July 31, 2007
The Blog is Black Today
We can only hope he's off playing chess somewhere.
July 30, 2007
The Long View
It is 46 minutes into The Station Agent when Finbar McBride, the main character, finally smiles, really smiles, in a genuine and unguarded way. This is slightly more than halfway through the film, and it's nearly another 6 minutes before anyone laughs.
(A small note: Previously, I've tended to put spoiler announcements near the top of my posts. I'm going to stop doing so; caveat lector.)
That smile is sublime. The movie opens up like an egg cracking into a frying pan, and starts to sizzle, starts to cook; up until then, the egg has been cradled along, protected, brought up close to room temperature so that everything is just right when it hits the pan. Six minutes later, he laughs. Breakfast is served.
Finbar McBride is a bit of an enigma. He's a dwarf who works in a hobbyist railroad specialty shop, and he has built up a wall around himself due to the way people often treat him, even unintentionally and always unthinkingly¹. He leads a fairly narrow life: he apparently has exactly one friend, and he has his job, and his hobby, which is railroads and trains, but pretty much nothing else. And when that one friend dies and leaves him a small ticket station beside a railway line East of Nowhere, New Jersey, it looks almost certain that he'll withdraw as completely as possible from the world and become a full-time hermit².
A couple of chance encounters, though, and quite a lot more time, and he begins to come out of his shell. Those sudden and poignant moments -- an unguarded smile, a laugh -- and the events which follow, and the audience's emotional connection with the characters, are only possible because of the slow, slow build-up, the establishment of the emotional landscape that Fin McBride has built for himself.
Compare this with a game, where we are constantly told that we need to push the big experience in the first five or ten minutes of play³.
Now, I know that's an oversimplification. Certainly, we don't really expect every game to have a literal "big experience" in the first few minutes of play. But certainly we expect that from our action games, our role-playing games, even our platformers, and er... our shooters, and ... hmmm. Maybe it's not too big an oversimplification, at least not in the types of games I generally play.
To be fair, there are a couple of exceptions that spring to mind (both of the Half-Life games, but particularly the second, where the sense of atmosphere generated by that walk through the train station is simply amazing, and in the opening cutscene of Metal Gear Solid). But these are comparatively rare and exceptional.
Fair enough: I can't think of many significant action movies that don't start off with a bang, that don't try to get the adrenaline going in the first ten minutes (and that stand up as action movies)4. I really think this is an underlying issue with respect to games and the types of experiences they can pull off. And I'm not just talking about character studies, or deeper emotions, or making the player cry (even though I touch on those in the blog all the time).
How about laughter?
Comedy takes time to set up -- having just seen This is Spinal Tap on the big screen again, I was reminded that while there are lots of throw-away lines in that movie, the lines that get the big laughs, and that you remember, all take a long time to set up. "But these go to eleven" comes after a couple of minutes of set-up, and that's certainly not the only example. We have a hard time doing this in games, not just because we abdicate some authorial control to the player but because we don't have the patience to set-up for the big payoff. Most of our jokes are short, referential, and forgettable. We who played them remember adventure games so fondly not because of the puzzles (though certainly folks will have their favorites), but because of the comedy -- the slower pace made for better jokes5.
A good counterexample to this would probably be The Simpsons Movie, which I saw yesterday with my boys. I laughed a lot in that movie, but primarily at one-liners that a) soared over my sons' heads (particularly one about the Kennedy compound, which had me in stitches, but which I would be hard-pressed to recall even now), or b) I forgot more-or-less immediately after I laughed at them. The one sight gag I can remember finding pretty funny only worked for me because of how it was set up; it involved some hoof-marks on the ceiling.
In any case, I have no prescription for this, particularly given the rising cost of developing games, except to encourage folks to take a long view. Hire that writer to tie the whole story arc together and maybe even inject some humor into the story, to be able to set up the payoff two levels away because he's got the longer view. Or maybe your producer can be keeping his eye on that. But find a way. Your audience will thank you, and you'll find you have more tools in your toolbox than you realized.
You can even leave those first ten minutes just the way they are, if you just find ways to tie bits of those first ten minutes together with stuff that happens 20 minutes later. This might be a way to make games that much more memorable, and to reach emotional areas we haven't found it easy to touch on...
See you back in this space soon, when we talk about Herzog and Hercules.
¹Full disclosure: It should be noted that there's also an awful moment where a cashier at a grocery store quite literally overlooks poor Finbar. I had nearly this same very moment when I worked as a grocery clerk myself one summer. I was doing something with the register (putting in a new roll of receipt paper? or maybe cleaning the scale, which was up above? I don't recall) when I caught out of the corner of my eye a child-sized someone throw a pack of cigarettes up on the belt. As I turned, I started to say "Are you sure you're old enough to..." when I saw that she was a little person, and cut myself off, apologizing. I believe it was the most awkward moment I ever had in that grocery store with a customer; there were some other interesting encounters, but nothing so cringeworthy as that one. In my defense, I only saw her peripherally, and I don't know that I've ever encountered another person of short stature in my life -- they are relatively uncommon. Anyway; I think the collage of short scenes of alienation and unthinking offense probably are enough to make most people aware of a way in which they themselves once regrettably treated someone a bit different, which strengthens the film.(back)
²This first half in particular is a bit like a Jarmusch movie, I'd say, though the cinematography lacks his directorial touch. (back)
³I actually did a couple of searches on the 'tubes for a particular blog post I had read on this very issue, but I couldn't find it again due to the immense number of hits on actual videos of the first ten minutes of play of various games. Which may well substantiate my point. (back)
4One notable exception might be the heist genre, but that has a very specific formula all its own, if you can even call them action movies (sometimes you can, sometimes you can't). (back)
5Even a game I can remember laughing a lot in comparatively recently, Psychonauts, fails the memory test -- I can't really remember any specific funny lines in that game, even though I know I laughed out loud frequently. That's because none of them took long enough to set-up to lodge them in my brain. (back)
July 17, 2007
Peanut Butter in my Chocolate. Again.
Elsewhere in this increasingly sporadic blog I've commented on how it can be interesting to mash together unusual elements in the hopes of finding new nuances or textures¹. But it can be equally uninteresting to add the same old elements to every experience. [Note: spoilers ahead.]
Case in point: The Departed, which I finally caught on DVD the other night. There are some really interesting performances here, and a terrifically bleak atmosphere of moral ambiguity. Everyone is in bed with everyone else; the first substantial character to die is also perhaps the most virtuous. Admittedly, some of the direction seems almost heavy-handed, particularly in the treatment of Matt Damon's character, who Scorcese seems to be at pains to paint as the worst of a bad bunch - he's the only character whose face gets roughed up, and at least the last quarter or so of his film time shows him with cuts and scrapes; furthermore, we never see him do anything that isn't underhanded, he's the least ambiguous character in the film². It's a great undercover story, with everyone undercover, even the ones you least expect to be.
But tacked onto this really interesting and ambiguous environment is a love interest angle, with Vera Farmiga in the center of it³. I like her and all, she's nice to look at and has very alluring eyes, but come on! Not every movie needs a love interest. I don't mean to say that her character has no place in this film whatsoever -- actually, I think it's kind of interesting that we see Dicaprio's inner turmoil reflected in a visit to a shrink4, and the economical laws of screenwriting almost guarantee that that character needs to play a double role in the film, but come on. It's like a recipe written by a committee -- "no matter what the chef says, our focus groups say that everything's better with butter, so add a stick to that saffron-mint lamb chop you've been working on". It's as if Griffin Mill had creative input on the project5.
I came away feeling that a very good movie could have been a half hour shorter, lost an unnecessary element, and become substantially better.
I felt exactly the same way playing Trauma Center: Second Edition recently. In fact, I had to put the game down and haven't picked it up again, except to demonstrate for friends and family some of the more interesting uses of the Wii-mote I've seen.
I was really enjoying this game, essentially a fun update to Operation, the wacky doctor game, except that instead of merely steady hands, you also needed to remember procedures and work pretty quickly to get the best scores for each surgery, and the nunchuck and wii-mote interface which feels really slick and nice. Plus, there was a little side story going on, reminiscent of cheap "nurse and doctor romance" paperbacks of the 1950s, about a young doctor (ostensibly the player) who was trying to learn the ropes as a surgeon. There was also a parallel storyline involving a doctor who seemed to be living life a little bit like a fugitive -- I don't really recall the details of that, because I hadn't gotten much into that storyline yet.
So, here I am, thoroughly enjoying this environment, when all of a sudden, I begin to see signs of something unnecessary intruding. First, it's that the main character is apparently the descendant of Asclepius, the Greek demigod of medicine. That made me a little nervous... but it allowed for the ability to add bullet-time, and it's hard to swing a dead cat around videogames these days without having some sort of bullet-time. So, I tried to chalk it up to some sort of special focus that the character had, and tried to leave it at that. But it was nagging at me.
Another operation or two down the line had me facing a young girl who had tried to kill herself -- a fairly simple case, mostly involving suturing lacerations, if I recall correctly. But the storyline took a weird turn here -- after we spend a little time with her in a cutscene, we can tell she was depressed and feels pretty bad now about what she must have put her parents through. Suddenly, she's back in the O.R., where her lacerations are showing up again suddenly and spontaneously. Back in we go.
That's where I had to put the game down; I had been enjoying this reasonably logical surgery game with a side-story with perhaps some romance and soap opera elements when suddenly and spontaneously magic appeared. Here I am, no longer a struggling young doctor, but instead the direct descendant of a demigod, fighting the physical manifestations of Guilt6. Was this really necessary?
It's not that I was looking for realism -- after all, there's a sort of magical cleaning/healing antibiotic solution that helps promote blood-clotting or something. But the unrealistic elements were in service of gameplay -- the sheets of tissue-healing stuff you'd put over an internal incision was simply a step on the way back from having cut out a tumor and needing to patch that hole (and could be sufficiently general purpose to serve this role in multiple surgeries, rather than a specific device which might clutter the interface). I was enjoying building up my skills along the lines of what a real surgeon might be called to do -- first simple, external procedures involving removing broken glass, then more involved internal issues like broken bones, then tumors, maybe building up to things like transplants and other really complex real-world examples, while enjoying the story of Derek learning how to be a Real Grown-Up Doctor™ and maybe falling in love with a nurse or this other doctor character. Instead, I got magic. Instead of a courageous and interesting fiction, which I agree with Tadhg Kelly is important, I got something out of the Hardcore Gamers Focus Test Playbook -- when in doubt, add some magic to the mix.
I'm not all "holier than thou" about it -- after all, I did spend the first seven years of my career making Star Wars games, and the number of times we'd wave our hands over some bit of magic and say, "It's Star Wars" is not small (and LucasArts employed someone just to be on top of such canon and "extended universe" fiction issues). But we were making Star Wars games for Star Wars fans -- not growing the gaming market, as Nintendo purports to be doing with the Wii and DS. My mother enjoyed our brief time playing Trauma Center: Second Opinion together, even trash-talking my suturing skills (she's an Adult Nurse Practitioner), but had she been playing it alone and not skipping past all the fiction, as I was doing, I suspect she would have gotten to the magic and been a little let down, as I was.
Designers, feel free to take chances -- you don't have to fall back on the Playbook. It may not always work, but please, give it a shot, because sometimes it will, and the games will be more interesting for that.
¹Indeed, this was part of the charming description of cooking presented in Ratatouille, which I finally saw this weekend with the boys. It was a great little movie, and one I'd highly recommend, but not the subject of today's chat. (back)
² It's almost cute how he is surprised and bothered by the fact that Nicholson's character has been feeding information to the "feebs" for years. (back)
³ And there's another bit of directorial heavy-handedness for you: while we see Leonardo Dicaprio's character romancing Farmiga, we see very little of that with Matt Damon. In fact, Dicaprio gets the love scene with her, and Damon's bed scene with her is considerably less romantic, where he basically says, "If this isn't good, you'll need to go, because I'm Irish and I'll stick with it even if it's bad." (back)
4 One almost wonders if there's more to that story, that maybe there was something having to do with his mother or his estranged uncle that ended up on the cutting floor or was part of the formative years of his character. Dicaprio's performance is splendid enough to make you believe there might be.(back)
5Bonus points to those playing our home game if you knew who Griffin Mill was without checking, and keep in mind, we're using the honor system. I had an unfair advantage, I just watched that again last year. (back)
6To be fair, Gamefaqs indicates that apparently this "Guilt" turns out to be some sort of terrorist-created virus -- but to me, that's not a lot different, and maybe even a little worse since it's inconsistent with the Asclepius angle. It's still magic. (back)