Grumpy Gurevitz: We Play Games

These are the theatres in which I perform.

I call myself a gamer. You probably do too. Indeed, we have taken that term – which has traditionally meant ‘nerd’ – and turned it into something which is more self assertive, something we can be proud of; as we are proud of our community and our common interests. Yet, does the word ‘game’ best reflect spending an hour with Modern Warfare, or Uncharted?

There is clearly a problem with the word game, which affects not only how we look at our own past-time but also how those outside our medium view and value it. What is a game? It’s something one plays. It’s not even a sport, simply an activity that involves play. In much the same way that children or young monkeys play, so we also play. Most likely, society tends to perceive playing as an infantile activity. To be fair, ask any actor what they are doing on stage and they will say they are ‘playing’ a certain character. Indeed it’s by playing out a part and narrative that we can experience certain emotions and situations, in an environment which is not real, allowing us to analyse and confront feelings and decisions which we either might never experience in reality or never have the time to properly consider.

However, actors on a stage or set are not playing a game, they are playing a character. It’s clear that videogames are slowly but surely allowing us to do the same. Rather than playing a game, where you either win or lose, we are instead playing a character, exploring that role’s twists and turns whilst exposing a narrative thread. Clearly some games take more care over their character and narrative development than others. However, if we step back and look at the industry’s output in general, most games are at least attempting to achieve this. Games such as Modern Warfare and Red Faction have characters which we play, with strong narratives. Some commentators might raise the issue that only some of these games offer plot choices, as if this somehow makes the act of playing a character more sincere; but this is a red herring, as an actor on a stage does not have narrative choices, they only have choices regarding how they will react to the role they are playing out.

In Modern Warfare 2 there was a huge amount of debate surrounding the Russian airport scene. The scene played out exactly the same way, whatever the player decided to do. You were an undercover agent, embedded with Russian terrorists about to carry out an atrocity. You were not compelled to act like the terrorists, but the narrative would not let you change the story and attack the bad guys. That’s fine – that’s what happens with films. Rarely does an actor on set suddenly improvise and act in a way totally counter to that stipulated in the script. However, if the character and story is compelling, then as we play out that Russian airport scene we should be experiencing a range of emotions and thoughts, which until that moment we had never experienced in our relatively safe and regular daily lives. The first person perspective has the ability to really amplify parts of what is happening around us, as our experience is so focused on what is literally ahead of us, as seen through our virtual eyes.

Some games are trying to go out of their way to highlight the fact that they offer us ‘gamers’ the ability to play a character. Unfortunately, they seem obsessed with taking elements from film and fusing them with games. Heavy Rain demonstrates this style of fusion between the traditional art of acting (as so much of the character movement is motion captured from real actors) and interactive directing by the player. At times the real actor gives way and passes control onto us, where we are given an opportunity to become the actor from the comfort of our sofa. At other times, we step back and once again become the director, making decisions that affect the story and timeline.

Moody, linear, strong narrative and some rehashed game mechanics to highlight it's differences.

L.A. Noire, in contrast, offers a pretty linear experience, but with traditional game elements (such as shoot-outs and driving) embedded into the experience to punctuate and involve the user in the characters they are following. Additionally, the entire questioning experience is a simple way to have the player react to the computer character performances in a question and response mechanism. It’s basic, but it does involve a degree of improvisation, which can slightly alter how the exposition of the main story plays out. In reality though, the questioning ‘mini-game’ (which I feel is poorly executed – better to just have a Bioware dialogue wheel) is clumsy, and is just a version of  ‘rock, paper, scissors’ utilised as a way of choosing which story thread to activate.

Of course, not all games have meaningful characters, with deep back-stories and strong story lines. Surely, you ask, the multiplayer part of an FPS title is simply a game and am I really arguing that Angry Birds involves exploring character and emotion? Maybe I am. Perhaps the multiplayer element is the drama equivalent of a large-scale improvisation session, and Angry Birds is purely an interactive edition of Bugs Bunny. When I play a multiplayer shooter, the game develops its own narrative as the rounds develop. Those of us with voice chat, when it’s not just junk speech, are creating our own lines, reacting to the chaos around us. Surely, if ‘The Only Way is Essex’ can win a BAFTA and is considered a form of drama, so too can the maps of Battlefield: Bad Company?

Often we attack our own favourite media, complaining that the reason stories linked to games are not as compelling as TV, film or literature is due to the story being secondary to the experience or the writers not being as talented. I think we do videogames a disservice here, as many TV shows, films and books also have generic storylines which are pastiche works. For every classic production there are hundreds of forgettable titles. Additionally there are plenty of films where the story is secondary to the special effects or initial premise, which then fails to develop – Pirates of the Caribbean anyone?

Games are finding their own voice and are moving forward narrative concepts. For sure, they explore action related narratives best, and perhaps in that specific genre are starting to do it better than films. Games such as Modern Warfare handle the Jerry Bruckheimer production better than film. EA’s The Sims has demonstrated that videogames can handle the domestic, non-eventful stories in life, which TV has traditionally handled through soaps. The Sims can be criticised for providing an amplified, exaggerated version of domesticated life – but the same can said of TV based soaps.

As motion and animation capture improves, so does the ability to deliver meaningful stories and experiences

Motion capture technology is fast improving, and consoles and PCs are increasing in power to increasingly portray the real world (and worlds which can’t be created on a set, such as the worlds of Avatar) with greater realism. Console systems are offering an ever-evolving way of interacting with the story, from using a traditional controller to body and voice control via technologies such as Kinect. Hence, it is clear that just as being a musician has been democratised, allowing many non-specialist participants to express themselves, so too acting will become an activity which we can all partake in. It needn’t be something we only watch, but something we do. Those of us who are called Gamers, are the early pioneers of this new way of experiencing a story.

As mentioned at the top of this article, another word for actor is player. So perhaps from now on, us Gamers should think a little more of ourselves, and instead of feeling the need to justify our playtime, confidently pronounce to those on the periphery why our stories and dramas are all the more real and meaningful than theirs as we get to play through them.

It's all an act!

 

 

 

 

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Written by Steven G

Steven Gurevitz is the CEO of 2002 Studios Media LTD and a founder of gaming accessory company Asiiya. 2002 Studios started off as a music production company, but produces a range of content from videos to videogames. The company specialises in localizing content for global brands. He also owns the Urban Sound Label, a small niche e-label. He is a freelance music tech writer, having co-written the Music Technology Workbook and is a regular contributor and co-owner CriticalGamer.co.uk. He enjoys FPS, Third person 'free world', narrative driven and portable gaming. He is a freelance music tech writer, having co-written the Music Technology Workbook and is a regular contributor to CriticalGamer.co.uk.

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