Citizen Game

Chuck Palahniuk's 1996 Fight Club, which went on to become a popular film, is not only a best selling novel but a relevant deconstruction of the social emasculation of modern male culture. Radiohead's 1998 OK Computer which went on to award winning commercial success in the US and UK is also a unique and creative exploration of sound and atmosphere that has been recognized as one of the best albums of all time and compared to The Beatles. Meaningful and popular are not necessarily the antonyms often suggested by cynics of modern entertainment; it's just not the status quo. Nor should it be.

Outstanding creative works that are both popular and significant are, at this very moment, being produced; work imbued with meaning that stir the imagination while proving profitable still exist in all forms or artistic expression. All forms, that is, with the possible exception of video games, which is seen by many to not have produced a quintessential or meaningful work that transcends to some nebulous higher tier of quality.

It's become, I realize, something of a cliché to ask where is The Godfather, Romeo and Juliet or Citizen Kane of video games. It's the kind of whiny intellectualism that fails to simply be satisfied with the endless entertainment provided by our games, and is probably like wondering when roller coasters will become educational. Mostly, I'm like the average gamer and don't worry much anymore about when Half-Life will both involve the offing of headcrabs while driving me to deeper contemplative states on the human condition. I'm relatively content now to accept that Picard soliloquies to Data about being human will be far deeper explorations of metaphysical concepts than pretty much any video game.

Except Ken Levine in his comments in our Bioshock preview earlier this week, damn that man, has got me curious again with his talk of Objectivism and Ayn Rand. That's daring stuff to be talking about when trying to sell a video game. While he's certainly pragmatic about having to hide the philosophical stuff behind the "kick ass shooter", it's obviously on the man's mind. But, the more I think about it, the more I believe that, begging Levine's pardon, the reason we don't see video games with meaningful resonance, whatever that exactly means, is that for all practical purposes it can't be done.

There will never be a Citizen Kane, or Atlas Shrugged for that matter, of video gaming.

The mischaracterization of the tech entertainment industry as an under-sexed club of comic-book loving, man-boy nerds is as flawed as any stereotype. Looking around our own population here in this quiet corner we are a cross-section of society representing a variety of stages of life and sophistications. The industry, both its consumers and professionals, has amassed as talented and intelligent people in positions of power as film, publishing or television. So, there's simply no lack of creative or practical resources to have met the goal of creating a truly meaningful piece of art in game form, if such a beast is assumed to be possible.

There are smart people working hard to make exactly the games that are meant to have meaning, and time and again they seem thwarted not by lack of effort or talent, but apparently by the medium itself. If Ken Levine's Bioshock does not turn out to offer deep meditations on mankind as he seems to hope, I don't think the reason will be for lack of ability. The fault is not with the creator but the creation.

The structure of narrative in gaming itself is a big problem. So called meaningful works of art, particularly those like games that involve a story, usually measure progress not by an accumulation of accoutrements, be they weapons, powers, levels or stats, as games so often do. Growth in narrative can be married to loss, hopelessness and self-realization, where even the best games are about overcoming discreet goals to forward a story. It's not that video games couldn't do this as well. It's that we wouldn't want them to. Gamers, as a rule, don't like to have to lose in order to win, and this begins what could otherwise be a long discussion on why interactivity is less empathic than passivity.

It's counter-intuitive. One might expect that by investing a player into the part of the hero, the player would identify with that character and be more invested in the role. But my own highly unscientific and logically porous observation is that, instead, gamers become selfish about the character, infuse the game with their own frustrations that tend to make us mad rather than contemplative when disaster strikes. Loss and struggle are much easier to bear when we are passively sympathetic rather than actively involved. This is probably why people are a lot more likely to seek out meaning about the human condition by watching a fictional character experience true suffering rather than having to endure it ourselves.

So, when people talk about trying to move these common notions of artistic meaning onto gaming it feels artificial. Meaningful art takes many forms, and there's no question that from a perspective of pure aesthetics gaming has achieved numerous successes. Just not the same kinds as cinema, literature or music. When we ask where is the Citizen Kane of gaming, we are not asking about quality of product, but we seem to be asking when gaming will teach us something larger about our society, our philosophy, our mortality and ourselves.

In some ways, we already have that. Maybe it's just that we don't like what we see, don't care for the meaning of the dystopian futures we keep crafting to shoot aliens in, don't like the image in the mirror that violent video games show us, don't want to see that Civilization itself is bound up in the war, deceit and greed exemplified by the game of the same name. What we seem to really want is something that is both profound but more importantly affirming, the Picard nonsense about the value of humanity for humanity's sake. And, when our books and movies describe the failures of the human condition our refuge is in the passivity and inevitability of the narrative. Video gaming makes it personal. What gaming does that books, movies, music and no other form of art can is steal the certainty of fate. It puts free will back in our own hands, and like life itself sets us goals that we either achieve or fail.

If books and movies are a glimpse into broad statements about other people, video games are a mirror.

And, that has value too. Either way, I've stopped looking for Citizen Game, and while I look forward to Levine's Bioshock and its brave attempt to explore Objectivism, mostly I'm just in it for the kick ass shooter. What I've learned about myself is that I don't ride the rollercoaster for deep meditations on life.


One more thing:

Elysium wrote:

If books and movies are a glimpse into broad statements about other people, video games are a mirror.

Compare to:

Ghost in the Shell: Innocence wrote:

The mirror is an instrument of the illusion, not of the enlightement

Great points on both sides.

I think this question needs to be debated on the next podcast.

Gorilla.800.lbs wrote:

One more thing:

Elysium wrote:

If books and movies are a glimpse into broad statements about other people, video games are a mirror.

Compare to:

Ghost in the Shell: Innocence wrote:

The mirror is an instrument of the illusion, not of the enlightement

The mirror is an instrument of reflection.

Hey, I am only selling what I've bough.

Here's the bit I wrote that involves a confusing amount of parallels and false dichotomies:

I used to love painting, but never learned to sculpt better than a kindergartener with Play-Doh. I write poetry, but I never spent much time applying what I know of the formal theories of novel construction or character development in book-length non-fiction. I could give either a shot, but my knowledge of other media would not help me be the next Rodin or Henry James where others might not.

I think the problem is that we're watching Van Goughs and Rembrandts trying to write the next great American novel. Heck, did either of them even speak English (or Spanish)? The point is, it's a different medium entirely. You can't paint a classic movie and you can't write a staggeringly beautiful oil painting. Perhaps this is why the great writers and artists of our time aren't trying their hands at making games (I know the film industry probably doesn't feel as much pull, since they don't stand to make as much more money by changing media).

To tell the truth, though, I'm not sure most of these guys are masters of anything more than code or marketing. We're getting upset that John Henry isn't writing the next Leaves of Grass. I don't know for certain, but my guess is that the video game schools that are training the next great wave of designers are not teaching the art of the line break (to stay with the railroads and poetry dichotomy). My guess is that they're teaching more about driving spikes or getting land rights to lay more track.

OK, on to more coherent stuff:

Axon wrote:

Well were does SCMRPG fit into all this discussion? What ever your opinion, it certainly shows that "gaming" is capable of taking on very extreme issues. If you haven't played it, I beg you that you do. I couldn't think straight for about a week after I finished it and found it quite uncomfortable but interesting.

rabbit wrote:

Myst, Grim Fandango, Planescape: Torment, Okami, Electroplankton, -- all examples where I think authorial intent created a meaningful experience.

It's true that there have been some good ones. Thanks for those examples. I'm sure we all realize that the same signal to noise ratio happens in music and books as well. I won't even begin discussion on what LiveJournal has done to the state of poetry in the world.

And Axon, I'm right there with you. Just thinking about that game again makes me shiver and turn morose.

rabbit wrote:

But again, I think we're looking for the wrong things. DEEP does not make meaningful. You don't need to create a CK to ask what you ask: teach us something larger about our society, our philosophy, our mortality and ourselves.

I think here's the real issue. It's not that it's impossible to find deep issues in the games we play. Much more likely, it's that we don't stop to think. We make the same mistake as the friend who reads Moby Dick to conclude, "It's a book about a whale, and a whaling captain who hunts it."

So the question is: When was the last time you played a game like a Grand Theft Auto, and stopped afterward to think about how it does or doesn't mirror your world, or what it means that you as a player willfully controlled a character and made the character commit such wanton and heinous acts of violence?

Duoae wrote:

The dystopian future you describe in HL2 has no real effect on the game at all.

The phrase "So it goes" in Slaughterhouse Five doesn't have any effect on whatever the outcome of that story may be. Does that mean we should discount it?

I definitely play pacifist countries in Civ, by the way.

As tired as the cliche is, I believe we've had our Citizen Kane of gaming. More than a few. My personal favorite is Planescape: Torment. That's a masterpiece of a story, that just doesn't function in any other medium.

Take for example, one dialog. A character wants to die. You can either offer to kill him, try to talk him out of it, or due to a quirk in your character, snap your own neck, to show him what death is like. Any choice has quite a massive impact. Or one of your party members, you can study his religion with him (and learn awesome spells in the process.). And that dialog branch really gets the brain going. There are hundreds of examples like that. Every party member is more than just a cutout with a weapon, they have stuff driving them. And watching it all interact is really something else.

There's Final Fantasy 6, as well. Consider the entire message of the story. It ends with a horrible metaphor (newborn = newborn world... That was old before anyone at Square was born.), but it's really quite compelling.

Or even Postal 2. (Don't groan, hear me out.) Outside of the mindless carnage that the game is known for, consider that the game is only as violent as you are. (It is completely possible to come through without killing a thing. In a FPS game.) It may not have quite the impact plot wise... but once the realization of the mirror effect of it hits you, it still hits.

Then there's the aforementioned Ico (I haven't played Shadow of the Colossus yet, but I think that'll be the next game I pick up.) and of course, Silent Hill 2.

How the messages and themes portrayed are different in every medium. You can't look in the same place on an album for deep meaning as you can in a book, or a movie.

How could it be expected that you could locate it in the same place on a game?

(As an aside, this place has restored my faith in the gaming community at large. Rock on.)

I let this settle a couple of days before replying.

Elysium, I think you're being too specific about what you want. You are lamenting that there's no Hamlet for television, that there's no War and Peace for the stage. By looking for the wrong thing, you're not seeing great computer art for what it is. Fallout, for its day and age, was incredible. "War... war never changes." As others have repeatedly said, Shadow of the Colossus was powerful art without ever speaking a word. Grim Fandango, despite the awkward interface, has an incredibly powerful story; I think anyone watching the end without getting a little choked up wouldn't qualify as human.

The Longest Journey was better than 90% of the books I've read and close to 100% of the movies I've seen. It was intricate and detailed, textured and flavorful in a way that no other form could ever be. It was masterful storytelling. (and that's why TLJ2 pissed me off so much... they butchered the actual game, and then only told maybe half the story. That sucked.) Planescape: Torment is another excellent example, although it didn't resonate with me quite as strongly as TLJ did.

You shouldn't be looking for Citizen Kane or the Godfather. If you want those, go see a movie. Games are different. You should be looking for the stories that will stay with you, the ones that made you cry a little, the ones that maybe helped you be a better person in your day to day life. Games may not be as contemplative as movies, but that doesn't make them inferior.

There aren't, admittedly, very many of these Truly Great games yet -- but there aren't very many truly great movies either, and we've been making those for over a hundred years now.

Nothing inspires fresh thoughts like pressing post. Remember: You're talking about the highest points of moviemaking, cherry-picking out just a few films from hundreds of thousands that have been made. In the years that Citizen Kane or Casablanca or Glory came out, there was also a metric assload of crap. You're remembering the brightest gems of decades of a specific art, and comparing it to the everyday gaming dross we're shoveled by EA.

If you compared gaming crap to movie crap, I think you'd come away a lot less dismissive of games.

A timely Gamasutra interview with Yannis Mallat (CEO of Ubisoft Montreal).

He talks about melding film and gaming, starting with a short film about Assassin's Creed. The short will be made by Ubisoft Digital Arts Studio, a spinoff from the Motreal Game Studio created expressly to tackle CG film content like this.

It seems salient to this discussion, and Ubisoft Montreal have a pretty good pedigree. (PGP?)

Dysplastic wrote:

Great Piece.
The key problem here lies in two areas:
A) The requirement that games be profitable means that games will never be able to reach a meaningful artistic level until the medium itself has penetrated into a market that will be able to appreciate it and make the game profitable.
B) The interactive nature of games require that it be fun and that we gather enjoyment out of it. Almost invariably, the films that "teach us something larger about our society, our philosophy, our mortality and ourselves" make us feel sad, disturbed, hopeless, or some similar powerful emotion that doesn't translate well to the gaming experience. We see movies like Schindlers List, The Piano, and even Fight club knowing that for 2 hours, we are going to be subjected to intense emotions that might not make us feel good, but will make us think. Would we even want to be subjected to similar emotions, but in an interactive experience stretched over 10-40 hours? We "play" video games, that verb doesn't lend itself to the kind of experience you're looking for.

Honestly, I think we will get to a point where "games" will be able to provide us with depth and meaning and convey important themes, but they won't be traditional games in the sense that they will be an interactive experience, but they won't be marketed as games and the "gameplay" will be unfamiliar. Perhaps something along the lines of the Facade game recently linked on the forums could provide us with this kind of experience (albeit with a much better text recognition system, but I digress), but that's nowhere close to a "Game".

All I know is that when this moment comes, it most certainly will NOT involve Quick Timer Events.

Couldn't agree with you more. Movies don't need to be fun - why must games be fun? Until games get shorter and less fun, the industry will continue to pump out the same immature stuff. Imagine if the movie industry required all its movies to be fun. We'd be stuck with Fast and Furious and Michael Bay movies all the time. Not horrible I suppose..but you get the point