What I Really Want To Do Is Direct

I saw the Transformers movie a few nights ago, and while I thought it was fine on a fundamentally gut level, I realized that what it reminded me most of was a video game brought to the big screen; a big, shaky explosion-laden video game with which one might feel exhausted after playing. That Michael Bay lacks subtlety is not a particularly ground-breaking commentary on cinema, I realize. I like to imagine that when Michael Bay goes to Thanksgiving Dinner, he does not simply ask his judgmental Aunt Maggie to pass the mashed potatoes, but shakes the table violently until bottles of white wine topple and shatter while pyrotechnics explode under the cranberry sauce before pointing with one hand toward the potatoes and toward his mouth with the other. Watching his films is like snacking on habanero chiles with a mouth ulcer, an all-encompassing experience that demands one's complete attention despite occasional moments of extraordinary discomfort. In the wake of realizing that Michael Bay could be an exceptional developer of first-person shooters, I realized that virtually every game suffers from the same lack of visual subtlety as the Transformers.

I'm hesitant to draw out comparisons of video games to cinema (again!) for recognition of the fact that they are dramatically different beasts, but where the argument of meeting movie standards of story-telling within gaming fails, I think there may be something to suggesting that the industry could do better at visual creativity. If there is one thing which gaming and the movies clearly share, it is the dependence on creating compelling images, and, not unlike movies, gaming of late too often relies entirely on technical whizbangery to compel ocular attention.

But, like The Transformers movie everything in gaming these days seems so focused on blowing my mind with computer generated awesomeness, that the games commonly reach some sort of rendering-awesomeness critical mass, or even rendering-awesomeness overload, and either I can't process everything going on or I actually begin to lose interest as I search for substance.

This is why I wish video games were more like Joss Whedon shows.

I know, for some people that's going to be a credibility killer right there, the end, perhaps of an article that was fumbling toward something salient and then took a dramatic right turn through the guard rails and off a cliff, dashing eventually upon the rocks before the gas tank exploded in a very Michael Bay kind of way. But, I choose Joss as an example not because he is some sort of nerd god, but because he has an eye for detail while being true to the nature of the medium – in this case gaming. I mean, I could ask for a Kubrick, or a Scorsese, a Polanski or a Pollack, but I suspect that doing so would be perilously close to suggesting that gaming needs a Citizen Kane and I know how very much so many of you hate that idea. It is a suggestion I fully retract, despite never having actually suggested it, and now spit upon as I would that guy who played Kraemer on Seinfeld.

But, back to Joss. The thing about Joss is he embraces his inner-nerd, a thing of significant proportion only eclipsed by his equally robust outer-nerd, but he also has a great eye for crafting images on the screen. Watching his shows, I know when he is directing, because the quality of the visuals is elevated, the creativity of the angles enhanced. The work is just more compelling visually, even down to otherwise ordinary conversations which go beyond simply looking over one character's shoulder as the other one talks and then switching back and forth. There is action and information in the background, thought about angle, height and perspective that mean something to the story. He recognizes that the camera is the storyteller, the filter through which all information is conveyed. Like Spielberg, Joss has an eye to creating an indelible image – so many frozen moments of memory from shows like Firefly and Buffy -- something that defines the characters and story visually, often without a word.

The point actually has very little to do with The Joss, who is by all accounts a nice guy but doesn't appear to have expressed any actual interest in gaming and is probably quite busy right now in Hollywood not having his movies made. The point is that an analogue to Joss, or Sam Raimi, or even Spielberg should be looking at this incredibly visual medium with intense moments of potential coolness and thinking to themselves, "man, they're just missing out on how cool this could be!"

I understand that interactivity creates difficult scenarios for framing creative shots, but I don't think it's as unreasonable an idea as it might seem. There are plenty of opportunities in even your average action or RPG game to shoot interesting shots; even the throwaway moments of conversations or moments of tension before the big fight could be a place to add weight just by framing an entrance or discussion better. Frankly, I don't need to see poorly lip-synced facial animations straight on anyway, why not do something with the camera to elevate the moment that is usually diminished by technical limitations? Why not take advantage of the story-telling potential of artful direction, enhance the bad-assitude of your supposedly bad-ass character by occasionally dropping the camera low as the main character enters the space-bar (for the record, the first bar in space must be named the Spacebar, particularly if people still use keyboards) so it looks like he's towering on our screen.

I'm really not trying to artificially plug the square block of cinema into the round hole of gaming. But, I think of some of the efforts like Call of Duty, which integrates moments of gripping cinema into the action, or the original Resident Evil which created great tension through the use of compelling static camera angles, or even the playback on races for games like Gran Turismo which I find myself watching over and over again. For such a visual medium it seems logical to put more thought into the art of direction than there has historically been. As a way to compel the gamer without relying on narrative, a way to distinguish a title from its competition and simply a way of enhancing a sense of terror, tension, humor or strength in a given scene, few things might be as powerful as a well directed game.

Comments

Is it simply that in shooters the players don't actually provide a narrative? Shooters are kind of frozen in time at a moment of perpetual conflict, and that can really destroy the illusion that there's a plot or even an over-riding goal.

Oddly, this is one thing I thought the Delta Force series got right. By using HUGE maps, they forced a flow and a pattern onto the fights that created it's own narrative, if only that of a well-thought-out tactical plan unfolding over time. But that's an exception to the rule of fast, non-stop destructive play. (Note the BF2142 has succeeded in capturing the same tactical storytelling capability with Titan mode, but only because there is a discernable difference between teams with a plan and teams without one in the playing. That, and there are distances to be covered, even if not on DF scales.)

Just a thought. Great article!

Elysium wrote:

... and now spit upon as I would that guy who played Kraemer on Seinfeld.

Would you use a magic loogie?

The art of film lies in cinematography and editing - camera angles and how the film cuts them together. When you see a shot of a man towering over the camera, then cut to a shot of a cowering child, the human brain naturally links them together and believes the man is intimidating the child. The opening sequence of Citizen Kane has different shots of Xanadu dissolving atop each other with a single lighted window in the same, fixed position - this suggests an ominous but unavoidable journey towards doom. Modern films have introduced the "virtual camera" but editing and framing are still king. And since games rarely have a fix view point (fixed in advance by the developer, that is) they will always be opposed to cinema and Roger Ebert will sadly be correct.

The closest games have come are the Resident Evils and Final Fantasies on the PS1, with their annoying, fixed angle pre-rendered backgrounds. Those games and of course the FMV wave. Are you sure you want a little more cinema in your games? What you are describing sounds more like a Disneyland ride. As you move through the level, visually interesting things happen in your field of view but outside of your control. Bioshock creator Ken Levine is the best argument against these little flourishes - he skips cutscenes. This article sounds like you crave the emotional depth of good work, not necessarily the craftsman's details that conjure the effects.

Elysium wrote:

This is why I wish video games were more like Joss Whedon shows.

Nah, I was still listening and I wasn't even ever a Buffy fan. I also think the Joss vs big-oldschool-important-directors distinction is important, as Joss is mostly a television director. TV is pretty different than movies IMO, and feels closer to gaming too. Movies can become classics, but TV isn't meant to last as long. I don't think games are made with the intent to last either, even if a few classics have emerged.

Elysium wrote:

This is why I wish video games were more like Joss Whedon shows.

I know, for some people that's going to be a credibility killer right there, the end, perhaps of an article that was fumbling toward something salient and then took a dramatic right turn through the guard rails and off a cliff, dashing eventually upon the rocks before the gas tank exploded in a very Michael Bay kind of way.

It seemed to me that your credibility was clubbed sharply in the back of the head and dragged into the alley behind the nerd convention. It was then robbed, shot directly in the head, and left to bleed out in the remainder of the article.

But I see what you're saying.

I wish they were more like my favorite Buffy episode where the entire show was done in musical format.

Elysium wrote:

I like to imagine that when Michael Bay goes to Thanksgiving Dinner, he does not simply ask his judgmental Aunt Maggie to pass the mashed potatoes, but shakes the table violently until bottles of white wine topple and shatter while pyrotechnics explode under the cranberry sauce before pointing with one hand toward the potatoes and toward his mouth with the other.

This is pretty damn funny. I mean really. I read it a few times to really flesh out the mental image, like enjoying the full body of a peculiar wine.

You could probably make an entire "A Day with Michael Bay" short that would be hysterical.

Haakon7 wrote:
Elysium wrote:

This is why I wish video games were more like Joss Whedon shows.

I know, for some people that's going to be a credibility killer right there, the end, perhaps of an article that was fumbling toward something salient and then took a dramatic right turn through the guard rails and off a cliff, dashing eventually upon the rocks before the gas tank exploded in a very Michael Bay kind of way.

Well, the idea does strike me as a terrific way to get me off the computer and back to reading books. But I understand what you're getting at.

BlackSheep wrote:

I wish they were more like my favorite Buffy episode where the entire show was done in musical format.

I've got a theory
that it's a demon.
A dancing demon?
No, something isn't right there.

You and me both, BlackSheep.

Watching his shows, I know when he is directing, because the quality of the visuals is elevated, the creativity of the angles enhanced. The work is just more compelling visually, even down to otherwise ordinary conversations which go beyond simply looking over one character's shoulder as the other one talks and then switching back and forth. There is action and information in the background, thought about angle, height and perspective that mean something to the story. He recognizes that the camera is the storyteller, the filter through which all information is conveyed.

I notice it's only the talented ones who use the camera as a storyteller, and they also know that MUSIC is a storyteller. Music can fill otherwise mundane footage with emotional content that either foreshadows what's to come, or reflects the character's state of mind.

When you see the protagonist going through someone else's drawer, and the music is racing, it is completely different from having just the sounds of them going through that drawer. The perfect marriage of skillful camerawork and music can resurrect an otherwise cliche script and even compensate for bad acting at times. It is like a celluloid Jesus.

McChuck wrote:
BlackSheep wrote:

I wish they were more like my favorite Buffy episode where the entire show was done in musical format.

I've got a theory
that it's a demon.
A dancing demon?
No, something isn't right there.

You and me both, BlackSheep.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RJfgt...

BTW... I like the storytelling in Metal Gear Solid, is that bad?

Edit: Also - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FbZ8J...

I need to download this episode again.

Why not take advantage of the story-telling potential of artful direction, enhance the bad-assitude of your supposedly bad-ass character by occasionally dropping the camera low as the main character enters the space-bar (for the record, the first bar in space must be named the Spacebar, particularly if people still use keyboards) so it looks like he's towering on our screen.

As if it hasn't been done already in numerous games' cutscenes multiple times over, to the point of being a cheezy cliche'? With the latest point of reference being GoW, for example, where every major cutscene seems to be rendered from the elevation level of Gears' jackboots.

personally, if i wanted subtlety I'd watch a "chick flick", when i watch a movie or play a game i want to be entertained, i want my reality temporarily suspended. i think too many people waste time analyzing movies as if they're some art form, but then again, seeing what passes for 'art' these days, i guess i can understand why people grasp at anything and want to elevate it to something "higher".

when you go to see an action movie, take it for what it is, a brief mental bitchslapping to your senses, don't pretend to make it into something its not: some form of art requiring a mental acuity greater than present in sleep.

turn of your logic, reasoning, and analytics, and open your mind to where the movie takes you.

araczynski wrote:

personally, if i wanted subtlety I'd watch a "chick flick", when i watch a movie or play a game i want to be entertained, i want my reality temporarily suspended. i think too many people waste time analyzing movies as if they're some art form, but then again, seeing what passes for 'art' these days, i guess i can understand why people grasp at anything and want to elevate it to something "higher".

when you go to see an action movie, take it for what it is, a brief mental bitchslapping to your senses, don't pretend to make it into something its not: some form of art requiring a mental acuity greater than present in sleep.

turn of your logic, reasoning, and analytics, and open your mind to where the movie takes you.

I think we got a misplaced post from the Transformers thread right here !

HL2 achieved this sort of subtle, cinematic shot for me at the end of the game when you get on the lift to go down to the final battle. Alex walks up and puts her hand on the glass and gives you a looks mixed with sadness and hope as you go down the shaft. Totally natural and believable.

Halo 2 (outside of cutscenes) did this for me as well through the use of excellent art direction, level design, and color pallet choices; combined with some of the best (subtle) music in video games.

The first step off the ship in the original Unreal...

It's definitely a rare, rare thing in gaming though. I think it's just tough in general (most movies are crappy in this regard as well, as you note).

BlackSheep wrote:

I wish they were more like my favorite Buffy episode where the entire show was done in musical format.

Joke not. That was one of the finest hours of television ever made. I own the soundtrack. Freaking brilliant. Even if you've never, ever watched one episode of buffy, it's must watching.

And I think this thread boils down to one thing (not trying to belittle it, just spouting my version).

Excellence works. Really, that's what it comes down to. People who are good at what they do, and really, really care make awesome things. Joss Whedon really, really cares. It's why his stuff, whether you like it or not, almost unfailingly succeeds in doing what he wanted it to do. This is the reason why brilliant people can cross genres. Why Brian Eno can produce Remain in Light, record music for airports, architect the sound effects for Windows and score Spore in the same lifetime.

personally, if i wanted subtlety I'd watch a "chick flick", when i watch a movie or play a game i want to be entertained, i want my reality temporarily suspended.

Yeah, good directors like Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Michael Mann or Stanley Kubrick ... all they do are those damn chick flicks.

You know, I like video games. I'm just not going to feel bad for asking them to continue to get better.

As if it hasn't been done already in numerous games' cutscenes multiple times over, to the point of being a cheezy cliche'?

True, but that may just be a good example of why I'm not a director.

I wonder how much of this is a genre thing. You miss this in the twitchy end of the pool, but this is SOP in the jRPG/Adventure realms. Both the Michael Bey style, and the more sincere Wheedon-type work. There are several who pull this off on a regular basis, but they don't do twitch. Some examples: Michel Ancel (Rayman, Beyond Good and Evil), Tetsuya Nomura (half of Square's catalog), Dennis Michael Miller (Bard's Tale), Hideo Kojima (MGS along with Fukushima).

And I want to second that comment about music up above. This is why Nobuo Uematsu is a god among men, and the two people who took his place in Final Fantasy XII and XIII have a lot to live up to.

Heres rule of thumb for me... if it's a book and a movie, read book first... if its a movie and a video game, play game first... if its a game and a book... make a movie about it.

One of the last Buffy episodes where there was a lot of silence (as in non-dialog) with the exception of the wind or wind chimes or soft music playing in the background. It was a very moving episode which I also thought was magical in it's own sense as was the Musical episode. I've seen a few games show promise in these ways, Final Fantasy is probably the most famous in it's movie cinematic cut seasons as of Kingdom Hearts. Simply amazing and moving scenes that really implanted certain emotions in the viewers.

Unfortunately is so extremely hard for a game to go from game play into an emotionally driven scenes like that and then back without some sort of odd timing issues. In truth regardless of how cool the cut scenes might be or the story, if the game play sucks then people aren't going to appreciate the game as they should. You need a good balance of both or you have something lacking.

Sorry but I can't resist. At the risk of derailing this thread (I blame Elysium for bringing up Whedon) Buffy had several episodes that I consider must see! "Hush" was brilliant almost no dialuge at all. "The Body" was also fantastic. "Once More With Feeling" (the musical episode) is one of my favorites. Those are just three of several must see hours of TV.

Watching the developers' commentary on Half-Life Episode One was a real eye-opener for me on exactly this aspect of game design. Valve have a rule where they never take the control away from the player (a philosophy I applaud, since a game where most of the story happens in non-interactive cutscenes isn't much of a game imao), so they have to use game elements to frame the player's eye to stuff they want them to see.

They often use a single bad guy a fair way away shooting at the player to get the player to turn towards a crashing dropship, or manage the placing of stairs and alleyways so that the player is naturally looking in the right direction to see combine soldiers abseiling down the side of the buildings. They made an artistic decision to have the gunship battle in a barn, since they liked the way the gunship shot out the roof and the floor you were standing on, highlighting the HDR lighting effects and creating interesting gameplay mechanics, since as the fight went on, you had less cover, but were able to hit the gunship more easily, but had less floor to dodge around on. The way they build levels and use visual cues to tell the player where to go next and what enemies they're likely to meet owes a lot to the way the directors use mis en scene to carry meaning in film. They also talk a lot about pacing, and how they punctuate furious action set-pieces with more exploratory elements, talking about the tempo and the rhythm of the level. This point about pacing is particularly germane regard the Michael Bay/Steven Sommers error of having constant blistering action all the time. The most exciting part of The Two Towers for me is the build-up to the Battle of Helm's Deep rather than the battle itself. It's the Horse and the Rider poem, Aragorn talking to the young boy and getting his own mojo back, the wait whilst they watch the orcs do their hakka. There's probably a metaphor here about foreplay and orgasms which you articulate yourselves.

Back to The Joss, it seems to me that a lot of his directing style comes from a comic-book sensibility, I often see the way he moves the camera and settles on iconic poses as being similar to the way that comics have key frames of action or drama and make transitions between them (this is also very evident in the Matrix films). I'm not totally sure how this could be applied to game "direction".

rabbit wrote:
BlackSheep wrote:

I wish they were more like my favorite Buffy episode where the entire show was done in musical format.

Joke not. That was one of the finest hours of television ever made. I own the soundtrack. Freaking brilliant. Even if you've never, ever watched one episode of buffy, it's must watching.

And I think this thread boils down to one thing (not trying to belittle it, just spouting my version).

Excellence works. Really, that's what it comes down to. People who are good at what they do, and really, really care make awesome things. Joss Whedon really, really cares. It's why his stuff, whether you like it or not, almost unfailingly succeeds in doing what he wanted it to do. This is the reason why brilliant people can cross genres. Why Brian Eno can produce Remain in Light, record music for airports, architect the sound effects for Windows and score Spore in the same lifetime.

I was not joking. I think without bothering to say it, there was a wonderful subtlety to the episode that was Whedon's finest moment and each song sort of represents the various 'high points' you would encounter in gaming that let you savor each moment while revealing something new.

kilroy0097 wrote:

One of the last Buffy episodes where there was a lot of silence (as in non-dialog) with the exception of the wind or wind chimes or soft music playing in the background. It was a very moving episode which I also thought was magical in it's own sense as was the Musical episode. I've seen a few games show promise in these ways, Final Fantasy is probably the most famous in it's movie cinematic cut seasons as of Kingdom Hearts. Simply amazing and moving scenes that really implanted certain emotions in the viewers.

Unfortunately is so extremely hard for a game to go from game play into an emotionally driven scenes like that and then back without some sort of odd timing issues. In truth regardless of how cool the cut scenes might be or the story, if the game play sucks then people aren't going to appreciate the game as they should. You need a good balance of both or you have something lacking.

I suppose ultimately, we're looking at an evolutionary step where the movie production (good movie production, that is) overlays a video game production in terms of plot, theme, and sentimental/emotional attachment. We should want to finish a game not to say we've done so, but because we just have to see how it all ends for ourselves.

For those that don't like or are distracted by Joss, try substituting Hitchcock in the arguments above...

For the rest of us: If I remember correctly, the previously mentioned episode of Buffy entitled "The Body" had no background music. It was a subtle play to the theme of everything being off with Buffy's world. Back when Doom originally came out, I remember it being a completely different experience with the music turned off. Without the rock tracks to influence me to speedy feats of mayhem, the gurgling of ooze and the growling of monsters I usually couldn't see inspired paranoia. I didn't want to grab the key or hit the switch because whatever was making those noises would undoubtedly be set loose to eat my face. Choices of music, pacing, camera angles, and background action can make and break a game. That so few are notable for actually getting it right just emphasizes how important it is.

And it isn't just strictly "cinematic" games that fall into this. GalCiv 2 was, for me, the first 4X game that managed to get the pacing right. E.g. the end game remains interesting rather than the outcomes being inevitable well before the game ends.

So basically what I'm saying, is I'm totally with you on this one.

Hush. Yes. Also brilliant.

You know I just thought of a game that you wouldn't think would have amazing cinematic cut scenes in it if you hadn't played the game. Starcraft I and Brood Wars. I remember not only was there a distinct storyline with characters and small in game video and voice overs to supplement the game but there were also longer cinematic movies after major missions showing very cool animation akin to the most recent teaser tailer of the Marine getting his suit on.

Blizzard just has some mad skill when it comes to this sort of thing I've noticed. Who would think an RTS would have such amazing cut scenes. Another more recent one that I thought had really cool cut scenes was Company of Heroes in the single player campaign. Though I do wish there were more of them in parts of that campaign. I saw places in the campaign in the middle of missions that could have easily had their own mini 30-45 second cinematic cut scenes.

It just goes to show like Blacksheep says, there needs to be more games that have a story so engrossing that you want to finish the game, not only because it's fun but because you want to know how it ends.

I watched Hush last night just for the heck of it.

Xander's white board: "How do you kill them?" Buffy makes ambiguous forearm movement.

Is that what Elysium is looking for in games?

One game that I think had great direction was Anachronox. I felt that they really put some thought and time into the camera moves and placement of characters and objects throughout the whole game. There was one scene in particular that just sticks in my mind, in the spaceport where you would go down this elevator. The camera swung way out into mid-air and flew down with you as you went to the bottom floor. It's a great scene.

Even during gameplay, if there was something you couldn't see, you could swing the camera in a way that looked good, i.e. to look up a tall building or out into a long shot to see a lot of scenery. The game itself had lackluster reviews if I remember correctly, but I really loved it!

I know it's a balance between giving people ultimate freedom with the camera and none at all, but some games have really done it well, and some suck. I remember hearing on the conference calls someone mentioning how the camera in Ninja Gaiden and also a past NCAA football game were just bad. Maybe the game developers need to take a couple film courses at a local university - I think it will help. Hey, I want to make my own game some day... maybe I'll do just that!

McChuck wrote:

I watched Hush last night just for the heck of it.

Xander's white board: "How do you kill them?" Buffy makes ambiguous forearm movement.

Is that what Elysium is looking for in games?

You can never have too many masturbation jokes ... so yes.