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March 20, 2005

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Games and Stories

Gamespot surprised me today with a long and detailed feature on storytelling in games by Greg Kasavin. From the intro:

I share the theory that the game industry is like a private eye who’s so busy following the wrong lead that he lets his real target slip right through his fingers. Look at what games are doing: They’re pushing more polygons and piling on more features. It’s the equivalent of adding more explosions to an action movie; at some point, you start to get diminishing returns for your crazy budget even as the whole thing just turns dumb.

I think game designers should be pursuing a much more elusive objective: tapping into the true potential of this medium, using it to give the game player an eye-opening, virtually life-changing experience and turning the game player’s world completely upside-down. And I believe the only way to accomplish this is through storytelling—using a game to tell a good story. This does not mean tacking a best-selling author onto a game as an afterthought; this means fundamentally constructing a game out of a story.

(Emphasis mine.)

Seriously, I am still waiting for games-as-literature. I just finished a book by Harold Bloom, the guy who argued that Shakespeare literally invented modern consciousness. That claim seems rather, er, extreme, but true or not, I’d love for people to be claiming the same thing about some game designer in a couple hundred years.

Posted March 20, 2005 at 8:57 | Comments (3) | Permasnark
File under: Video Games


[Tim dons his literary theorist cape and mask]

One precondition for someone to offer an argument that a game designer created something like post-post-modern consciousness, the discourse of video games would have to become "author-ized": that is, the designer would have to be both seen and widely recognized as the creative authority standing above or behind the games associated with his/her name, and the games themselves would have to be seen as some kind of collective project bound together by that designer, in the same sense that "Shakespeare" simultaneously denotes a biographical individual, an author, and a body of work (the corpus). [See Michel Foucault's "What Is An Author?"]

Not every discourse is authorized in this sense, nor is their authorization standardized. For a long time films weren't fully authorized, and then for a long time it was unclear whether the director, screenwriter, producer, or actor was the authorial stand-in. (This is still true: we might say that we saw an "______ movie," filling in the blank with Alfred Hitchcock, Charlie Kaufman, George Lucas, or Cary Grant.)

Of course, the converse is also true: we change the way we talk about or within a discourse because people change the way that they do things. Authorship of movies in mostly in the hands of directors because "auteurs" emerged who put their distinctive stamp on things, just as Shakespeare both owned and published his own works and made works of enough quality and impact that his friends sought to publish them together after he died: the First Folio helps make Shakespeare Shakespeare, but only because Shakespeare made (we presume) the plays collected in the Folio. (In film, "auteur theory" as advanced by Truffaut, Godard, et al. has a neat solution to this problem: some directors are auteurs, and some aren't, whether they think themselves so or not.)

What's astonishing is that these shifts on both the critical and creative end always seem to happen simultaneously, and they reinforce one another: if nothing else, the author has to think about a different kind of practice before everyone else does. But at least at this point, the creation of most video games is closer to the studio system than the auteur system. Who is the author of EA's sports games? Can anyone be said to be the author of Warcraft? Could the zeitgeist shift in video games (or any other field) be the move away from the author discourse as such, towards some idea of collective or anonymous creation?

[Removes theorist mask -- forgets cape is still on.]

Oh, man, Rob, you are so right! That's why I love old school video games -- the graphics might suck, but the stories rock -- just like Star Wars! And that's what makes them fun.

I think you're mostly right, Tim, and yet even today there are still flashes of true video-game authorship (well, maybe they're just illusions, but if so, they are pretty widely-shared): Shigeru Miyamoto, the guy behind Mario and (I think?) Zelda; and of course Will Wright, the SimEverything designer.

I see what you're saying, though; and so I hope this new crop of games that are generated more programmatically (a la Spore, as discussed previously on Snarkmarket) than by the sweat of a thousand artists' brows (a la Warcraft) let us get back to that sense of visionary authorship. Or get to it in the first place. Whatever.

Adding to Robin's list of video-game authors: Peter Molyneux, creator of the "god game" genre with Populous, Dungeon Keeper, and Black & White; Sid Meier, creator of Civilization and the 4X strategy genre; Richard Garriott of the Ultima series (and one of the few authors to "inhabit" his creation, as Lord British); Roberta Williams, author of the King's Quest games.

Notably, most of these got their start in the early 90's (or even before that!) Where are the game auteurs of today and tomorrow? Will the "sense of visionary authorship" arise from the major retail studios, or from independent online projects, like the amazing Kingdom of Loathing?

Posted by: Matt on March 22, 2005 at 09:17 AM
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