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    PlanetQuake | Features | Articles | Classic PQ | Waiting for Casablanca Revisited
   

"Play it Again, Sam"
Waiting for Casablanca Revisited

By Fargo

loonyboi's recent articles (Waiting for Casablanca and the first followup) were so thought provoking that I felt I needed to respond. This isn't really a rebuttal of his views, since I think I agree with about 90% of what has been said so far; looni and I are both veteran gamers, who cut our teeth at the doorstep of Zork's little white house, hit puberty with the stupid Babel fish puzzle, and both rushed out to buy Atomic Bomberman within hours of its release. But I felt there was a lot that still needed to be said. Without further ado...

Linear vs. Non-Linear Storytelling - By Dave"Fargo" Kosak

One way to categorize different artistic mediums, and also to subdivide games, is to look at how much of the story is shaped by the user's participation. One could draw a continuum, in fact, that (in primitive ascii) might look something like this:

A novel would be on the left hand side of this chart. The author of the work has complete control over what happens. The reader has no way of affecting the outcome. At first this sounds awfully boring; I mean, the whole story is basically spoonfed to you, right? But of course we know in practice that a linear story can be terribly exciting, because every tiny nuance of the plot is under the control of someone with an artistic vision, who can lead us along to a suspenseful or joyous or romantic climax (whoa, interesting choice of words). A linear story has the potential of being a tight story, a "perfect" story, that leaves the reader very satisfied. Films also belong on the left side of the chart, although an audience's response to a film can affect the viewer's experience, so it's a tiny bit interactive (have you ever gone to a movie that wouldn't be funny if you saw it alone, but you had a good time because you were in a theatre full of laughing people?)

Theatre begins to move to the right of the chart, and while most of it is linear, the beauty of theatre is that it can sometimes streatch far to the right. Mystery Dinner Theatre shows are among my favorite--the audience gets to help try and solve a mystery, and the characters will walk around and eat dinner with you and you can ask them questions and try and unravel the plot. I love it! Most shows, however, have a pre-structured beginning, middle, and end, so they're fairly to the left of the chart.

Let's look at another medium... Erik Robson put it best in the last article when he said that "Role-playing games, damned by ties to geekdom, really did something completely new." Roleplaying is an exciting medium because it places itself firmly toward the right hand side of the chart. The player of a roleplaying game has nearly complete freedom with his or her character. The disadvantage of complete freedom is that the well-structured story goes out the window, but in the hands of a good game master the story can still salvage the elements (beginning, middle, end, character development, etc.) that make a tale great. And the ability of one's character to shape the world and change the story is a strong lure. (As a side note, I think Americans would be far more creative, exciting and action-oriented people if we all chucked our TVs and accepted Roleplaying as a mainstream entertainment. But I digress.)

What's this got to do with video games? Well, quite simply, a computer gives us the freedom to go anywhere on the chart we want. It can act as a Television over there on the left, and simply tell me a story while I watch (not the best use of a computer, but it's possible.) Or I can play a Quake Deathmatch, which is pretty much grounded on the right hand side of the chart (that is, I have complete freedom, but at the cost of a story.) This chart isn't a value judgement. Indeed, you can have great products or crappy products anywhere on the spectrum.

But it's worth looking at because every product has to make a decision. Where is it going to fit? Is it going to focus on story development, or player freedom? In a perfect world, we'd all like to see both. But who could craft something like that? How would it work? How could it work? A computer nowadays hardly has the creative or intellectual capacity of a good roleplaying game master. There are various limitations (that I'll get into below) preventing a product from achieving both a compelling story and allowing freedom to the player.

Instead we have interesting experiments happening all along the spectrum. Remember Bethesda's Daggerfall? That was a pretty unique product for its time because it found a niche nicely in the middle. Your character could follow the main plot or go through all sorts of mini-adventures of his or her own, living out life in a rich and detailed world. The only problem was that if one's character strayed from the storyline, the stories became awfully generic and not quite as interesting.

Keeping these fairly theoretical constructs in mind, let's try and come back down to Earth and talk a little about (yuk) economics.

Getting the Bang from My Buck

Above I talked about books and movies. I can see a new-release movie for eight dollars, and I can buy a thick paperback book for around $6.50. Both are entertainment products. Both tell a great story, or so I hope when I plunk down the money. In contrast, I spend upwards of $50.00 for a new video game. Whoa! How can I justify this?

There are a couple of ways. First of all, we can measure the actual time I spend being entertained. In the case of a movie, it's merely a couple of hours. It's hardly worth it to pay full price for a movie anymore, unless I bring a cute girl with me. Books would seem to be a better value, then. I'll spend hours and hours reading a book, and often it's more stimulating to the mind. (A movie is far more stimulating to the senses, though.) Videogames are more expensive, but often it's because you get more entertainment value out of them, right? It can take hours and hours to solve a game, although once you get it down to an art form, you spend less time to get to the end. Interstate 76, for instance, took maybe 25 to 30 hours for me to complete. That's maybe 14 two-hour movies, which would cost $112 in a theatre. Now my $50 game sounds like a pretty good value. Of course, with 14 movies I'd get 14 stories; With Interstate 76 I only got one, and much of it was repeating the same level over and over in frustration. It's a tough call.

But there's one thing that saves the day for video games: replayability. I've had Quake for over a year and I still play it. That's phenomenal! How many hours have I spent playing Quake? I couldn't even estimate. I76 was wiped from my hard drive but Quake plays on. I couldn't possibly imagine re-reading a book or watching a movie over and over again the way I constantly boot up Quake. Every time I buy a video game I hope to get that sort of value out of it. Bang for my buck? Quake's probably the best $50 I've ever spent on entertainment! Even better than strippers.

Replayability and storyline are in conflict. I76 is boring to me now because it has a linear storyline, I've already seen the ending, and the multiplayer (quite frankly) stinks. Ideally, a game should have a story so perfect that we can play it over and over again without getting bored (people have watched 'Star Wars' over and over without growing tired of it...) but such a game is a huge financial risk. Let's look at why.

Economics of Scale

Replayability makes it easier for me to justify the $50 price tag, so I'll often gamble on a game and buy it in the hopes of being lost for hours and weeks and hopefully months in a product. Not everyone feels that way, though. A vast majority of the world would never think of paying $50 for a "game." Why is the price tag so high? How come a movie can cost $300 million to make, yet only charge us $8 to see it?

It's all economics. The fact is, a movie can draw in a HUGE audience, first in the U.S, then in the world market, then in video and licensing. Hey, a movie can even do bad, but by the time it hits video, it could still make a profit. Movies have a bigger audience than games. They can afford a lower price of admission because the audience is bigger. Hollywood is very competitive, but it's a cakewalk compared to the video game industry. The smaller audience forces high prices, which forces the already small audience to be very picky.

Video games are a tough sell! I'm upset that I paid so much money for Interstate 76 and I hardly play it anymore. We demand replayability for our $50 price tag. It's hard to base sales on storyline because 1) the depth of a story isn't obvious when you read the back of a box or play the demo over the net and 2) people are afraid of buying a game they'll only play through once. It's easier to try and make the sale on something else -- graphics you won't see anywhere else, a level editor that lets you play the game over and over, Internet play so that you can play against other people, on and on. Video games are hugely competitive. I wish more companies would have balls and try and incorporate great gameplay into a great story, but more often than not the story is chucked out the window as soon as budgets run low or deadlines begin pressing.

So companies tend to shift their products toward the right side of the spectrum (full interactivity, no storyline), because it's easier to guarantee replayability there, easier to make a sale in that territory, easier to justify financially. It's a perception that has to be overcome before "Casablanca" hits the shelves. But there are other problems...

Changing Tastes: The Maturity of the Video Game Audience

So a quick recap: videogames have a small market, prices are high, it's hard to get people to buy the product. A video game has to hit the market by storm if it wants to be successful, and that means it's really important for a video game company to understand the market. Which means that marketing people are powerful in this industry-- that's upsetting, because I'm discovering (I work in advertising right now) that most marketers don't understand games and are, on the whole, idiots. But that isn't the problem. The problem is that the driving force of the market is comprised of 12 or 14 year old boys.

Research by high-paid marketing morons has shown that even when an older male plays a game -- hey, for that matter, even when a girl plays a game -- they descend to the mentality of a 14 year old boy. On the one hand, I would have to say that's true. You should hear the smack talk I shout while playing Quake. Or see how my office acts when we're involved in a teeth-grinding game of Bomberman. "You suck! I hosed you!" we scream at each other. Sure, we act like 14 year olds. On the other hand, what other choice do we have? Games nowadays are marketed for the 14 year old mentality and designed with 14 year olds in mind! No wonder it's hard for adults to see this as anything but a kids' medium, hard for a housewife in Montana to see why a video game has more entertainment potential than her Soap Opera.

With the exception of Barbie Fashion Designer (which outsold Quake, I believe), games that aren't built for 14 year old males are a huge financial risk in an already dangerous market. One of the few games to breakthrough to a new audience was unfortunately Myst, which (on our spectrum) was a pretty linear story littered with simplistic but frustrating parlor-game puzzles that only barely gave the user only minimal interaction with the environment. Hardly the kind of entertainment I think we're aiming for when we say "Casblanca."

Tastes change as we get older. I recently re-read the Lord of the Rings series and had a completely different experience from the first time through. Back then I was excited by big battles and magicians who threw powerful magic and towns burning and stuff dying. When I re-read the series I was intrigued by the master/servant/friend relationship between Sam and Frodo, the fall of Saruman or Golem, or the inner strength of the hobbits that allowed them to resist so much hardship and the power of the ring while even the most noble of humans (Boromir, for instance) could not. I had a similar experience when I saw Star Wars again recently.

Nowadays, I can barely sit through a movie that is nothing but car chases and explosions. I should clarify -- I don't think that my tastes have changed -- I think that the problem is that I've seen it all before. How many car chases can a man watch? What could they possibly do that's different? It's hard to get excited about it.

That's the problem that videogames are having right now. Explosions and cool graphics are luring the 14 year olds, while adult users get tired and stop buying games. It's a double-bind; the answer is obviously to grow the audience, but that requires making games that break the rules, and breaking the rules is dangerous, because the audience is so small... the vicious circle continues.

Technology and Character Interaction

For sure you think Fargo's winding down, but there's yet another obstacle to storyline that makes Casablanca so hard to reach. One of the greatest elements in storytelling is the human factor. For instance, the slow change of a character. Perhaps from immature farmer to leader of a rebellion (Luke Skywalker), or maybe a fall from power because of cruel fate (Oedipus). Relationships are also fascinating--like the Frodo/Samwise dynamic I mentioned before, or the interplay of characters in a romance (as in Clueless, or its predecessor, Emma.)

In linear mediums, relationships are easy. The writer simply tells us what happens, the characters act to his or her will, and we have a beautiful story. This obviously doesn't apply to an interactive or non-linear medium. How many human characters were in Infocom adventures? Very few, because it was so difficult (although Infocom did it better than anyone since.) That's why your sidekick was always a robot, like Floyd (Planetfall), a moron, like Trent/Heather (Leather Goddesses of Phobos), or drunk or sleeping (as with most of the characters in Hitchhiker's Guide.) Infocom always found a way to limit your interaction with other people ("Hello, sailor!") in creative ways (my favorite was when you met a group of humans in Suspended... but none of the robots you controlled could speak to them!) The artificial intelligence we have at our disposal is barely good enough to create convincing shoot-em-up opponents, much less create a character that we could fall in love with or would be willing to sacrifice our lives for. It takes more than Lara Croft's breasts to do that.

Instead puzzle challenges get limited to physical-space types of puzzles, which is convenient because 14 year old boys love 'em. Blowing stuff up. Finding keys to doors. Jumping from platform to platform. Flying a spaceship through gates. Like car chases in the movies, it all gets to be the same after a while, but it still packs in the kids. That grey area in the middle of the linear/non-linear cart is grey because technology hasn't conquered it yet. I would love to play a game where I had to accomplish my mission while fearful of a semi-neurotic computer who behaved like HAL from 2001, but the technology isn't quite there.

It's this limitation that makes it so hard to put a compelling story in a game. A recent issue of Next-Generation (I think it was in July) pointed out studies showing that women have shown more interest in relationship-oriented activities rather than spatial ones. So if we want to grow the video game audience, this is one frontier we have to conquer. But the vicious cycle and the marketing morons and the economics of scale make research on that front financially suicidal.

"This Could be the Start of Beautiful Friendship": Multiplayer to the Rescue...

loonyboi seemed pretty skeptical of multiplayer games as a solution to these problems. "... for some of us, a videogame should be like a novel. A single person, completely immersed in a compelling story." Here is one place I actually disagreed. One of the greatest strengths of this medium is its interactivity! I'm tired of games being solitary, I want to be with people. I'm skeptical that a single-player game could ever be as immersive and compelling as a novel for the reasons I've listed above. Oh, someday it'll happen, someday I'll find myself falling in love with a video game character, but I don't see this as being likely in the near future. (Which is fortunate, since falling in love with a video game would be kinda embarrassing. Do you think that someday there will be divorce cases where the computer is brought on as a witness? "Do you love Mr. Finklestein, Lara Croft?" "Yes I do!")

In the meantime, an exciting new technology is breaking all of the rules and making things possible that had never been possible before. Multiplayer! It's grounded firmly in the non-linear part of our chart, but we're getting to the point where we can still develop storylines in that context. The premise of Ultima Online is exciting. Here's the idea; they'll provide all the raw materials you need, such as fell beasts, economic engines, dynamic worlds, etc. And the stories are created by the players. Romances will happen, empires will rise and fall, social circles will form and disintegrate, people will struggle for their freedom... I don't want to over-hype the game, because I haven't played it yet. But the potential is there, and the idea is credible. After all, I may not fall in love with a video game character, but my character could perhaps become attached to that housewife's character from Montana. And if she were killed? I'd seek revenge, perhaps enlisting help from a shady wizard on the way. Maybe he'll betray me. Who knows? Does it matter? It's the workings of a great story, erupting spontaneously from the primordial soup of a computer world! You guys better be careful, when Ultima Online comes out, I just might leave PlanetQuake in favor of PlanetUltima...

Ultima Online has the potential to reshape the industry. It might -- it just might -- start attracting a substantial adult audience. Hell, I know a lot of women who don't like Quake but would love the opportunity to start helping to shape a community, and I'll try and get them involved with Ultima. Online community games are awesome. Some of my experiences on MUSHes that focus on roleplaying have not only formed online friendships, they've been just as memorable as a good book or film.

Conclusion: "We'll Always Have Paris..."

Yes, I think Multiplayer community-oriented gaming is going to be the next step. Technology is always on the move, you see. There was a time when it was primitive, and Zork found just the magic formula. Zork will always be a classic. But technology moved on, moved to games like the original Ultima series or Final Fantasy. Then came the immersive possibilities of a 3D world, which brought its own generation of classics, like Doom. Now Internet multiplayer is in full swing, and we're seeing Quake as the king of the mountain, the new classic. We're poised on the next generation of of classics, where I think we'll see amazing things from giant online communities, creating stories that would never happen in a single-player world. After that? Who knows.

But right now we've moved away from a point where story can be the main focus. It'll swing back, but in the meantime the obstacles I've listed above make it difficult (On the other hand, I hope somebody can prove me wrong and make a lot of money doing it.) In the meantime, I still think we'll find our great stories. We'll just have to find them online, with other gamers around the world.

But We'll always have Zork.

-Fargo

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