Recently, Chris Crawford has been making waves by claiming that games are dead at the hands of an industry that has forgotten how to innovate. I certainly wouldn’t make so bold a claim as that– Alyx in Half-Life 2: Episode 1 demonstrates a remarkable piece of advancement in characterization, artificial intelligence, and narrotological methodolgy. His own Storytronics project, from my understanding of it, represents a particularly potent potential for innovation in storytelling within the medium of video games. On the level of pure design, Will Wright’s Spore represents huge leaps in applied computer science, just as The Sims expanded the very boundaries of gaming. Meanwhile you’ve got Guitar Hero proving that a unique controller can make all the difference in the world, and still there’s Katamari making perfectly clear whether voice acting and realistic graphics are universally important or not, and even within the realm of realism, Crysis has within it the closest thing to a living jungle ever seen in a game.
Clearly innovation still abounds. Though we aren’t seeing completely unique concepts of play exploding into one new genre after another, I think it would be foolhardy to conclude that we are therefore at the end of the road for gameplay concepts. Please remember, folks, that film as a medium existed for nearly half a century before Citizen Kane, and it was realistically 50 years before they came up with most of the technology still used today. Comic books were popular for 50 years before The Watchmen . Painting has been around for 10,000 years or more, and only in the last hundred years has there been a Picasso.
That’s what the modernist movement has always been about– exploring the boundaries of the language of a particular medium.Then Post-Modernism came along and Art is Dead, there’s nothing new under the sun. Cynicism and the pointlessness of human expression as it pertains to originality. No way left to shock anyone anymore. Art is Dead and in the Post-Modern era, any new art medium will be utterly exhausted of innovation inside a generation or two. Okay, so what? Even Modernism with its rejection of the rules of classicism is a response to everything that’s come before in that it rebels against the past.
Ultimately what I’m saying is that people get too wrapped up in the historical importance of whatever thing it is they’re creating out of a sort of insecurity in their place in the world. But honestly, does it matter? We will all be forgotten. Jesus Himself will be utterly forgotten at some point in the future. It’s inevitable, and so don’t worry about it! Create what’s on your mind, tell a good story that lends some feeling of meaning to life for whatever period of time. Impose an ultimately arbitrary pattern on life for a spell and maybe you’ll be able to help someone feel alive and engaged for a while. It’s just as important a role as any other in a society, and maybe you will make some lasting mark on the universe, and probably you won’t, and so whatever, enjoy what you’ve got while you’ve got it. So you know, innovation is really less important than sheer excellence in utilizing the methods of artistic expression inherent in the innovations of the past to achieve a desired result in the experience of the player, and I think you’ll find that borne out in the marketplace. The Lord of the Rings as a series of movies does not particularly innovate the language of film in any way. Very few boundaries are pushed. Indeed, in terms of storytelling, it relies largely on a series of books published 50 years ago and films made 20 years ago. And yet it remains a great film trilogy, not because it pushed the boundaries, but because it sought out excellence within the realm of established art.
Personally speaking, I think our fascination as a creative culture with absolute originality is misleading whole generations of creative people into thinking that their creativity is somehow inferior to the actions of the truly brilliant and avant garde. Why is that misleading? Because art is about telling a story. For the knowledgable and intellectual, there is an inherent story in the process of innovation and so as truly literate game players we have a sort of emotional response to the innovation itself. Citizen Kane is not a great film by modern standards, except for its role in shaping the language of film among everything to come after. But because we know as film buffs that every movie we really like today is rapping on the concepts innovated by Citizen Kane, we are lent a greater connection with that aging film. It has an increased level of emotional resonance. But it is still a sort of story, that tale of influence and invention.
In a sense, gameplay itself is a sort of story, in that it provides a sort of experience for the participant that is largely determined by the choices made by some person. In that sense, the game designer achieves some degree of authorial control inherent to the concept of art.
Are we reaching a point where there is a set expectation of the methods of control for a game in a 3D environment? Well isn’t that dependent on the development of the lexicon of 3D video gaming itself? Much as the D-Pad shaped the language of sprite-based gaming, if Resident Evil has similar gameplay to Metroid as Metroid has similar gameplay to Halo or Half-Life or Ninja Gaiden or Prince of Persia or God of War, isn’t that because game designers have discovered a degree of authorial confidence in the video game language’s ability to produce particular effects in the player along with certain styles of gameplay? And so if a game uses a common gameplay element, why should we complain, as long as it’s used in the single-minded pursuit of a great story, whether that means something completely devoid of traditional narrative or a cutscene festival like Final Fantasy .
Noone’s likely to complain about Half-Life 2 having a pistol. Oh, pistols are so cliche, you can’t have a pistol. Shooting people? How passe! No, because that pistol is integral to the experience of the game, and because it enhances and adds an even greater degree of coherence to the overall picture for its presence, shooting people makes just good sense. The game, like Half-Life before it, really succeeds because of its total package of authorial direction. The same is no less true of a sandbox game like GTA or Oblivion, where exploration and player improvisation is part of the meta-narrative. So if your goal is a game that resonates with the masses, the importance really ought to be placed on the total congruence of the meta-narrative, and not necessarily on being totally original and unique, or following any particular set of game design rules.
But what about how bored people seem to be with the stories being presented by the art form? Sales have plateaued and the suits are restless, you say? Well go ahead and innovate! But remember to make it thematically consistent, make it tell a compelling story, regardless of the narrative, or it won’t succeed financially. The way I figure, there’s pretty much two ways to innovate effectively in this day and age with games– you can innovate in gameplay, or you can innovate in narrative. But you are not excused one from the other. A story based entirely on gameplay can still stand with the most abstract and simple of narrative if it all fits together. Mario needs to rescue our Princess from the evil King Bowser. What else is necessary for such a game, even when the gameplay concepts have maintained for 20 years? And if you’re pushing the boundaries of narrative with the strong intention of blowing some minds, you need to have gameplay that fully supports your narratological efforts. If there is a problem of staleness perceived in the buying public, that doesn’t mean your stories have grown stale and need to be thrown out, it means you’re not telling them earnestly enough.
In other words, when it comes to affecting the masses, invention must always take the back seat to craft. That doesn’t mean invention and innovation is unimportant, just that the masses don’t give two shits about innovation as long as you present excellence. The man who built sculptures of the cast of Peter Pan inside the bend of a fish hook is important to the world not because Peter Pan is so vitally meaningful a story, but because his degree of craft is so remarkably high. It is no less an art for all that.
Fortunately enough for everyone, as gameplay becomes somewhat homogenized again once we all adjust to the additions to the language of video games in the wake of the Wiimote, it will rapidly become apparent that the easiest way to present a picture of excellence is with the aide of a compelling narrative, and thus we will likely soon find the Citizen Kane of the 3D action game that will forever shape the narrative language of video games as Halo presents the ludological language. I would argue, however, that it has not yet arrived. Otherwise we probably wouldn’t hear so much whining about the relative inanity of game stories.