September 28, 2007

Say Halo 3 my little friend

halofigurines.jpg Here's what's wrong with the MSM: There's brutal repression in Burma, children without health insurance, and a war against Islamofascism — and the New York Times op-ed page devotes 900 words to Halo 3.

Sure, I wrote the damn thing, but where were the grown-ups who should have stopped me?

Money quote: "Like cinema, games will need to embrace the dynamics of failure, tragedy, comedy and romance. They will need to stop pandering to the player’s desire for mastery in favor of enhancing the player’s emotional and intellectual life."

While I was working on this, I told you all that I was bracing myself for a serious fragging at the hands of hardcore gamers. My only hope is that I get at least one comment as awesome as this one, which was posted in response to an article yesterday in InformationWeek: "Second of all no one cares about the darn campagin unless 1) You are a n00b to halo and have no respect of your self 2) You cant play online cause you have no idea what BXR is or what the "n00b Combo" is. Face it, who cares what the guy wrote about the campain, he forgot about the biggest part. ONLINE GAMEPLAY!."

BXR is one of those new club drugs, right?

Posted by Daniel Radosh


I'm so out of it, I have only the vaugest idea what Halo is. My idea of a fun game is The Residents'
Bad Day on the Midway. (Told you I was out of it.)

Hey--I work at InformationWeek. (And I really ought to be working.)

I vaguely remember Bad Day, though never played it. If I have it right, it was one of a handful of ambitious games that tried to bring the narrative/emotional complexity of the Infocom games into the graphics error. These experiments largely failed, but they tried anyway, goddamit, at least they did that.

One thing those games flirted with was non-linearity. After reading my op-ed, a friend pointed out that narrative games almost never have genuine set-backs and upheavals. You can do something "wrong" and then fix it, or do something that triggers one of a handful of different outcomes or events, but you usually know when this has happened, which is quite unlike real life.

I don't think the analogy to film is as solid as you think it is, Dan. All the talk about the medium needing to develop its own "language" is suspiciously familiar to what early critics said about film, but in fact the influence of sound actually made film narratives less complex, to the point that many 1930s critics preferred silents. Stories that are "emotionally and aesthetically profound" aren't necessarily more suited to the medium. Bourne was arguably more filmic than 90% of Oscar bait.

Not to say you're wrong about games not reaching their potential, but that poster has a point--the essence of gaming might not be the ability to express emotional depth, but to provide a compelling platform for player-to-player interaction.

It's true that "faithfulness to the medium" needn't exactly correlate with "great art," but I think it's a necessary precondition. I also suspect you didn't hear much from those early film critics after Citizen Kane. (Games have already moved past their worst reliance on cut scenes, but I think it was only a few years ago that they were the exact equivalent of the scenes from early talkies where everyone would be standing around speaking into the flower arrangement.)

It's also true that, with the exception of a brief nod of the head toward the end, my essay confines itself to the question of gaming as a *narrative* art. Definitely Halo succeeds better as a multiplayer game than a solo one, but I wanted to stick to the question of how narrative games can be improved. It may be possible that p2p will be part of that (I'd love to see some experimenting in that direction, though I can't visualize it myself), but it won't be of the Halo kind. And yes, perhaps the essence of gaming is more like "sport" than "art" but I do think there can be a narrative art form that is more true to the gaming experience than is found in current games.

And after reading that last paragaph, I'm very glad the Times has editors.

great commentary, Daniel. regardless of the conclusions, it's just nice to see this kind of discussion about video games, which you see so little of the gaming press.

Perhaps the best thing we can say about video games as art is that we will know art when we see it. Who knows which technical innovation will open the medium up to new horizons (wii anyone?), or which aesthetics are the proper ones to judge by? Maybe we need to first get past the label, video "game."

But what your article hints at, but doesn't really address, is the influence of corporations. Much of the artistry of the golden age of cinema was due to the formation of United Artists and much of the power of 70's cinema was from the studios relinquishing control to a bunch of impassioned college students. Parallels between cinema and game making should be drawn in how the ventures are financed above all else. Look at the problems Rockstar has had with trying to bring edgier content to the market.

Art takes artists, and though film and video games both are collaborative art forms, we tend to worship the auteur. Until we find a way to support the creative individual in a multi-billion dollar industry, I think we will find few games that challenge us beyond our hand-eye co-ordination or puzzle solving.

All that aside, if I was to buy one new xbox360 game, Daniel, which would it be, Halo 3 or BioShock?

Also, my favorite line, "Teenage boys (of all ages and genders)"

First the easy part: BioShock, hands down. Well, you'll want Halo (or perhaps the Orange Box when it comes out) for when you have friends over, but BioShock is a far more ambitious, sophisticated, interesting and (for solo play) fun game. I wouldn't say it manages to be completely emotionally engaging, but it is intellectually engaging. And the actual killing monsters part is handled far more cleverly than Halo -- it's all about finding the right combo of attacks for each situation, rather than simply finding the biggest gun.

As for the rest - I had long talks with my editor (the very cool Chris Suellentrop) about ideas that interested us, but were too wonky or extraneous for the op-ed page, and this was one of them. I don't necessarily disagree with you, but Chris pointed out that this argument does rely a little too heavily on the festishizing of the auteur, and that the first golden age of cinema was overseen by a studio system that was even more controlling than the current gaming one. Yes, studios outlived their usefulness eventually, but they managed to make Casablanca and The Philadelphia Story first.

An even greater factor to consider (though also one that didn't fit in this piece) is the economics of making a game, which I believe came up when I first started posting about this here. Are games so expensive that they discourage risk-taking? Or is it simply too expensive to program the kind of multilayered narratives I think I want? How does the rise of indie-games facilitated by XBox Live fit in? All interesting questions.

Anyway, I totally agree with your "we'll know it when we see it" assessment. That's why I said as little as possible about what specifically designers should be doing. I just don't know.

I don't think the analogy to film is as solid as you think it is, Dan.

I think the comparison is important, though, because at the base level video games are fulfilling the same need as films--that desire to have stories told to us. And in that respect they are in direct competition with movies and television and books, not just for entertainment dollars but also for our time and it's completely valid and even necessary to decide how our time is best spent scratching that itch.

Of course my system is a still a Sega Genesis and my preferred version of Madden is '93.

I totally agree with your article. And there is indeed a narrative revolution in store for interactive entertainment - "Storytronics". It's nothing like Halo and it's far more advanced than any adventure, text or otherwise. It's an honest-to-gad "drama engine". I played a part in its creation and I assure you it rocks. Check out our website:


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