About a week ago, Edge published some comments from you on their site which troubled me greatly. Phrases such as “My goal is to surprise people, to give them something they want without knowing they want it” and especially “I am not interested in giving them ‘fun’” set off alarm bells for me. It is perhaps not entirely fair to single you out, as I strongly suspect many others within the industry share your sentiments; but as you’re the only one to have so frankly stated your intent, this open letter is very much for you. I think it would benefit everyone involved if you stopped listening to your ambition, and started listening to your audience; if only for a few moments. First of all, let’s remind ourselves of exactly what it was you said. Taken verbatim from the Edge website:
“My goal is to surprise people, to give them something they want without knowing they want it,” he tells us. “I want to create an emotional journey, a unique experience.
“I am not interested in giving them ‘fun’, I want to give them meaning; I don’t want to challenge their thumbs, I want to challenge their minds.”
and then, after Edge notes how you plan to use the engine unveiled via your Kara demo to help enhance the depiction of character emotions:
“Maybe this is irrelevant or just overly ambitious,” he says. “Maybe this is not what most people out there actually want. But this is the goal I set myself with Beyond: to create something different.”
It probably already looks like I’m trolling. I’m not. I’m not denying your immense talent, and I applaud your determination to inject intelligence into games; to believe that they’re capable of handling more than cheap thrills. I genuinely wish that more people had your faith in videogames as a medium. The industry has already proven in the past, continues to prove now, and will continue to prove in the future that a game done well can tell a great story in a fantastic fashion. I’m behind that idea 100%.
I always want developers to be “interested” in providing me with fun, however.
Though some are starting to question whether the suffix ‘games’ is still relevant when talking about video/computer games, I strongly believe that yes, it is – and always will be. That one syllable immediately highlights our industry’s greatest strength – interactivity. If you’re actively participating in something and you’re not enjoying it then, quite frankly, you don’t want to be doing it. Drawing parallels with (for example) one’s job is not appropriate. Most people don’t enjoy their jobs, but go through with them every week in order to support themselves and/or their families. If somebody’s playing a game they’re not enjoying, what incentive do they have to carry on playing?
Just take a look at the names of consoles past and present. The GameCube, PlayStation, Nintendo Entertainment System… the name of the very machine celebrates the idea of enjoyment and playfulness. Then you have Xbox… um, Wii, Saturn… hmm… okay, let’s move on.
Now, when you say that you “want to give them [the audience] meaning” and you want to “create something different”; again, sentiments I’m more than happy to support. I can’t help but fear however, going by Quantic Dream’s last two games (I haven’t played Nomad Soul, but hope to one day), that you and your studio are not yet ready to do what you want. Not effectively, not as well as you have the potential to. A good example would be the sex scenes included in Fahrenheit and Heavy Rain. Representing sexual intercourse as a minigame is not ‘brave’ or ‘artistic’; it is ‘ridiculous’ and ‘cringeworthy’. Now, I played and thoroughly enjoyed both titles (they were “fun”, at times at least), but they’re not without their problems. Especially Heavy Rain.
Trying to identify a serial killer and working against the clock to save a young boy’s life are great ideas to put into a videogame. Brushing your teeth and having a poo are not. Is this a lesson you learned before you started writing Beyond: Two Souls? I hope so. What, exactly, were you hoping to achieve with the most mundane elements of the game? ‘Grittiness’? Realism? If it’s realism you’re after, why not have the sex scene – preceded by a condom opening & wearing QTE – last more than a minute or two (insert your own joke here) then have the player go to the toilet and step into the shower? Is that any more or less ridiculous than some of what actually went into Heavy Rain? I really can’t decide.
Whether it’s true or not I don’t pretend to know, but you come across (to me at least) as a man who would rather be making movies than videogames. The illusion of choice in Fahrenheit and Heavy Rain didn’t stop me enjoying those games, but that’s all it was – an illusion. Replaying a certain section of Heavy Rain, I wanted to see how the story would progress if I allowed Madison to die. At the mercy of a murderous madman, I refused to touch the controller so that she could die; but the number and rapidity of chances for escape quickly became unintentionally comical, and drew me out of the experience. Her death at this point was clearly an “alternate/deleted scene” in the plot that you’d rather not have happen, and I had to force your hand to finally have it come to pass. That, at least, is how it immediately felt to me.
On that note, I have an unpleasant but important truth to impart: if you were making movies instead of games, you wouldn’t enjoy anything like the level of respect you have from the specialist press. In all likelihood, your hypothetical Heavy Rain movie would be instantly dismissed as an overhyped, deeply flawed B-movie. The script is full of so many holes it’s a miracle the whole thing holds together, and some of those holes are big enough to throw a Jean Claude Van Damme movie through. It’s impossible to connect with the characters and story in any meaningful way; because you’ve chased down realism with such single-minded determination, you’ve made the whole thing desperately unrealistic.
It’s not just the numerous and gargantuan plot holes. The whole thing is just too damn po-faced. Life isn’t like that. Non-psychopathic human beings aren’t like that. Humour is an essential part of both life and powerful storytelling. For example, To The Moon is almost certainly the most emotionally powerful videogame I’ve played in about 25 years of gaming. It conveys a wide array of emotions with incredible precision, and this would be impossible without the humour which is sprinkled throughout the experience. Light humour, dark humour, humour at inappropriate moments… it’s all there, and all devastatingly human.
I’m not saying that you should reduce your stories to Benny Hillathons. Humour is indispensable to the emotionally meaningful and memorable story, even if it’s only present in small doses now and again. Staying with movies a moment longer, let’s consider Inception – which incidentally features the star of Beyond, Ellen Page. Inception is a fun (yes, that word again) movie. It masterfully combines epic action scenes, intelligent themes, and strong characters. Realistic characters in fact, despite the utterly fantastical nature of the plot. In fact, one of the moments to have stayed with me was brief and quiet; gently humorous and human. Nothing more than a stolen, opportunistic kiss on a bench. A calm and human moment that helped ground two characters in reality, and strengthened the plot simply because it had absolutely no effect on it.
You could, with broad strokes, draw parallels when holding the movie Inception up to the videogame Psychonauts. Both have a thread of real-life psychology running through them; both have a significant emphasis on action; both realise the importance of humour (though obviously Psychonauts pushes its wit right into the foreground); and both feature characters in fantastical settings which are more grounded in reality than anybody in Heavy Rain or Fahrenheit.
If you want to ignore both movies and other games when considering effective and emotionally powerful writing that utilises humour, how about novelists, satirists and playwrights? Shakespeare, Miller, Heller, Orwell, Salinger, Swift, Huxley, Dickens, and countless more all realised the importance of humour – no matter how dark or serious the subject matter.
It’s hard to improve your work and yourself when nobody is showing you where it’s needed. In this respect, gaming critics can sometimes do more harm than good. When Heavy Rain met with generally positive reviews, for example, almost nobody was quick to see and discuss the aforementioned plot holes. I’m guilty of this myself, as when I reviewed the game I stumbled past those problems (though I stand by my score and general positivity). Why is this? I think it’s because writing in games is generally bloody terrible, and high standards to hold the next game up to in this respect are few and far between. The fact that many high-profile reviewers also seem desperate to justify themselves and their jobs by screaming ‘art’ at anybody who’ll listen doesn’t help. When something with lofty aspirations appears – like Heavy Rain – such people will automatically be prepared to forgive it much.
Similarly, the bafflingly high scores awarded to the dire L.A. Noire can (I personally suspect) be largely attributed to the dazzling presence of Hollywood actors and brand new facial animation technology. Look – people from the talkies! It must be good! It must be art! If it had been the sixth game in as many months to feature that tech and similarly famous and experienced actors, perhaps the gaming press would have paid more attention to the deeply flawed interrogation system. And the shoddily constructed plot. And largely empty gameplay.
Learn the lesson that would have gone a long way to improving L.A. Noire. Perfect the writing, and then – only then – start to think about improving the technology. A new game engine might do an excellent job of allowing players to see your characters emote, but it will do absolutely nothing to help them feel it.
If you want us to connect with your stories and the characters within them, give us a little humour. When you give us something to do, make sure that we want to do it. If you give us a choice, make sure that the method for choice A is just as quick and painless as the method for choice B. Allow us to have some fun.
c/o Critical Gamer