If someone came up to you and earnestly told you that the acting in a movie didn’t matter you’d probably laugh in their face. After all it’s not the cinematographers and editors who get payed the big bucks in Hollywood it’s the stars. Movies are made or broken by the ability of actors to bring us into the drama. And yet:
Progressive opinion in the silent era tended to deny that film was a performing art, since that would make it a form of theatre. No, film had unique capacities. Cinema was essentially moving pictures.
It’s a silly position to take but there is some logic to it. If one wanted to watch quality acting then surely you’d go to the theatre, especially in the silent era when all the great performers treaded the boards instead of gracing the silver screen. I’ve mentioned it before but Man With The Movie Camera is what you get when this philosophy is taken to it’s logical conclusion. And frankly it sucks, sure there’s lots to admire but I don’t think I could believe anyone who told me they’d rather watch that than a bunch of Charlie Chaplin shorts. So the theory makes sense but it doesn’t really work, what do you expect from a group of people who made communist propaganda for the Soviet Union? This brings me to my point
The problem goes that if you have an interesting story, compelling characters, plot twists and allegory, that’s all fine and good. But what you have are the ingredients for a movie or a book, not necessarily a game.
Without a doubt this is the prevailing wisdom and it’s wrong. I’ve heard this so many times sometimes I feel like I’m being brainwashed. Thankful I have two games that should de-program anyone.
Planescape: Torment is a frustratingly broken RPG. The core combat lacks any strategic depth, all of the interactions with NPCs involve clicking through flowcharts and the game is so unbalanced that by the end it’s a brutal repetitive slog just to finish. It’s also one of greatest games I’ve ever played. Chris Avellone crafted a wondrous moody and brooding tale about identity and the human condition. Without getting into too much detail, in my view, the point of the game is that we are all capable of great kindness and great malice and it’s only a matter of chance who we become. You may think that you’re a decent fellow because of some inbuilt moral code but really it’s pure luck that you were able to develop one. Certainly if your life was different who knows what you’d be capable of. It’s also about redemption and whether we can truly change. The ending is beautiful and if you haven’t played it you probably should.
Does the somewhat crappy gameplay make any of the story stuff less interesting? Of course not. Does the gameplay put people off? Certainly but then the same could be said for numerous indie films with terrible production values. What is absolutely true is that the gameplay isn’t bad because the story is good. It’s not like there’s some finite supply of awesome and you need to scientifically portion out how much awesome the gameplay is going to get and how much awesome the story is going to get. You’ve played Portal right? They certainly didn’t run out of any awesome there.
Shadow of the Colossus
I came to this one late but oddly I’d never actually heard anyone say what genre it is. Imagine my surprise when I discovered it was a Tomb Raider clone and not even a very good one at that. The controls are ropey and imprecise when compared to the latest third person climb-em-ups and it’s nowhere near as forward thinking as say The Sands of Time. Hell for my money Imagine Champion Rider is a better game if you’re after horsy thrills. Yet none of that matters in the face of the glorious spectacle of the Colossi and the bitter sweet fairytale it weaves. To say the mechanical parts are the important ones is to ignore the entire reason the game is amazing. I mean you could stand there and tell people that it’s over rated because from your committed ludogist position the game is nothing special but as Tycho from Penny Arcade said recently (in regards to the Bioshock backlash) “All it means is that you’ve mastered the unique gymnastics required to shit in your own mouth”.
At this point it seems like far too many people are actively not allowing themselves to enjoy something because from an intellectual or ideological position they don’t agree with what it’s doing. That is quiet frankly stupid.
My point here is not that we should all start worshipping at the altar of story, hell my current game obsession Neptune’s Pride contains none. Rather it’s that we should stop worshipping at any one altar and throw some love to them all. The art direction, sound, story, level design, mechanics and anything else you care to mention are all important. For some designers some of those elements will no doubt be more important than others. This is perfectly fine, if we have different designers with different interests it will lead to a diverse and fascinating array of games.
I’m saying have you ever actually considered that the phrase “Interaction is the most important part of the medium because it’s unique to the medium” doesn’t make any sense? Why should that which is unique be the most important thing? The techniques of editing are unique to cinema but would you seriously tell Hou Hsiao-Hsien to change the opening sequence of Millennium Mambo because it was done in one take? What this argument fails to understand is that storytelling as practiced in games is unique to games. A game story is totally different to a film story even when it borrows certain techniques because it must by necessity transform them. Film acting got better as actors learnt the unique requirements of the medium, just as games writers will. Or at least they will if you stop treating their craft as an after thought of secondary importance. You wouldn’t go round telling your lead artist that art assets don’t matter would you?
Here’s the conclusion to the article I quoted at the beginning. Seriously read the whole thing, it’s good and talks about cinema in a way that I think is truly enlightening:
Cinema is teeming with artistic possibilities, and each of these frameworks can illuminate certain areas of choice and control. We don’t need to pick a single creed to live by, but we deepen our understanding of film by being sensitive to as many as we can manage.
I suspect a more holistic approach would benefit game critics and designers as well.