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April 10, 2005

Discussion: American Splendors

American Splendor

When I read the American Splendor anthology, I found myself getting thoroughly curious about the film version. After all, here was a collection of what? vignettes? short fiction? ruminations? from a single author and a hodge-podge of illustrators. The stories, such as they are, are remarkably episodic, not really lending themselves to a particular logical thread from which a movie could be constructed. So I moved the movie up near the top of the queue and popped it in the day it arrived.

"Ordinary life is pretty complex stuff", says Harvey as he excitedly describes his ideas for a comic book to his friend R. Crumb, progenitor of the underground comix movement which started in the 70s. And so it is. From the moment I read the first story in the anthology, in which Harvey discusses his discovery of a second and then a third "Harvey Pekar" in the Cleveland phone book, I was hooked. Here was a guy who was taking ordinary events and presenting himself as a character, fairly wide open for everyone to see.

The film is no less interesting. Harvey Pekar himself appears in it, as narrator and as a subject of interviews, and of archival footage¹. We're introduced to some of his "characters," who are real people -- the portrayal of Toby in the comics and on-screen seems too strange to be true, until the real Toby is introduced discussing the categories of "genuine Jelly Bellies" and we realize that art is no match for life where strangeness is concerned.

The movie, the comic, both are uncategorifiable. Both are biographical, sure, but not really biography or autobiography. They have a sense of real-time flow about them -- even when events from the 70s are juxtaposed with events from the 90s. Like life, these are pretty complex works.

Yes, life is pretty complex; lately I feel more and more like videogames can't capture that, and yet, I want them to, I want this entertainment that I love to have a deeper dimension. I want games, in all their seriousness, their serious play², to evolve into something that can teach me more than the muscle memorization needed to beat the Emperor Ing in the Sky Temple in Metroid Prime: Echoes³.

It's like when I was young and read tons of science fiction and fantasy books, and then grew up and now read classics and literary fiction, I want that next step to come from my games, but I just don't feel that level of complexity coming.

Sure, I think that part of it is that our industry is young. But movies were tackling difficult subjects almost straight off the bat, once all the "look, we can watch someone sneeze" experimentation was done with. In our era of more, better, faster, you'd think we'd get to more interesting, better investigation, faster than other industries that have preceded us.

I wonder sometimes if the paucity of ponderance of real and interesting questions is due to the very nature of our medium. Our strength is our interactivity -- it's what distinguishes us. But it's also a tough weakness, because something that can deliver a powerful experience in our medium demands someone capable of participating in or even generating a powerful experience.

I don't know what to do about it -- you can't come here and expect answers to all of life's persistent questions -- but when I think about the power of these other media to involve me and make me grow, and contrast that with a medium in which I am even more actively taking part, I end up thinking that games should be able to deliver far more than they are. I came into this industry thinking about how important it was to be a part of the beginnings of this exciting new medium, to help explore its potential. I'm seven years in and haven't really had that opportunity. I've been playing even longer -- and the games, with a few exceptions, aren't hugely different from what I played on the Apple II and early PCs, though they are definitely prettier.

I don't want to sit and bemoan our industry; far from it, as I still take a lot of pleasure from it, and I don't think it has to be defended as an art form -- it already is. I also think there are a lot of factors here. After all, anyone who can afford a couple of legal pads and a pen can write a novel. It doesn't cost that much to get into film anymore. Even a person who can't draw can manage to produce a series of comic books, as Pekar demonstrates (and incidentally, as he inspires me to do). But game development at high production quality is "pretty complex stuff" too -- and expensive as all hell.

Modding starts to address this question. So does The Sims (hey, google "Sims Stories" and you'll see what I mean). I can tell from reading a few of these that they are important to the people who are writing them, that they have a lot invested. And so, maybe there's some potential there. In the case of modding, though, there's a huge bar for entry -- technical know-how, ability to glean what you need from the web, tools that don't often work as advertised. And in The Sims it's clear that the depth of interaction is pretty limited -- what they've decided to model and not model implicitly places limitations on the play space. I don't want to spend time making sure they get to the bathroom and don't set their houses on fire. (Aside from people like A. M. Holmes and Michel Houellebecq, you're not likely to find much of that in "serious" literature.)

This post has probably gone on long enough, and yet I'm still nowhere near knowing what to do about this; in fact, I'm finding myself thinking about all sorts of other things with regards to this issue. (E.g., in role-playing games we are sometimes able to involve players in more powerful stories -- but at the cost of interactivity, and through the medium of film -- what to do about that? If we treat games only as wish-fulfillment, can they ever be a medium for growth? Should I go out and hustle up a copy of the Sims, even though I have concerns about all this other stuff?) So, I'll leave it for now, and I'll be coming back to it. After all, I love this medium.

¹Indeed, the film contains a masterstroke moment of film-making in which Paul Giamatti (as Harvey) leaves the backstage ready room of Late Night with David Letterman. The camera tracks what we figure to be his movement, mostly tracking across a blank wall, until it catches the TV monitor in the corner of the room... where Harvey Pekar walks out. If the rest of the movie had been bad (and it wasn't), it thorougly would have been redeemed by this one moment.
²Thank you, Daniel Hillis, for your impassioned speech at GDC on our behalf a few years ago.
³For non-gamers -- yes, that's a real example from a real game. And yes, I feel a little ridiculous describing it.

Posted by Brett Douville at April 10, 2005 07:39 PM


Luckily, there are people in the industry pursuing the goal of opening up the creating of new games and similar digital media (machinima) as simple as possible.

If I may plug:


Posted by: Richard Nelson at April 29, 2005 07:29 PM

You may certainly plug, plug away, plug on.

Actually, after I read the Tringo stories online (about it crossing out of SL to retail), I was seriously tempted to give SL a look, and I may still do so¹. I'm interested to see what your tools look like, and I like the idea of a community that might be looking for the experimental stuff.

BTW, say Hi to Christian L for me and tell him he needs to start reading my blog and commenting and stuff, especially now that he's a big-shot producer :)

¹Lately my time has been on the constrained side, but that may loosen up a bit in the near future.

Posted by: Brett Douville at April 29, 2005 08:31 PM