Future Cinema

Course Site for Future Cinema 1 and Future Cinema 2: Applied Theory at York University, Canada

First Person

First Person – Chapter 1 Seminar Presentation
By Neil Sylva

The introduction to the book asks us to consider computer/videogames a media where it is becoming possible to incorporate narratives, and that the continued sophistication of the interactive computer/video game medium holds new possibilities for how narratives can be experienced.
- “The first big game hit of the 2000s wasn’t a descendent of the abstract Tetris; it was The Sims – a system for generating stories about suburban life. Similarly, in the 1990s, the first massively popular CD-ROM was Myst – in which players uncovered the story of an intricate and beautiful world.”
- “Couldn’t it be argued that The Sims is a resource-management experience, and that Myst is an exploration and puzzle-solving experience – that the gameplay is the central experience, and that generated or embedded stories are at best ‘themes’ (which could be switched out for others), or even distractions? Isn’t the case that Counter-Strike – which speeds up the essential multiplayer interaction and removes the replayability-limiting story – is a better game than Half-Life, on which it is based? Counter-Strike, after all, was created by players, who might be better guides to what makes a good gaming experience than the creators of narrative games (who may be in the unfortunate throes of what Eric Zimmerman calls ‘cinema envy’).”

Games have until recently used narrative very sparsely, and only as a light framework which gives a basic reason for the player to take action in the game.

- “Text in new media – fiction, poetry, performance – must have some utility other than in the form of the cut-scene, although to find it we may have to look outside of the mainstream.”

There are new efforts now, even in mainstream game development, to get away from the simple cut-scene as a means of delivering narrative and character in an interactive game experience.

- “It is generally agreed that cyber drama must give human participants an experience of agency. Usually this has meant that the participant’s actions have an appropriate and understandable impact on the world the computer presents to them. Other goals defined by Murray include immersion and transformation. To achieve these goals through a combination of experience design, computer graphics, and artificial intelligence – especially in a form reminiscent of interactive Shakespearian tragedy – has become a sort of ‘holy grail’ for cyberdrama.”

Agency and immersion are aspects that done properly can enhance gameplay, and with the proper execution of a narrative, and characters, transformation may also be possibly.

“From Game-Story to Cyberdrama” – Janet Murray

- Murray draws attention to how the digital medium is suited to games, because it is procedural with behaviour based on rules, and participatory which allows the player as well as the creator to move things around.
- Also the digital medium of gaming is able to include other mediums such as moving images, text, audio, three-dimensional, navigable space – more of the building blocks of storytelling than any single medium has ever offered us.
- In console gaming, with the introduction of CD based systems like the PlayStation, console games began incorporating all of these media. For instance the game Resident Evil (1996) took advantage of this on the PlayStation to weave it’s story through cut-scenes, voice acting, texts in the forms of articles, diaries that explained back story, as well as still photographs.
- Murray talks about the two structures that games have in common with stories; 1) the contest where the player must beat opponents, which is part of the human experience from parenting to courtship to war, which may come from our evolution as a species, and has become the core experience of gaming. 2) the puzzle, a contest between the reader/player and the author/game-designer, which is a challenge to the mind.
- Once again Resident Evil (1996) is a game that introduced many puzzle elements the balanced the pacing of the action.
- Storytelling is a core human activity, on ewe take into every medium of expression, from the oral-formulaic to the digital multimedia. As gaming technology advances with the ability to represent people and places, stories will naturally become more predominant in the game experience.
- Murray coined the term Cyberdrama “emphasizing the enactment of the story in the particular fictional space of the computer.” 4
- Murray points out The Sims as a particularly important game, where players enact stories through their Sim characters, which lead lives dictated by a moral physics. The characters can get educations, jobs, and experience losses such as deaths, as well.
- Murray believes that Agency is the key to better cyberdrama. She describes agency as “the pleasure of interactivity, which arises from the two properties of the procedural and the participatory. When the world responds expressively and coherently to our engagement with it, then we experience agency.” 10
- The Metal Gear Solid series has pushed the boundaries of agency in console games.

“Can There Be a Form between a Game and a Story” – Ken Perlin

- At the beginning of the article Perlin asks why a character in a book or movie seems more real to him than a character in a computer game, which leads to the question of what it would take to make an interactive character on the computer screen seem real the same way that a character from a book or movie does? 12
- In films and novels we are drawn into the world of the character. The film uses cinematic language, and the actor’s dialogue and actions, to enable us to identify with that character, and be invested in his/her decisions and needs. Novels can describe a character’s consciousness and thought process, which can make them very real to the reader.
- Yet those two mediums, the film and novel, make us give up our right to make choices – our agency. Instead the agency of a protagonist takes over, and we are swept up in observation of his struggle, more or less from his point of view, as though we were some invisible spirit or angel perched upon his shoulder, watching but never interfering. 14
- Perlin uses the example of Lara Croft in the game Tomb Raider, of a character that does not seem real outside of the game, because she needs your agency in the interactive medium to actually do anything. You need to become Lara to make her effective. So when you put the controller down, or access the inventory, Lara ceases to be or do anything, and will stay that way until you return to take control.
- Perlin compares Harry Potter to Lara Croft, and says that he can sustain the fiction of Harry even when he’s not reading the book, because, he has experienced Harry’s agency from reading, but that this cannot happen with Lara because he has only really experienced his agency through her.
- I contend that Perlin comes to this result, not because it is impossible to experience a videogame character’s agency, but because Lara is a poorly developed character, within a thin plot that only serves as an excuse for gameplay. I think we need to look at the characters Snake and The Boss in Metal Gear Solid 3.
- To Perlin, the much-needed element that is missing from characters in games is good acting. Again, I believe that MGS3 begins to answer this, and the upcoming Heavy Rain

Lets apply the Aristotelian Drama to current games to see where they fit.

Can a videogame make you cry? This is a question that game director David Jaffe has tried to tackle, and it is a goal of his to one day achieve this level of emotional response from a player through the game medium.

Should games just be about gameplay and total agency, without the restrictions of balancing agency with character and story?

Roger Ebert has said that videogames are not art. If they are not yet art, what will it take to make videogames become art?

Wed, April 1 2009 » Futurecinema_2009