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July 30, 2007

The Long View

The Station Agent

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?

But these go to eleven

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)

Posted by Brett Douville at July 30, 2007 01:18 PM


How about Die Hard? That's a significant action movie with no real action for the first half hour (or more?), unless you count the 747 landing in the opening shot.

Posted by: Jonesy at August 2, 2007 01:13 AM

True enough; though in that case we're talking a movie 20 years old. (I believe there are a fair number of Westerns which start off slowly, too, and for that matter, samurai movies.)

Maybe I should frame it this way instead: you're taking an action movie to Hollywood to get it made. What happens in the first ten minutes? Your answer is almost certainly not "Well, a plane lands at the airport, and we see our hero, John McClane, take a limo to an office party, where he meets his wife, who is working under her maiden name."

But good point. For every rule, there's definitely some exceptions.

Posted by: Brett Douville at August 2, 2007 07:53 AM

Just recalled another game I laughed quite a bit in, but can't remember anything specific that I laughed about: Super Paper Mario. There was a lot of videogame-related self-referential humor in there -- essentially a lot of one-liners -- and I don't remember even one, which is pretty dreadful.

Posted by: Brett Douville at August 3, 2007 01:29 PM

Set up requires a linear progression to get to the ultimate payoff. This is why adventure games, with their extremely restricted interactivity, do better with humor. The designer knows where the player has been, what he will be doing immediately thereafter, and can plan his payoff accordingly. The more interactive a game is, the harder it is to plan a set up that the player might be able to follow without taking a turn into left field without noticing and ruining the whole bit. Remember, jokes tend to rely on getting the audience to expect one, pedestrian ending, and then surprising them with an unexpected disconnect ending. The less linear storytelling time you have, the shorter your jokes have to be, until you get in to the realm of the one-liner.

However, I will bet that you have way more laughs during your co-op sessions than you ever have in any single-player games. Having an ever-present teammate that cracks jokes (like Daxter, for instance, or Longo) can overcome the need for linear gameplay in many instances.

Posted by: Feil at August 6, 2007 11:16 AM

You have a good point. I think technology can help, here, being a programmer and tending to see things in terms of technology :), but let me go ahead and talk to these points.

Sure, it's definitely hard to get those good jokes from something like a GTA III (although that game definitely has a fairly traditional linear structure in the missions, it's true that the time between these can be arbitrarily long). But I can see setting up and paying off on some gags. A recurring character (perhaps a hot dog vendor?) who roves the city, moving from location to location after you hustle him down for money. Why not treat him as a different faction, under the hood, and have him react depending on how he feels about you? Maybe GTA III isn't the best place to look for jokes, but I was picking that as an open-ended sort of game.

But other games would tend to lend themselves to comedy a little bit better. Why not lighten up the mood in an RPG with your shopkeepers, quest-givers, and various others. This kind of background stuff works really well (and it should be noted, was pretty well done in Fallout, even if it didn't tend to progress with time). A character who recognizes you're buying pricier items, for example, turns into an opportunity for humor. Despite these games being pretty non-linear in play (how often you return to an area, what have you), the fact is, there are definite patterns of use -- we return to the same locations again and again.

I tend to agree that sidekicks are a great way to set up jokes, and they can be jokes that take a little longer to deliver on. We did that with Republic Commando, much to the benefit of the game. There weren't a lot of long set up jokes, but there was a definite progression to the lines and when they would trigger, and the further you got into the game, the more they relied on the established characterizations we had of each squadmate. Kudos to John Hancock (tech) and Mike Stemmle (writing) for that -- it really stood out.

One other game I found remarkably funny, and which has actually stood up a little bit better in terms of memorable gags was Stubbs the Zombie. In particular, I can remember coming up to a boss fight (we were playing co-op) and having it become a Simon Says style dance off -- it was so brilliantly out of place (unexpected disconnect) that it has really stuck with me, and elevated my opinion of what was pretty much a straightforward shooter (granted, with a twisted way of looking at the world, but play-wise, it was Halo).

Posted by: Brett Douville at August 6, 2007 05:55 PM