“Yeah, so, games are getting more like films aren’t they? You know, with characters and stories, and actors doing voice overs – some of them actors that people have heard of. Oh and there are movies based on games and games based on movies. And there are lots of computer digital special effects in movies now, which is bit like games which are electronic and computerised. So yes, do us 1000 words on that. With a box-out on how crap the Super Mario film was, eh?”
And, if you’re anything like me, you’ll have sighed deeply, taken the money and trotted out something along those lines, but a bit more prosaic and reflective, prompting a slightly stressed email from the commissioning editor. “Yeah, like it, but can we have more on how fucking stupid Bob Hoskins looked in that movie?”
Anyway, we’re all now accustomed to thinking of games in cinematic terms. The cultural imperialism of movie language and movie ideology has permeated game production and criticism, so that we find ourselves talking about character motivations and story arcs and pay-offs without really thinking about it. Games are like films, right? Because they’re on screens and they have stories, and stuff.
Except… Except a lot of games don’t have stories; or if they do they are of infinitesimal importance. A lot of games don’t have characters that we need to relate to or understand; they don’t have neat narrative structures designed to provoke an exact emotional response. Some games aren’t about emotion.
I started to think a while ago that this whole obsession with movies was somehow detrimental and reductive. Not that films aren’t often amazing and beautiful, it’s just that, by confining our understanding of linear media to one art form, we’re not thinking about games as fully as we could be.
I’m thinking here, very much, about the sorts of games we write about on Hookshot. Smartphone games, indie games, tablet games, short games, experimental games – games that don’t have vast narrative frameworks dotted with rounded characters. But, you know, even when we are talking in those terms, movies don’t have the monopoly. For example, I studied drama at university – I read voraciously on theatrical theory; I was particularly fascinated by Augusto Boal’s theory of Invisible Theatre and Elaine Aston’s book Theatre as Sign System: A Semiotics of Text and Performance – not just because I was a pretentious idiot (I might have been) but because I saw in them a language of drama that was almost game-like.
And in some ways, games are more like theatre than film. On stage, actors, like game characters, have to be receptive to viewer input – it is an interactive process, and it’s never the same twice. Games, like plays, are rigidly structured, with missions rather than scenes; yes, movies have structure too, but it is much more mechanically motivated, it is about the workings of film production. Scenes are like game missions in that they very exactly and acutely order the tempo of the user experience – each is a kernel of the whole, each is a work within itself. Screenplay writers will parrot stuff like ‘make every word count’ and ‘every scene must progress the story’, but theatrical scenes, like game missions, are slightly different; they have a much more solid sense of identity and internal life – they contribute to the whole but they operate alone. A great scene from Shakespeare is a short story in itself. Richard III’s seduction of Lady Anne is a Grand Theft Auto mission.
Games have also evolved in a comparable way to theatre. For example, there is no correlation in movies to the arrival of polygonal graphics in games – a fundamental moment in interactive entertainment development. People say, ah, it’s just like when films went from black and white to colour, or from silent to sound. But it isn’t. Largely, games missed out on these audio visual milestones because (unless we include early precursors) games arrived complete with colour and sound. The representation of three dimensions in the game world, has much more in common with the evolution of theatrical set design, specifically the work of designer Adolphe Appia who rejected 2D sets and mannered acting in favour of three dimensional settings, with actors using all the space of the stage. He was also obsessed with lighting, and the use of it to bring shape and meaning to both the stage and the actors on it – he wasn’t a cinematographer because he thought and worked in three dimensions; depth was the key. He was a video game lighting engineer.
As for games like Angry Birds, like Drop7, like Spelunky, there are much more interesting parallels to be made with poetry. Like verse, these games have metre, they have form, they have internal rhythms that contribute meaning and challenge to the experience. Playing Beat Sneak Bandit is like reading Iambic pentameter, the character trips and jumps over the syllables of the beat. Angry Birds, meanwhile, is effectively a sonnet, a mechanical system designed to test the audience in a certain way using a regulated structure. In games like Dear Esther and LIMBO, the narrative is hidden behind layers of metaphor until meaning is utterly obscured or irrelevant – it is the feeling that matters.
Poetry, so often, is a puzzle from which no one answer can be extracted. Look at Shakespeare’s sonnet 34:
All men make faults, and even I in this,
Authorizing thy trespass with compare,
Myself corrupting, salving thy amiss,
Excusing thy sins more than thy sins are;
It uses familiar words and a simple ABAB structure, but its meaning is something more, something unspoken or unwritten. We need to re-read, to pick up on the prosody, to hear the voice. Now let’s implant onto this, Nintendo’s approach to game design: discover, test, master. Meaning is the mission objective – just like in a poem – but we need to find the tools necessary to understand and complete it, and we do that by following the rules and emotional undertones of the stanza. Miyamoto does’t have to tell us that if Mario bumps his head on a block, something cool will come out; everything the game says to us, through Mario’s movements and abilities, allow us to interpret the world in the way Miyamotyo requires. It’s the same with Spelunky. There are rules, there are diagrams throughout the levels, but the metre of the lead character’s movement and abilities allow us to discover the meaning for ourselves.To understand sonnet 34, we need to pick up and utilise the tools the writer leaves for us – we need to learn and master the system.
Game design is poetry, and games are naturally poetic; they are about structure and interactivity in a way that movies aren’t. And poems, from Ozymandias through to The Thought Fox, are interpretative sandboxes in which meaning is an obscured mission objective.
So if you are a games journalist and you receive that commission, why not write back and offer other media as comparative sources. Tell them Shakespeare, born today, would have been a game designer, not a ruddy film director – Titus Andronicus is God of War not Gladiator; Tempest is Bioshock not CastAway. You’ll lose the commission, of course, but it will give them something to think about the next time they see the Super Mario Bros movie on TV and think that film is all games can or will ever aspire to be.