Games Need to Stop Being a Pretender Medium

After watching Scott Pilgrim vs. The World for the second time the other night, it occurred to me that the game industry has received the short end of the stick in the exchange of ideas between mediums. Edgar Wright's tale of awkward 20-somethings battling in a video game fantasy land feels fresh and unique. It uses the concepts of video games as shortcuts for character development and storyline, giving the movie a brisk pace while still being dense with humor and subtle characterization.

Meanwhile, the influence of Hollywood on the game industry often is more of a shackle than a source of inspiration. There are a few cinematic standouts --Mass Effect 2, for example, balances interaction and film-like story-telling without making the player sit and watch too often -- but all too often letterbox cutscenes and lofty storytelling goals simply get in the way of the experience.

Scott Pilgrim is a film that understands what makes video games so cool. It laces the action with iconic gaming motifs; most of which are becoming rare as the industry tries to appeal to a wider audience. Consider the movie's first fight scene: The first of the evil ex-boyfriends blasts in through the rooftop and launches head-first toward the confused Scott. His roommate yells, "Fight!" and Scott gets it immediately. What follows is an overlay of Street Fighter-esque prompts and a counter-attack that may as well be the parry from Street Fighter III.

This tiny moment is but one of many video-game-inspired flourishes in the movie, and while the action is practically pornographic for a generation of gamers, the kinetic style remains exciting for most movie-goers.

Scott Pilgrim takes fantasy action to the extreme, but you can see the influence of games in other movies like Crank and even Inception. None of these movies are faulted for biting the style of games; they're actually praised for their creativity and liveliness. That's because they will always be movies till the bitter end. No one asks you to beat them, and if you don't understand them at first, you don't get sent back to a checkpoint to start over.

The influence of cinema on games isn't nearly as inspiring. The more games attempt cinematic presentation, the more they seem to be losing their identity. I used to be on the bandwagon for jaw-dropping cutscenes, but as they've become more ubiquitous and I've matured as a player, they've started to sour the experience a bit.

I've got a soft spot for the recent cult hit Deadly Premonition, but a lot of what's so great about it is in the characterization during the cutscenes, rather than the interactive parts. I think of how invested I was in the Halo lore when all of the good storytelling took place outside of the games themselves. I loved the combat in Bayonetta and the stealth of the Metal Gear Solid series, but they both buckle under the weight of needlessly long non-interactive moments.

Games should be telling their stories better, in their own way, or not at all. Take the recently released Limbo, which only hinted at a narrative through art design. It never stopped you from playing, but still managed to be haunting and emotionally effective. Portal is another example - never once did it stop you from solving puzzles, but it managed to tell a charming story all the same. Dead Space: Extraction dipped even closer to a cinematic experience, and yet once again you were always in control within the game's rules.

Spider: Secret of Bryce Manor for the iPhone has a simple gameplay concept: leap around the environment, create webs and try to catch bugs. As you explore the melancholy halls of the manor, leaving a trail of cobwebs in your wake, you're not only unraveling a mystery, but actively adding to the decrepit look of each room and playing a part in the story.

These games are being made today, so the cause isn't hopeless. But it's hard not to feel like most mainstream games are leaning more towards the cinematic experience rather than the game experience. The influence of cinema and realism can be felt beyond storytelling as it seeps into the gameplay itself.

The more games try to tell realistic stories, the more they seem to contradict themselves. As much as I love Uncharted 2, I squirm a bit at how cinematic and realistic it is - after all, this is a game where you take hundreds of bullets without dying.

More games should try to be abstract, fantastical, strange, and unique. They should establish their own rules and world, and stop trying to fit within our own. Realistic series such as Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare have been novel for a while, but as these series wear on, they're starting to show their limits. Realism just doesn't fit into the rulebook of most games.

Consider that moment in Scott Pilgrim, where Patel rockets toward Scott only to be blocked and countered in mid-air. "Counter!" pops up on screen and Patel is thrown like a rag doll. It's a ridiculous moment, but the audience is already along for the ride. It only escalates from there, and yet suspension of disbelief is never an issue. This is a rare exception, because Scott Pilgrim is a carefully-crafted fantasy movie. Most movies have to be realistic, and flow logically from one point to the next with some regard for the rules of real life.

Games have the advantage here - they started abstract and strange. Mario grows big when he eats mushrooms, Link collects cartoon hearts, and when he has enough, lasers shoot out of his sword. No one questions this; instead, they actually love it. They're taken to a different world from their own, one that has its own rules.

Developers like Rockstar, Quantic Dream, or Ubisoft seem intent on falling into the uncanny valley. Red Dead Redemption is historical fiction, but while its world simulates flora and fauna as well as day/night cycles, your cowboy never has to sleep, eat, or go to the bathroom. Heavy Rain's realistic world quickly becomes laughable as soon as you stop role-playing for even an instant. And in Assassin's Creed 2, we're led to believe that Ezio has time between assassinations to hunt down 100 floating feathers. They're all interesting experiences, but how will they age? Seems to me that what's novel now will ultimately seem awkward and antiquated in 5-10 years, whereas Mario and the like remain timeless.

I'm not arguing for ubiquity in game style. I don't think every game should have flashy high scores, combo meters, health bars and enemies that flash when they die, but there is a certain degree of abstraction that aids the art form. It has it's own unique language, and I'm afraid the developers that have the funds to make spectacular games are forgetting that. There's a middle ground somewhere, and in the pursuit of art, elegance, and emotion in games, we shouldn't forget our roots.

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Joe Donato Video games became an amazing, artful, interactive story-driven medium for me right around when I played Panzer Dragoon Saga on Sega Saturn. Ever since then, I've wanted to be a part of this industry. Somewhere along the line I, possibly foolishly, decided I'd rather write about them than actually make them. So here I am.
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