Art vs. Craft

Despite the best efforts of the internet at large to proclaim otherwise, most creative works (movies, books, tv shows, video games, etc., though I’ll probably use films as examples for most of this post) are neither the second coming, nor the harbinger of the apocalypse. Where exactly they do fit on that (admittedly broader than generally necessary) continuum is often a matter of judgement.

Yet there is usually plentiful variation in that judgement. Critics rave about a film but audiences hate it (or vice versa). Different critics give wildly different ratings to something. And, at least at some level, we wonder “Why?”. After all, aren’t some things undeniably better than others? (Compare “The Incredibles” to “Catwoman”, for example.) Likewise, it bugs some people that obviously flawed works can become incredibly successful (whether financially or just in popularity) when more polished works can be quickly forgotten.

I think the issue stems from the conflation of the artistic and the technical. You see, in most works, there are a number of elements that are able to be (relatively) objectively assessed: “natural” dialogue; lack of boom mics in shot; clarity of editing. There are also a number of elements that are inherently subjective: mood; interest; coolness*.

The confusion arises because we assess a work on both an intellectual (technical) level and an emotional (artistic) one. Film Crit Hulk explains it very aptly in an essay on “tangible details” (in brief: when we lack the vocabulary/understanding to express why something affects us on an emotional level we instead pick on technical issues which may or may not have any relevance).

If everyone was relating to a work on the same level, there would be less confusion (but this is unlikely to ever happen). Instead we have critics praising the artistic elements of “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” and audiences complaining that it’s slow and boring (and I’m inclined to agree with both sides, in this case at least).

Conversely, we have Dan Brown, or the “Twilight” series, being hugely popular/notorious, with possibly as many websites pointing out their flaws as raving over them. Why so popular? Well, erring on the side of generosity, I think they must be doing something right. Sure, they have flaws, some mighty big/obvious ones, but they still manage to be engaging stories (to some readers, at least). Perhaps the complaint shouldn’t be directed at the authors, but at their editors, who lacked the verve to have at the manuscript with a red pen?**

I think this also relates back to my earlier confusion over chapters, in that they straddle the art/craft divide. Where to end a sentence or a paragraph is largely a “craft” decision. Where to end a scene is more an “art” decision. Where to end a chapter could be either (and is used differently by different authors).


* What I’ve found to be a good rule of thumb for quickly distinguishing the two is: technical elements are those that only stand out if done badly. Done well, they should be invisible (i.e. not distracting the audience).

** See also the later works of any author that became widely popular (e.g. the Dune series, Harry Potter), and suddenly the editors/publishers are afraid to be too critical lest their cash-cow jump ship.

Why No Games Have Great Stories

You’re probably already disagreeing with me. That’s fine, but hear me out.

So, previously I opined that games haven’t managed to really “wow” us with a great story. I suspect there are several reasons behind this.

Over-reliance on techniques from other media

We’ve got such a strong sense of how a story is “supposed” to work, having grown up with traditional tales. Beginning-middle-end, 3-act structure, Hero’s Journey, etc. So naturally, with video games, we try to use the same techniques, only to find they don’t work very well. Follow the story too rigidly, and the “player” might as well be watching a movie for all the input they have. Try to keep it open-ended and you end up creating vast swathes of content to cope with all the possible narrative branches.

This is not to say that existing techniques aren’t of use; just that they’re being used where they don’t fit due to a lack of any alternative (“when all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail”). Designers like Chris Crawford (who kind of knows what he’s talking about) are heading in the right direction in trying to develop techniques that apply to games.

Theme?

As well as lacking in subtext, I get the impression most games are lacking in a coherent theme. Sure, they may have one (as in, the designer had one in mind), but it often doesn’t come across that way to the player. Partly this is a result of the size of development teams; with so many voices it’s harder to coordinate the message.

An example of this is the phenomenon that has been termed “ludo-narrative dissonance”. The (pretentious-sounding) term is used for a variety of sins, but generally to describe the sense that the story and the gameplay are sending mixed messages. For example a game where, in a scripted cut-scene, the main character wrestles with guilt over killing someone, yet during gameplay the player (probably gleefully—it’s supposed to be fun after all) mows down hordes of mooks without batting an eye. Regardless of whether the term is useful or correct, it’s recognising a genuine flaw in a game’s ability to convey a story.

The player is the protagonist

A major feature of most stories that are considered “classics”—think Shakespeare, Austen, Dickens, and so on—is that the characters, and in particular the protagonists, come across as complex, fully-realised human beings. Their desires, fears, and needs drive their actions, and they develop and change over the course of the story.

But in a video game, the player is the one driving the action*. Granted, some players role-play, trying to put themselves into the mindset of the character, but most players act as themselves-in-character’s-body. They do things because they’re fun, interesting, or amusing. They may attempt to attack the character’s best friend, just to see what will happen. They may just want to kill monsters to let off steam after a stressful day. Thus, to a greater or lesser extent (depending on the game), the main character is a costume for the player to dress up in.

Games can, and do, provoke emotions in the player, and teach the player things about themselves or the world. But I’m sure you’ll agree that it would be difficult, if not impossible, for a game to make sure every player moves through a thematically-appropriate character arc over the course of the game (especially if they’ve played it before).

That bad, huh?

So, does this mean the prognosis is bleak? Not at all. While there haven’t been any great video game stories, there have been good ones. Anyone who’s played a few games probably has their own favourites. But it will be tricky to not only make the storytelling work, but also make the game work. None-the-less, it is a goal worth striving for, and I look forward to the fruits of the endeavour.


* Or at least, they should be. That’s why different techniques are needed for this medium. As Crawford puts it, designers need to focus on the process of storytelling, not the (pre-decided) end result of the story.

Games and Stories

Narrative in games is a topic I’ve read a lot about, and pondered a lot about, without coming to many definite conclusions, but a recent blog post on gamasutra (“Why We Suck at Subtext and How We Can Fix It“) solidified several of my ideas. Basically, I agree with it, and I also think there’s more to the difficulty than that.

Storytelling has been around arguably as long as language. It’s traditional forms (e.g. spoken, written, acted) have been codified as far back as ancient Greece (see Aristotle’s Poetics, for example), if not further.

One important understanding is that different techniques are available in a different medium. Written forms can make use of the size and shape of words or paragraphs. Spoken forms can add volume, tone, and speed. Theatrical forms allow re-enacting of the events of the story.

The modern world has introduced two significant new mediums with the invention of cameras and computers, each of which have their own allowances and restrictions on what techniques can be used to tell a story. Film and television productions have been more extensively studied, due to being around longer and having a large overlap with an existing medium (i.e. theatre), but they have still developed their own extensive vocabulary of techniques relating to camera angles, edits, lighting, focus, special effects, etc.

Computers have created a whole new environment for games which is far from fully explored. While games (like stories) have been around as far back as we have any record, most non-electronic games have little in the way of story owing to the need for simplicity. Often the “story” can be better described as a “setting”. For example, chess would be the same game if the pieces had different names/shapes—you could play with a bunch of small stones and a board scratched on the ground if you wanted to—it needed to be simple enough to remember all the details*.

Even with the extensive resources video games have available, however, there is a general sense of being underwhelmed with the stories associated with them. Pundits frequently speculate on when (if ever) we shall see the “Citizen Kane** of gaming”. I don’t think we’re there yet, basically because if we did, there’d be a lot more consensus on it. Most of the games put forward as candidates are a victim of the polarising that comes from internet hype; there’s no middle ground, something is the “best/worst thing evar!!!11!!!eleven!!1!!bbq!!@@!outrageoushyperbole!!”. There are many games that have done remarkable things with conveying moods, themes, etc. but the large-scale “AAA” games are largely stuck in the play-it-safe blockbuster mould.

There’s a lot of potential in video games to craft truly amazing experiences; to take players places they’ve never been before; to explore different facets of the human condition. They just don’t do it much, yet. Next time I’ll explain why it’s proving so difficult (as far as I can tell, anyway).


* I realise there are a lot of modern board games that are far more complex and have more of what we would call a story, but these generally require much more… well… stuff. You really need to have the box full of cards, dice, miniatures, tiles, etc. in order to play the game, and even experts will refer back to the rulebook during play to clarify a particular circumstance.

**Citizen Kane” is used as a simile for its significant innovations to the techniques of film-making. Basically, it went out of its way to do things that hadn’t been done before, and were unique to the medium of film.

Cynical Idealism

aka How You Can Make Money Blogging

Bearing in mind, this isn’t any formal methodology, just my conclusions from observations; the process is as follows:

  1. Start a blog
  2. Add a few posts/pages, making sure to include plenty of buzzwords about the amazing secrets of making easy money on the internet, growing your business, online “presence”, etc. etc.
  3. Conclude each with some form of “sign up/contact me to learn more!”
  4. Establish an advertising deal (easy to request, regardless of blog status), of the “money per page views” variety
  5. “Follow” any and all other blogs that have relevant tags, probably done automatically. This all but ensures you get the “oh, a new follower—I wonder what their blog is like” traffic
  6. Don’t bother ever reading the blogs you follow, or updating your own with interesting new content. That’s too much like effort
  7. Similarly spam comments and so forth anywhere and everywhere—anything that gets you traffic
  8. (ethically dubious) profit!

What’s that? I’m giving away your secrets? This is akin to revealing a pickpocket’s secrets, not a companies proprietary methods.

😡

Okay, rant over. It’s just encouraging to be told you have blog followers, then irritating to realise that at least half of them have never even looked at any of your posts. So, lest this entry be overwhelmed by irate cynicism, I’m going to defer to my idealistic side for a bit.

How You Should Make Money Blogging

(Assuming the content of your blog isn’t about promoting your company in some way shape or form, because there the blog is an auxiliary, not the main focus.)

Sure, have an advertising deal. Sure, try to increase the page views of your blog. But do it by posting interesting content. Stuff that teaches readers something. That gets them thinking about a subject in a different way. That stimulates interesting conversations. But most importantly, reflects you (the author) and what you’re interested in and passionate about. Let your posts be an authentic expression of your thoughts.

And quality will out. The blogs that have good content will get more views. Ones that don’t will be less-frequented (I don’t want to say forgotten, because they may well have their niches).

Is that too much to hope for?

Beyond the Beard

I saw a news article the other day that took the journalistic angle of “peak beard” (think “peak oil”, except they weren’t talking about running out of beard, but running out of motivation to grow one). A quick search traced the original to the Kansas City Star website.

The article didn’t come to any conclusions about whether or not beards were now passé, but its basis was some research at the University of New South Wales that measured whether participants found bearded or clean-shaven men more attractive. The study (discussed by one of the authors on theconversation.com) didn’t present an answer either, instead suggesting that the attractiveness of a feature was related to its scarcity.

So, if (like I did), you read the news, mentally discarded the slant, and concluded that “beards are not attractive, features that make you stand out from the crowd are attractive”, you’ve come to pretty much the same conclusion as the researchers. It would just be nice if it was a little more obvious (or even, say, if the article had included a link to either the study or the author’s comments).

(Mind you, this is probably coming from my own university experience, where “cite your sources” was emphasised.)

I do not think it means what you think it means

When we talk about people having the same cultural background, we mean they have a shared history. Not necessarily in terms of actual experiences (though it can be—witness the cohesion between people who have lived through the same event, for example), but that over their lifetimes they have accumulated various adages, ideas, and norms.

Mostly, these operate on a subconscious, background level; affecting your behaviour, but not something you explicitly think about. This is why culture-shock can be so significant—everyone involved is taking certain things for granted, so any differences aren’t recognised until it is too late.

Something I find interesting is that a lot of these ideas are based on metaphors—explaining how one aspect of the world works by equating it with another. Metaphors are incredibly valuable, but they are never perfect. It can be amusing (or, occasionally, worrying) to delve into these metaphors and explore their limits. How far can you stretch this comparison before it breaks?*

One concept that I’ve been pondering lately is that of “love”. (Huge topic, I know. 🙂 ) Specifically, a couple of the common metaphors that attempt to express some aspects of it: a battlefield, and a lottery.

You may know of the song Love is a Battlefield, but it’s not the only place the concept crops up. For example, couples going through difficult times may be encouraged to fight for the relationship. Both metaphors capture the unpredictability/lack of control experienced by those in the throes of passion, as well as the sense of there being something one hopes for. People talk about “winning” or being “lucky” in love.

As usual, however, these metaphors can be troublesome when over-applied. When love is viewed as a prize/goal, people start getting frustrated; they feel they’ve “bought enough tickets” or “fought hard enough”, as it were, that they “deserve” to win something. An unreasonable focus is placed on the end result, not on the process of actually getting to know another human being (which, you know, is the point).

Similarly, the danger of the battlefield metaphor is that it’s ambiguous who the enemy is. It should be the vagaries and difficulties of life that make it hard to find time to devote to each other, but it can all too easily be assumed to be the other person (with predictably disastrous consequences—you should be cooperating, not competing).

So, I guess my point is that it’s worth stopping occasionally to think about how you’re viewing something, and considering whether the metaphor you’re using actually applies.

Do you have your own examples of misapplied concepts?


* Some, not very far at all. For example, the quote “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” I think I understand what is intended, but there’s more wrong than right with this concept.