Sunday, September 13, 2009

And They Both Rot Your Brain

I think at this point, most of us have come to hate hearing, "When are games going to have their Citizen Kane?" It's an inane question for a lot of reasons. But it's also drawing the wrong comparison.

Games have far more in common with The Sopranos than they do with The Godfather. There are a significant number of similarities between the fundamental form of games and television. As developers and as audiences, by looking at games through this lens, instead of comparison them to film, there is a great deal we can learn about both mediums. I talked about this briefly in the past, but this discussion is greater than just the context of sequels. Plus, the fall TV season is about to start.

On the recent flight to Hawaii for my honeymoon, I read Steven Johnson's Everything Bad is Good for You. If you haven't done so, I would highly recommend it. The core of the book discusses how modern media is substantially more complex and demands far more from its audiences than most give it credit for. He convincingly challenges the widely-held notion that modern TV is a race to the bottom that panders exclusively to the lowest common denominator.

Comparing Dragnet and The Wire, his argument is obvious. An important distinction he notes, and this is relevant for games as well, is the distinction between form and content. The content of older media is almost always going to seem a little hokey and dated. In contrast, modern media's content may be more excessive, explicit and morally grey. The implications of this bear discussing, but at least to me, are far less interesting than the staggering evolution in form that television and games have seen in the past 20-30 years.

Old television especially was characterized by simple, stand-alone storylines that demanded little retention from audiences. Even if you've never seen Three's Company, if you watched the seventh episode of the third season, I imagine it would be more or less intelligible. Now imagine showing someone the seventh episode of the third season of Lost or 24. Additionally, old tv rarely had any depth and offered little value on repeat viewings. My wife is watching Carnivàle again with a friend on Friday evenings and even though I've seen the entire series twice, there are still new things I notice passively watching with them for a third time.

Film can rarely offer this kind of depth due to one fundamental limitation - running time. There is only so much that can be done in 90 to 150 minutes. One season of a television drama is probably between 12 and 24 hours, similar to the core playtime of most games.

In terms of creation, there are more similarities between games and TV as well. Film almost always begins half-made, at least. Usually a script has already been written and the final film will not deviate from that significantly. A game may move from pre-production into production with a design document "written," but I can promise you that the vast majority of games will deviate from that document significantly. Similarly, even when the pilot of a TV show is finished, the season's narrative arc will still be flexible. Future episodes will evolve and change as they are written. Future seasons only exist in the show runner's imagination.

I discussed this with Steve Gaynor and Wes Erdelack on Michael Abbott's Gamer's Confab 25 Extravaganza. This is all separate of actually creating games episodically, which has all kinds of complexities and is the subject for another post entirely. But just looking at the form of most games and a complete season of a TV drama, the similarities are significant.

Some games, especially level-based games, have a very similar structure to TV shows like The X-Files or House. There will be a core cast of characters and a general overarching storyline, but there will be many moments that simply exist in the fictional world. And ideally, these moments still manifest the core themes and aesthetics of the show/game.

Steve said that it may be difficult to look at large, free-roaming games like Fallout 3 this way, but I think it's actually a fantastic way to look at games like that. In Fallout 3, there are moments that contribute to the core story, the search for your character's father, but many, many moments in the game are completely independent of that. And honestly, that's often when the game is at its best (much like how The X-Files was at its best with stand-alone episodes like "Humbug", "Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose", "The Post-Modern Prometheus" and "Small Potatoes"). Whether I go to the Dunwich Building or the Oasis in Fallout 3 before or after finding my father doesn't affect that portion of the game's narrative.

There are other games more similar in structure to Lost, Deadwood or 24, where they are heavily serialized and rely heavily on experiencing all the content from beginning to end. In games, this may be due to an intricate plot, but it just as easily could be due to a set of mechanics that grow increasingly sophisticated and complex.

The more we put good games and substantive television shows next to each other, the more similarities we'll see. Maybe we could learn something about pacing and production from them. Maybe they can learn something about engagement, creating invested audiences and experimenting with content from us. Regardless of the exact lessons to be learned, we've got allies in television and it would be great if we reached out to them more (even if that reaching out is just looking each other's projects with the same lenses).

And if it means I never have to hear someone ask, "When are games going to have their Citizen Kane?" again, well, that would be great too.

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Blogger Jordan Magnuson said...

Comparing games to television seems like a useful enough exercise, but to say that games are SO much more like television than they are like film is a bit disconcerting to me.

I think we can benefit from comparing and contrasting games to every medium out there, from film to television to photography, but to disdain one comparison and to hold up another as highly valuable hardly seems like a useful thing to do... by hallowing the television comparison you leave space for others to do the same with film, or any other medium... and all such comparisons are necessarily imperfect.

Also, on a side note, the fact that TV Shows are not written from start to finish is in my opinion a major contributing factor to the often "sucky" results... especially as shows drag on and on, with no closure planned beyond, "sorry, no more show, because nobody likes it any more."

Just my two thoughts. Thanks for your insight as usual: I DID agree with you on a lot (and I DO think that contemporary TV is substantially better than in the past).

September 13, 2009 at 7:35 PM  
Blogger David Carlton said...

I was really impressed by that book, and probably the bit on TV shows was the most eye-opening to me. I've never been much of a TV watcher and had my own share of snobbishness against the medium; I'd heard enough chatter about various recent TV shows that I was starting to get curious, but even so seeing his quantitative analysis of the increase in plot complexity was really something.

September 13, 2009 at 7:52 PM  
Blogger JPLC said...

I like this. The similarities are numerous, as you have pointed out. But I agree most with Jordan in the sense that we should be comparing games to everything, not just one thing or the other. Yes, some comparisons are more apt than others (as your post points out successfully), but we should never neglect other comparisons.

To comment on something Jordan specifically said, however:
"Also, on a side note, the fact that TV Shows are not written from start to finish is in my opinion a major contributing factor to the often "sucky" results... especially as shows drag on and on, with no closure planned beyond, "sorry, no more show, because nobody likes it any more.""

That is why I find mini-serieses (sp?) to be much better television. For example, a good number of animes (Examples: Cowboy Bebop, Neon Genesis Evangelion, The Vision of Escaflowne, Paranoia Agent) are capped at 26 episodes on purpose (Paranoia Agent being the odd one out at 13 episodes). This basically eliminates the time constraints found in movies, and it also eliminates the needless filler found in regular non-specific-end-point shows.

On a somewhat related note, this is the reason I don't watch much new television. I prefer my works of fiction to have decided-upon endings (at least in terms of a beginning, middle, and end; not in terms of an "open" ending). The only show that is exempt from this rule, however, is House M.D. I love that show.

September 13, 2009 at 9:29 PM  
Blogger Jordan Magnuson said...

JPLC: I was also going to bring up anime. The "miniseries" format does seem to have a lot of the benefits of both film and television, without the downfall of most open-ended tv shows, and a lot of anime series seem to hit this right on the head. Why we don't do this more often in the States is beyond me. Wait, it has something to do with money? What?

September 13, 2009 at 10:38 PM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@Jordan Certainly so. The problem is that games are, for weal or woe, compared to film more than anything else. If I had by way, we'd look at games the way we look at buildings, but I don't think I'm going to get much momentum behind that one ;)

So if we have to compare games to another medium that most of the audience is familiar with, it ought to be TV more and film less. I'm not saying TV should be the exclusive counterpoint, just that I wish we'd think about them in contrast more than we do.

@David I had that same snobbishness for quite so time, largely due to a) most TV still is crap and b) the monetization of TV (ads) is intolerable. But now that most good shows are on DVD and I've got a PVR, both of those problems are more or less addressed.

@JPLC There are definitely strengths to shows that have a complete narrative arc. That being said, some excellent shows have taken a little while to gel. As good as the first "gig" of Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex was, I think I prefer the second.

There's space for all of them, of course. And again, a few little bits are good, most of it's crap. But do check out Everything Bad is Good For You, because Johnson is pretty convincing in saying even the crap is still much better crap.

September 14, 2009 at 9:08 AM  
Blogger JPLC said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

September 14, 2009 at 9:38 AM  
Blogger JPLC said...

(Sorry, I accidentally published my comment before I was done, hence the deleted post above. Here's what it was supposed to be.)

@Nels: I think Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex still leans toward the realm of mini-series, though (despite it being 2 seasons long), at least in comparison with a good number of other shows that have episodes in the hundreds (Lost, Naruto, Dragon Ball Z), but this may be considered nit-picking.

But I totally understand your point. For example, House M.D. would not be as great as it is now if it didn't have ample time to grow via the seasons.

September 14, 2009 at 9:56 AM  
Blogger Julian said...

I completely agree that TV series are a closer comparison to the way we interact with games than movies are. Most games, we experience episodically even when they are not explicitly segmented that way. Not to mention the sheer amount of time we spend with a game lines up much better with a season of a TV series (12-26 hours). This has strong implications for the optimal way to design the characters and plot in a game.

I think the miniseries distinction is slightly misplaced. 26 episodes is a full season and it airs like any normal TV show. Typically I think of miniserieses as being less than a full season, with special timeslotting for their nonstandard length and structure. I think the UK term "serial" more aptly captures what we're talking about here. A defined story of a defined length that is released in snippets. For instance, nobody would call Lost a miniseries, but I think it works as a serial, since it already has a specified end point. It's more about an approach that prizes continuity and planning, as well as the embrace of closure. The people making these series are creating a defined story arc, instead of milking a franchise until it stops being profitable.

September 14, 2009 at 1:37 PM  
Blogger JPLC said...

@Julian: I agree with the basis of what you're saying, I suppose, but I think Lost is a bad example. As far as I know, it was only relatively recently that it was decided that the series would end. I think Lost can be accused of "milking". =P

September 14, 2009 at 9:52 PM  
Blogger Julian said...

Fair enough. My take on Lost is a little different because I'm late to the party. I've been shotgunning the first 5 seasons so I can watch the final season live. At least at this accelerated pace, it seems like every episode brings something new to the table and it feels like there's very little filler. It's had a declared end point for the entire period of my engagement with it, so I tend to forget it wasn't always like that.

Lost is a bit of a tease, sure, but it seems qualitatively different from a series like DBZ or Naruto. There's something about the cycle of introducing new enemies and powering up the heroes that bugs me. A recurring pattern of bigger-better-more badass. Lost does escalate, but it avoids the repetitious trap that DBZ and Naruto fall into. Lost progresses, where the other examples feel content to reuse the same situations with different enemies over and over.

September 15, 2009 at 2:01 PM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@Julian, JPLC I've been enamoured with Lost since the first episode, but I do remember things dragging a bit in season 3. By all accounts it was because ABC wouldn't commit to a certain number of seasons and the show's writers didn't know if they'd have 20 or 50 episodes left to complete the arc they intended.

Once that commitment was finalized, for six seasons total, things tightened up a lot.

What's most interesting to me about Lost is that it really embraces the fact that people enjoy questions more than answers. Sure, it may go a little overboard in that capacity sometimes, but I think the truth (and this applies to games a lot as well) that sometimes just having the question is enough. We bend over backwards with unnecessary explanation at times and end up boring the player, especially when they'd be happier with just the question anyway.

September 15, 2009 at 9:49 PM  
Blogger Julian said...

I did feel like things dragged a bit toward the beginning of season 3, but I chalked that up to the way they split up the characters. I don't actually LIKE Jack or Kate that much, and Ben wasn't particularly interesting at that point. I love the key supporting characters, though, and one of the things Lost does really well is bounce its characters off one another in interesting waysI feel like limiting their options for the permutations of character interactions was a poor decision. You could probably attribute at least some the choice to let half the cast flounder to a nebulous series length, though. Everything happens for a reason.

I totally agree that sometimes the question is enough. The key here is that you need to feel like the answer exists, even if you never really get it. That's the difference between Silent Hill and Braid, in my opinion. You can make it feel more fleshed out, like the world exists and functions independent of your understanding, by calling back old events in a new light, possibly even revising it multiple times. You can also put unintelligible clues early on. Lost does this exceptionally well. The evolving explanations for the bears, name drops hidden in the background, people doing innocuous stuff that's later revealed to be something significant. It's not retconned because those details were there in the first place.

September 16, 2009 at 1:36 PM  
Blogger Jordan Magnuson said...

So sorry to ask Julian, but between Silent Hill and Braid, which one makes the answers feel like they exist? I'm kind of assuming Braid's the one that leaves you hanging here, but since I haven't played Silent Hill I can't be sure.

September 16, 2009 at 4:34 PM  
Blogger Julian said...

That's correct, but I will freely admit I haven't found all the additional little stuff in Braid. There's an element of Blow's smarmy attitude towards people trying to work through it that makes me feel like he's simply jerking us around, so I'm probably reacting a little more strongly to my perception of pretentiousness there than I would if I had experienced the game in a vacuum.

Sorry, I could have been more clear in my last post. I had a couple lines of explanation I deleted that I guess I should have left in. >_<

September 17, 2009 at 3:22 PM  

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