Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Trouble With BEING The Batman...

This was a comment reply I made to a very well thought out- but fundamentally flawed (in my mind)- argument that a reader named Chris made about the way to improve- and the need for- great storytelling in games.

Here's what I wrote:

Chris- thanks for the well thought out, passionate reply. Clearly you've thought a great deal about this.

However,not to come across as someone trying to burst your bubble but I have to say that I've thought a lot about it as well and your 'imagine if's' (i.e. BATMAN/JOKER in the interrogation scene) sound a lot like me 5,6 years ago...even before that.

But here's the problem I have with your pitch and similar pitches (and trust me, I hear your line of thinking all the time):

You make the mistake of thinking that many of us who make gamey games don't care about infusing great story into our games and are just in it for the BIG! BANG! POW! because that's what we grew up with. Not the case. My generation also grew up with JAWS and ET and EMPIRE and OUT OF AFRICA and on and on and we are very aware of what film is capable of and there was a time a lot of us (myself included) longed for games to have a similar impact on our audiences (and on us).

But then we actually worked in the interactive medium and studied the medium and watched how the brain works when a game is played and realized that PLAYING as BATMAN in the interrogation scene would look NOTHING LIKE and FEEL nothing like WATCHING Batman interrogate the Joker.   And that's the mistake so many in your camp make (and I used to make it as well): you watch movies and get moved by them and then rush to say 'I want my games to feel that way too!' BUT you fail to realize that the feelings you are so amped by come from the very nature of OBSERVING SOMEONE ELSE'S STORY from a tightly controlled, highly manipulated, and non-interactive vantage point.

You CAN'T feel the way you feel when you WATCH a great scene simply by being the star of that scene. Because the INSTANT you have control, all of the emotion that you love about linear storytelling dies and your brain goes to the same place it goes in your real life when you encounter a challenge: 'how do I solve this problem?' it it 'how do I get home by 6pm for dinner with the kids' or 'how do I avoid the guy with the gun who just came into the bank' or 'how do I get that girl to go out with me', all of these scenarios- once they become YOUR scenarios- are expressed thru actions and 'play mechanics' and because of that, the FEELING you get when you are solving the problem (NOT watching someone else solve it) is one of a puzzle or a challenge (the feeling would be EXACTLY that of playing a game if you were capable of removing the real life ramifications of your challenge's outcome. But even though you can't the feeling is still very, very close to playing a game and it's significantly closer to the feeling you get playing a game than it is to the feeling of watching a scene in a movie).

And that to me is the FIRST step I feel game makers HAVE to accept if we are to discover what interactivity is capable of.

We have to realize that the way the brain responds to an interactive scenario is incongruent with the way the brain responds to watching someone else's interactive scenario play out. And in making this realization, we can then ask ourselves how the very thing that makes our medium so special- INTERACTIVITY- can bring about the emotions and ideas and scenarios that we see in film and are so eager to replicate in games. HOWEVER, the way we give our audience an emotion- even if it's an emotion shared by another medium like movies- will be very different than how the other mediums provide the very same emotion. THIS- to me- IS KEY!

OR we'll come to a point where we realize- BECAUSE we are slaves (as we should be) to interactivity, that we should chase after emotions and ideas and scenarios that are special and unique to interactivity, versus simply trying to replicate the emotions that other mediums already offer up so naturally and so successfully. Perhaps interactivity will NEVER be able to create the sort of emotional longing that one gets when they watch ET fly away from Elliot...but we CAN do tension, terror, competition, anxiety, the joy of team work, the joy of learning through experimentation,etc,etc,etc probably better than ANY other medium. And I say why run from this? Why not plant our flag in the rich and still fresh soil of the emotions and responses that our medium excels at NATURALLY?  Why are we so desperate to bogart emotions from other mediums? Perhaps those that are should just- you know- go work in those other mediums and then they'd be a lot more satisfied.

OR we'll wait for 100-1000 years until AI and processing advances to the point where a story/scene writes itself in real time/procedurally and as we play in the space we never encounter challenges (that pull us out of the fiction and turn us into puzzle solvers) but instead we experience a constantly adjusting and always engaging, interactive scenario that writes and re-writes itself in real time based on our choices, while still staying true with the genre/style of experience that we've chosen to have.



Supersonic_snaredrum said...

Jaffe - a true intellectual within the master gaming circle.

Cris7ian said...

Awesome, you ara totally right

eatyourchildren said...

Can you link to the comment/post that this is a response to?

David Batista said...

Your rebuttal reminds me of an interesting phenomenon I observe in my casual-gaming friends. They love horror movies--zombies, werewolves, serial killers, etc--but yet get very squeamish about playing survival horror games.

They tell me all the time that the games are too nerve-wracking for them. And yet they can sit through a horrific scary movie without batting an eye. Just recently one of them said to me: "I can't play that game (Dead Space 2), but I'd rather sit and watch you play it."

There's definitely a big difference between sitting back and watching a horror movie as opposed to being *in* the horror movie and having to make the hard choices toward your own survival. The latter is what games do so well, but which game designers have to understand when developing a balanced interactive experience.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

the problem is shitty acting. heavy rain and gta4 had amazing acting and what happened? the stories were awesome.

Unknown said...

Thank you, Mr. Jaffe, for writing out this argument to my comment. I'm hearing your side very clearly, sir, and I want to bring up a few points. So about a year ago these were pretty issues for me in game development, I didn't know how we would actually get over the big problem you mentioned: participating vs. observing.

In current gaming language, feeling like Batman is impossible. In Arkham Asylum, you have an awesome combat system and cool gadgets but you don't feel like Batman. Arkham Asylum is Metroid on Unreal 3, a game that's over twenty years old. For an interactive medium, there's not a whole lot of interactivity.

And I brought this up before with you on Twitter, but after playing Heavy Rain, it changed the way I thought about games. So let's place the Batman interrogation scene in the Heavy Rain format. The Joker sits in the interrogation room, a dim light shines on him. The player is watching a cutscene. The lights turn on, Batman is revealed to the player, as he stands behind The Joker. I'm going from my memory of the flick from 2008, so bear with me. Batman smacks his head into the table, puts the chair up against the door to block Commissioner Gordon.

YOU, the player, are now driving the scene through interactive cut-scenes (wish there was a better term). You are NOT in control of the character in the moment-to-moment gameplay, the way we're used to, but you still have control.

As BATMAN, you choose, how many times do you want to hit the Joker, what you want to say to him to interrogate this guy, all while the clock is ticking, and you discover the stakes at hand: Save Rachel, Bruce's girl, or Harvey Dent, before he comes Two-Face. Only one will survive.

Are you a bloodthirsty Batman, or a more psychological detective, or a mix of both? Commissioner Gordon was observing Batman, so your actions will influence the way Gordon perceives the Batman, and carry onto the third game. Maybe you can walk around the room looking for objects or area to beat him with or into, much like the bathroom scene in Splinter Cell: Conviction.

But everything is still designed by a director with a vision in mind. I don't want things to be procedurally made, I want to play through an authored experience. I am watching AND playing a Batman that is performed by an actor in motion-capture, and keyframed by animators in places. I am Batman being directed not by mechanics, but by a set of choices that, once again, are designed by a writer, director, and his or her team.

One of the things we're currently facing is the high costs of facial/character animation and creating great facial rigs for believable characters. But other devs do have that money, and as a customer, I'm not seeing that money on screen. I'm seeing better textures, shinier graphics, awesome particle effects, but how come that same money isn't being thrown at story? I'm still having the same experience as a gamer I've had since I started playing games. It's... disappointing. If you looked at the jump film made within thirty years – we went from trains rushing at the screen, very cheap attempts at shock and awe, and started telling stories about characters, not about action anymore, but stories that happened to have cool set-pieces of action.

The format is the perfect blend of being a player/actor/participant in a scene, and being an observer to a small extent -- letting you watch, where you're not pressing buttons, adrenaline amped up, you are able to process some emotions. It addresses all the issues you have, Mr. Jaffe.

Unknown said...

Part 2: It's not some fever dream, the medium is capable of this, but once again, it's hard for industry veterans to grasp because they still want the old style, and that's fine.

I remember Ken Levine saying that he didn't like Heavy Rain because he only wants games that are skill-based. The same guy who puts in a lot of work into creating the illusion that you're in this awesome story that deals with religion and Objectivism, but guess what, you're just shooting people in the face, and that's what he loves, but as an entertainment experience, it's shallow with no variety. Homefront wants me to feel something, but guess what, I still have a gun in my hands.

What I love about this way of telling stories in games is that you don't need to have any kind of experience with games or a controller, there's no memorization needed, as everything is context-sensitive, each button does something different.

Half-Life 2, Episode 2, a death occurs at the end, and Valve takes complete control away from the player, and makes them watch the death. They were right: If I still had a gun in my hand, running around, the death wouldn't affect me, 'cause I'm still moving around, but forcing me to watch was very moving. And while Valve has made it a strong focus to bring on writers with no game experience, who just know how to create compelling characters, this old format of games only allows them to have interesting worlds where I, as a player, have no meaningful interaction.

The gaming medium is the future of storytelling, I truly believe that, and it's hard to see that when we haven't had any true contenders, but the potential is there. I used a film reference (Dark Knight) because it's a widely scene film with an amazing constructed scene, but it's not about trying to copy films, or books -- it's simply about telling a good story using the strengths of the medium which is letting you interact in that story. We don't have that yet because the reluctance of game devs to bring on writers.

Every dev wants me to sit through their cut-scenes, why not take it to the next step, and make me play those cut-scenes. Allow me to play as Dollface and experience her tragic storyline, even if there isn't multiple endings, or anything like that. I still want my God of Wars and my Twisted Metals, but every time a cutscene pops up, I still want to feel like I have a contribution to that story.

Can we make players feel the same way audiences did when Eliot watched ET fly away? Of course we can. I know this because I had a similar experience with the end of Heavy Rain. You build a relationship with your son, and you lose him -- it's the plot of the game -- and after doing very outrageous but still compelling things to get him back, the climax of the game made my eyes water and even had a tear roll down my cheek. I am not a father, so it's not something I can relate to, but as a player, I played as Ethan Mars, and also observed him. I never felt I truly became him, and don't want to. I want to play as characters with their OWN feelings and thoughts, not as some faceless space marine with one agenda. (Note: The game, of course, will play out differently, this was just my experience, and also that the game isn't perfect, it's a great experience with a so-so story/characterization.)

The entire internet lit up with a recent trailer from a game called "Dead Island." An trailer that successfully pulled on people's heartstrings except mine. Because, like the Gears trailers (which you've mentioned) are nothing like the game, and using the same old language of games, will never be, unless devs take that plunge. Gamers want it -- HR sold well, no guns, no multiplayer -- it just seems like devs themselves don't.

This was an attempt to shift the focus from the tired “Are games art?” debate to something more meaningful.

Anonymous said...

I feel like there is a way to do that, and I have felt emotion while playing a game during ACTUAL gameplay and not during a cutscene. Although I have felt emotion during cutscenes plenty of time because of strong storytelling by people such as yourself in TMB and GOW1, Kojima in the MGS series, Uncharted 2 and Heavy Rain.

Anyway, as Chris said, if more games who want to be more focused on story and true interactivity should take the Heavy Rain approach. I feel like presenting the actual gameplay in an engaging and cinematic approach creates a more captivating experience. Although Heavy Rain boils down to mini games, the story and situations were brilliant and were a blast to play because the story was so good (despite some plot holes, it was intense, emotional and well done).

If there was a way to make the actual gameplay more engaging other than mini games but have the presentation power of HR, there could be something incredible happening. Although it's going to take a while for someone to refine it.

I agree that it will elicit different emotions, but when I see a great cut scene in MGS4 (such as Liquid and Snake beating the shit out of each other, and then Kojima puts you in Snake's shoes for the final fight), I feel so close to that character and in what he's trying to do that it goes beyond almost anything film has done for me, because of the combined elements of the presentation enhancing when I actually play the game.

I agree it's different, but if done right, it can also be better, IMO. I totally get what you're saying, that if done differently you will feel differently, I just feel that if done right, there can be a way to feel not just an emotional connection to a character, but an incredible emotional bond.

So yeah, it's going to feel different and if done wrong, will definitely not be as strong, or there can be moments where it's not done as well as a film, but when a game can compare or go beyond what a film can do, it can be a very powerful thing because you can feel so connected to the character while you're playing.

Kilrahi said...

Wow . . . seriously it's obvious you know your medium and are a master of your trade.

Still, sometimes I think you're a little TOO cynical about that "feeling" many of us are hoping games bring out. Granted, you admit right in your post two possibilities, so you don't ignore it, but often in other posts your skepticism clearly comes out.

I think you're absolutely right it can't be done in the same way, but I absolutely feel, based on personal experience, that that "feeling" can occur (i.e. same or nearly identical intensity and awe that goes beyond just the adrenaline games so often do).

Wing Comamnder II/III, Silent Hill 2, Shadow of the Colossus, even certain points (not the whole thing) of Twisted Metal: Black did that for me. It's doable, just can't be done in the same way.

Finally, I absolutely agree with you, if I interpret you right, that on some level we should say, "Who cares?!" We really should focus on letting games be games and do what they do best. Books are clearly different than movies or music, I don't know why so many want games to be the same as movies.

Davidian777 said...

Jaffe, you say you're a slave to interactivity as a game developer, which is true to an extent, but of course that's not always the case. What about cut scenes in-between action? Or just whenever there's periods of no player interactivity? No matter how interactive games become in the future, I think there should always be room for periods of non-interactivity to allow the story to unfold. As others have said, the emotional impact/intensity of these periods can easily surpass what a move can accomplish for them if done right.

The fact that you are more than just a passive observer within the overall experience, with direct participation in events, BUT while watching cut scenes/the story unfold, in those moments you are just passively observing, it allows you to get involved in the story WITHOUT thinking about the game mechanics in that moment, and while knowing you've had, and you'll have, a direct hand in the events that transpire, making it feel all the more real.

Of course when your actually participating in the experience, thinking about the game mechanics, you'll likely not feel the same powerful emotions a cut scene in the game would provoke, but still the overall game experience can feel very captivating, with my participation in the story serving to enhance the story during the periods of non-interactivity and making me look foward to them. Also really good music helps a ton too.

Anonymous said...

I have a short brief unrelated question/statement.

Competitive gaming has risen significantly. I'm sure few can dispute that.

I guess my question is why are there so few games that encourage cooperation and are successful?

For example, my favorite "recent" cooperative games have been Killzone 2, Battlefield: Bad Company 2, Borderlands and the Monster Hunter series. However, with the recent release of Killzone 3, I feel that cooperation isn't so highly valued anymore. It's all about the lone-wolf who can say "Look how many points I got! I'm way better than you" rather praising the guy who benefited the team the most (a la KZ2 in which total scores don't just depict a player's points, but also a value to how helpful they were to certain mission types.)

That's my soap box.

MED said...

Thanks so much for saying this Mr. Jaffe. Agree 100%.
IMHO "Game Mechanics" > "Story"; and God of War got this so right...

I remember seeing a "making of..." video where folks on your team were talking about how hard they worked on the "gorgon-head-rip". It was a powerful moment when I saw the fountain of orbs come out of medusa's headless corpse. The whole thing came together so nicely (the animation, the game mechanics, the sound).

As a cutscene this event would not have been as powerful because it would have made you an observer rather than a participant. (And I think that is the key, and maybe a part of what you are driving at)

Normal "story" mechanisms (text, dialog, video) are observer-based, and (frankly) games are meant to be interactive.

Most things we considered "art" (music, movies, photography, dance, comics, etc.) are evaluated based on "observation" and not "participation" or "interaction". The more we attempt to make games live up to our conventional view of (observational) art, the more we move away from what makes games unique and great (the interactivity).

David Jaffe said...

MED- thanks for the comment! Especially this:

'The more we attempt to make games live up to our conventional view of (observational) art, the more we move away from what makes games unique and great (the interactivity).'

I may start using that as a signature in emails and forum posts because it so powerfully and succinctly sums up my whole issue with this. It's NOT that games can't be powerful and impacting and artistic. It's that the power and artistry needs to come from interactivity, not supporting elements.

Thank you!


Unknown said...

A lot of this argument has to do with games conveying a message: "If I let my player tell his own story, how can I, as a game designer and (I believe) artist, get my opinion across?" It's something that, as an industry, we still struggle with. I find these debates stimulating. Kudos to Jaffe and all of his excellent commenters.

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