Article re-posted from June 3, 2014
Most of us realize the story-telling potential and intricate depth characters could have in videogames, but what is the true reason we’re not producing them yet?
We live in a world of ‘baby-steps’, not ‘giant leaps’ when it comes to the general public accepting change of any kind. To illustrate this with an example; I bet in 1955 people would not likely have enjoyed ‘The Bourne Identity’ the same way our generation has.
This has little to the fact that ‘they had never seen it before’ and so had little to start with (everything is new, versus only some things are). The camera-cuts on TV alone these days are 100-times quicker than they were even 20 years ago. Our brains have seen so much media that we can ‘guess what’s going to happen’ a lot quicker and don’t really need long-scenes to show us or we get bored quickly.
Back in 1955 film was still a relatively unexplored territory, so camera and storylines progressed slower to ensure the audience kept up: in similar ways the ‘easy to learn’ element in videogames progresses and story-telling is no longer a slow 1990s process.
Even in gameplay the same happens in that there’s a lot more pre-existing knowledge embedded in the general public to build off of: there is no need to now explain how a ‘first person shooter’ works, nor a ‘realtime strategy game’, as we’ve played them for 20 years and the base knowledge is embedded in our brains; now designers can focus on expanding these, giving us new ‘baby-steps’ to learn towards something far more wild.
Yet the really interesting problem here is with storylines and characters in videogames, as here it seems another problem lies in the medium itself; ‘we are playing as this character, and experiencing this situation’, which is contrary to how it works in film. This is also the main critique of videogame violence; contrary to movies, where you are a passive observer; in videogames you are the actual perpetrator.
This makes it so that when developing a story or character, designers often go for a ‘basic and safe setup as much as possible’; most male protagonists are superheroes as that’s what the largest target-audience would like to ‘play as’ and society can agree to without all too much fuss.
In movies, you are a casual observer so complicated characters who have love-triangles and intrigue are great, you can keep your distance from the homophobic-aids-infested protagonist in ‘The Dallas Buyers Club’ as you do not have to ‘be him’.
The ‘forced love-interest’ of Gordon Freeman in Half-Life 2 is a great example on how you can’t really adopt the same rules as in movies, as the affiliation to the characters and storylines is completely different and subject to the player’s state-of-immersion.
The moral element of actually perpetrating the act creates a whole new element of potential problems regarding ‘political correctness’ and ‘frown upon’ situations in which it would be hard to justify your games actions, for example:
Imagine a Schindlers List game, where you play as Oscar Schindler. While he’s the protagonist and ends up saving people, he does some pretty questionable things early on, so in a game-form would you now have to first enslave Jews from concentration-camps, or do we skip that part?
When it comes to story and character development, it is this element which makes it interesting; the progression from ‘trying to make money in a wartime situation’ towards being disillusioned with the Nazi’s and becoming the good-guy.
However the big picture ends up it is the individual scenes which cause the fuss, just like how ‘Modern Warfare 2’s’ Airport killing introduction caused so much fuss; the player actually went through an airport in Russia with a set of terrorists and helped them gun-down helpless civilians.
So the question becomes how do we make an interactive product yet have truly interesting character and story progression? The easy answer is that in the interactive media, ‘gameplay and online play allows users to create their own experience and persona’ but that’s too limited in my opinion; sandbox games are not the only answer any more than shooting your own movies comes close to the artistic mind of a group of storytellers and the intricate symphony of plotlines they have laid out for you to experience.
I’d like to think there’s a middle-ground waiting to be unearthed that makes us care as to a point where videogames leave their comfort-zone. Perhaps if the tools make the actual game-creating available to a wide audience, the zealous competition makes us all take more risks and ‘accidental hits’ set the bar higher.
Another way to think about it, is that this could be a ‘timed hardwired-problem in the current audience’, just like the 1955’s film-crowd wasn’t ready for fast-cuts and multi-layered plotlines.
Do we simply have to wait out some years/generations for people to slowly evolve into being able to deal with the inevitable issues that come with ‘experiencing stories’ compared to just ‘witnessing them’.
Will people be able to accept such forms of media, and will new generations look back on today’s storytelling with discontent the same way we feel a sense of disconnect at watching a 1930s movie?
Even in hardware you see this happening in that my son won’t have the same affiliation with a mouse and keyboard like I have, and be far more comfortable with touch-screens.
So the real question ends up being: is the slow evolution of story and character-development in videogames a problem of videogame producers, or the target audience?