug, but going off that, what can be said about Enslaved’s glaring inconsistencies? In this case, it’s more an aesthetic flaw than a technical one. And although I haven’t talked to anyone who’s played Enslaved yet, I can imagine a possible criticism of the game’s seemingly obvious focus of putting storyline and character over gameplay is, “If I wanted to experience a good story, I would watch a movie.” That’s a very valid point that I can’t argue with. But, for me, Enslaved is more than just a story layered over a shell of mediocre gameplay (despite some of my nitpickings, the game is, for the most part, a fun experience).

 

 

In my humble opinion, good game design isn’t just about compelling rules, goals, and mechanics to push players forward in achieving these goals. The key word here is “interactive.” Games also have the power to stimulate and trigger responses from simple tics to empathy on a deeper, more buried level. Take Gears of War and its cover system for example. The player relies heavily on the cover system and never questions any potential over-usage because in the player’s mind, taking cover is an absolute necessity. And on top of everything else, it works well, too, as taking cover is highly responsive, intuitive, and fluid. In my first playthrough, I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but it didn’t just make sense to take cover, it felt good. Really good. More than just well-timed animation, snapping into cover creates a certain sensation in the player. Just the right amount of dust is kicked up, there’s a slight affirmative grunt from Marcus (or Dom), and there’s a tangible tactile weight that is subtly communicated to the player through light haptic feedback in the controller vibration and barely noticable screen shake. The cover system isn’t just a game mechanic, it’s stimuli and it, for lack of better description, feels awesome. Enslaved, in turn, has its own deliberate design that is not accidental. When I came to the realization that I vaulted Monkey across a chasm to pull Trip up from falling to her death not out of fear of repeating the sequence again from a checkpoint, but out of an innate desire to protect my companion, it dawned on me that Ninja Theory was doing something, and they was doing it right.

I think there will always be a place for cohesive, tightly designed single-player games that don’t require a multiplayer mode or artificial gameplay lengthening, but in order for us to have more games like Enslaved, developers need to be willing to focus on taking risks while acknowledging their output as an artistic endeavor first and a product second. I am confident that a great deal of developers do view their work as art, but I’m promoting this as a mantra that is constantly reiterated through competent story framework rather than as an afterthought or a bullet point that moves more units. Finally, I believe that as fans and enthusiasts, we also have a responsibility to propel games forward as an art form and start to challenge our pre-conceived notions of what “value” truly means.

This hazy definition of value I’ve floated around is not one of replay value or achievements, but of artistic merit or what a game, for all its flaws, does to push the medium forward technologically or otherwise. Based on my own experiences with literature, fine arts, and film, I’ve come to define artistic merit and value as a piece of creative work that is conceptualized and put into production as a means of entertainment, emotional gratification, and sometimes as an educational device. I think it’s entirely possible gaming will one day be the standard of which an emergent form of media or art is measured against.  For now, we have games like Enslaved, which I encourage everyone to play on a relaxed weekend. You’ll love it or even possibly hate it for the same virtues I’m extolling, but regardless of your feelings, it will garner some kind of palpable emotion that you’ll take with you. Isn’t that the purpose of good art?