Monday, December 22, 2008

The Director of "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" Has Some Opinions Concerning Video Games

There's an interview with Steven Spielberg over at Yahoo! Games from a few weeks ago that I feel gives some insight into some of the things brought up by Andrew in his recent post about the Final Fantasy franchise. In particular there's one response from the great director regarding video games' desire to become more cinematic that really hit home with me.

"You know the thing that doesn't work for me in these games are the little movies where they attempt to tell a story in between the playable levels. That's where there hasn't been a synergy between storytelling and gaming. They go to a lot of trouble to do these [motion-capture] movies that explain the characters. And then the second the game is returned to you and it's under your control, you forget everything the interstitials are trying to impact you with, and you just go back to shooting things. And that has not found its way into a universal narrative. And I think more has to be done in that arena."

Andrew is right, as he usually is, in his concern about Final Fantasy's overly-cinematic ambitions but I don't think this is necessarily a development that arose out of VII; I'd place it a little later, let's say X. Before X, Final Fantasy games relied on text to convey dialogue between characters, making the experience of playing through a JRPG something akin more to reading a novel than seeing a movie. Yes, I know that VII had oodles of cutscenes and whatnot, not to mention the requisite visual elements of a video game, but you were still essentially getting through the game in a text-based manner. When you finally beat Safer Sephiroth ("you" referring to me) you had the feeling you get when you finally finished a novel you had devoted a good amount of time to reading. When you vanquished Yu Yevon in X, you felt like you had watched a good movie, but I feel like there's something fundamentally different about the human experience of reading vs. the experience of watching a movie. I'm no expert, maybe Chomsky knows something about it or whatever. He's the one who writes about that stuff, right?

Video games, in my humble opinion, are at an impasse. The technology exists where an interactive video game experience can simulate visual and aural information to the point where it can trick our brains into accepting it as reasonably real. But at the same time, using a controller to move a space marine around an alien landscape to blow up some hostile extraterrestrials is not the same as wearing a suit of power armor. Back when games were 2-D, we knew we were playing a game, but now that graphics technology is advanced enough our puny human brains are expected to fill in the gaps and recognize what's on our TV screen as the truth. Until we come up with some sort of all-immersing technology that can truly deceive our senses so that we truly believe we are someone we are not doing something beyond our physical capabilities in some place that does not exists, I fear that any attempts at reaching a cinematic level of experience might fall flat. When we watch a movie, we are not told we are the character on screen: we are still only watching stories unfold, we have no control over them, we don't expect our choices to affect what we see, unlike video games. Rob's article touches on many similar points.

None of this is to say that I don't appreciate a game with a good story or good characters, we shouldn't have to devolve into an industry of Halos where the protagonist is merely an all-powerful killing machine. I think the Grand Theft Auto series has done a good job of maintaining storytelling and still delivering solid gameplay. RPGs are the genre where this situation really comes to a head. The best out there have maintained their text-based style in the newer generations of systems to great effect: Zelda comes to mind. The moral of this story might come down to the fact that while it is a growing medium, games and gamers might just need to recognize their limitations for the time being and develop some titles that use the technology available well as opposed to overextending themselves and delivering an inferior product. Though on the other hand, a little ambition never hurt anyone, did it?

Regarding the title of the post, I loved Indy IV, fridge nuking and aliens included.