Why Can’t I Stick to One Subject?

I don’t know why I can’t stick to one subject in these posts. Today I have two things to talk about:

First of all, I got a class implemented that allows me to do texture animations. I can put all my frames into one giant texture and animated it by changing what part of the texture is visible each frame. It was surprisingly easy to get working and made me very happy about my decision to use OpenGL for the game. The next step in this is creating a sample texture animation for my “match” animation and dropping that into the game.

The second thing I wanted to talk about is Jonathan Blow’s talk at the Montreal Games Summit:

  • How To Make Games That Touch People (www.gamasutra.com) – Jonathan Blow (the creator of Braid) talks about the way games are made today and why that limits how much they can touch people.

I found the article fascinating, as Blow talks about games and art (a subject that has been dear to me for a number of years now) in a way that makes sense to me. The thing that most grabbed me was the last quote of the article:

“Perhaps the problem is that we so deeply rely on reference points like film, which require stories progressing over time, when we could be referring to things like sculpture or painting, which require no timescale and people find just as moving.”

This really hit home, because I’ve been saying this for a long time (not that I consider myself in the same league as Blow, but still). In the games industry we often compare ourselves to the film industry. Many of the comparisons are warranted, as the processes for creating them are often quite similar: pre-production, production, post-production, distribution. Games often have stories and are often presented to players like movies are presented to viewers: linear narrative that tells a story from start to end.

The problem I’ve always had with this is that the way in which a player interacts with a game is completely different from how a viewer watches a film. Viewing a film is passive; every viewer sees the same film (assuming you ignore Goddard’s 1968 experimental film Un Film comme les autres, in which he asked the theaters to randomly reorder the film’s two reels every time the film was shown). However, a game is different for everyone who plays it. Each person who plays a game will play it in a slightly different way. This means that it’s nearly impossible to guarantee any kind of consistent pacing to the story and makes it extremely difficult to set up dramatic, meaningful events.

When you get into open-world “sandbox” games, like the GTA series, it becomes even more difficult. You can’t guarantee that the player is going to care about a particular character because they might not have spent any time with them. All of this poses a very difficult situation to a game designer.

Now, I’ll say it right now: I don’t know what the solution is. However, I think the first step is to stop thinking about telling stories in games like you do in movies. The game that manages to tell a story solely through the player’s interaction with the world is one that will be extremely successful, from an art standpoint, anyway. I don’t know how it would be done, as I’m sure it will require a whole new way of thinking about story. Instead of a narrative, it will be about discovery. Instead of the game forcing a player along a path with cut-scenes to move the story along, it will allow the player to make their own discoveries and choose their own path. Perhaps it will even allow the player to choose their own goals. The problem becomes: how on earth does one build a game like that and how on earth do you make the experience meaningful to the player?