My Own Reactions

These are my reactions to Phrontisterion IV as well as a number of other events at about the same time. I’ve been brooding over this problem for months now and various emails, bulletin board postings, and other inputs helped gel my thoughts. Yes, it’s strongly worded, but aside from the usual acknowledgements that there are plenty of individual exceptions to the generalizations presented here, I am willing to stand by these strong opinions.

About ten years ago, Hollywood was making its second grand foray into computers. There was much excitement over the potential marriage between Hollywood and Silicon Valley. There was plenty of hype over "Silliwood", and everybody expected great things, especially in computer games. But after a few years it became evident to the game designers that the marriage wasn’t going to work out. Among game designers, the problem was summarized in a single sentence: "They just don’t Get It." The "It" they referred to was Interactivity. The Hollywood people just didn’t understand the importance of interactivity. They saw the computer as nothing more than a new platform for their brilliant movie-making skills -- a kind of glorified VCR. Despite throwing lots of money and talent at the problem, the Hollywood efforts all ended dismally. We game designers knew why: they just didn’t Get It.

What goes around, comes around, and now it is the turn of the games people. The big rage now is the merging of stories and games. This is really just the same thing as the merger between Hollywood and Silicon Valley, except that it is expressed in terms of entertainment rather than geography. And this time, of course, the games people are in charge. They are proving just as stubbornly ignorant as the Hollywood people. In this case, however, the matter at issue is not interactivity – it’s story. Games people just don’t Get It, and their refusal to Get It is about as deep-seated as it could be. They wouldn’t Get It if you handed it to them on a silver platter. They wouldn’t Get It if you crammed it down their throats. They will nevernever Get It, because they don’t want to Get It. For them to Get It, they’d have to change their world view and abandon beliefs so fundamental that they don’t even recognize them as beliefs. They’re like the Creationists, who will accept science because at heart, they just don’t want to let go of their literal interpretation of the Bible.

Games people are literalists, too, but in a different way. Their world-view is literalist in a logical, physical, and spatial sense. When they sit down to create a game-universe in their computer, their first act to set up the spatial coordinate system and the map of their world. Then they populate it with physical objects and endow those physical objects with physical properties obeying physical laws programmed into the virtual universe. All very neat and tidy.

A storyteller setting out to build a virtual world would use a completely different approach. Her first task would most likely be to create a set of characters. Then she would endow those characters with dramatic traits. I doubt that she would ever get around to worrying about the spatial relationships among the various stages on which her dramatic action would take place. There would be plenty of loose ends lying about to be tidied up later.

This is the essential difference between game designers and storytellers: the game designers see the universe – everything! – as a gigantic physical system that need only be simulated with sufficient fidelity to achieve any goal. The notion that you can define the universe in human terms seems utter nonsense to them.

This mental fixation leads directly to the current idiocy gripping the imagination of the game design world: that stories can be tucked into games like any other components. To them, drama is just one more physical system to be simulated, like ballistics or optics. A game is a collection of interacting subsystems: a 3D engine, a physics engine, and, oh yes, a drama engine, too. We’ll just start with the same old shoot-em-up, puzzle-solving, resource management game and stuff a little drama in there as well. Hire some Hollywood expert to write up something pretty and mash it into the pile, right?

Of course this cannot work; it’s trying to pose a question in the wrong frame of reference. Figuring the dramatic content of a bullet ripping through a monster’s flesh is as futile as calculating the distance from MacBeth’s castle to the witch’s cave using the lines of dialog in the play – and just as silly. In order to understand story, you have to be a Romantic with a capital R. And let’s face it: there are no romantics, even with lowercase r’s, in this business. Games people will never, ever Get It, because they cling to the notion that their worldview can solve any problem.