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My thoughts about computer games

I was born a true child of the nuclear age. My mother was at Nagasaki in 1945, and my dad was one of the last people to leave the Bikini Atoll during the H-bomb tests in the Pacific in the early 1950’s. I grew up in the era of Kennedy and Woodstock and distinctly remember watching lots of TV, ranging from Friday night science fiction to Star Trek to the Avengers. I traded a lot of comics, and I probably did more reading than many my age, having fond memories of Heinlein, Asimov, Tolkien and Simak. However, I cannot recall having read any Hemingway, Dickens (A Christmas Carol doesn’t count), Melville, Austen or Joyce. “Art” to me was the Kelly Freas covers that appeared on a variety of science fiction magazines, and I stood in line for hours to catch the first Star Wars Movie (now known as “Episode IV”).

In college, I started out in environmental studies but later moved on to physical chemistry. I have minors in math, physics, geography and anthropology. The only art classes I can recall taking were a survey class on art appreciation and a literature course called “Nonsense in Literature” (I am not making this up). I tell you these things to clearly lay out my qualifications as an art critic: I have none. Actually, people know me as the hardware guy.

Yet, these days, I find that I have been worrying about the artistic merit of computer games. Now, before all the highly capable artists, modelers and musicians who work in the game biz write flame mail to me, I want to make one thing clear. I believe that most computer games these days have a tremendous amount of artistic content. Graphics are more lush than ever, soundtracks are more polished and 3D models are getting more detailed. But I fear for the overall artistic merit of game titles.
When I first started writing for Computer Gaming World a few years back, there was an interesting meta-discussion going on in the industry. “Interactive Entertainment” was the artistic wave of the future, and games were not art yet, but they would evolve into the next great art form. The state of the industry, so the pundits extolled, was simply at the same point as the movie biz when Birth of a Nation came out in the early part of the 20th century. Chris Crawford talked about turning adventure games into great literature; Chris Roberts tried to turn games into great cinematic art.

Unfortunately, most of this promise seems to have fallen by the wayside, left behind in the dust of lost idealism. You hardly ever hear about computer or console games becoming the next great art form. Not long ago, Chris Hecker had an interesting back page column in Game Developer magazine on the topic. Near as I can tell, it fell on completely deaf ears.

My point is this: If the hardware guy is worrying about games as art, maybe it’s time for other people to sit up and take notice.

Is the Game the Thing?

There is this debate that occurs when reviewers look at games; they are criticized for focusing on eye candy rather than gameplay. Debates rage on the newsgroups about the various aspects of how today’s popular titles are played. A title like Total Annihilation: Kingdoms, which tells an interesting story as you wind through its missions, gets crucified because it is not as complex as its predecessor. This has become quite a trend. The recent Indiana Jones game gets dismissed as “just another Tomb Raider clone.” Core gamers criticize Tiberian Sun as just Command and Conquer at a higher resolution. A game is not considered new if it uses an older game engine; “just an overpriced mission pack” is the usual comment in those cases.

It is true that the interests and needs of core gamers drive much of the industry, and most are early adopters who often crave new experiences. While I am not suggesting this is a bad thing, the net result is a somewhat incestuous industry that has not been particularly successful in widening its appeal. Look at the discussions that are still going on about how to attract girls and women to gaming. Imagine what movies would be like today if this type of thinking had been prevalent. John Ford cranked out a huge quantity of films. Many were westerns, and quite a few had the same basic plot. But they were, for the most part, great movies. Yet, gamers would say things like, “Geez, another western” or “Cinemascope again?” In reality, John Ford managed to make the same movie over and over again. And yet, each time it seemed somehow fresh and interesting.

A lot of core gamers and people who write about games (who are usually core gamers themselves) often scratch their heads and wonder why Myst is successful when the answer is really quite simple: Myst tells an interesting story in an engaging way. While the puzzles can be fairly arcane, somehow the game does not make the player, even a fairly new player, feel stupid. People want to uncover the mystery, and an engaging story and creative writing keep the player interested. I am not suggesting that Myst is great art, but it certainly approaches the idea of a computer game from a slightly different angle. Most of the “Myst clones” that came out later fell short of the original by focused on creating an adventure game and less on sucking the player into caring about the story.

Conflict and Violence

Then there is the whole issue of violence. Now, I am not going to weigh in on whether or not violence in games is a good or a bad thing. What is much more interesting is the context in which the violence increases. Games like Quake III: Arena or Unreal Tournament are just a form of virtual football to me. The number of online game players who leave their computers and gun down innocent people is far fewer than the number of football players who come off football fields to assault others, and even those amoral football players are few and far between.

In other games, the context of the violence is often missing, and context is key to making people think about the consequences of their actions. In that old classic, Duke Nukem 3D, you could gun down exotic dancers, and your only penalty is that a couple of monsters pop out of the woodwork. And this only allows you to rack up even more kills. Contrast this to Rainbow Six or Rogue Spear, in which if you kill an innocent person or fail to save someone, BOOM! Game over.

There has been a lot of discussion lately focused on the detailed gore in Raven’s Soldier of Fortune. Certainly if graphic body damage was the only feature of the game, I would be concerned. But when I read interviews with the designers, one of the key points is that the violence is in context. If you blow away a bystander, game over. I find that encouraging. However, I would also like to see a situation where it is “game over” if you kill a bad guy that surrenders, something you can still do in Rogue Spear, for example, with no penalties.

Final_Fantasy_The_Spirits_within

Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within

Okay, so Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within wasn’t the greatest movie of the summer. It may not even be an outstanding DVD release when it hits the Aki Rossshelves today, although it will have two discs, one of which includes a documentary on the making of the movie. However, despite the unoriginal story, the strained dialogue, and the fact that Square Picture’s logo is a rectangle, the film was visually stunning. Squaresoft used cutting edge technology, a staff of highly talented men and women, and a computer the size of a football field to create the most hyper-realistic animated film to date. It’s amazing, and somewhat fitting, that a video game company such as Squaresoft would introduce movie audiences and non-game players to the most realistic computer animation the world has ever seen. The movie itself is important, at the very least, because it is the first of its kind: it hints at things to come. In much the same way, Disney’s Tron remains significant not because of the quality of the work, but because the 1982 release was a precursor to the computer graphics we see in almost every major release today.

However, Final Fantasy also introduced us to the first digital movie star/sex symbol: Dr. Sid. Just kidding. Seriously, the media treated Dr. Aki Ross just as they might treat a human actor: she had interviews, posed for a magazine cover in a cute little bikini, and even made Entertainment Weekly’s “It” List. While that type of shtick is getting less and less cute and more and more annoying, this whole fiasco has left a lot of people pondering that which has long been troubling the sleep of overpaid actors everywhere: Are binary babes and digital dishes slowly taking the place of human actors?

It’s easy to see why some might think it’s happening: Aki is a prime example of the possibilities. Other movies, such as Shrek, Jurassic Park, and, to a lesser extent, the numerous Pixar films, make you really wonder if it would be all that hard to create completely realistic human actors, and then just get current hot stars to lend them a voice. Chris Lee, Final Fantasy’s producer even goes so far as to say that CGI actors will save real actors from being hurt. It seems that method acting has the potential to kill those actors who insist upon doing their own stunts. This is certainly true, but stunt performers currently do the most dangerous work, and any scenes that are too dangerous for those professionals to handle are usually computer generated anyway.

A Screen Actors Guild full of CGI characters could happen, but I think it’s unlikely. As impressive as Final Fantasy’s animation was, it was still highly flawed when compared to real humans. Even if the human-like animation had been seamless, there’s at least one thing that would never let these so-called “synthespians” completely replace real actors on the big screen.

DVD coverWe viewers relate to human movie stars. We love to watch real people, just like us, living out fantasy lives in movies. Even when the movie is over, many of us enjoy reading about what they’re like at home, who they’re dating and what their drug of choice is. The lives of some stars seem almost too good to be true, but the fact that they are true keeps us coming back for more. There’s also the fact that human actors bring life experiences and intense feelings to their roles: this gives their work an emotional complexity that could never be achieved by a computer generated actor. It’s frightening to think of a future where all the actors are actually cleverly animated digital creations; their “real” lives a lie perpetuated by the money-hungry media. A bit paranoid, but there could be a demand for such fictions.

Of course, computer animation and special effects will always serve to enhance films, and have many useful applications. For example, actors that pass away during filming can sometimes be “resurrected” with the help of computer technology and body doubles. Those of us who purchased the Episode I: The Phantom Menace DVD saw for ourselves how George Lucas used 3D editing technology to select the best of each take to create certain scenes. Such advanced computer animation technology will almost certainly move beyond film: the technology begins on the computer, and can be applied to computer-only media. What spawned from video games can also be reapplied to video games: it is an industry with no flesh-and-blood actors to speak of, but the fact remains that it has a huge audience that is waiting to experience wild adventures through its characters.

So, while Aki Ross may not be replacing Angelina Jolie any time soon, I’ve still got to hand it to Squaresoft. They created an image that has become a star in her own right: it’s not an entirely new concept, but the cast of Final Fantasy is many generations removed from simpler graphical celebrities like Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny. It’s because of Final Fantasy that video games and video game technology have come to the forefront in movies in a new way, at least for now. That can only mean good things for the gaming industry, right?