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July 29, 2005

Discussion: Disparate Materials

The Mammoth Cheese

The literary mainstream fiction that I often find myself reading finds ways to smash together lots of disparate elements to make for engaging tales. For example, The Mammoth Cheese ties together several things going on in a small town: large multiple live births (i.e. as in due to fertility treatments), cheese-making and the plight of the agrarian lifestyle, and Thomas Jefferson and historical re-enactment. It's an interesting mix of elements. Reading it, I recalled the unusual mix of stuff that went into Tishomingo Blues, with its high-diving and Civil War battle re-enactments alongside the more traditional Leonard bits. Sheri Holman's book was interesting in that it asked and attempted to answer what sort of person was drawn to being a "Living Historian", and how that same person might grow away from that. It also spent quite a lot of time developing themes surrounding how we sometimes put aside our ethics because of things we want very much to believe, and having these distinct elements woven together allowed the author to touch on that theme from multiple angles.

I immediately think of two ways to talk about this subject when it comes to games.

The first, of course, is to draw the direct parallels to the stories in games. In this case, games draw up pretty short: there are very few games I can point to over the years that pull together a significant set of divergent themes into a single game, and two of them are by Tim Schafer. Grim Fandango paired tons of elements from film noir with the art style, themes, and mythos of the Mexican Day of the Dead. The narrative richness the game was able to achieve was remarkable. I felt similarly about Psychonauts, but I've talked about Psychonauts enough lately and I don't want to bore you all.

I'm not the first to lament our narrowness of vision in videogames, and I'm certain I won't be the last. It seems we spend a lot of time on one particular kind of story, and we do it again and again and again. Even those games whose storytelling I really like tend to immerse themselves in the same sort of materials: end-of-world scenarios, hero's journey scenarios. Are we likely to achieve the storytelling depth and thematic investigations that can surround elements such as cheese-making, living historians, and multiple live births? I don't know; I suspect we won't for a while. I don't think the market's there¹.

One game that occurred to me while writing this that did a little bit more, in a small but interesting way, was Dark Cloud. It had an interesting element whereby villages had been turned into collections of tokens which were held by various monsters in the nearby dungeon. After collecting these, you could repopulate an area Sim City-style with the buildings you had found. The story element that came into a little bit of play was that occasionally people who lived in these buildings had requests for where their homes would be placed and reasons behind their requests. Some would like to fish, others wanted to be near some friend. It was a limited source of story elements, but it was interesting. Not deep enough or pervasive enough to be called major themes, but it kept the play fresh enough until I got to a boss I couldn't beat (one of Jamie's "shelf-level events").

That said, I wouldn't mind at least seeing more depth in the elements that we use again and again. I don't know how many deaths I encountered in my reading of The Iliad; in a way, it seems that the point of them is simply how many there are. That said, every single one was just a little bit different. In a couple of lines Homer could let you know the history of the dying man, who his parents were, what mother would weep to learn that her son was never coming home. It carried a force all its own, separate from that of the tale of Achilles and Menelaus and Helen and Paris and the rest of them. When I play God of War², I kill oodles of minotaurs, for example, and every death is the same. Some of this is due to production costs, but at the very least, we should be getting to a point where making changes to these animations and models should be possible on the fly. In Homer, there's this amazing sense that every death is at once meaningful and meaningless. I don't expect games to achieve that any time soon, but making each death a little less forgettable doesn't seem like too much to ask.

But I promised you two views of how multiple themes can be considered in games.

The other, and I think somewhat fairer comparison, is to consider the actual elements that make up games -- the interactive bits. And here, games have been faring better and better as time goes by.

Lately, I've been playing some Sly 2, a competent sequel to the original, though the slightly more straightforward level structure of the original is a little more appealing to me³. Both games pull in a variety of play elements, from old school 2D videogame goodness to great platforming action to racing4. The variety of fun things to do in the framework of the platformer is great, and you're constantly engaged -- it does a terrific job of fighting player fatigue5.

While I find this really admirable, and I'm glad that games are doing this to the level of polish that Sly does, I don't feel like incorporating these multiple elements grows me all that much as a person. At best, it might grow me a tiny bit as a gamer, though often these elements are things that I've seen before in different forms.

What say you? Am I cracked, wanting more disparate elements incorporated into my game stories? Anyone out there want to fund a game which incorporates cheese-making as a significant story element?

¹I've talked about this before, looking for deeper interactive entertainment as I get older.
²And this is not to diminish the achievements of that game, which I finished, enjoyed, and will blog about at some point in the future.
³Look for a discussion on that one once I've finished the darn thing.
4Though I wasn't particularly a fan of the racing last time out.
5See Hal and Noah's talk from the Game Dev Conference a few years back. (So much for fighting footnote fatigue, that's three in this paragraph! I begin to reach Foster Wallace proportions.)

Posted by Brett Douville at July 29, 2005 09:03 PM


what about Harvet Moon? being about farming and such, I assume it would have your cheese-making

Posted by: MrMunkeepants at July 31, 2005 01:53 AM

Well, sure, I guess. After all, World of Warcraft offers cooking as a skill to everyone who wants to learn (and spend virtu-money on it).

But I'm looking more for games which incorporate interesting elements into their storylines, stuff that I haven't seen before. Hideo Kojima remarks on this in August's Official PlayStation Magazine. After hearing that George Lucas says that he just makes whatever story he wants, Kojima basically responds that you have to satisfy the users. He draws a distinction between novels/movies and games there, likening games to cars.

I can't agree with him. I wouldn't have said that I was interested in a game set in the Day of the Dead if you had asked me way back when it started getting developed in 1995 or so. Just like I wouldn't have thought I had much interest in the adventures of three teenagers trying to keep a mutated tentacle from taking over the world.

It's not that I want to turn a game crank and have cheese pop out that I can sell to a vendor for 17c. I want to understand what farming families go through. I want to know why they would pick Hereford over Jersey. I want to learn stuff -- games never help me learn stuff.

Take Jade Empire. Fun game, so far, I just started Chapter 2 last night. But when I walk away from it, I'm not going to know any more than I knew going in. I can already tell this.

Which is fine, not every game has to present me with a whole bunch of new information, just as not every book presents me with a whole bunch of new information. However, there are vastly few games which teach me something new and interesting in any depth, while there are books published every day which do so.

I learned stuff when I played Grim Fandango. I learned a bit about the folklore. I spent a little time reading about it afterwards, it made me interested in the subject. After Jade Empire, I'll probably wish I knew a little bit more about Chinese myth and mythology, but more because the game doesn't appear like it will teach me anything about that. I'm not even sure what period of China's history (granted it's not China, per se, but it's close enough) that the game is supposed to be set in. I wouldn't know where to start.

Posted by: Brett Douville at August 1, 2005 11:00 AM

Yu Suzuki once said he wanted to make a game about wine-tasting. If it happens, it'll happen in Japan.

Posted by: b at August 1, 2005 12:01 PM

A good book series that features Chinese Mythology is Barry Hughart's Master Li series. Here's an Amazon link:


On games teaching, they teach by immersion rather than telling, in most cases. Master of Kri, for instance, did a good job of teaching you about a fictional universe by immersing you in it. RPGs like the Fallout series and KOTOR also teach through immersion. You learn about the universe by experiencing it. In this way, games are much more like real life: when you move to a new city, you learn its streets by travelling them, not by memorizing a map. Admittedly, this type of information won't help you win on Jeopardy, but the form of information you get from experience is a lot more dense and memorable.

Posted by: Jfeil at August 1, 2005 12:20 PM

For the record, I didn't coin the term "shelf-level event" - first person I heard use it was Rob Fermier.

Posted by: Jamie at August 3, 2005 10:24 PM