Perhaps it’s the fact that the last couple of games that I’ve reviewed have been about beating the ever living snot out of folks, but I’ve been put into a fighting mood. Well since I’ve got this forum here from my home base at the Metro City, I’m going to turn this mood into a big rambling speech about an issue that’s been in games for a while, the fact that games are so often trying to be movies.
So in case you’re not from here, and by here I mean Earth, a couple of great mediums emerged out of humanity’s technological innovation last century. We had film, television, and of course the main purview of this blog, video games. Oh and since you’re not from our planet, please don’t kill us gentle aliens from beyond the fold, we know so very little of your ways, and mean you no harm. Probably.
Now the main thing all three of these mediums have in common is that they’re all great ways of conveying information. But since our cultural roots love to tend toward the dramatic and humorous, our preferred form of information consumption comes in the form of story. Hell, even when we just want basic information, we probably are going to end up getting a story along with it.
Gaming is a bit different from the other mediums though, it allows us far more control and interaction than simply whether or not we’re paying attention to what’s on screen. This interactivity is gaming’s main appeal, the aspect that sets it apart from everything else that has come before.
So then why is it that so often in games, the developers that make them decide to try and make movies instead? Playing through Fight Night Champion’s story mode, it was very apparent that the team involved wasn’t attempting to make the greatest narrative in a boxing game, but trying to make a boxing movie that just so happened to let you play through a few parts of it.
Here’s how it breaks down: During the course of your run through champion mode, you will watch a cinematic for a few minutes, play a few minutes of boxing, then watch many more minutes of cutscenes. Most of the fights are based on the time limits of actual boxing matches, usually 2 or 3 minute rounds, in varying numbers of rounds. The longest match is a 12-round battle against the final boss, Isaac Frost, but this is buffered with a movie before and after the match, and with 3 in between certain specific rounds!
Assuming you don’t get stuck for too long on any particular fight, you’re looking at a total playtime of probably five or six hours. At least half of that time (and probably more) is spent watching these little films, where you are simply watching things unfold and with no interaction. Not only that, but when you do interact it’s a very simple pass/fail system. Either you win the match, or you retry it, it’s just not very interactive.
Sure there are plenty of games that are only just games in the more traditional sense. Tetris and Bejeweled are plotless abstract tests of mental reaction. A team deathmatch in Call of Duty fires up the same school-yard competitiveness of capture the flag or hide ‘n seek. It’s not like every game is attempting to be Dostoevsky. And yes, all games to some degree or another only deliver their content, including story, based on whether or not you can beat them.
I, like many, also enjoy games that try to go beyond simply being a set of rules and objectives. I like narrative structure, interesting characters, and games that really try to explore the depths of the human condition or have cool plots. I prefer my games to have stories strong enough to match the latest movies whenever possible.
Over the years, different game developers have devised as many different ways of conveying story and character as there are colors in the rainbow. Half-Life helped push the idea of never breaking the game apart from the narrative. System Shock tried the idea of back story through collectible logs. The ability to choose what you say to NPCs is steeped in the history of Adventure games, both graphic and text-based. Evolving plotlines that change depending on choice are very common these days in most western RPGs, and often enough in action games, like in both Dead Rising and its sequel.
There definitely was a time when technical limitations prevented many of these measures. When all you really could do was make a game, then make a single screen or scrolling text about the plot and that was all that could be done within your constraints.
This time is where the “game, then cutscene” dynamic started most assuredly. But we’re beyond that now aren’t we? If you can have a relationship between the player character and NPCs develop naturally over moments and conversations during the course of the experience, as in so many modern titles, why still commit to the old dynamic? Isn’t that really missing the point of the medium?
The answer is probably simple: it’s easier. It’s easier to conceptualize and implement on the part of the game maker, and to understand on the part of the player. We’ve had film and television longer, so we’re very used to the simple “watch and absorb” nature of the activity.
Don’t get me wrong either, a good cinematic can be fun once in a while. Heck, even in games where story is delivered through a multitude of in-game sources, there are probably going to be one or more little movies that buffer a loading screen, or serve up a prologue or epilogue. Most of these are actually fun breaks from the action, so why does it bother me so much in Fight Night Champion?
Because FNC easily breaks what I like to call the Kojima Barrier.
For the uninformed, Hideo Kojima is a premier game developing auteur out of Japan, primarily known for his work in the Metal Gear franchise. He’s done plenty of work for Konami Computer Entertainment over the years, and is sort of a mad scientist of gaming. Plenty of unique and interesting ideas have definitely come out of his games, from uniquely breaking the 4th wall in Metal Gear Solid, or the incredibly variable sniper duel in Metal Gear Solid 3, and Boktai’s unique approach of forcing gamers out into actual sunlight.
However, Kojima is also known for very long, incredibly verbose cutscenes. Non-interactive cinematics that stretch on and on, usually followed by a couple more before returning to the game, just for good measure. By the last full installment of the franchise, these would go on so long that he actually included save points between some of them!
Now this has irked plenty of people before me, and at the same time, has garnered plenty of fans who rather like the philosophizing soldiers featured in his games. I’m somewhere in the middle, appreciating the fact that the ideas contained within are definitely interesting, but always wishing he had a more forceful editor. If nothing else, I’d say the average ratio of gameplay to movie in one of these games probably edges on 50/50. This gentle readers, is the aforementioned barrier.
Most games come nowhere near this point, but FNC is either on it or well past it, and this is the problem to me, especially combined with the very limited control the player has over the character. If you approach this ratio in your film-to-game ratio, it just feels like you’re not trying to make a game at all, but you’re a a developer who really wants to make a movie. Just as you wouldn’t go to most auto mechanics to do your taxes, or a fighter pilot to defend you in court, you probably don’t want people who make games to make your movies.
Last year Roger Ebert caused a small firestorm of controversy within the gaming community when he claimed that video games weren’t art, and would never reach the level of art that films had attained. The concept is patently ridiculous from any long term perspective though, even if he might have had a point in the past. It’s an evolving medium and will continue to evolve upon every conceivable path, both in terms of art and mindless commercialism and everything in between.
Many folks in the critical community, and developers themselves, showed something of their true envy of film when this occurred. They were quick to retort and say that Ebert had no idea what he was talking about, or point out examples of “art” games. It went on for a while and even had at least one renowned developer admonish everyone who was participating in the “debate”.
But I think the damage had been done, and true motivations revealed. Developers and fans of video games proved to want the same level recognition that the film industry currently has, not just in terms of sales, but of artistic integrity. Rather than deciding that the medium is simply unique and has its own values they were filled with green-eyed envy.
I think this envy rather than simply a lack of imagination, is what drives a game ridden with as many cinematics as FNC. It hurts the integrity of the game as a result, and comes across as someone trying way too hard to be something it’s not.
So it needs to stop. I’m not going to issue an edict about this, just an impassioned plea: stop being Cyril Figgus, be more like Sterling Archer.
OK wait, maybe not the best example there, but you get my point.
Now there is one area where the cinematic nature of films and the interactive nature of games have I think fairly successfully been blended into a fine paste . . . but this rant goes on too long and that’s something I think we will cover another day. So stay tuned gentle reader, and I promise to be more entertaining (and informative) as we delve into the abyss that is the QTE!
For now though let’s just leave it at this: when making a game developers, just make a game. Don’t get blinded into thinking we want a movie. If we want that, we’ll shell out the thirty bucks for movie tickets on yet another disappointing blind date that was setup by friends who hate us.
Or at least I will.
Man I need better friends.