20 Aug 2008

Drugs, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. and why the industry should grow up...

I'm aware that this is old news, but a few people may have missed it, as did I at the time and it's worth going over for the sake of the new blog. Basically, in November last year designer of the recently released game, Braid, Jonathan Blow did a lecture at the Montreal International Games Summit. During the course of the talk he covered many aspects of development which he felt were incorrect when going about building a computer game, from the initial stages of development to the supposed selling-point of a product. It was a controversial outlook to say the least and his damning comments regarding World of Warcraft and Bioshock in particular caused quite a stir amongst the community.

As it is, the argument Blow is making is quite a complex one and because we aren't yet anywhere near the constistent standard of design he is driving for, some of the targets are particularly blurred regarding how games can be created that are more beneficial for developers and the consumers as a whole. His argument wasn't that people didn't enjoy the games they played, but that they enjoyed them for the wrong reasons, likening them to bad drugs. His opinion was that in making games in a fresh and less cynical way, designers would actually improve the experiences and the lives of the people who played them, whilst making more money and advancing the industry in the process.

Now, having listened to his lecture thoroughly, I'd like to put forward my own views...


Not wanting to put words into his mouth, but along the same lines, a major issue I have with the industry is that games should work for you instead of having you work for them, as is commonly the case. Too many games require you to learn and abide by their rules to become a successful player. These rules often act as constraints on freedom, personal expression or experience within a game and this is usually just down to lazy or sadistic game design. This is the kind of discontent that I have been feeling for a long time with gaming, but could never really put my finger on.

I've always referred to particularly momentous game experiences as 'gaming moments' and most gamers will be familiar with that concept. To me, a gaming moment is something that occurs during play that fascinates you and produces a true emotion. When Jonathan Blow mentions in his lecture a comment he read regarding Portal in which the person describes being 'completely dumbfounded one moment to feeling a genius the next' I think that is essentially what a gaming moment boils down to. In its simplest terms, the player will be rewarded by their own emotional response as a result of what they have just experienced or achieved in a game.

In my opinion, this emotional response doesn't always have to be a good one. Take this as an example:


I have been playing through S.T.A.L.K.E.R. recently and been quite astounded by it. The original setting is a major part of the incredible atmosphere created within that game, but beneath that superficiality are circumstances within the game where you can't help but think: 'I wasn't expecting that'. It breaks some common rules at times and questions your expectations of a computer game. S.T.A.L.K.E.R., despite its many faults, also does a reasonable job of making the player feel insignificant and that, I think, is actually something pretty special. The A-Life AI system pushes the concept that as you survive in this game, there are many others like you, trying to get by and this is an ideal set-up for an involving experience. There are so many aspects of this game that I could wax lyrical about, but I'll only mention one specific example:

On the advice of another stalker I had arrived at a particularly unfriendly camp where I was led to believe I could buy an expensive gun for a small amount of money. After agreeing to pay the amount to one of the men there he took the money off me, walked back to the building where they resided and told me to get lost. I'd been conned. I made to leave with my tail between my legs, my pockets considerably lighter.

As I exited the camp, I spotted the body of a man on ground. On searching his corpse I found to my surprise that I recognised his name. It so happened that I had
rescued him from imprisonment at a bandit camp that morning. This shocked me because I realised that if I hadn't helped him escape, in all probability, he would still be alive. Still captive, but alive nonetheless. I was left with an uncomfortable feeling. Finding him dead filled me with guilt. If I had truly wanted to rescue him then I would have at least escorted him to safety or given him a weapon with which to protect himself and not simply concentrated on completing an objective.

It didn't take me long to turn my attention to the camp behind me. The thieves had become murderers in my mind. I didn't need another excuse to turn back and throw all the grenades I had into the building where they resided and, following a short battle, they were all dead. Vengeance was served, but the guilt I felt before was still there, because
I was partially responsible for the man's death. Not only that, but later I began to wonder whether I had been correct in acted out my retribution...

What is strange about this event is that games don't usually make you question your decisions in terms of true morality. They might make you wonder that if you had acted differently you may have gained more loot or further increased your stats, but to be unsure as to whether you have acted like a decent human being is something that simply can't be scripted. It's also something far more important in terms of game satisfaction than what Jonathan Blow calls an 'artificial reward'. In that one moment, the game threw up more moral quandaries than Bioshock did throughout the entire experience. It was a completely random event that happened to form a tragic moment and, although governed by the parameters set up by the game, my emotional response came from decisions that I alone had made. No other gamer would have experienced exactly this and no other gamer would have reacted in exactly the way that I did. I was exploring emotional depth through my actions in a video game and I can't remember the last time I did that.


This is fundamentally why I felt Bioshock and Crysis were duds in a minefield of overhyped games last year. There was nothing truly involving about their existence or what they achieved. You can argue all you like about the philosophy behind Bioshock, but was it actually a part of the game?

Absolutely not. It was essentially a corridor shooter.

The scarcity of gaming moments is what defines them as moments and I think that has overshadowed my own recent experiences. Such 'natural rewards' should in fact be what define computer gaming. Games should be created on the basis that they will provide these sorts of experiences consistently.

S.T.A.L.K.E.R. has given me a taste of something that I hadn't experienced for a while. It's the gaming food that Jonathan Blow refers to and not the bad drugs. It's the sustainance we need to keep gaming alive and it is absolutely the future.


Nick said...

I think Blow's major emphasis in that talk was on the ethical responsibility of the games-designer. He astutely points out that the games people play and the manner in which they play them can have an affect on their lives. In some cases this can be extreme - he cites the obvious WoW deaths as examples. The success of a game should not be measured by how addictive it is, which currently seems to be the case, but rather in the positive effect it can have on its players. This ties in with Blow's suggestion that modern developers/publishers approach to games design and retail is akin to drugs (it's not hard to see similarities to monthly subscription charges and other dependencies).

What saddens and concerns me most is that I'm not entirely sure whether this moral goal is achievable in the current financial structuring of society. In his talk, Blow makes draws parallels between the growth of the film and the games industries. Now, by his own admission, this is not an entirely accurate approach, but it does allow us to make a few assertions and hypothesis regarding the future of games. Unfortunately, as far as I am concerned, the Hollywood approach to film-making is not designed to consider its ethical grounding in society, it's built to mass-produce and turn a healthy profit. While Hollywood has created some truly special films, the majority of its output is total bilge. Integrity in commercial art is often heavily compromised. For each person who watched something the Diving Bell and the Butterfly last year (or better yet, read the book), I'll give you a hundred who watched Norbit instead.

I truly hope that Jonathan Blow's astute desires are carried out by an industry willing to make some changes, but I'm not holding my breath :(

Rowan Davies said...

It is certainly an idealistic vision. To see it as something wholly achievable is unrealistic because nothing else in the entertainment industry lives up to those sorts of expectations and you can't expect it to when money is still to be made in that way. You will always have cynical executives pushing bad product in all industries, especially cinema.

As long as there is significant enough change in the industry perspective then I will be happy. And to be honest I think there really are some big changes happening. Look at Valve -one of the biggest developers in PC gaming- are dedicated to providing their customers with quality content. Team Fortress 2, Portal, Left for Dead are all from mods that the company have picked up on as being original, tightly designed and worthy of promotion and throwing as much money at them to get these concepts realised that would never otherwise see the light of day. The quality level for Valve, as far as I see it, is unparalleled in the industry. Spore is also so starting to convince me that we could be on the verge of a new mindset in the creation of games.