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    PlanetQuake | Features | Articles | Classic PQ | Waiting For Casablanca: Feedback
    Waiting For Casablanca: Feedback

By loonyboi

As I mentioned in the first installment, this is a subject that should be discussed more often. I am quite happy at the response so far, but this is only the beginning. Let's all be sure to talk about this openly, so that these issues can recieve the attention they deserve. There are no right or wrong opinions here, and all viewpoints should be heard. If you've got a comment, please make it known.

Why Casablanca? - By Jason "loonyboi" Bergman

In my rush to get my thoughts down on paper, all too often I leave out things I intended to mention, so I thought i'd take this moment to put them in here.

I chose Casablanca as my pinacle of cinematic achievement for several reasons. Movies were created in 1899, when the format we call "film" was first invented. Sound was added to movies in 1926. In 1943, Casablanca was released and effectively used the technology that existed at the time, to create a whole, and satisfying experience.

Great (and arguably better) movies existed before hand, and continued to exist afterwords, but personally, I see Casablanca as a stunning achievement in cinema history; the likes of which were rarely, if ever seen since. Don't get me wrong, I love movies, and many of my favorite movies were released decades later, but Casablanca is a special film.

Special because like the Star Wars films that followed it, it appealed to just about everyone. Casablanca has it all: beautiful women, tough guys, intruigue, guns, murder, humor, romance, you name it, it's in there. And more on the point, it uses the things that make cinema great, to their fullest extent. This is why Roger Ebert called Casablanca, "the movie." Casablanca couldn't function as effectively as anything but a film.

Take the works of Shakespeare, for example. Hamlet is a triumph of storytelling, yes, but the skill for which it is carried out, the pacing, everything about it, is done so to take advantage of the performance. A comic book like Alan Moore's now legendary Watchmen, has been written from the ground up to take advantage of its medium (hence why you may never see a film adaptation of said comic).

Could Quake function as anything but a videogame? Of course not, but that certainly isn't because it uses its chosen medium in a way that prevents adaptation. Quake doesn't do anything as far as storytelling. Zork wouldn't function as a novel (and the one Zork novel I do own was a testament to that fact). Zork, and the Infocom games in general were created to tell a story in a semi-non-linear fashion.

But I digress.

My point about Casablanca is that the gaming industry needs a pinnacle. Quake is currently that pinnacle, and as a result we are about to witness dozens of games with the same shoe-string plot outline, tiring single player experience, and wonderful multiplayer action.

Regardless, lets get to the feedback.

The Letters

The feedback to this article has been wonderful. I recieved a number of extremely well written letters, and I greatly appreciate them all. Anyway, on to the mailbag:

From: Erik Robson
Subject: Re: "Waiting for Casablanca"

Very timely observations on loonyboi's part. It raises some larger questions about the relationship of art to specific media. A friend and I were having a similar discusison recently: Why wasn't "Glengarry Glen Ross" a comic book? Why wasn't "Schindler's List" animated? Without going into the complexities of the effects of a free-market system on popular art, we can still extract this result: Different media attract different kinds of creators and consumers. Perhaps good writers aren't attracted to the game medium. Perhaps storyline-rich games became extinct because they didn't sell. I tend to think that the computer/video game industry is so tied to growing technology (the FORM) that there's little interest in developing innovative storylines (the CONTENT.)

My first love in computer games, after all of the original Atari stuff of course, was Richard Garriott's Ultima series. Specifically, Ultimas 3-5. The graphics were bound to be crude - Garriott knew that and the audience knew that, so it wasn't an area where he was expected to up the ante. This freed the game up for innovations in other areas - the progressive interactivity of the world; the compexity of the storylines; the introduction of night-and-day states; in 5, the way your actions would affect your standing in the "community".

The fact is, "interactive storytelling" is as young a medium as you're likely to find. There's no historical prescedent for it. Role-playing games, damned by ties to geekdom, really did something completely new: A story where *you* where the character, and could affect the progression of the story accordingly. This proved easier in D&D than in computer games, because in the former the storyteller is live and can adapt the story if necessary.

We haven't handled the problem very well in computer games. I think Ultima and the Infocom adventures did it best. It's only gotten worse since then. Myst was a monumental de-evolution - a well-illustrated choose-your-own- adventure book. Unfortunately, its commercial success only means we'll be seeing more games that tackle the problem of interactivity in the same way.

Perhaps the coming wave of 3d games will succeed in taking us closer to this potential that everyone can see and no one can achieve.

erik robson

You bring up many good points here Erik, and I'll try to touch on as many of them as I can. First and foremost you bring up the issue of form vs. content. As anyone who has spent more than five minutes on the web will attest, this is a growing problem, not simply in the videogame industry (hell, it's been a problem for decades in every other medium).

Also, yes, the early Ultima games rocked. I am a big fan of Ultimas I-V (I never got around to the later ones). But the thing that made them special seems to have been thrown out the door in Ultima Online (as noted in Rich Wyckoff's recent .plan update). Ultima was something very special to me at one point...I really enjoyed the emphasis on storytelling, and the emphasis on genuine social interaction that was always present.

As for the point you bring up about the relative age of the medium, this is an important one. Yes, the interactive medium is young. However, the age of the medium is an excuse that can only be taken so far. Granted in 30 years we are likely to look back and laugh at what we considered an immersive experience today, but that is simply not an excuse. Now is the best time for people to take the big steps in new directions. While people are still figuring out the different approaches to storytelling, we should be seeing more experimentation, rather than the banal cloning that is present today.

Myst, and the games that followed it were indeed a major step backwards. The success Myst discovered was propelled largely by the cheapness of CD-ROM drives, and the fact that it was simply beautiful to look at. The problem other companies soon discovered is that people aren't immersed in a Full Motion Video game enough to justify paying for them. Myst was simply in the right place, at the right time.

Another interesting point about Myst, was that there was (albiet a not very sucessful one) a genuine attempt to tell a story. Myst was a story that was tailored around its (literally years old) technology, but it did so in a way that alienated the immersion. Myst's story did not take advantage of its medium, as the success of the novels based upon it later proved.

I'd like to think that the dark ages of Myst are well behind us now, but as each day passes, we grow closer to the inevitable release of Riven. In a perfect world this will bomb, but we may be seeing another rise in Hypercard based gaming.

From: PeNNy [NC]
Subject: Video Game Masterpieces

I think some of the best stories came out of the consoles because the developers did not dwell on teeechnology, they needed a good story to sell. One of the best games with a story i have played is Final Fantasy 3 for SNES, FF3 had a killer story with Very immersive music (i can still think back and remember cyans song that one ruled), but it did not have the best graphics, if a computer developer could make a game as half as good of a story as FF3 or any FF i would be happy.

PeNNy [NC]

This is a fair statement on your part. While I personally never played any of the Final Fantasy games (*duck*) I have heard that indeed they were (and are) wonderful games.

The console RPG genre in general has a number of terrific games worth mentioning. One of my personal favorite games of all time is a game called Phantasy Star for the old Sega Master System. From what I understand, it was very "Final Fantasy-esque", so fans of the FF series should try and track that one down.

Regardless, the console-game industry is loaded with terrific games, but I'm not sure that I can say with a level of certainty that this is due entirely to a lack of emphasis on technology. Nintendo's history is loaded with stories of developers being required to take advantage of Nintendo-specific features, so as to distinguish their system from the (intense) competition.

I think that the inherant advantage of the console market, is that you know who your target audience is. In the console market, the person picking up your game isn't looking for a title to show off what his new business computer can do, but is simply looking for a great and immersive game. That, and the fact that the console market has true visionaries like Shigeru Miyamoto, and Yu Suzuki, who have learned over time how to effectively mix storytelling and technology. While the story to be found in Mario 64 might not exactly be brilliant, I think few people will argue that it is a less immersive experience than Quake. When playing Mario 64, you really become Mario, and his movements become your own.

From: Michael J. Peet
Subject: Waiting for Casablanca

I read your editorial, and couldn't agree more. One reason I think those old text and ASCII games provide more immersion is because they leave more to the imagination. In games such as Quake, they emphasis seems to be towards a good "visual" experience. Nothing is left for the player to imagine; it's all spelled out. Contrast this with something like NetHack (one of my personal favorites). It's going to take a little creativity from the player to believe that a little '@' is them, or that a 'H' is a giant, etc. Also, everyone has a different idea of what a giant (or dragon, or imp; whatever) looks like. I've always felt that this leads to a more "personal", and thus immersive, feel to the game. Not to mention that the designers of those early games *had* to come up with compelling story lines for lack of "stunning" graphics and sound. Anyway, just my two cents; thanks for listening :)

Mike

Well this is certainly a valid opinion. The old text based games do leave a lot to the imagination (anyone want to take a guess as to what a Grue looks like?). But that is part of their charm. There are bad novels, just as there are bad text games (I mentioned that hundreds of text games are availible online...I never said they were all great).

Simply adding a visual element does not imply a less immersive experience. For an example, take a look at the recent adaptation of Stephen King's "Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption" to film. The novella was excellent, taking advantage of the various pacing modes that a straight novel can use to its advantage. For the film adaptation, writer/director Frank Darabont literally rewrote the pacing so that it applied directly to the visual narrative of film. The result was an experience that rivaled (and in some ways surpassed) the orginal. As anyone who has seen the film and read the book will tell you, the fact that Darabont chose to hold back the act of tunneling through the prison wall to the final act, made for a brilliant sense of closure, and ultimately a terrific film. I think the challenge lies in knowing the medium that you're working with; its advantages, and its disadvantages, and making a story that effectively combines the two.

From: Zach Darnell
Subject: Waiting for Casablanca

The one game that has been released <cough>lately<cough> that has had a pretty cool storyline for me is Doom, and that made the single player game more exciting. Single player games are more fun when there is a storyline and that's why Doom was more fun for me than Quake is singleplayer. When you are playing Multiplayer who gives a shit what the storyline is I wanna frag the next thing that moves which will be one of 16 or 32 players!

DarkMage

I have noticed that a lot of people did actually enjoy the plot behind the original Doom, and were disappointed that Quake didn't at least have a similar, if any plot. While I may have not been crazy about the plot in Doom, at least it showed a somewhat concious effort at creating one.

As for not wanting a plot in multiplayer gaming, that is a valid opinion. However, as the popularity of CTF and mods such as Team Fortress have proven, people find that having a purpose to their killing is a more immersive experience. Of course this sort of thing isn't for everyone, but in many cases, its not uncommon to find more active CTF servers than regular QuakeWorld servers at a given time.

From: Samuel Greeley
Subject: Casablanca editorial.

In a way you're right. Games haven't acheived this level in years. Good stories died with infocom.

But take a look at the rest of america. Where's our Shakespeare, Mozart, Beethoven? When's the last time a movie of Casablanca's caliber came along? How many shows on TV are worth watching? Why do all bands sound alike? Our society has been moving toward, faster, quicker, leaner plots in all aspects of our entertainment. I'm sure that every game designer sets out to make a game that is immersive, that does move the player. But whose going to buy it. Quake sold millions of copies, would Zork sell now? Not without flashy graphics and cut scenes.

Once in a while a RPG slips through that is quite good. Lunar for the Sega CD was quite immersive, and even moving in places. But to do it the gameplay suffered. It was totally linear, it had to be. Doing a moving immersive game would be nearly impossible. Remember the choose your own adventure series. Shlock. They couldn't compete with real novels, because the reader has a choice. A truly immersive storyline is immersive usually because the author sets the situation to get a reaction out of you. Whether it's fear, anger, sadness, or happiness. When you give the storyline to the player, they might not go down the same road an author would. So either you have great games or you have great stories.

Doing a game that gives you complete freedom (which gamers want) and a moving storyline (which 5% of people want, if that) would take a team of people years to create. And when released would sell maybe 500,000 copies. Even fewer would finish it.

I too hope that it will happen. But I'll only believe it when I play it.

Samuel Greeley

Ah, the purely cynical approach. I was waiting for one like this. :)

As pessimistic as I am, I do have an actual hope that the industry will invest the time and resources necessary to produce a work of the caliber the Infocom games once provided.

As for your comments on modern America, they are valid...to an extent. Granted there certainly is no modern equivelant of Beethoven (although on a personal level Tori Amos does come frighteningly close), and cinema has become a fairly desolate field, but at least in those areas I see (albeit small) glimmers of hope. In cinema, we have the upcoming release from Stanley Kubrick, and the films of Martin Scorcese. One of my favorite films, The Shawshank Redemption was released all of three years ago. The recent rereleases of the Star Wars trilogy proved that audiences will still flock to see a terrific story. Recent bombs such as Batman and Robin proved that a huge budget doesn't necesarily mean big sales.

As far as a modern Shakespeare, the best I can offer is Norman Mailer (although atmittedly his works are a bit of an aquired taste) and even his works pale in comparison to the good bard's.

Returning to games, Activision has actually created a new text-based Zork game to be released with their upcoming Zork: The Grand Inquisitor. You can bet your farm that I'll be first in line to buy it. And hopefully I won't be alone. The current trend of bigger, flashier, more indulgant games is bound to pass. Lets just hope we're all around to see the aftermath.

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