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April 18, 2005

Discussion: The Devil's Backbone

The Devil's Backbone

After I saw Hellboy last year and enjoyed it so much, a friend recommended Guillermo Del Toro's earlier work, The Devil's Backbone. I didn't really know what the movie was about, except that it had some crazy looking cover, and I was really pleasantly surprised -- it's a great ghost story, not at all what I was expecting.

The movie is about secrets, as many ghost stories are. After all, what keeps ghosts behind but secrets about how they died? Along comes a hero, and that hero figures out the story behind the ghost, and everything turns out okay. In fact, one of the more popular ghost stories to make it into the movies in recent times -- The Ring -- plays on our expectations that once the secrets are known, the story is over; then it turns that expectation on its head¹.

One thing that struck me while watching is that the effect that a two hour movie can achieve with a single ghost. Games throw tons and tons of things at us, repetitively, and obsessively, but ghost and horror stories just tease us with a single or a few elements.

I'm certainly not saying games are bad in this respect, just different. After all, Resident Evil's hooks were in me long before Lisa showed up -- and then they bit in and really drew blood. Lisa anchored the story in a sudden and clear way; before her appearance the game was starting to drift a bit, it felt ungrounded².

But I'm wondering what kind of game could be made with a single, compelling otherworldly character.

The closest game I can think of that I've played in recent memory didn't set that character as the antagonist at all. Ico worked for me largely because I was compelled to protect Yorda due to how well she was characterized. There were lots of enemies around that I had to protect her from, but I think they were unnecessary. For me, the experience would have been complete if I could have scared them off merely by my presence, if just being near her could save her -- I found the combat rather uninteresting. The management of the distance between me and Yorda would have been that much more tight. It could have sustained me throughout a game of Ico's length, with its lush, oil-painterly settings and exploration. It would have been even more pure, and probably would have sold even fewer copies.

Experimentation to see what can be achieved along these lines is expensive, though. One of the things I've been thinking about lately is how much the expense of everything is holding us back, in certain ways.

For example, there was a recent discussion of MMO 'permadeath' online -- I only read the blurb that showed up in the RSS feed of slashdot games, not the whole article, I just haven't got around to it yet³. And I was thinking that it would be a really cool experiment to see what developed in that space; after all, you can create new things sometimes by taking away, and who knows what might develop? I can imagine an economy of resurrection developing, with priests wielding huge power which might drive politics in the game.

It's interesting to me that one of the few places outside of games I've encountered MMOs -- in a description in Tad Williams' Otherland series4 -- involved a boy who had built up a true hero inside the game he played, a graphics extravaganza set in a fairly traditional fantasy space. The boy got distracted while playing for a moment, and the game killed him, and that was the end of Thorgar or whatever his name was, and it rocked the world.

Our MMOs don't have heroes like that. It's like Brad Bird's message in The Incredibles: if everyone is special, no one is. If everyone can be 60th level just by putting in the time, where are the heroes?

Well, I've ranged from ghost stories and survival horror, to MMOs, 3200 page behemoth fantasy fiction, and Pixar now. Time for bed. I'll be coming back to these issues again, though. They're still rattling around.

¹To good effect. I didn't care for The Ring overall, but I really liked the ending, from the bits when they were in the well until the denouement.
²There was also a glorious scare moment when Lisa first appeared of "wtf was that?" with which I regaled Nathan, who had recommended the game to me. It got me good and gave me an appreciation for what the genre could do. I don't think I've ever had moments of sheer terror from movies (since I was young that is), like I had at certain spots of RE. Movies have worn out the capability to really scare me; they telegraph everything too much these days.
³There is so much stuff I want to do in a given day, and I end up getting only to some of it. For example, I'm reading The Fortress of Solitude right now, and I keep trying to get in at least half an hour a day, but even that's not really enough, I'd like it to be an hour. So there goes an hour, and things like articles referenced from slashdot just have to wait.
4Yes, Mom & Dad, I still read popcorn science fiction and fantasy every now and again...

Posted by Brett Douville at April 18, 2005 10:10 PM