Why are we still awaiting the industry’s ‘Citizen Kane’?

May 28, 2010, Author: Sarbjit Bakhshi

I’m one of those rare beasts who likes to play a game for its story. It’s not that common amongst most gamers, I’ll give you that. I love Art House cinema, which reduces my averageness even further. Depardieu films from the 80’s? Love them. Spanish films from the 90’s? Love them more. Films where nothing seems to happen for three hours? Even I don’t know why I love them so much. For me, Kieslowski is a God. If you were to draw a Venn diagram between Art House film lovers and computer gamers, the crossover would be minimal and where I sit, in lonely fashion. Still, it’s all about the story.

For a long time there has been a debate in the computer game world about the games industry’s Citizen Kane moment, and also whether it is even possible for a game to tell a story. I think we are getting closer and although not in the current glut of games that are topping the charts. Games are too wide a constituency to tackle as a whole, so I’ll restrict this article to third person and first person type games and the biggest obstacles within them.

Cinema is not an old media. It’s an important point to make as people forget that something that is so established in our culture hasn’t been around in the sense that we know for more than 105 years.

Around 1918 an experiment was done in the Soviet Union, coming out of the Futuristic movement which was heavily into using montage in print. The Lev Kuleshov experiment involved three identical pictures of the face of a famous Russian actor. Next to each picture was one of three images: a shot of a bowl of soup, then with a child playing with a teddy bear, then with a shot an elderly woman in a casket. People were asked to guess what the expression meant against each of the photos.(Pudovkin, “Naturshchik vmesto aktera”, in Sobranie sochinenii, volume I, Moscow: 1974, p.184.) It seems obvious now to say that the image that followed the first picture influenced their view of the second. However, we should remember that there is no link between the first and second pictures beyond their juxtaposition.

So what does this tell us in relation to computer games? Well, that in order for us to make emotional sense of a game, we need to see the reaction of other characters to allow the camera to show us a juxtaposition of another image.

We all know camera control is vital in first and third person games, or at least we know that when it is done badly; it ruins the game. The freedom of having that second stick control the camera means that we can miss a reaction in the game environment and cut-scenes stop the game in its tracks. It seems that interaction with the character or environment ironically stops the emotional bond from developing. Our desire for control stops us seeing what we need to, or what the Director wants us to see, or else it is too forced in an environment that otherwise affords us complete liberty.

Modes of interaction
In first person games, we can interact with the game world. The most common type of interaction is to kill and destroy; to wield a weapon in some way. Imagine a film in which the main character could only interact with violence and the film stayed on that character alone. Nightmare on Elm Street didn’t follow the main character, but the subsidiary characters, and through their deaths and interactions we emotionally connected with the story and against the protagonist. The lack of following up with the victims following our actions or even those that benefit from them is a definite barrier. The shifting viewpoints given to us by control of different characters, like in The Longest Journey, may offer a way forward on this.

It is possible to interact in more subtle ways with the game environment though. The way the main character deals with personal damage (either topping up health, or running near to the bottom of the health meter), looks after other characters (a la Bioshock), how long the character spends in game environments or interacts (binary choice mainly) with game objects, can all be used as a proxy for determining game involvement and levels of emotionally connectedness with the game or its motifs. It represents a lot of work for the game designer, but the emotional pay-off for the player is huge.

Is that a dagger I see before me? No, it’s just a mirror.

Silent Hill 2 deals superbly with these elements and as such will amend the ending according to these criteria. The mechanism is presented a lot less starkly in the game than I have described. As a result, it’s a game where you feel your actions are directed not only by your quest to stay alive (although even that is moot) but also your emotional reaction to the game. In other words, what you do in the game really matters. It is also noticeable that the game makes you pause for reflection when your character stops and cries. You can’t move them on, you have to emotionally deal with what you have done and take stock. It’s moment somewhere between a cut-scene and complete control; it’s an emotional full stop that makes the game seem deeper than its contemporaries. This puts the game in a different league to others and is the strongest contender for a ‘Citizen Kane’ moment.

Silent Hill 3 was panned by some reviewers for continuing this process and giving you even less control over the main character. However, this was a mechanism for you to learn about the character on her own terms. Why is she not scared of monsters? Why does she act so coldly? All these questions are answered, but in the flow of narrative. For me at least, they created a compelling story and a connection to the narrative. It was a bold move for Konami, and one that most seemed to miss.

Comments on forums made snide remarks about how the teenage girl protagonist would refuse to do certain actions demanded of her by the player. ‘How dare she!’ they remarked. For them, the game was clearly ‘broken’. Edge Magazine rounded on the game too, and gave the game a six and through this I realised I am in a minority for liking storyline uber alles. For some, the mechanic of the game is more important than anything else. In fact, I am often shocked at the banality of storyline in very popular games like Devil May Cry, or the confused tripe of the Metal Gear series. I have great respect for Hideo Kojima’s aspirations for games, and his talk at GDC 2009 on ‘Making the Impossible Possible’ was superb, but by the end of ‘Metal Gear Solid 2 Sons of Liberty’ I had no idea who was good or bad, whether I was good or bad, or what the consequences of my actions were. The only thing I did know, was that I really didn’t care about any of the characters and that the game’s plot and voice acting assumes you are going to hide in a cardboard box.

Moving forward
In order to further develop game’s emotional pull, in my opinion, there needs to be a greater willingness of the game designers to ‘seize the camera’. This means taking the meaningful actions of the player, reflecting them in the world and people around them and forcing the player look at it. There should be better emotional pacing in games, that means stopping the ability to do everything in all contexts. Sometimes, the player should be given the opportunity to reflect in the game world after a major event (Prince of Persia, Sands of Time please come back; we miss you!). Finally, a kiss is not just a kiss, make all actions meaningful for the game world. Allow multiple endings using proxies for emotion in the gameplay and player interaction.

I am hopeful that there are those out there who are spending the extra time and effort to create a game for all us Art House lovers rather than the mass market. However, once that mainstream emotional barrier is broken, we will be able to come out of the shadows and present the genre as mainstream art.