Friday, July 31, 2009

You Can't Teach A Dog To Sing...

Just to clarify a little on my views on the whole 'Destructoid/Can Games Mean Something More' thing...oh and someone mentioned liking to see a debate/discussion between me and the Destructoid author of the piece...would LOVE to do something like that when I have the time; it would be fun :)

But so just to clarify:

#1- I don't actually CARE if people view games as art or only entertainment or whatever. Don't want, need, or care about debating 'what IS art, anyway!!' That's just labels to me. And plus, yes, the debate over 'what is art' is too tired to even care about anymore. I'm not a junior in high school anymore which- to me- is around when that very relevant discussion should occur...and be put to bed. So my issue is NOT with 'when will we get to a place where the best work in our industry can be seen as art!' I really don't care. And anyone who is a real artist should not- in my opinion- care either.

#2- My main point was that the author's take- I forget his name and frankly am too tired to go back and check :)- but his point seemed to be that games can be more relevant to the real world and can speak more to the human condition than the violent power fantasy games that line the shelves. Some have pointed out that the Destructoid author was talking to gamers and not game makers. Sure, I concede that. But it makes no difference; the gist of his issue was the same: games can and should be more relevant. Now to that point, I say:

a- one COULD argue that the human condition IS violence and dog eat dog and video games capture that brilliantly, in many ways more so than any other medium by actually putting us INTO the experience and allowing us- after the fact- to analyze how and why we behaved in a tense, terrifying situation. Instead of having the privilege and luxury to sit and ruminate on 'the horrors of war' or the 'state of man' by watching Saving Private Ryan or Schiendler's List, games allow us to see how we would REALLY react in violent situations. And what does it show us about the human condition? It potentially shows us that all the cafe chillin', coffee drinking big brains sitting around pondering the fate of man would revert to our animal base in an instant order to survive and in order to win. So there is that. But to be fair, that's just me playing devil's advocate. I don't REALLY think that is what is going on. But ya know, there's a theory for you.

b- there ARE games out there that may not speak to the human condition (altho there are some that try) but there are commercial games out there that are not about violent power fantasies. Mario Kart was the best selling game IN THE WORLD last year. Not really a power fantasy. Same with Bejewelled or Bookworm or Pet Society or Tetris. So while there are few games that strive to meet the lofty goals set forth in Mr. Destructoid's video, it's wrong to act as if most/all games are violent blood baths. And a good % of the successful games are NOT violent.

#3- My key point in my video rebuttal was that IF it was possible or desirable to make games mean something 'more', we would have been further along by now. In the last 4000 years since the world's first game was known to be played, how have we been doing merging meaningful, human condition-striving stories, feelings, and emotions with game mechanics? Sure we have video and 3d worlds and motion controls now and YES those matter in the quest. But they don't matter so much that it would make sense that ONLY NOW is the merge of meaning and gameplay beginning to be possible. We should have seen at least SOME VERY PROMISING SIGNS along the way during the last 4000 years. But we have not. And using Chess or GO doesn't count in my book. Yes, those are POSSIBLY metaphors for other things but what those games stand for is not readily apparent to most players and only apparent to some once the metaphor has been explained to them. Few if any finish chess and- totally unprompted- say: 'ya know, I think that game I just played was about something MORE than just the seems perhaps it was about war and the futility of war...'

#4- My other point on this is that EVERYONE who loves games can and should have an opinion on this. I was not saying that only game makers should be able to discuss this. But I don't think it's fair to just sit and bitch about what games should/could be without being aware that big companies in the game industry DO TRY at different times to crack this nut and that the problem is not simply that we just don't wanna do it. That's just a bunch of bullshit. What I was also saying was, as an industry worker who has pitched games and been in pitches, people have either tried this and it never got off the launch pad (not cause stupid execs who are just greedy bastards but cause the design sounded boring and/or there was no clear direction on how the designers wanted to achieve their lofty goals and so no one wanted to make it) OR the attempt at emotion was made, the game shipped, and it didn't really resonate with enough people that it became a watershed moment.

#5- Also, remember- even fun, summer movies- the good ones- have heart and character and are ABOUT more than just power fantasies. IRON MAN certainly was, as was the DARK KNIGHT. So you'd think in the last 30 years of video games, even amid the big blockbuster power fantasy type games that we- admittedly- love to make, that SOMEONE would have SUCCESSFULLY slipped some meaning in their game. Going big and actiony is not anathema to character and metaphor and meaning. And look, I know game makers who have tried it (I won't mention the games or the names) but I've had them TELL me that their games- one of which was a MASSIVE HIT, and one of which was a dud- were metaphors for the Iraq war for example; or for going back home to where your soul really is. Hell, I've tried it before mysef. And NONE of us have succeeded at a level that matters enough for me to go, "AHH! We're onto something!" I've said before, it took years and years of work to establish character and meaning and game mechanics that mirror emotion and game play that is metaphor and in the end, very few were moved or affected by it. And the ones that were- while they applaud our efforts- are MUCH More affected by an average prime time television show. See, when we fire with all our ammo, all our effort...we still can't come close to an episode of CSI in terms of emotion. Granted, that's just us. Just cause WE can't do it, doesn't mean it can't be done. But I'm just saying that even our best game makers have not come close to an average level of emotion or meaning that you get from the TV. And yes, I've played ICO and SHADOW and PASSAGE and TODAY I DIE and BRAID and FLOWER and SEPTEMBER 12 and many others. And SOME of those games I've loved out right and are in my top 10 games of all time. Some I didn't love as much but at the very least I appreciated them for what they were doing. And so I am saying is that I am aware of the 'emotional cannon of games' and I still stand by my statement. Granted, it's just my opinion. Your mileage may vary. But I cry at fucking coffee commercials so I'm easy; easy enough that you'd think a great game with artistic and emotional intent would have gotten to me. But so far, nothing worth shouting about.

#6- Finally, I really think when the brain is engaged in gameplay, the thematic falls away. You could give me photo real graphics and smell-o-vision and jack the thing into my brain and put me on that beach landing in Saving Private Ryan and I would NOT be affected in the same way the audience watching the film was. I would not be thinking about the loss of life or the pointlessness of war. I would just be trying to 'solve the puzzle' of 'what is the safest way to get to the bunker at the top of the hill'....because games are simulations...for real life or for fantasy life, but they simulate an experience. And when you are LIVING AN EXPERIENCE- just like when you live your life- you are not appreciating the artistry of it. You are just living it. I really feel it's only thru outside observation of an experience (your own or that of a character that you relate to in SOME way) can we actually be affected and have our thoughts provoked. This does not happen during the experience. At least, this is my take on it.

Now all this is not to say, "Don't try!"...I would LOVE for games to have the ability to affect us more. How neat would that be! But I'm just saying that it's wrong to present the case that games could be so much 'more' if we just tried harder and just wanted them to be and the only reason we don't have our watershed game version of American Beauty or Casablanca or Gone With The Wind is because we just are not willing to be artists. That's bullshit. We're trying and many of us are STILL trying. I'm just saying that, so far, ain't noting happening yet. As for me tho,I've lost interest and would rather focus on what I feel games do very well than try to get them to do something else that other mediums already do crazy good. I mean, what's the point? Why not just go make a movie or write a book? It's like trying to teach your dog to sing. You can KIND of do it; he'll make some sounds that KIND of sound like singing and some folks will sort of go, "Hey it sounds like he's singing HAPPY BIRTHDAY!!!' ....But end of the day, if you want to hear some great music, why not just go listen to an actual song? Doesn't mean you shoot your dog. He's great for other stuff. Just not singing. So why force it?