Ga-Fi

I’m a man of few available hours these days, much to my dismay, as I do crave so, the act of classic blogging. And yeah yeah, I should fix the weird layout issues WordPress 2.8 caused in my footer, but it was either that or an entry, and since my friends have started pointing fingers and calling my blog dead…

Now, games, peeeehew. Do they ever suck.

Three pillars create entertainment in a game: gameplay, fiction and aesthetics. For obvious reason, any game that has good gameplay, can get most often get away with a lot more slack in fiction and aesthetics than a game which is strongest in either or even both of the other two. But people, that doesn’t mean you can just downright ignore them, alright? Now, fair enough, the more common problem is when aesthetics are favored over gameplay and fiction — it’s after all easier to sell a game with screenshots of ‘teh pretties’ than it is to somehow show how fun a games is, or how invested you’ll be in its amazing turning points.

In either case, fiction loses out. And when fiction loses out, games become stupid. And when games become stupid, I get a headache.

Case in point: Portal. Have you played Portal? You should have played Portal. If you haven’t played Portal… What are you even doing here? Go play Portal, we’ll wait.

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Is he gone? Lock the door, we’ll go on without him. Sucker. Aaanyway, I don’t need to remind you, who did play Portal, just how awesome the writing, and writing alone, makes that game. Without the writing, Portal would be little more than a cool tech-demo puzzler. But with great writing…

It’s a turret! Just a turret! You know, the things that usually go BEEP RATATATAT? That’s that! All games have them (all!), and yet only one is as cute as a kitten, and memorable for it.

That’s what good writing alone is capable of.

Bad writing?

“But Michael, that isn’t bad; didn’t you watch Troll 2?”

Listen kid, mediocre is the new bad. In the same way that Dead Space itself is mostly a really well crafted, thoroughly mediocre game, the mise-en-scène, if one can call it that with a straight face, is that of absolute mediocrity. Consider how much better a game Dead Space would have been, if the fiction had simply been given the same care and attention that was paid to something as irrelevant as those beautifully rendered floor panels. A little love and care in the writing and direction… Is that too much to ask? Fair enough, there is only so far you can go with a ‘distress beacon’ plot, but stories are great not because of ‘what’, but because of ‘how’.

It is truly mystifying how an industry which so thrives on transporting people into the fantastic, spends so little on the oldest traditions in the portfolio of the fantastic.

That other major entertainment juggernaut, Hollywood, knows that good fiction is the key, even if they’re afraid of anything that isn’t an existing property. That’s why they’re so busy falling over each other to buy up comics, a huge, previously untabbed source of great fiction, ready for the taking. In his heart of hearts, even Michael Bay knows that explosions, bimbos and big robots alone, are too shallow to keep people coming around for a sequel; and whether or not it’s your cup of tea, and while it may not be Dostoyevsky, I assure you, Bay screenplays don’t happen overnight, and they aren’t written by ‘Phil from accounting’.

It’s high time games started taking this aspect of themselves seriously. It’s staggering that it hasn’t happened yet, considering how infatuated the entertainment industry as a whole, and the games industry in particular is with franchises. Consider that before one frame of celluloid was exposed, Lucas spent well over 3 years writing, just writing, Star Wars. That’s after years of thinking about it… Star Trek was—according to Wikipedia, cuz I ain’t no damn Trekkie—in pre-production for up to six years! Lord of the Rings? Psh. Forget about it.

And every one of those franchises exist today, first and foremost, because of writing. After that, any of the many steps from there on out can easily make a wreck of the entire project, but no amount of subtle direction or jaw-dropping special effects will miraculously polish a turd of a script.

You’ll be lucky if you can find me a game that has had a combined pre-production period of more than one year.

With all of this in mind, is it so odd odd that until recently I kept confusing inFamous and [Prototype]? It’s not that I think either development team consists of bad people, or even untalented ones. They probably have the best of intentions, like everyone else. And I’ve heard good about both games from colleagues. But in my eyes, on a fundamental level, these games have no vision. So they fall back on clichés and platitudes, the likes of which seem so familiar because they are composites of other cliches and platitudes, to the point where, if this is defining for the games industry, we should just cut our loses and not bother with fiction at all.

It doesn’t all have to be hulking power armors, head-butting, ass-slapping, badittude slow-mo walkcycles and omnipotence, does it?Some, dignity, would be nice, you know?

I leave you with this, not because I’m done, but because I’m sleepy. Psycho? Jester? Is this a much hyped 2008 state-of-the-art top-of-the-line grade-A computer game or no-name action flick from the 80’s?: