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.

Escape From the Movies - How Videogames Stole Cinema, but then Gave it Back

Escape from the Movies – How Videogames Stole Cinema, But Then Gave it Back

How Games Used to Look

  • Due to technical limitations, the aesthetic of games in the 70s, 80s and early 90s was dominated by chunky, pixellated environments, stark colours and basic shapes:

Basically every design principle in the graphics of early 80′s arcade games was governed by the insane limitations of the tiny systems of the day. A list of qualities and factors that fed into creating the early 80′s aesthetic [includes]: Large pixels, tiny sprites, limited colour palette and 2-3 frame animations. At the time there often wasn’t a dedicated video processing unit, or even dedicated video memory — everything was handled by the CPU, which often dedicated most of its processing power to simply drawing each frame of video, leaving relatively little processing power left over for handling game logic.”

Sanyk, Chris. “The Early 80s Arcade Aesthetic”, May 2nd, 2012,

  • Though Stanyk seems to suggest that these technical limitations stifled game aesthetics, we may argue that in fact, they inspired an aesthetic much more unique to videogames than anything created on more advanced consoles.

Stealing Cinema

  • Sophisticated consoles such as the PlayStation 1 and Nintendo 64 allowed game-makers to create detailed, photo-realistic worlds. With these possibilities now open to them, and with the growing cost of videogame development adding pressure to appeal to a broader market, game developers started to take influence from cinema, a form similar to games in its reliance on visual spectacle, which also enjoyed a much more lucrative market:

Along with the industry’s growth into a significant section of popular culture, the audience had shaped to consist mostly of casual players and children, and the proportional number of “sophisticated” players who shaped the audience of the 1980’s interactive fiction had de- creased to a margin.”

Karhulati, Veli-Matti. “The Aesthetics of Early Adventure Games: A Reflection of Film History,” The International Journal of the Arts in Society, Volume 6, Issue 2, April, 2011.

  • However, rather than adapt visual elements of film into games, game-makers simply borrowed from film wholesale. “Cutscenes”, fully-animated short films shown at key narrative points in games, became the standard format for videogames to tell stories. Aesthetically and narratively, games became an indistinct hybrid of cinema and videogaming, and over time drew criticism for ignoring the aesthetic idiosyncracies of the medium and instead merely stealing from films:

Cutscenes, which clearly don't have anything to do with videogames, might be the most misused and excessive element in contemporary videogaming. Some developers seem to forget there is an art of writing videogames which doesn't rely that much on cinema. Squaresoft, notably with Final Fantasy 8 and the infamous The Bouncer, totally forgot the fact that a game cannot be summed up by a succession of cutscenes punctuated with vague gaming sequences”

Gaultier, Pierre. “Videogames and Cinema,” Polygonweb, March, 2001.

Ludonarrative Dissonance

  • The adoption of cinematic aesthetics into a game leads to a creative conflict between the game-maker, trying to impose the controlled creation and passive viewing of cinema, and the game player, who, as the term “playing” suggests, expects a certain degree of freedom, deviation and self-expression when interacting with a videogame:

A videogame is a network in which the player is free to choose his own path. Each crossroad implies a choice and some risk-taking. The viewer is free and active. At the movies, the viewer is captive and passive: he follows a story from beginning to end, a story whose rhythm and twists he cannot influence.”

Delorme, Gerard. Premiere Magazine, as quoted in “Videogames and Cinema,” March 14th 2001, Polygonweb.

  • Game designer Clint Hocking summarised this conflict, coining the term “ludonarrative dissonance”:

By throwing the narrative and ludic elements of the work into opposition, the game seems to openly mock the player for having believed in the fiction of the game at all. The leveraging of the game’s narrative structure against its ludic structure all but destroys the player’s ability to feel connected to either, forcing the player to either abandon the game in protest or simply accept that the game cannot be enjoyed as both a game and a story, and to then finish it for the mere sake of finishing it.”

Hocking, Clint. “Ludonarrative Dissonance in BioShock,” October 7th, 2007,

Giving Cinema Back

  • In response, a new type of videogame aesthetic has emerged, which aims to blend the game-maker's narrative intentions with the player's desire to explore. This new aesthetic is illustrated by the games BioShock and Gone Home:

Where Gone Home truly excels is as a masterful execution of implicit narrativeconveying key story and character information using subtle environmental elements instead of explicit dialogue. It is only as a game that Gone Home is able to so effectively convey the subtle nuances of character that give it its deep emotional impact, and as such it represents a huge leap forward for narrative videogames. It may not tell an incredible story, but it certainly tells it in an incredible way.

Lindsey, Patrick. “On Time and Space in Gone Home”, August 21st, 2013, Tumblr

Suggested Reading

Hocking, Clint. “Ludonarrative Dissoance in BioShock”,October 7th 2007,

Smith, Edward. “The Time I Wasn't John Marston”, March 29th 2013, Escapist Magazine.

Juul, Jesper. “Mechanics, Dynamics, Aesthetics – The Whole Thing”, June 29th 2004,

Bogost, Ian. “Perpetual Adolescence – The Fullbright Company's Gone Home”, September 28th 2013, Los Angeles Review of Books

King, Geoff and Krzywinska, Tanya. “Computer Games/Cinema/Interfaces”, March, 2002, Digital Games Research Assocaition (DiGRA) Library

Suggested Playing

The Stanley Parable”. Galactic Cafe. Available on Microsoft Windows and Mac OS X.

Kentucky Route Zero”. Carboard Computer. Available on Microsoft Windows and Mac OS X.

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

I Aimed for Love at GameCity 8

Credit to Lorenzo Pilia (@lorenzopilia) for the picture.

"A first-person shooter about love." That's all I knew about Martin Hollis's new game, Aim for Love. Before travelling to GameCity, Nottingham's annual videogame festival, I'd seen a few previews and write-ups floating around. But I'd ignored them, on purpose. I wanted to go into this blind.

I've been doing that more and more recently. Since I left my job at IBTimes, and exonerated myself from ever having to write a preview again, I've been shunning pre-release hype. If someone writes an excited tweet or posts on Facebook about how X unreleased game is Y, then I'm bound to catch it. But if I see a link with the word "preview" in, then no. I want to be surprised.

It worked with Beyond, it worked with GTA V and boy did it work with Aim for Love.

Looking around Nottingham's Old Market Square, where the game was set to be exhibited, I couldn't see a game console, or a first-person shooter or a Martin Hollis anywhere. Then I looked up, at the two big flat screens plonked smack in the city centre. And there I was - paunch, stubble, hang-dog look - staring back at myself in...I want to say disbelief, but it was more like dumb confusion.

The set-up for Aim for Love, I later found out, goes like this. Two people, selected at random, sit in a tent behind the two big screens, presiding over a keyboard. They each use a set of arrow keys - up, down, right, left - to control two cameras aimed at the Old Market Square.

On their screen is a reticule in the shape of a love heart. The idea is that they talk and work together to pick out two people in the crowd who look like they might hit it off.

Once they've made their choices, they line their targets up in the love hearts and signal to Hollis, who blows a whistle and gets the GameCity volunteers to go grab the chosen twosome out from the crowd to come and replace the two that were controlling the cameras. And then the new couple starts talking to each other. And they pick out another pair of strangers. And the whole thing rolls on.

So that's how I found myself shuttered in a tent, coordinating with some bloke I'd never met over which two strangers on the CCTV looked like they might want to snog each other.

He, my partner, picked out someone almost immediately, a young woman who, in the spirit of things, waved and cheered at the camera and waited for someone to come get her. I didn't have the same luck. Most of the people I aimed at either walked off, pretended they were talking to friends and ignored me, or simply "weren't playing." There was a guy right at the back wearing a North Face jumper and carrying five shopping bags, and he looked like he could do with a cuddle. But as soon as I aimed at him he just sort of sneered and went off. I tried to track him but it got a bit creepy. I felt like Keifer Sutherland in Phonebooth.

Is that the point? Is this how nutters with guns see the world? Is Aim for Love an experiment in subjective narrator storytelling? (a-thankyou)

It reminded me of the "Meet the Pyro" trailer for Team Fortress 2, where instead of a flamethrower shooting fire, he imagines he's carrying a magical tuba that shoots rainbows. Is this how it is? When snipers pull the trigger on someone, are they actually thinking "this will make them love me!"?

Maybe. Or Maybe Aim for Love is just kind of...nice. I sincerely tried to pick out someone who looked like they'd get on with the young woman. And when I finally had him zeroed in, and he came to take my spot at the controls, I was quietly hoping that he and his new partner would talk and get on and go for a drink and then get married. Maybe they did. Maybe I just helped match up the happiest couple the world will ever know.

Or maybe they did what I did, which was slink off, sheepishly, to look at the picture my friend had taken on his iPhone of my face on the big screen. We joked for a while about the surveillance state: Maybe people would be more welcoming of the NSA's spying if every CCTV camera had a big pink love heart strapped onto it. "Big Brother Wuvs You!" the posters would say. Instead of re-education, you'd be sequestered to the Ministry of Yay for snuggles and kissies.

I think that's what Hollis is going for. I think that, as well as a fun bit of pubic spectacle, Aim for Love can, if you want it, become an amusing commentary on the nanny state, game violence and of course, romance. How much easier would dating be if a big camera just picked your partner for you? I'd give that a go. It'd be better than

Aim for Love is available to play all this week in the Old Market Square. If you want to play a first-person shooter where, instead of killing people, you potentially set them up with the love of their life, then go try it. You might just meet someone.

Oh, and to the guy I played with: I'm sorry, guy. You were very handsome and you seemed polite, and I'm sure we could have hooked up, fallen in love and eventually tied the knot. I'm imagining the summers we would have spent in our cottage in the Cotswolds; the skiing holidays; the late nights in Paris. It could have been something.

I'm just not sure my girlfriend would have approved.