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
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 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
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.
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
- 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 :)
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
- From: Zach
- 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!
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
- 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.
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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