In what I'm trying to make a "thing", I explore the idea that video games are, at their most fundamental level, truth. This, by way of contrast to cinema, which is at its most fundamental level, lies.
We’ve seen the age of cinematic video games start in the early noughties, and it has now evolved to a point where it’s no longer jarring. It’s an odd thing to say, that it has taken ten years for the idea of forcing a cinema peg into a video game hole to no longer be a burden. I think I’ve finally come upon the reason why, and what this means for video games.
I actually had the germ of this idea two years ago, but I suppose this is how long things take to mature in my mind. The idea stems from the observation that, fundamentally, movies are a fiction. More specifically, every single construct in a movie is a lie, from the acting, to the props, to the action itself, to the plot, to the cutting:
SOME PEOPLE CALL THAT VERY INSTINCT MANIPULATIVE, BUT IT’S FUCKING CINEMA. IT’S INHERENTLY A MANIPULATION -- Film Crit Hulk
In fact, the very act of placing a camera in a spot so you can see something is a manipulation:
A CERTAIN ANGLE AND WHAT IS PRECISELY SHOWN IN IT ... HAS A DIRECT PHYSIOLOGICAL EFFECT ON YOU THAT RESULTS IN A CAREFUL AND PURPOSEFUL MANIPULATION OF YOUR EMOTIONS -- Film Crit Hulk
The idea is that video games, unlike cinema, are fundamentally true! From the mechanics, which must be consistent, to the actions, which the player chooses, to the story, which the player creates, to the results. Everything in a video game wants to be true. This is why when you layer cinematics over the game they feel so... jarring. Today, the reason stories work in video games it is because they serve the truth: Story works in “beats” between player action, it tests for the most common set of actions, it is open ended and ambiguous. Some might say it “takes a back seat” to the gameplay.
However, that’s not really what’s happening. This is why stories in games are often “tolerated”. The problem is, the story and actions do not match up, and often don’t really make sense. It’s the old choose your own adventure book problem, where you do something reasonable, but something unreasonable happens. This is often called “cognitive dissonance”, but is probably more closely tied to this dichotomy of “truth” and “lies”.
Before I continue, I don’t mean to say that all movies are lying to you and all games are telling you the truth. What I’m saying is that the bricks and mortar of movies is lies. These pieces of lies can be used to construct a bigger truth (or not). The bricks and mortar of video games, however, is the truth, and it can be used to construct truth or lies as well. However, in order to tell the truth, or lie, effectively, we need to understand the fundamental unit we’re working with.
Sticking cinema on top of video games and then piecing that cinema together to make a story is like taking the truth and using it to construct a fantasy, and then sticking the truth on top of that fantasy. It can be done, but it isn’t optimal. Also, the “playing” happens on the ground level — the “truth” level. The “getting out of the way” of gameplay is actually still taking turns between gameplay and story, but the cadence of the gameplay is what dictated how things progress1.
I’m not saying we get rid of narrative. Instead, I’m more interested in how to construct narrative out of “truth” bricks as opposed to “lie” bricks. I think the first idea is that we need to remove the word “story” from gaming. Story is a relic of linear narratives. In a “story”, the beginning, middle, and end are specific events: trainee, shoot dudes, nuclear explosion. This is a lie because the events must be constructed, and may not logically follow from one another. Again, you could “logic out” the story so that it makes sense, but making sense isn’t the important thing in a story; things just need to lead to one another in a moment-to-moment sense. In a gaming “narrative”, however, the beginning, middle, and end are game states: spawn, run/jump, fall in pit. These are “truths” in that they happen in a consistent and controlled way. And, just like logical consistency is not important in a movie, story consistency is not important in a game!
A common gaming “trope” is for the beginning to be “spawn”, and the end to be “die”. A random element is used so that the bit in the middle is challenging (thus, a “game”) and not rote2 (thus, a “story”). Rogue-likes, which seem to be all the rage nowadays, follow this model (compare with “Doom-likes” which is what FPS was called before every game was a Doom-like). However, things do not need to be this way.
There are often games without an end, like Sim City. Sim City has a narrative of: new city, build skyscrapers, ?. There’s nothing stopping the Sim City. This might stop Sim City from being satisfying, but the narrative is certainly strong and resonant. In AAAaaaaaaa. A reckless disregard for gravity, the narrative goes: jump, fall in a dangerous way, parachute to safety. The end state here isn’t necessarily death, and it manages to reveal the narrative of a base jumper particularly well.
In movies, in order to keep the action moving, you often cut out parts, whereas in games, these same parts are elongated3. The example used was the “Jason” bit in Heavy Rain. In a movie, that part would’ve involved heavy use of cuts to heighten the passage of time and the sense of confusion. However, in the game, the achingly slow walking pace and the lack of camera movement is what heightens the tension4. Similarly, when you’re watching Shaun eat, you can literally take as long as you like, whereas in a movie, something like that would probably never even be shown.
One of the big concessions games have to make to fit with story is saving and checkpoints. Games like Day Z show what’s possible when checkpoints are removed from games, and the narrative is heightened, if anything. Having a game with fixed levels, enemies, and the ability to move back and forth through time arbitrarily removes a huge amount of interactivity, and destroys believability. Often, you will be made weaker than your opponent, but you will invariably succeed simply because you have the magical meta-game power of reloading and saving.
Games like Braid and Prince of Persia: Sands of Time do a great job of removing saves and checkpoints by using alternative game mechanics. However, this shouldn’t even be necessary if we don’t force games into fixed narratives. If we don’t have “death” as the ending, or “spawn” as the beginning, we might be able to start and leave off at arbitrary points. Think of this as an MMO (or Animal Crossing), where you join and leave at arbitrary points in time, and the world keeps going without you, with no possibility of death.
Games in general have been bad at creating “characters” because those characters have to be “real”. Since they are capable of interrogation, interaction with other characters has been severely limited. Instead, characters will expose who they are during cutscenes (lies), or in very regimented dialog options (trying, but still lies). Animal companions have fared better, but generally having a human character is so difficult that it is not attempted. Games like Tale of Tales' Bientô l’eacute;téattempts to fix this, but may not succeed.
The point here is to try and aim for the truth with characters, even if they appear insane or nonsensical. You could try and deliver raw emotion instead of words, which might help the situation. The ultimate aim is to build using the instruments that video games give you — the fundamental unit of truth — as opposed to layering the tools of cinema, which are fundamentally lies. This will likely yield worse video games in the short term, but in the long term it is a more solid foundation for games as an artform.
These are just some of the interesting conclusions from looking at games as fundamental truth. There are probably many more ideas that are possible with this framework. Unfortunately, this line of thinking doesn’t necessarily have immediate practical implications, but may light avenues which are more likely to yield fruit. If we explore the idea of gaming as truth, we may reach a higher form of gaming as an art form.
2 This doesn’t mean I think games with fixed levels aren’t truly games. They work more like “action puzzles”, but more on this another time.
3 This isn’t actually something I came up with, but it fits the truth / lie model well.
4 Unfortunately, due to the “story”, literally nothing you do can change the outcome.