Saturday, 2 October 2010

What videogames lack: Deeper Intent

Tonight a watched a fantastic documentary called Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father, and it was a true emotional roller-coaster ride. The film is a about a film-maker starting to make a movie in memory of his murdered friend, when some unexpected developments ensues. It is an experience, straight from reality, that swings you between laughter and heartbreaking despair. I urge you all to see it.

The reason why I want to bring this up, is because this movie has something that video games lack: it has been made with the intent to share something deep and meaningful. It is has not been made to create a fun experience or for commercial gain. It has been made from love and with a very serious goal in mind. The passion that was put into this movies seeps through every frame and it really brings the movie home. Kurt Kuenne, the maker of the film, has something he is truly emotional about and pulls no punches in driving that point home.

This sort of thing just isn't found in games. Almost all games start as some kind mechanic, which is then iterated until fun enough, and anything resembling a deeper meaning is slapped on afterwards. Sure, there are games like Shadow of Colossus, that strive toward creating a battle with gigantic creatures, or Everyday the same dream, which quite obviously go beyond its low-level mechanics. But these still lack the kind of emotional investment that is seen other media. I understand a film like Dear Zachary gets a lot of emotional weight from being a true story, but that is not the point. What I am after is the motivation that drove its creation, the passion behind making it and uncompromising attitude in the way which the meaning is brought forward.

The motivation I am looking for does not need to be the gut-wrenchingly sad story that Dear Zachary tells. It can be whatever emotional experience that lies the creator close at heart. Sad, funny, beautiful, aweinspiring, interesting, disturbing, educational, it does not matter. As along as the end goal is not just to give the player a fun past time, it is a step in the right direction. Screw developments in storytelling techniques, writing, facial animations, full body input, etc. When games are a made with only a fraction of the passion that went into Dear Zachary, the videogame medium is on the path towards true greatness.

(For those interested, two more posts discussing similar themes are found here and here).


  1. Very true; games are by and large made with mechanics as fun first and foremost, and generally as twists on mechanics already found in past games. I wouldn't agree that thinking of mechanics early and having an intention in mind are mutually exclusive (in fact the opposite), but I don't think you mean to imply that.

    I'd even make the maybe surprising counter-example of Miyamoto who takes inspiration from his childhood, the joys of gardening, and tries to get the feeling of his experiences into the game etc etc. However, even then this intent is possibly watered down, and playtested until the game is fun enough. There are scant few counter-examples (Tim Schafer jumps to mind). And I'd strongly dispute that SotC is a game about battling giant monsters; have you played ICO?

    More games should definitely be started as a means to express something, and see where that lead in terms of mechanics. New places!

    I've heard about Dear Zachary a lot, but you've pushed me to see it btw. It seems there's more to it, than I gave credit. ;)

  2. Miyamoto is a great example and I do not think his early games are that watered down. Take Zelda, which compared to games of its time where quite revolutionary and quite good at the getting its meaning across (compared to games of its time that is). The sad thing is that the Zelda games that followed seem to have have the first game as the main inspiration, polishing gameplay n gfx, instead of the original idea (cave exploration).

    "And I'd strongly dispute that SotC is a game about battling giant monsters"
    As far as I know, the game began as a demo reel showing of riders hunting down a colossal creature and this served as the base for its design. This is that different from other games, but where it is defers is that "fun" has been sacrificed to reach the desired experience.

    I assume you refer to the "Am I really doing the right thing?" feeling the game provokes? To me, this stems from the initial meaning of the monster battling (which is not that unlike whale hunting) and not the core idea.

    Played ICO, but I liked SotC better. Anything specific you had in mind about it?

  3. I just wondered how adventure, PC-centric game devs would take to a Miyamoto example!

    While I can't argue that they've been riffing on the first game since (upping the mechanical complexity with LttP) I think they still return to the initial, generalized idea of exploration for inspiration, and to keep it 'Zelda', if not exactly cave exploration with a lantern! For example, moving into 3D gave them a new way to express this, and I've seen it mentioned that OoT's Hyrule Field was created to achieve this sense exploration. And then in Wind Waker they were trying to give the sense of sailing, and oceanic exploration. But this is all still playing on the initial inspiration.

    As a more fringe example, I'd even give Miyamoto credit for Wii-Fit, trying to take the hobby of tracking his diet, excercise and weight and finding the way of presenting that in a game. While, it's not particular "artistic" in the least, it largely created an all new kind of 'game'.

    I had no idea about that Shadow of the Colossus demo reel, which is interesting. I just took exception to the implication that it inarguably started as the idea of "battling big monsters would be cool!!", rather than awakening a sense of smallness of your place in the world, and wonderment (very similar to what ThatGameCompany are trying to do with Journey).

    "How might we do that? GIANT VENERABLE MONSTERS! Ok, let's make a demo reel to see if it works".

    Granted the feelings of loneliness inspired by the vast barren country, creating a connection with your horse as your sole ally, and the growing sadness or self-doubt at killing the collosi were probably all secondary (although I can't imagine how anyone could put that in a sizzle reel).

    As regards ICO, I just think it's more obvious in its artistic intententions. I can imagine Ueda's inspiration for the game was to create some sort of bond between the player and a AI character. In my own opinion I think it's possibly more successfulthan SotC (at least more evocative to me, and with the final hour much more cohesive), if mechanically much more archaic.

    More to the point, it can be definitely argued though whether, like you say, these ideas were slapped on afterwards (and I don't think so), but if it works, and works well, does it matter? I think more games should have intentions, and a desire to express something, full stop.

  4. *As regards ICO, I just think it's more obvious and singular in its artistic intentions.

  5. Working as a designer on commercial games with large groups, I've always found the inescapable fixation with "fun" to be actually oppressive. I don't think we can call "Dear Zachary" "fun," I think it's actually the opposite of "fun." It's probably more accurate to say that watching it is an emotionally "rewarding" experience. A movie that's only "fun" is an empty and forgettable experience - the most shallow and superficial of Hollywood's products. "Fun" is a roller-coaster that provokes no thought or emotional response. It's a dismissal of the film to call it "fun," not a complement. Most films aspire to be more than that (and, in fact, often aspire to not be "fun" at all). Yet with games, that's the ultimate goal, which seems really sad. Even the rare commercial games that are more than just fun are simply adding a bit of emotional or intellectual depth on top of a game that is fundamentally about fun. No one in the commercial game world is even thinking, "Perhaps we should make a game that isn't fun." That's going to be the first step towards making the film equivalent to "Dear Zachary."

    I think part of the problem is that game developers can't even manage "fun" consistently. Often games fall back on psychological tricks, such as using compulsive behavior as a replacement for an enjoyable experience: the game becomes a slot machine, the player metaphorically pulling a lever over and over, hoping for a payoff (whatever that might be in the game; usually some number increments).
    The biggest problem is that the model for what a game is supposed to be, and what sort of rewards one derives from it have been pretty well set: one is supposed to gain pleasure from feelings of accomplishment, having gone through a great deal of trial and error to get to that point. Emotional and intellectual rewards generally aren't even considered, and certainly complex intellectual and emotional explorations and rewards aren't part of what a game is about.
    The other big problem is that if anyone were to make such a game, there'd be no market for it. People who would be most interested in engaging with an intellectually or emotionally deep interactive experience long ago was convinced that "games aren't for them" after seeing the vapid thrill-rides that are the most visible products of the game industry. At best one can hope to reach the small sub-set of gamers who might be interested in a slightly more intellectually or emotionally engaging experience, but I think it's going to take a series of small steps in that direction before any noticeable changes can occur.

  6. video games are immature
    mainsstream games are not artistic object, they are commercial calibrated preformated products who have only one goal : bringing the most possible money
    all dev are pathetically copying each other, every new game is just a new skin applied on 4 or 5 basics scheme (the more obvious are jap rpg games,repeting the same mechanics and stereotypes of characters or stories everytimes)

    the interesting things seem to come from the indie scene actually.
    One day ,i hope one will see the rising of a kubrick of the videogames...

    maybe teaming developpers with a realisator of movies could bring something interesting to the scene
    i dont know

    frictionnal + david lynch one day? :)

    Trying of new ways for videogames, maybe an evolution with controllers wouldn t be bad too.
    I have seen the warmouse project(a mouse with 18buttons and a stick), and i wonder what kind of game specifically designed for two simultaneous mouses like this, one can create.(some kind of super mirror edge i think: two mouses,two sticks,36buttons)

  7. I think art is deep and emotional and there´s a line that divide entertainment and art, entertainment is focused to -as the name suggest- entertain people, probably now is a way of life, but videogames are far to be Art, art is not always nice, nor enjoyable,great artistic tendences always revolutionizes and scares the established ways of thinking. art is more focused on individuals, not on corporations or industries.

    i think the videogames industry can´t risk trying to create an deeper and emotional videogame, ...well... not the biggest names in industry, i think that can be done by independient developers, sadly emotional, intellectual and deep is not synonimus of money or success on industry...

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  9. I've come to realize that in the world of entertainment, creativity and commercial success rarely line up - and understandably so I should say as developers with considerable investments can not risk blowing their funds away only to test a new idea that might or might not work in the end. This is exactly why they prefer to stick to formulas they know the audience will respond to - formulas they know will be at least reasonably financially successful. But overused formulas, although financially profitable, can not be creative by definition and this is exactly where creativity and the business of money-making start to diverge. This behavior is simply a result of risk-benefit assessments and is part of the very fabric of our economy or at least the way we are doing business. Industrialization is the sworn enemy of creativity.

  10. Well, yes, I agree, "ICO" and "Shadow of the Colossus" are some of the best examples for emotion reaching games. Though it's sad to see that there are only a few games that are capable of something like this, especially the emotions of sadness and compassion. I believe that "Silent Hill 2" is a good example too. And i'm not talking about fear, i'm refering to the character development in the game. How would you feel if you would get a letter from someone beloved, who died years ago? Probably the same as James. Anyway, Maria/Mary is a great character. The closer you get to the end the more you care about her.


    ^ This is one of the best moments i ever had in a video game.

    A good example for artistic value in a game is "Dear Esther". I know it's _just_ a mod, but still, it showed us a totally different and new way of "experiencing" games. For those who didn't know, there's coming a remake this year:

    A tip for Frictional Games: Maybe you should ask an author (a famous swedish author, for example?) to write a story for your game or something like that. Or you do something like a "story-contest", where people like us send you stories and you just choose the "best" and produce a game.

  11. Well, as you've said the technology required is more or less there, what's now needed is for someone to use it in the right way. The two potential problems that, that will only remain problems with the lack of general industry experience with this type of gamemaking, are:
    - someone who's good at meaningful, emotionally strong storytelling in another medium might not do so well with games, at least not the first few times, because there the storyteller is no longer bound by the usual rules, and needs to learn to adapt to the new ones;

    - the fact that bad gameplay mechanics will ruin the experience, or at least significantly reduce it's quality. And good mechanics aren't always easy to achieve. Furthermore, this type of advancement of games would certainly require new types of gameplay, and it takes time for the new mechanics to stabilize.

    P.S. Why do you think we love horror games. There's something about them that makes the player ask the hard questions, if only at the subconscious level. They have an inherent "deepness". Of course, this could be taken so much further.

  12. The Void

  13. "It has been made from love and with a very serious goal in mind."

    to say that games are made without these intentions reflect more about your understanding of games and the creators who have made them. possibly, you need to play more games (or even, like games) before making such a general sweeping statement about the process of game development; ie. it seems that you prefer movies to games and would like games to be like movies.

    by the way, presenting contradicting examples does little to support your case.

  14. Shi:
    I do not doubt that many games have been made with great passion (I would say I know this for a fact even). The point I tried to make is that games never focus so passionatly on a serious subject that works in other media do.

    And I do not want videogames to be like movies. I even think movies are in many aspects inferiour to videogames. Check here:

  15. @ Mario: Having a good, professional writer contribute game text and/or plotline doesn't really do anything towards adding meaning to a game. Bringing in professional writers is a favorite strategy for the big game companies these days, especially the ones making the most meaningless games. Why is that? Often, you can't even tell that a professional writer was involved because of the constraints in which they're working (they're writing bits of dialog but not the story, for example), but mostly what it means is that the plot and dialog sit on top of the game, completely divorced from gameplay. Ultimately, real meaning comes from the player's interaction with the game itself, that is, from the mechanics of the game, not from a series of nicely worded bits of text. Well written text can add to the game's meaning, but only when the writing and design are created together as a cohesive whole. That's why, ideally, game writers and designers need to be one and the same.

  16. And many people take away different experiences from the one game. Perhaps Deus Ex is another good example? A interesting attempt at it might also be Korsakovia, a source mod that reminds me quite a bit of Penumbra in some ways.

    check it out here:

  17. @bob_d

    I wasn't talking about the "quality of sentences" or words, or about dialog, whatever, i was talking about the understanding and knowledge of how a story is created from the beginning to the end. How a story should start, how it should end, stuff like that. Who knows this better than a professional (and creative) writer?

    "Bringing in professional writers is a favorite strategy for the big game companies these days, especially the ones making the most meaningless games."

    Well, that's the problem... the "big companies" are asking for their help, which means they want to add a "good story" to a crappy game. That doesn't work. But if people who know how to produce great (indie) games cooperate with authors, it just can get better, not worse.

    Of course this also depends on the genre. It might be difficult to ask a writer who usually writes romantic novels, to write a horror story for your game. You would have to take someone who's good in those genres you need.

  18. @bob_d

    "Well written text can add to the game's meaning, but only when the writing and design are created together as a cohesive whole. That's why, ideally, game writers and designers need to be one and the same."

    Well, i agree to this, though if a professional writer gets involved in the whole designing process, he might be a great help for the whole production.

  19. @Mario: Well, the point I was trying to get at is that the ability to create a meaningful linear narrative doesn't translate into an ability to add meaning to games. Games aren't books or films; they get their meaning largely through player interactions with the game systems. Which means that what professional authors usually bring to game development is just some well written bits of text that are disconnected from the game itself. My point about the writer also being a designer is that to be truly effective, the writer has to understand how to instantiate their intended meaning as game mechanics, not just as text.

  20. totally out out of subject sorry(but maybe it will interest you) :
    a review of amnesia from a french video game site

    final note: "8/10 very good"

    the reviewer has liked the game,he says that the engine is outdated, but he doesn't emphasized that too much. He has liked the sound ambient,the story,the good immersion.

    Globally he recommends amnesia,saying it s a very good horror game and that the balance price/lifetime of the game is ok

    i don't know , but maybe it will bring you a small peak in your sellings
    let us know


  21. I honestly think that the main barrier to creative and meaningful games is ease of creation. Everybody can pick up a camera and start filming stuff, and everybody can put words to paper. But creating a game is not such a simple process. You have to have a lot more technical knowledge to be able to create an interactive experience.

    I think game developers tend to have a lot more of a programmer's mindset, and focus on mechanics vs. depth of emotion because that's how their brains work.

    When I can sit down and start banging out games without having to know anything about programming (and even things like Game Maker require you to understand a certain logic associated with programming), then I will be able to infuse a game with emotion directly. For now, it's such a roundabout and difficult process, that I just don't think it's going to happen all that often.

  22. I am completely on board with this way of thinking and wait with eager expectation to see the results when we start to see substantial projects of this kind.

  23. Just found out about this company and am currently playing through Amnesia: Dark Descent...

    I couldn't agree more with your sentiment. I'm sure you probably have a post somewhere addressing Roger Ebert's infamous claim that "Video Games can never be art." This has given me great brain-fodder for the past few months, and several times I've caught myself wondering which, if any, video games could be considered art, and what video games lack that keeps them from being better.

    You've hit on at least one fundamental answer to that question: the emotional investment and passion in inception of the game. In many books, movies, plays, and pieces of music, I've felt as if the creator(s) were trying desperately to communicate something to me... something human and vital, that transcended the mechanisms of plot, characters, etc. I would love it if one day we could raise video games closer to this level... to have an elite field of games that are great games, not just because of their gameplay, visuals, settings, etc, but also (and more importantly) because they make their players better people (or more human) by playing them.

    Ho boy... this'll be tough...

  24. I don't think that most of the games lack of that. specially in the indie side of the industry. Because they focus to do something more artistical than commercial. S


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