Notes from a Video Game Developer
Video games need characters.
Art at its most significant is a Distant Early Warning System that can always be relied on to tell the old culture what is beginning to happen.
— Marshall McLuhan
This essay is occasioned by my reading Tom Bissell’s book Extra Lives, but I’m not reviewing it or critiquing it — I think it’s a first-rate account of the experience of a serious gamer. I’m writing to (I hope) fill in another part of the picture, offering whatever insight I can glean from my life as a writer, gamer, and game developer.
I understand why people don’t like video games. I see why they say video games are silly; are addictive, empty wastes of time; fail to produce a sense of human connection or convey real experience. Characterization and storytelling are, on average, embarrassing, and even the better-written games are little more than decent imitations of televised action-comedies.
I have had my own long Bissellian nights of the soul — blurry monitor-lit sleepless marathons — although the substance abuse stopped at Mountain Dew and Skittles (possibly only because I don't know the right people). Hours, days, and weeks spent playing a game often create a palpable feeling you’ve been tricked, the promise of liveliness, connection, feeling, and beauty never fulfilled.
I have to ask, what's going on with the medium that I’ve devoted so much of my life to? A great many of the smartest people I know work full-time in video games. Are we falling short? If so, how and why?
The dilemma: You want to tell a story in a video game, to create a narrative that players can feel they control, but that also competes with cinematic storytelling for emotional impact. It’s a knotty problem with no definitive solution. The contemporary narrative video game isn't a single entity — each of these games is hacked together out of a library of formal devices, the set of techniques we've assembled to make story happen in the interactive form.
You're trying to usher the player through a storyline because you know that a certain measure of narrative drive and immersion in a fictive scenario is necessary for the game to work. But, equally, you need a feeling of agency, a feeling that the player is accomplishing or even choosing that story.
To that end you martial the set of creaky devices we know get players from beginning to end, some of which feel reasonably fluid, and others totally contrived. There's the simple, non-interactive video you might use to frame the action and set up the interactive sequences you actually play through. There’s the "on-rails" structure that runs in a linear, scripted sequence from start to finish like the Haunted Mansion at Disney World. There's voiceover and in-game text to fill in gaps in the exposition.
There are mazes and labyrinths where just getting from one end to the other gives a sense of narrative progression. (Is that a story?) Then there's the "sandbox," gaming areas without explicit goals where players decide what they want to do. (Is that a story?) The Sims games work like this. Grand Theft Auto games are big sandboxes, with a linear sequence of goals embedded throughout, each one gating on the next.
Action games from Pac-Man onward string a sequence of levels together, game spaces often framed by explanatory narrative video. Games such as Deus Ex and Bioshock use a "string of pearls" format, in which levels have a larger, sandbox-like structure but still come in a set sequence. There are branching decision trees, as in the old Choose Your Own Adventure books. There are hub areas from which players can journey in various directions. There are narrative cues built into an environment like a crime scene that let you reconstruct a story in retrospect. It goes on and on – smart people have been thinking about this for a while. Nearly all games use three or four or five of these all at once.
Some devices turn out to be too heavy-handed. One of the first things you learn writing for games is that, if allowed, players will skip over any narrative exposition that feels the least bit unnecessary or remotely less engaging than the play experience. You'd love to do a slow, 15-second pan across the battlefield but you don't want to test players' patience. You'd love to let players discover for themselves where the trapdoor to the basement is, but focus testing flags it as a source of frustration.
You slap it all together, and the metaphor of Frankenstein's monster is hard to escape. What is at issue is whether the thing lives, whether it participates in the human imagination in ways beyond what the creaky apparatus of rules specifies.
A narrative game needs characters. Again, developers have a range devices that mostly work, but there’s no single solution that feels natural. There are in-game animations, voiceover, and different ways of simulating conversation such as menus, command-line input, branching trees, but none feels entirely comfortable. You try to invent mechanics to allow onscreen characters to interact with you in ways that don't break the illusion of reality too badly; usually this means they are trying to kill you, or beat you in a race, or are otherwise playing the game on the same terms you are (most memorably there’s the girl who wordlessly grips your hand in Ico).
One of our best tricks is to let characters speak from offstage in voiceover or radio link or public address system, like Uma Thurman flirting with John Travolta over an intercom in Pulp Fiction. They can be a consciousness aware of the player's every move, responding and changing throughout the game but never available to see or respond to; there is never a way to break the illusion. You can develop a character without the player's trying to shoot it every 10 seconds.
GladOS (in Portal) and Andrew Ryan (in Bioshock) are signal examples, characters who both trace their ancestry to System Shock's SHODAN, a corrupted computer who lorded over an abandoned space station full of the records of its murdered inhabitants (a game I worked on, after getting frustrated writing the more conventional RPG Ultima Underworld II).
Almost any way of representing character in an interactive environment is susceptible to a kind of testing that it will inevitably fail. The basic mechanism of the suspension of disbelief doesn't operate the same way. The computer is not a natural actor, and the best one can hope for is a kind of courteous cooperation on the part of the audience in bearing with the more awkward moments of the performance.
At the moment, the best we can do is improve our smoke and mirrors. Generally speaking, that means piling up if/then statements, audio samples, and animations in search of a critical mass of reactivity when an element of the game has acted in a way that feels like a volition, and awareness when it seems palpably to have looked around and recognized you and responded. The rare sweet spot of verisimilitude that feels like a ghostly touch.
I think a great deal of aesthetic confusion arises from the fact that the form is still deeply, hopelessly invested in competing with or besting cinema — the idea that video games would be the successor, the completion, the fulfillment of film; that it would make the plane of the movie or television screen porous, and you the gamer would find yourself in the place of a film's protagonist.
This is a fantasy by which the medium is still judged, even though it's hopelessly poor at delivering the satisfactions we're most sensitized to, the experiences of narrative and psychologically sophisticated characterization that the film and the novel have accomplished at such a high level. And it's a confusion that makes the voice of the interactive medium, if there truly is one, harder to hear.
It has only gotten more pronounced as graphics technology has enabled us to produce gorgeous three-dimensional environments without markedly improving the quality of storytelling. No one talked as much about the suspension of disbelief in Pac-Man: Primitive and unambitious as it was, it let the relationship between player and world exist in a more natural way. As it is, the current hybridization of an interactive world with cinema is a wobbly and dysfunctional artistic achievement.
But this is the medium’s current state of development, or rather the state of published games — we're on the cusp of new hardware releases, and there must be two dozen things in development that are doing something better than anything we've seen. Every year, watershed games come along and shift the medium slightly. When we saw how Half-Life used in-game animations to tell its story, how Grand Theft Auto created a grand-scale urban sandbox, or how Braid infused a platform-jumping puzzle game with melancholy effect, we all slapped our heads, then adjusted our ideas of what was possible.
Music, states of happiness, mythology, faces worn by time, certain twilights and certain places, all want to tell us something, or have told us something we shouldn't have lost, or are about to tell us something; that imminence of a revelation as yet unproduced is perhaps, the aesthetic fact.
— Jorge Luis Borges
It's hard to look at the medium as a whole and know what it is, or articulate our complicated relationship to it. Video games offer a profound, arguably addictive sense of focus and engagement, a thing not usually available to us in our regular lives. Three or 10 hours later you're left feeling tense and dehydrated, with a sense of having spent the intervening time on nothing. No sense of connection, no sense of accomplishment (for all the sensation of working hard) — fairy gold that vanishes in the morning.
I understand the formulation that describes this as a mass-media trick or a false promise, but I would rather call it “art half-accomplished.” It fails a lot, and when it succeeds, it does so in ways we only partly sense and don't even have an aesthetic language to describe. (Some developers banish the term "fun" from their vocabularies entirely, in order to force the development of more specific, substantive, useful critical terms).
The sense of fulfillment, of a real aesthetic experience unalloyed by a feeling of falseness, is still fleeting and anecdotal. It shows up when it isn't expected, often emerging from an unplanned coming-together of various game elements. It's usually off the narrative point, a subtler note in a bombastic storyline that keeps crashing along without anyone — designer or player — much caring about it. I played Zork with less attention to solving puzzles than with letting the space of an underground empire grow in my imagination, stretching out from under my ordinary white house. Doom (1993) was a brilliant accomplishment, and I played dozens of hours, but the thing I remember with the most feeling is being able to look out a window at the lush, tropical surface of Mars. Bissell's book in particular is excellent at noticing and calling out these moments of play — the unexpected impact of a random flunky's death in Far Cry 2, the threads of sadness in the overheated, hypermasculine Gears of War.
Narrative may never be the central kick of video games, but it isn't in music either, or painting, or sculpture, or opera, or kung fu cinema. Narrative can be an ancillary element, a hovering idea that doesn't govern the work of art. Michelangelo’s David is set within the Old Testament story, but it doesn't try to re-tell it.
Games work with a new and different palette, and we're only slowly learning how to use it or even how to usefully talk about it. It's architectural, it’s spatial, it’s procedural, it’s aural, it’s happening on dozens of different physical platforms. We don't have ways to talk about the aesthetic experience of mastering a system of rules, the growing understanding of how that system treats, rewards, or punishes you, where its peaks and valleys are. We don’t know what it means to have art you can win or lose. (I’ve run workshops where we try and adapt Romeo and Juliet to interactive media: What happens to tragedy when you can win?)
We’re not even talking about a moving stable target. The medium is still the site of constant experimentation — technological, formal, aesthetic ideas emerge every year. And compared to the mainstream games that take two or three years to make, the world of hobbyist, indie, and academic game development are on fast-forward, and more ambitious developers are constantly watching and learning from them). We know we can do better. If we're honest with ourselves, Bioshock isn't good enough. Grand Theft Auto IV isn't good enough. Braid is, well, really good, but we can do even better.
All the more need for a video game criticism to develop alongside the medium, a critical vocabulary for understanding our experience of playing games, which is where we can really value Extra Lives and books like it. We need a language to open up and share the private world where so many of us have spent so many hours.
We're incredibly lucky to be the ones born at the right time to get a crack at this. Everyone working in the medium can sense the potential; everyone is dissatisfied with where we are and how slow we're moving; everyone is excited about where we're going to be. No one knows exactly what it all means. • 16 July 2010
Austin Grossman is the author of the novel Soon I Will Be Invincible, and has contributed writing and design for video games including Ultima Underworld II, System Shock, Deus Ex, and Trespasser. His writing has appeared in Granta and The New York Times.
Image courtesy of 2K Games North America.