Volume #1 Issue 5 December 1987
The medium of the computer game is only a decade old. We have not yet figured out just how this medium works. Everything is still experimental. In our blundering attempts to understand the medium, we grasp at what is familiar and try to apply it to computer games. It is therefore useful to compare the computer game with the other media, seeking illumination from whatever analogies we can draw. In this essay I shall examine analogies with cinema and literature.
The immature state of computer games makes a comparison with the movies a humiliating exercise. Who can forget the ghastly case of the Atari E.T. game, a game so bad that even its association with a hit movie could not save it from becoming landfill? Any useful comparison between games and movies must go back to the early days of the movies, when moviemakers were in a position similar to ours. What can we learn from their efforts?
The earliest movies, popular during the 1890’s, had more in common with arcade games than with movies. The nickleodeon was fundamentally similar to the arcade game a machine placed in a public location, activated by the insertion of a coin, that dispensed a few minutes of entertainment. The subject matter was similar in its emphasis on sensationalism. Where we have spaceships blasting each other, they had locomotives crashing into each other.
It is especially significant that the arcade-style movie of the 1890’s encountered a crisis right at the turn of the century. People grew bored with the same old stuff and turned away from it, causing some observers to suggest that movies were a fad that would soon die. The parallel with the experience of computer games in 1983-84 is striking.
The movies didn’t die, but they went through major changes. The discovery that you could tell a story in cinema (most attributable to Georges Melies) opened up a universe of creative opportunities and revived the dying industry. It took some time to figure out just how to tell such a story.
One of the early mistakes was the overuse of an existing model. Just as we game designers grope for comparisons with the movies to understand our medium, the early moviemakers looked to the theater. Some of them took the comparison too seriously. They placed a camera in the front row of the theater and put on a play with the camera rolling. These "photoplays" worked, but they did not take advantage of the special capabilities of the camera, and they did nothing to correct its weaknesses. After all, a real play had sound, but a photoplay didn’t. A real play had the impact of real actors right in front of the audience, but a photoplay didn’t. There were several well-funded efforts engaging some of the finest theater actors of the day, but they were miserable failures.
History repeats itself; today we have several publishers making explicit reference to the movies in their editorial strategies. They try to make games in the image of movies, and the results are just as lame as the early movies made in the image of plays.
Fortunately, there were creative people in the movie business who experimented with the medium and learned how to put together a real movie. The Great Train Robbery (1903), by Edwin S. Porter, introduced revolutionary innovations such as the parallel story line and a more mobile camera. A few years later, D. W. Griffith gathered up the various techniques that others had stumbled upon and integrated them into a stylistic whole, in the process all but defining the basic elements of film-making. He zeroed in on and defined the use of such techniques as the close-up, cutting, and special lighting. The important observation here is that Griffith’s contribution lay in areas that differentiated movies from plays. The culmination of his work, The Birth of a Nation, can safely be called the first true expression of the cinema as an art form.
We have to admit to ourselves that we have, as yet, no D. W. Griffith of games. We have not yet hit upon the fundamental techniques of our craft. We have yet to produce a game rivaling The Birth of a Nation. The best of our work might be compared with The Great Train Robbery or Melies’ A Trip to the Moon. We have a long way to go.
Another striking parallel is provided by the Motion Picture Patents Company. Using monopolistic techniques, this firm quickly established itself as the dominant force in the American film industry. It then laid down two dicta that hobbled the growth of film. The first was that no film could be longer than ten minutes. The marketing experts at the Motion Picture Patents Company were adamant that the American viewing audience was too dumb, too impatient to sit through any movie longer than ten minutes. So certain were they that they shelved Judith of Bethulia for a year, losing D. W. Griffith in the process. How many times have I heard publishers lecture me that people just don’t want to play long games, that three minutes is the maximum attention span of the computer game player, etc, etc?
The second dictum of the Motion Picture Patents Company was that actors’ names were to be kept secret. They wanted to reserve the intangible assets to themselves, but they failed. Eventually, somebody stole away a talented and popular actress with promises of name attribution, and the dam cracked wide open. Thus was the star system born. The Motion Picture Patents Company, which had utterly dominated the American film industry from 1909 to 1912, plummeted in importance and was dissolved in 1917.
As an ex-employee of Atari, I feel a sense of deja vu when reading about the Motion Picture Patents Company. Atari shot into a dominant position in the industry; it was the premier games company. Atari lived and died as an arcade-game company, certain to the end that what the public really wanted was fast-paced, short-duration games. Atari steadfastly refused to grant name attribution to its designers, grudgingly conceding only a few minor exceptions long after the rest of the industry had adopted the practice. And Atari died even more quickly than the Motion Picture Patents Company. Only the name remains today, pasted onto a completely different company.
One of the interesting problems in the early days of the movies was lexicon development. A movie is a medium of communication, and like any medium it has its conventions, those techniques or symbols that everybody understands. Initially, nobody knew what the conventions were, so there was much confusion. The first attempts at facial close-ups led the audience to think that the actor had been decapitated. Similarly, the early attempts at cutting from scene to scene encountered resistance from audiences who couldn’t understand the novel technique, but once they had been educated in the convention, the problems disappeared.
We in the computer games industry face a similar problem of lexicon development. We have to re-invent the user interface with each new game, imposing new assumptions on our audience with each new product. We cannot, as yet, standardize our approaches because the situation is too dynamic to accept standardization. Revolutionary times are exciting, yes, but they are also confusing.
There are dangers in making comparisons with the movies. The greatest of these arise from an oversimplified comparison. If movies are visual presentations of stories, then are not computer games just like movies, only interactive? The danger in this line of thinking is that interactivity is not some extra feature that can be tacked onto a visual presentation. Interactivity is so utterly fundamental to the gaming experience that all design must flow outward from the interaction, rather than having the interaction follow from the images. To start with a collection of images and attempt to breathe interaction into them is as wrongheaded as the Frankensteinian notion that life could be created by stitching together parts of bodies. You have to start with the fundamentals.
Another entertainment medium to which games are frequently compared is literature. The buzzword here is "inter-active fiction", and it represents much the same kind of lazy thinking that goes into the phrase "interactive movies". The initiating observation here is that computer screens have lots of text on them, and literature is composed of text, so why can’t computer games somehow do the same thing that literature does, only with interaction tacked on? Right.
I find it difficult to draw useful conclusions from any comparison of games with literature. There are some broad conclusions that can be drawn in comparison with stories in general. A game, like any story, must have conflict, for conflict is the goad of interaction between characters. A game must also have interesting characters (right now, we should be happy with any characters). But I can see no lessons that can be drawn from literature specifically. I think that the problem is that literature is an artistically mature field that has long since forgotten its youth. Perhaps one of you readers might wish to write an article revealing what I cannot see.
I will make a negative observation that the analogy to fiction can lead to serious mistakes. Fiction creates a storyline, a sequence of events arranged in an order that suggests meaning. This makes for great fiction and lousy games, because a game, to be interactive, must have not a storyline but a storynet. That is, the player must be able to make choices at crucial points in the course of the entertainment, and those choices, to be significant, must take the player to different territory. Many games crafted as interactive fiction have a hidden storyline inside a pseudo-storynet; this deprives the player of the opportunity to explore the territory he wants to explore, and consequently robs the entertainment of interaction.
Plato’s admonition applies to our efforts to understand games: we must proceed from the more knowable to the less knowable. Games are still in the "less knowable" category, but the cinema and literature are definitely "more knowable". Both fields offer useful analogies from which we can draw proscriptive and prescriptive conclusions. But we must remember that games are not movies and they are not fiction. The terms "interactive movie"and "interactive fiction" only indicate the magnitude of our failure to figure out the true nature of games.