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Games need to drop Hollywood's reality and start telling their own, better stories

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Games have immense potential as an art form. That should be obvious now. The industry has an increasingly impressive pool of talent in all creative fields. Gaming as a medium possesses all the tools available to art, music, literature, radio and film, and has the interactive element to boot. There's theoretically absolutely nothing that games can't do, and we've seen some pretty exciting creative ripples come from that capability throughout this generation. 

But at the same time, a huge amount of that potential remains simply potential. It feels like games are still holding back from unleashing what they can really achieve as their own medium. Because in a great many ways, games aren't yet performing as their own medium. They're hamstringing their own creativity by taking too much of the wrong kind of inspiration from film. 

Take game worlds as an initial example. They're often visually stunning, but very rarely do they feel new or original. And I'm not talking about subscription to fashionable me-too trends in game design here. 

No, the actual problem is that, irrespective of inter-game borrowings, the whole framework that game worlds and stories operate within has been borrowed from another medium entirely. Modern games, particularly those of a triple-A persuasion, frequently purport realism and believable, human characters, but they fail because they don’t look to the real world for their inspirations. They don’t even look to the likes of literature. They always go straight to movies, and as a result they only ever emulate movie reality. And movie reality is a place that exists a long, long way from the real real world. 

Just as artificially flavoured fruit sweets, yogurts, ice cream and the like taste absolutely nothing like the soft, pulpy real-world inspirations sketched cartoonishly on the packaging, yet are interpreted by our brains as being strawberry or banana flavoured through years of conditioning, so too do we accept movie reality--within context--as being a real place. It’s a place distant and parallel to the real world, and operating on its own internal rules, admittedly, but we accept those rules and don’t question the way they work, however objectively ridiculous they might be. When a cinematic car bumps into a wall and inexplicably explodes on contact, we accept that the flames taste of watermelon. 

And for whatever reason--perhaps the medium’s evolution in the hands of a generation brought up in Hollywood blockbuster boom period of the ‘70s and ‘80s, perhaps just laziness of research--video games have reached blindly into that grab-bag of visually impressive, easily digestible nonsense for years, accepting every ludicrous trope and coolly justified untruth and lending them further weight and credence by the implicit condonation of repetition. 

Typifying case: The exploding barrel. It doesn’t work. In real life, if you shoot a barrel full of fuel, you lose all your fuel as it leaks out onto the floor. Simple as that. But in movie-land, gasoline is apparently so unstable that driving a car over a pothole should cause the apocalypse (provided the context plays to the hero’s benefit). And so the exploding barrel has become the absolute king of video game design tropes. Even though it’s a load of bollocks. 

That’s a simple, blunt example to sum up the situation, but the problem goes much deeper than unrealistic combustion physics. It affects both the quality of script writing and the very fabric of game worlds. In terms of the latter issue, it leads to far too many settings which, while often incredibly visually impressive thanks to the talent of the production designers currently working in the triple-A industry, all too frequently feel all too familiar. When games were a new medium, the novelty of playing a level that was “just like that bit in Aliens” or looked “just like Blade Runner” was an exciting point of recommendation. But now? Cinematic visual language has invaded games so completely that there are few surprises around. 

Post-apocalyptic games are nearly always Mad Max 2. Sci-fi games? It’s Ridley Scott, James Cameron and Star Wars all the way. Horror game? Throw together a few Romero films, a bit of The Thing, a fat slab of HR Giger, and away you go. And it gets worse when you look at the kind of writing that games still largely harbour. 

We frequently bemoan gaming’s two-dimensional characters and generic big-balls action-bastard dialogue, but I can’t help but wonder how much of that problem is a product of the ability of the games’ writers and how much of it stems from a desire to emulate the snappy, one-liner driven vibe of Hollywood action movies. The framework of blockbuster cinema seems also to have become the de facto approach to creating video game narrative, in both characterisation and the types of stories that are told. 

Through the many possibilities afforded by interactive storytelling and the ability to ‘be’ the protagonist (or even manipulate an entire ensemble cast), games have almost limitless potential for deep, nuanced, intelligent, mature storytelling. But by shackling themselves to the conventions of the most shallow subset of a mechanically very different medium, they’re hamstringing themselves every hobbled step of the way. 

I’m not saying that all triple-A games are awful Michael Bay affairs, of course. The Last of Us, although aping the visual style and tone of No Country for Old Men and The Road, has excellent, multi-faceted, desperately human characterisation that it augments fantastically through interactive subtext. The BioShock series, despite various granular failings, provides fresh worlds and big, challenging ideas that a Hollywood blockbuster would rarely risk the budget required to combine. 

But why don’t horror games yet have their equivalent of the World War Z novel? Why are crime games still stuck in the mould of Scarface, Tarantino and Bad Boys when there are much more human, affecting stories to be told in those worlds? Why are our huge, intricately constructed open-worlds designed primarily for fucking about and smashing shit up, emphasising their video gaminess rather than augmenting a grounded, tactile sense of reality? 

Why, with grim contemporary military conflicts resonating through the cultural consciousness, and multitudinous first-hand accounts available, do gaming’s self-confessed attempts to maturely relate them still come out like a sandy version of Commando? And why is the admittedly likable Nathan Drake vaunted as one of our best-written action heroes, when he’s actually just a container for pithy comebacks and put-downs, wrapped in the portmanteau aesthetic of several existing cinematic heroes and redeemed by a talented and charismatic voice actor? 

The answer to all of those questions is the same. Gaming is too in thrall of Hollywood. And it needs to stop that silliness. We have the talent, the tools, and the developing narrative language to make much more than unlicensed adaptations of another medium’s big hits. Given what games are capable of, we’re drawing from a detrimentally small pool of inspiration. It’s like having a TARDIS and only using it to see what the neighbours next door are watching on TV. Let’s start looking a bit further afield, shall we? 

You know that kid at parties who talks too much? Drink in hand, way too enthusiastic, ponderously well-educated in topics no one in their right mind should know about? Loud? Well, that kid’s occasionally us. GR Editorials is a semi-regular feature where we share our informed insights on the news at hand. Sharp, funny, and finger-on-the-pulse, it’s the information you need to know even when you don’t know you need it.

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11 comments

  • runner - October 18, 2013 2:15 a.m.

    Both recent movies and games tend to forget the importance of the well written script. They will come up with the plot, overall storyline, overall characters, and overall setting and leave it at that and came with some half-ass script just to bridge all of those stuffs together. But without the good script that will flesh out the characters and setting, no matter how good they are, everything will fall flat. Sadly that most of the audiences tend to overlook this problem too.
  • WrathLord03 - October 17, 2013 4:21 p.m.

    This is a really interesting matter to debate. It all goes back to the days when Myst first came out, and it was lauded by art critics as being something that could finally make video games a 'serious' topic for academics. But, obviously Myst was basically a lot of reading and not a lot of gameplay, and so everyone's finally realising now that games are different and can't be studied as any other media already existing. The prevailing theory now is that a gameplay defines a game, rather than the narrative, except a lot of people in the industry, like David Cage, don't seem to realise that. As for Drake, I think his popularity is down to two things. One is that he was better than all the gravelly-voiced bastards that came before him, and two is that you just like him. Let's just take Naughty Dog's other leading man Joel, for example, and while Joel may be better-constructed, you just look back on Drake and have far more fond memories. Ultimately, best character lists are more "Who do you like?" then "Who's better developed?" most of the time. I think the industry's finally realising they shouldn't be copying Hollywood - Max Payne 3, for all its explosions, told a much deeper and more realistic story than any recent film effort - but it'll be a slow transition. About as slow as having Hollywood adopted into games in the first place.
  • gilgamesh310 - October 17, 2013 12:28 p.m.

    I do think stories in games are too dependent on hollywood overall but I think the horror genre does its own thing once in a while. There is lots of great stories in horror games and not that many good ones in films. Silent Hill 2 has a better story than that in any horror film I've seen.
  • KA87 - October 17, 2013 10:54 a.m.

    While I do love games to have a good story, I personally think that games are starting to become to much about the story and not enough about the game play. I mean look at Beyond 2 Souls. For the most part it is just an interactive story were your choices help pick the ending. I kind of miss the day when.... "Oh hey, that giant turtle took the princess again." "Well I guess I better go save her again." Was all the story you really needed.
  • interasteral7 - October 17, 2013 7:09 p.m.

    Sadly, there are gamers that are tired of the same storytelling of "the princess being kidnapped by a giant turtle and you have to save her" which is the reason why there are gamers who would want a good story in games. I put gameplay over story, because if the gameplay is bad, then the game is bad.
  • BladedFalcon - October 17, 2013 9:16 a.m.

    Ah, here it is! I wanted to comment on this article when it was posted two days ago, but then it was removed... I wonder why? Anyway, fantastic article Mr. Houghton, and for once you made a point that while very true, I hadn't actually thought about it. But yes, videogame story-telling and world building these days is too damn dependent on Hollywood, and that really needs to change.
  • bebl09 - October 19, 2013 8:30 p.m.

    Yeah I was wondering why it was removed too. Coincidentally, later that day GR published the article of best characters in gaming and Nathan Drake was #2 if I remember correctly, so I thought it could be because Dave says he's not actually that great a character in this article lol.
  • shawksta - October 17, 2013 7:08 a.m.

    Great article Dave. The worst part is that nowadays a game has to be Hollywood reality or it'll be flat out ignored and this is a massive case against new IP's while others are still getting attention for either being here since the beginning or just being a good series.
  • Rhymenocerous - October 18, 2013 2:02 a.m.

    Swap the word 'good' for 'mass-market-appealing' and you've pretty much hit the nail on the head.
  • macrm32 - October 17, 2013 5:04 a.m.

    While I agree, the question is: how? It took long for movies to become their own medium (most original movies were no more than books with animated scenes in lieu of sketches on the book pages). It's going to take a while before creators (and those forking over the cash) start taking games in their own direction.
  • rcarrasco121 - October 15, 2013 8:25 a.m.

    What a well written article. I'm enjoying gamesradar more and more these days for publishing such observational essays that examine the current state of the industry.

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