Walker Art Center


February 24, 2003

Is this too much?

[Working on a new essay, but know I have to finish another one, too. Starting out on a theme that is perhaps allready familiar to some of you: linearity and interactivity. But I'm moving towards the question of suspense this time. Maybe this is too much.]

For some time now, people are doing research into the possibilities of interactive media on computers. On Darwinist grounds, we may conclude that games using a simulated 3D-space as an interface for experiencing adventures, are the best thing interactive media has to offer. However, when comparing the evolution of the computer as a new medium with the evolution of the movie as a new medium, one similarity stands out: the tendency to lean on an older medium during the first phase of its development. In much the same way movies used theatre as a beacon, games use movies. The Wachauwski brothers announced a Matrix based game. It is supposed to be very good because they wrote a script for it, 244 pages long. My conclusion is that this game is no different from many other box office games. You start at point A, you work your way through B, C, D, and E, and maybe you can go all the way towards X, Y, Z. In other words: you are reliving a movie.

The movie started standing on its own two feet when the montage was discovered as a way to shape movie-language. At first actors did not understand what was going on when men like Hitchcock wanted them to do something out of the blue, without the setting of a theatre, without understanding what was supposed to come next. And then he showed the results: a policeman walking, a stray cat in hiding, the shadow of a man. Montage. The first steps. Years later, a famous opening shot of several minutes: a man puts a bomb in a car, people leave a house, get into the car and drive. Or one hooker refuses to go with a man that shows her what is inside a little box he has on him, the other one does, but we never see what is in the box. Montage is not only an art of combining different shots, it is the art of presenting information in a way that truly makes sense: it creates sense, a meaning, in the head of the audience.

Watching a movie takes time. Aristotle concluded that a play has a beginning, a middle and an end, with a peak somewhere near the end. Telling a story takes time. The movie ‘Legends of the fall’ is built like a series of short shots – stills almost - alternated by short stories of the lives and deeds of a family. You learn everything there is to know about these people, or – better said – you learn everything you need to know about these people. No movie without montage. The peak of that movie is not a short story, but a series of short shots, stills almost. During this peak, nothing needs to be said. It unfolds in front of your eyes, and several people die, most of whom you want to see dead, because the movie makes you feel they deserve it, but one, no, not that one, not her. That is the power of montage. Taking the sequence out to turn it into a dance video does not amount to the same effect. Time is an important factor here to create a story that works its way into your brain. Dance videos have a different language.

What could possibly be the montage like discovery of interactive media? Right now games consist of 3D spaces, objects, and characters. Characters and objects are tiny programs that live in those worlds, and these programs respond to messages. If one gives them a message and they understand the message then they know how to respond. You can shoot at creatures in Quake, you can hear the latest gossip from creatures in Morrowind and in both games one can open doors. In other words: sending the messages ‘shoot-at-you’, ‘tell-me-gossip’ and ‘open’ have varying results in the above mentioned games.

Let us for a moment ignore interactive media using simulated 3D spaces as interface. Let us try to reinvent the movie in an interactive medium. And we want it to be perfect, we want the player/viewer to be able to experience it all, make his own decisions and create his or her own story. You know, the whole deal. Shall we add supense to it? Shall we do montage? Well, to be honest: you could try, but it won’t work. The viewer/player can do everything right? And montage/suspense is built on the tyrannical power of the holy trinity called scriptwriter, director and movie editor. Suspense is based on the feeling we had when watching a puppeteer when we were kids: something is coming and we try to warn the friendly puppet, but there is nothing we can do.

Okay, what’s next? The industry is moving towards greater realism and better rules. You need to feel that you are truly driving that car and it reacts exactly the way a real car would. You are a magical dragon and you can fly. If you kill a policeman, the other policemen will chase you, and after that the FBI, and then comes the Army, and when they show up you can steal a tank. If you try hard, you can become a god with many followers who sacrifice little babies at your altar. This is all very nice. But it does not tell us anything about the reason why some games are more successful than others.

Computer games, movies, literature, theatre and kids games have at least one thing in common: participating in them (reading/watching/playing) is the suspension of disbelieve. Let us for a moment ignore that I am this ugly nerd and you are but a bunch of silicon. Right now, I am a mighty warrior and you are a world of adventure. Montage and suspense are tricks to help people go into that state, that state where they can forget that it is not real. So, how does this work for games?

I’m not sure right now. But it could very well be that realism is the way to go. Better rules, better possibilities. But does suspension of disbelieve come from a vast world where everything is almost real? We would end up with a world as chaotic as our everyday live. Do we need that? No! Psychologists teach us that art is a flight from reality, not one towards it.

What if we try montage and we let the player/viewer do the montage?

... to be continued ... (don't know when)

Posted by Jeroen Goulooze at February 24, 2003 05:17 PM

hi jeroen,

nice. i like the semiotic leap illustrated by the montage
in film, something that really seperates it into its own medium.

i'll try suggesting that what might take the games to the next level is somehow developing characters that you have an emotional connection, or a history , or context to...

this is probably why there is much potential to developing games from movies ... because once a story
has been developed ... you can attach yourself more deeply to the characters.

you will ultimately be more connected to the action , if say, you are fighting the corrupt cop , to protect the little girl next door , whom you've already befriended through ... implant memories here ... and they are looking for her because she saw the
crime that should not have been seen ... i think suspense is added there as well thru context.

well, i'm just taking a stab at it... but it's fun to think about it.

hmmm , how do you add this story w/o the movie ...
would a quik intro trailer - short story - do the trick?

a game seems like a good continuation of another story
medium... perhaps the continuation of a comic book form.

yep, that'd be fun ... the evolution of the comic book story released in a series might give you access to deeper places to take the game... but you don't have to buy a new game ... it just becomes expanded by the knowledge from the new literature / storyboards.


Posted by: teapod on February 25, 2003 02:16 AM
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