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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 09:03 PM | Comments (5)

July 26, 2005

The Persistence of Mythology


So, my recent post about Psychonauts got the juices flowing again a bit.

Another thing I think is really remarkable about Psychonauts is the degree to which the game's themes have been allowed to permeate into the play.

Often, in platformers, we're asked to collect abstract things which then become part of the mythology of the game. Stars and shines and coins for Mario, rings for Sonic. Taking something and making it a more real part of the game world gets done as well: Jak and Daxter has its Precursor Orbs and Power Cells, Ratchet and Clank has bolts and tons of weapons, it goes on and on².

One aspect of the brilliance of Psychonauts is that it finds a way to use these conventions but present them in a way that is thoroughly consistent with the game universe. You're off digging around in psyches, and you don't find rings and coins: you find figments of imagination, and mental cobwebs, vaults, and emotional baggage.

Emotional baggage.

Okay, so you've let that sink in, have you? Of course, when you encounter the baggage, it's crying, since it has no tag (and thus, can't be sorted). When you give a piece of baggage its tag, it is super happy. See, it's not just baggage, it's emotional baggage. Once you've sorted out all the emotional baggage, you get what in other games would simply be labelled "concept art". But in Psychonauts, they call it Primal Memories¹.

This is taking an idea all the way through. It's a level of polish a dress sergeant would be pleased as punch to have on his boots.

It's throughout the game. Your power-ups: clairvoyance, pyrokinesis, telekinesis. Hey, you even get to float around inside of brains using a thought bubble.

And that's just the stuff you get inside of people's brains. When you're out in the physical world, you're still a kid at summer camp. You go on scavenger hunts, finding just the sorts of weird off-kilter objects you might actually look for at summer camp. You collect arrowheads (remnants of the Indian tribe that once lived there). There's a bully and his lackeys. There's a girl who can't make up her mind about who her latest crush is on. You get merit badges for your achievements. It's wonderful.

This level of attention to detail is what made me go through and collect every single thing in the game, every challenge marker, every scavenger hunt item, every mental object of every stripe. There were gameplay side benefits -- some level challenges were almost certainly easier because I had achieved all sorts of bonuses to my skills. Sure, it was just another game where along the way you're collecting items. But weaving these collectibles so closely into the fabric of the game's story elements made this remarkably satisfying to me³.

After an experience like Psychonauts, collecting shines and rings seems so... pedestrian.

¹Side note: I was extremely happy to see these. Back in my early days of working for LucasArts, I was able to see huge amounts of Grim Fandango concept art just by stopping by the huge corkboard wall outside of Tim's office there. It was filled with great images by Peter Chan of the various locations and characters in the game, as well as some great pieces which just gave you a feel for the game.
²It will no doubt continue to go on and on in the next round of platformers, on our new dark masters starting to arrive this fall.
³And, let's face it, to my obsessive-compulsive disorder. I sort of lamented that there wasn't any character really suffering from OCD in the game, but I forgave them, since that character was me.

Posted by Brett Douville at 09:37 PM | Comments (0)

Discussion: Strangely Tender

Elling Harvey Psychonauts

I've seen a few movies about mental illness (or something like mental illness) lately, and then not long afterwards, I played Tim Schafer's most excellent game, Psychonauts. The reason why I'm blogging about the three titles you see above together¹ is because of the touching, almost sweet, way that they treat mental illness².

Originally I put these three pieces together with Jules and Jim, a French movie about two great friends who both fall in love with the same woman, who turns out to be the very definition of a femme fatale. But that movie treats its madness frankly, without pity or sentimentality, not even really passing judgement, just relating a tale. But that didn't fit, because these other three treat mental illness and disability in such a sensitive way, so I threw it out.

Elling is an odd little Norwegian movie that presents a pair of mentally disabled men who have been furloughed from institutional life and placed in an apartment together; the film shows their gradual adjustment to life outside of an institution. Neither of them are so debilitated that they require constant supervision, but on the other hand, neither of them could probably live entirely alone either. It's a quaint little film which tenderly and honestly portrays these strange characters, and we come to laugh with them in a way that doesn't feel exploitative. When Elling narrates about his unlikely success as a poet, he speaks in tones that come off as Romantic, and it's funny and it works because he's real, up there on the screen, and not some caricature.

In a similar vein, in Harvey, Jimmy Stewart portrays Elwood P. Dowd, a gentle man with a taste for drink and an invisible six foot rabbit for a friend. I relate this to the two others here because of the treatment of Dowd, who is sympathethic even while we wonder if he's completely crazy. We find humor in the situations here precisely because we've come to like Elwood, and because we similarly find his sister compelling, in her bewildered concern for her brother.

A lot of the reason I don't find movies like Me, Myself, and Irene or Dumb and Dumber4 all that funny is because they don't take any time to develop any empathy with their characters. They aren't, in fact, portrayals of characters at all -- but portrayals which put an illness forward as character, and then play that illness for laughs. I know it works for a lot of people; it just doesn't work for me.

Which brings me, at last, to the storytelling genius that is contained in Psychonauts. In the game, various characters are mentally ill, and part of your job as Raz is to attempt to heal them. From the inside.

This wouldn't have worked for me as well as it did were it not for the fact that the characters are presented in such a compelling way -- they, like Elling or Elwood, are not merely the sum of their ailments, but are instead believable characters who are afflicted. Treating the characters and the audience in this mature way leads to better and more memorable humor, in my opinion.

The conceit underlying the game's mechanics is that many of the characters in the game are damaged people, and that we can help them in some small way, help them to overcome the worst of their ailments and attempt to enter life again. They won't come out perfect, they'll still be decidedly odd, but they'll at least be able to function. And so, it's rewarding to finish the levels, because we've come to understand the characters through their neuroses.

Take Boyd as an example. When we first meet him, it's abundantly clear that there's something quite wrong with him. He's paranoid, but he has a job to do, and he's prepared to do it to the best of his ability, even if he doesn't entirely make sense. He's the watchman at the Asylum where Raz' friends have been taken (well, where their brains are... it's complicated).

When we enter his mind, we're inside a psychosis that is both rife with humor and tinged with sadness, like most of the minds we encounter in Psychonauts. There are men in trenchcoats everywhere, performing the jobs in the world, like repairing the roads or fixing telephone wiring. Cameras pop out of mailboxes. Objects in the world move closer. Every building is alike, inside and out, but viewed through a camera that is just slightly fish-eyed. For a while, we have an understanding of just how paralyzing it must be to exist this way, to see conspiracies everywhere. At the same time, the trenchcoat characters say the most outrageous things, all in monotone, and they make you laugh -- juxtaposed against this bizarre world, you have spy-like characters saying things like "Although I smell of excrement, you should respect me, because I provide a valuable service." And the trenchcoat men who stand-in for suburban housewives speak lines which are positively subversive ("My husband may not find me attractive sexually, but he still loves my pies.").

If it weren't for the extended time spent setting up these situations so that they are compelling and consistent, the payoff simply wouldn't be there.

I don't have anything surprising to say, I guess, but just need to remark that games are no different from other storytelling media when it comes to humor. Humor in each of these experiences grows out of character, and the humor is richer because the characters are.

¹Though it is likely that Psychonauts will get another detailed entry... when I get off my duff.
²In the case of Harvey it's not mental illness, properly, but some otherworldly thing. But it amounts to the same thing, in this case, because everyone around him believes him to be well, if not insane, surely eccentric.
³As it turns out, he's not, Harvey is a Pookah. It seems clear to me that Harvey is a predecessor of the rabbit in Donnie Darko, though that film doesn't adhere to any particular myth to pin this down precisely. I should probably listen to the audiotrack on the Director's Cut, but I admit I probably won't :)
4Dumb and Dumber isn't really all that different from Elling; it's a buddy picture of a pair of misfits. I probably would have walked out of D&D in the theater, though, I found it so... unfunny. More boring, really.

Posted by Brett Douville at 06:18 PM | Comments (5)