Sunday, 27 October 2013

Escape From the Movies notes

These are the notes I made for myself for a lecture called "Escape From the Movies - How Videogames Stole Cinema, but then Gave it Back". I was going to go in and edit them some, but I've decided to just upload them wholesale. I wrote these in a 50-minute-or-so flurry just before I was due to start speaking. As such, I think there's a good flow of thought that you can trace as you read though them. Hopefully you can follow my argument.

However, I should say, to anyone who regularly writes or reads, or teaches about videogames, that this might not be for you. The lecture I gave was aimed at people who do not necessarily play or read about videogames. It was meant as an overview - as an introduction to some of the key issues and questions being addressed, currently, by both popular and academic game criticism. You might hear a lot of things you've heard already. I only had an hour. This isn't all encompassing.

The notes are better understood if you also read the handout I gave to the students. I've posted it online:

  • The common belief, among game critics, film academics and also game makers is that games borrows heavily from films. Though that's still true to some extent, and was very true 15-20 years ago, games are now developing their own aesthetic and their own ways of relaying narrative.
  • I'll come back to that at the end, but first I want to chart a brief history of game aesthetics. And to understand game aesthetics, you have to understand the technology around gaming.
  • Films are not as reliant on hardware – a script written today, as long as it isn't laden with special effects, could feasibly be shot using equipment from 10 or 15 years ago. The same can't be said for games. Certain types of games and certain types of game aesthetic are only possibly on advanced hardware – a lot of game maker's creative potential is locked behind the next wave of machines.
  • Let's look at games from the 70's, 80's and 90's. If you read the quote from Chris Sanyk, game designer, he explains some of the hardware limitations imposed on game makers during the 1980s. (Pics of Pong, Space Invaders, Keen).
  • You can see that, in these days, the gaming aesthetic was dominated by bright colours, heavy pixels and basic shapes, such was the level of tech available at the time.
  • However, although Stanyk seems to be describing this as a restriction, I'd argue that in fact, these technical limitations birth a gaming aesthetic more unique, more quickly identifiable, than anything that appeared on more sophisticated machines.
  • We still identify, I think, with that “retro” aesthetic – we still conflate games with pixels, 2D scrolling and basic, cartoon characters. It's an aesthetic that is purely “of games.” It's not something that existed before games or that has been found, in any considerable sense, in any medium developed thereafter. If it has, it's been inspired by games.
  • (show Mario) If we look at Mario as he appeared on the NES in 1985, we can instantly identify him as a game character – pixels, 2D, basic colours. However, if we look at Mario as he appears on the more recent Nintendo Wii console (show Mario Galaxy) we wouldn't necessarily identify him, instantly, as a game character. He looks as though he may appear in a kid's TV show or animated film.
  • So we can see, I think, how gaming used to have its own aesthetic but how, as more sophisticated machines have been released, that aesthetic has been muddied somewhat to resemble different media, namely movies and TV.
  • This began in the mid-nineties thanks to better PCs and consoles like the PS1 and N64 (pic of MGS) Game makers were now able to create visuals that looked closer to real-life – the term “photo-realistic” started to be used more – and that unique gaming aesthetic drifted out of style.
  • The new machines also brought with them higher production costs, and that's where the shift to a more cinematic aesthetic really came from. Donkey Kong (donkey kong pic) for example, in 1981, cost around 100,000 dollars to make. Resident Evil 2 (resi pic) by contrast, in 1998, had a budget of around five million. These booming production costs – the need to hire more and better trained staff to use the more advanced hardware – forced game makers to seek out a larger market.
  • The market for cinema was much bigger than the one for games, which were still being enjoyed, mainly, by young men. And so the adoption of a more cinematic aesthetic, I'd argue, was inspired by the pressure to appeal to cinema fans, in order to offset rising production costs.
  • It also, I think, was the natural result of games maturing as a medium. Game makers began to think of themselves more highly, and as more skilled, and wanted their work to be identified as a legitimate cultural artefact. The adoption of the cinematic aesthetic was, consciously or not, a move by game makers designed to have their work validated by the greater public. It was to make games look less childish, more grown-up and bona fide.
  • However, although it had a positive financial effect, and the game market swelled as a result, the gaming aesthetic and the way games told stories, started to suffer.
  • Let's take a look at MOH Frontline (clip) Now you can see that that's basically just the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan. This is what happened. Rather than inherit SOME visual element of films, game makers began to steal plots, sequences and visuals wholesale from movies. Other examples include CoD (pic) which stole the Enemy at the Gates Stalingrad scene and Max Payne (pic) which was heavily inspired by The Matrix and John Woo films.
  • So the aesthetic got muddied. And the way games told stories also suffered. Rather than use the idiosyncratic, interactive nature of the gaming medium to relay narrative, “cutscenes”, short films played at key story moments in a game, became popular. (resi 2)
  • If you look at the quote from Pierre Gaultier, he sums up why this was problematic. Rather than develop as an aesthetic and narrative medium, games merely became a hybrid of themselves and cinema. They adapted cinematic sensibilities to tell stories – they would literally pause gameplay, stop “being a game” in order to display their most aesthetically pleasing elements and their narratives. During this time, we had less an aesthetic of games, and more an aesthetic of games AND films.
  • And it remained that way for a long period of time. Even a game as recent as Dead Rising (picture) from 2006 is heavily based on Dawn of the Dead and uses many, many cutscenes to spell out its story.
  • This drew criticism from writers like Gaultier and others in the more mainstream press, who accused cinema of cheapening the medium – of preventing games from developing an aesthetic and a narrative form of their own.
  • The cinematic also created a key structural problem within games, which Clint Hocking summed up with the term “ludonarrative dissonance.” What we had in games was two opposing forces: the creator and the player. By adopting a cinematic aesthetic and cinematic means of telling a story, the game maker is inviting players to not play. The game maker is creating a story that can only make sense if the audience is passive – once that cutscene is over, and the player assumes control, he is free to alter the direction of the narrative and the aesthetic as much as he likes. Though the game maker may want his characters to behave in certain ways, and to draw attention to certain images, the player is able to behave in some sense how he likes and to pan the camera to look at whatever he wants.
  • There's a certain amount of self expression and exploration expected in the act of “playing”. By trying to adopt cinema to games, the game creator is ignoring that, and winds up with a story and aesthetic that is only consistent if it ignores the player's contribution.
  • (play red dead clips)
  • And this is what brings me round to where I started, when I said that games have now developed, or are developing, a new and unique aesthetic of their own. Though Hocking wrote about ludonarrative dissonance in the game BioShock, I actually think it's one of the strongest examples of this new aesthetic, and this new way that games tell stories.
  • What BioShock does is attempt to partner a game player's desire to be mischievous and to explore with the game creator's desire to relay a story. It does this by removing (or at least lessening) the presence of cutscenes and instead placing narrative artefact within the game world – the game's “set” if you like – itself.
  • (Take a look at some BioShock pics, explain the world of Rapture). The player in BioShock is free to move the camera and move around, and the game follows a non-linear path, with lots of optional space to explore. However, these areas are littered with narrative artefacts, like statues, signs, audio diaries and other things, which relay a certain level of story and atmosphere.
  • This creates an interesting pattern whereby the player's willingness to explore and exploit the game world actually heightens his understanding of the narrative. By creating what I'd call an “aesthetic of abundance” - by hiding narrative points within the game world itself, rather than in cinematic forms such as cutscenes – the makers of BioShock are using the player's own will, own agency as a means of telling their story.
  • It's also present in a game from this year called Gone Home, which features even less cutscenes or passive media than BioShock (explain Gone Home, show the clip)
  • The gameplay of Gone Home is about piecing togetherr the story of your family. The more you explore the game world, the more you learn about the narrative. Again, it's that aesthetic of abundance.
  • And this, I think, brings us back to the 1980s when games had their own distinct aesthetic. What we're seeing now, and what I think we'll see much more of in the future, are games based in hyper-designed, very busy worlds that are pregnant with narrative paraphernalia. And it's only through the unique, interactive nature of games that that aesthetic, and that way of conveying narrative, can really be appreciated. Like in the 1980s, games will operate on their own aesthetic terms. Cinema will become an increasingly insignificant presence and I'd like to believe that, as time draws on, and people start to trust and appreciate games for what they are, there won't be that pressure to borrow from cinema to meet a mass market. People will buy and like games as they are. They will be able to effectuate and make money on completely their own terms.

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