Are Game Developers Adolescents?

Matt Barton's picture

One of the most-talked about things that happened at GDC (and which Bill and I sadly missed) was the "rant" session, where a reported named Heather Chaplin blasted the industry for producing childish, sexist games. At one point she said that the game industry itself isn't in an adolescent stage; it's rather that the developers themselves are "f* adolescents." Anyway, I just read some commentary on the rant by one of the other speakers, Leigh Alexander. I really liked Leigh's comments and think you will, too. I really loved this part:

Why do power fantasies need to be childish -- what human being at any age dreams of being less powerful? And what does maturity have to do with gender, anyway?

Right on!

Anyway, check it out and let me know what you think of the whole thing.

Comments

Rowdy Rob
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Ridiculous

Seriously, Ms. Chaplin's comments are almost not worth commenting on, because it seems more like an attention-getting ploy more than a serious commentary of the state of videogames. To say "Where is the videogame equivalent of cinema's 'Gone with the Wind' or 'Citizen Kane'?" is as nonsensical as saying "where is cinema's 'Pac Man' or 'Pong?'"

Heck, what is the board game version of "Citizen Kane?" Is it Chess? Monopoly? Life? Stratego? No??? Oh, board games are stuck in a perpetual state of adolescence, even though they've been around for thousands of years in one form or another!

What about sports? Where is sports' "Citizen Kane?" Is it Football, Soccer, Boxing, Cricket, Basketball, Bowling, or Curling? No???? Oh my gosh, sports are stuck in a perpetual state of adolescence!

The argument is nonsense. Videogames are a whole different medium, with different rules and different goals.

Movies are passive entertainment, but videogames are "play." I am not a psychologist (Mark, maybe you can help me out on this one), but I believe "play" is a vital need of the human condition in some form or other. Videogames have "democratized" play for many on the planet, making "play" a challenge against a non-human opponent, accessible in the confines of one's own living room.

To say videogames are about "power".... well, most non-video games are too, either in the power of dominating your opponent (even if the opponent is yourself), or in the accumulation of power in some sort (high score, solving a puzzle, accumulating wealth, role playing a hero, getting to the goal first, etc.).

Would you rather play the role of a ditch-digger, or the role of a world-rescuing hero? How do you make the mundane, thankless tasks fun? Of COURSE games are going to cater to the human need to be greater than themselves.

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Seb
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The bottom line: it's a business, folks.

The developers are simply responding to what sells. The sales figures determine the type of games made and they speak loud and clear. Every single time a developer tried an intelligent approach or a more sophisticated art style, they sales figure were disastrous (this i find endlessly depressing). Draw your own conclusions...

Matt Barton
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Games and Business
Seb wrote:

The developers are simply responding to what sells. The sales figures determine the type of games made and they speak loud and clear. Every single time a developer tried an intelligent approach or a more sophisticated art style, they sales figure were disastrous (this i find endlessly depressing). Draw your own conclusions...

Again, I think the problem isn't that there's no market, but rather that it's a different market than the one where games are normally sold. I could be wrong, but it seems that the typical person who might prefer a "deep" game isn't the sort who's going to be in GameStop browsing the latest FPS. You can't go through the normal game marketing channels and reach that person. I'm not sure how to get to that person either, but I'd assume the Internet would be key, as would getting coverage or ads in mainstream press like the NYT.

I also might point out that Citizen Kane was not a financial success. Film history is rife with examples of "classics" that were either ignored or underestimated at the time--definitely not all blockbusters.

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Seb
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Financial suicide

But unless there's a minimum garanteed return on investment, no developer is going to gamble on unproven formulas. It's financial suicide. There's people out there interested in intelligent gaming, but unfortunately there's not enough of them to make it profitable (yet). How do we reach these potential "intelligent" customers and convince them to spend time and money playing games? You'll agree that there's not much out there to attract them. As you pointed out, it's mostly juvenile escapist crap on the shelves. Is there any mainstream release in 2008/2009 that qualify as "art"? Any unique art style that isn't borrowed from blockbuster movies or comic books? Have you played anything this year that was a little more than just pleasant junk food for the brain?

Orson Welles was a proven commercial success (in radio and theater) before he got the chance to direct Kane. It made sense for the studio to give him that chance. And remember how difficult they made it for him to get anything off the ground after that. They destroyed that man.

Calibrator
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Commercial failures
Seb wrote:

Orson Welles was a proven commercial success (in radio and theater) before he got the chance to direct Kane. It made sense for the studio to give him that chance. And remember how difficult they made it for him to get anything off the ground after that. They destroyed that man.

Citizen Kane targetted Randolph Hearst more or less directly - everybody at that time knew who was meant. The problem was that Hearst was the Rupert Murdoch of that time - perhaps even mightier - and he did his best to kill the commercial success of the movie. There were no reviews in Hearsts newspapers for example.

More about that can be read here:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Citizen_Kane

"Despite numerous positive reviews from critics at the time, the film was not a box office success, just making back enough to cover the budget, but not enough to make a profit."
and
"Even though it did decent business at the box-office and went on to be the sixth highest grossing film in its year of release, this fell short of its creators' expectations but was still acceptable to its backers."

Risky business, isn't it?

After several other commercial failures (even the brilliant "Tough of Evil"!) he went to Europe and mostly did outlandish movies with himself in a major role - probably to save money (or to get at least one good actor).

take care,
Calibrator

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Seb
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Art and Games

Of course going after one of the most powerful businessman in america was either very courageous or incredibly naive (i hope the rumors behind the real meaning of "rosebud" is not true). There's more than one factor behind the rise and fall of Orson Welles. As for Kane, i'm sure they were expecting more from one of the most popular entertainer of the day than barely making their money back, or even turning a small profit in the long run. This being said, it's one of my favorite movie of all time. The fact that the Welles' cut of "Magnificent Ambersons" is lost forever is also one of the great tragedy of film history.
But to go back to the industry, I'm curious to hear of what games the readers of Armchair Arcade would qualify as "art". What titles would you be willing to give as examples as the best the industry has to offer. Games that made you a better human for playing them. Stuff that perhaps changed your life, or the way you might see the world (as some of the best books sometimes do)...

Matt Barton
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Heh, looks like this one got

Heh, looks like this one got your dander up, Rowdy! :)

I agree with Chaplin's assessment on some levels, because I have seen glimmers of what games could be in titles like Dreamfall, Beneath a Steel Sky, Company of Heroes, The Dig, and Planetfall (to say nothing of some of the modern IF which is very deep). I don't expect every game or even the most popular games to be of this sort, but neither do I expect to see Citizen Kane at the multiplex. What I do find objectionable, though, is that emotionally deep games are so damn rare. The Japanese seem to do it most often, but the hentai or manga style just leaves me cold.

What I do think we should see are at least some games with some real emotional impact. They might not be fun in the way that Tomb Raider or Galaga are fun, but still captivating and the sort of thing that you want to play through to the end.

One of the most fascinating and emotionally relevant games I remember playing on the Amiga was a terrifically obscure graphical adventure that had a character named Robin wandering about a post-nuclear wasteland (I'd LOVE to find this game again; if anyone can help, I'd greatly appreciate it).

I also recall The Three Musketeers for the Amiga--very literary in scope and quality. Then there was, of course, Romantic Encounters at the Dome that really went into zones few developers have feared to follow! However, none of these were financially viable. I'd like to see more attempts now that the average age of gamers has risen to the point where there'd be a better market for stuff like this.

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Rowdy Rob
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Limitations of videogames
Matt Barton wrote:

What I do think we should see are at least some games with some real emotional impact. They might not be fun in the way that Tomb Raider or Galaga are fun, but still captivating and the sort of thing that you want to play through to the end.

I understand (and largely agree with) your point here. It's one thing to say "I'd like to see more emotional impact in games," but quite another to say "games are stuck in perpetual adolescence!" And let's not throw out the "based on power" accusations also.

The thing is, videogames are interactive, and that largely cuts down (or completely out) the narrative structure of "stories," both literary and movie-based. And by undermining the narrative structure of a "story," both in characterization and pacing, it is very difficult to build dramatic or emotional tension.

Heck, it's even hard to make people laugh via a videogame, due to restrictions in the videogame format to tell "jokes." It's rare that a videogame even makes me chuckle, and I've never fell out of my chair laughing while playing a videogame, even though I love jokes and stand-up comedy. I can get more laughs out one episode of "David Letterman" or "Curb Your Enthusiasm" than I ever have in all the videogames I've ever played combined!

The basic way to build any dramatic impact in a videogame is generally to use "cut scenes" or "cinemas" between levels or important points in a game. It works very well most of the time, but too much "cinema" ruins the interactivity of the game. (I never really got into "Metal Gear Solid II" because I had to sit through nearly a half-hour of cinemas before the game started, leaving me somewhat disoriented and bored by the time the actual game started!). I don't think it's an accident that JRPG's are both praised and criticized for their reliance on "cinemas" and set characters, because they do involve you more in the story, but often at the expense of actual freedom in the game, possibly ruining the "me" feeling of the game.

Adventure games are a difficult animal, in that they are literary-based (even the graphic ones). But even there, typing "Go North" or "Get Key," or running around in circles trying to solve a frustrating puzzle, kind of ruins the pacing. Still, adventure games seem to hold the best promise of emotional impact, in my opinion.

The ONE thing that really ruins dramatic impact in videogames is the fact that, if you fail the first time, you can try again! If your character "fails," you can start again, or reload the level, until you get it right. That's "Game Over" for real dramatic tension. If a key party member dies in a CRPG, you can restart from a save-game point and try to win the battle with party members intact the next time!

Many of your favorite "dramatic" or "comedic" movies would be near impossible to convert to a similarly-compelling videogame. "Doubt," "The Changeling," "Baby Mama," or "Raiders of the Lost Ark," or, ironically, "Lost in Translation" would lose a lot in the translation to videogame format simply because the pacing and structure of these stories cannot (as of this time) be achieved in a free-flowing interactive format. "Raiders," actually, is a good case in point: the arcade version delivers none of the thrills or drama of the movie.

On the other hand, the personal, interactive freedom and reward of playing (and especially winning) a videogame cannot be achieved in "linear story" format. As for the limitations of the videogame genre, I'm certainly open to seeing someone try something innovative to bring more adult drama to videogames! But I think it's extremely difficult, if not impossible, for a videogame to match or exceed the emotional impact of a good story without pretty much becoming a largely non-interactive "movie" itself.

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Matt Barton
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Nice comments, Rob, though I

Nice comments, Rob, though I can think if several games that have made me laugh out loud: Sam & Max (especially the newer ones) and Simon 4. There is also a lot of humor in the Infocom games that is very effective, though probably not a fall out of your chair kind of thing. I don't see how any normal guy can play through one of the Sam & Max episodes without at least a few belly laughs!

I sadly find much to laugh about when games are poorly designed! But that's another matter. :)

As for non-adventure games that have had emotional impact...Definitely felt fear with Doom 3. I also felt attached to my characters in many role-playing games. Chrono Trigger is a JRPG with all the implications of that, but it's easy to feel real affection for those characters. I'm playing Company of Heroes now, and that is definitely emotional. I've played many RTS before, but never one that really made me feel guilty and terrible when my "units" died. In most RTS, it's just a "unit" so I don't care other than the economics/strategy of the thing. With Company of Heroes, though, I feel sad and usually will play through a level again to incur fewer casualties, but hanging over the whole thing is the emotional impact - our grandfathers fought in this war, and many good Americans died. I don't want to belittle that sacrifice in any way, but somehow playing a game like Company of Heroes helps me understand that sacrifice on a more gut level than I have just reading books or watching movies about it.

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