Victoria Vesna responds

Victoria Vesna responds

2004-05-01

In response to Perlin, Victoria Vesna reiterates the unique realism of games.

Computer games are clearly a distinct form of media, with an emerging history and place in entertainment and increasingly in the arts. At this particular juncture, there is much misunderstanding of this new genre primarily because games are played through established technologies such as televisions and computers. At the same time, games display characteristics that are, at least superficially, similar to existing media forms, which creates possibilities and confusion at the same time. The numerous recent attempts to develop games as extensions of profitable movies have resulted in abject failures and rare, weak successes. This, in my opinion, is due to blurry visions of how narrative is approached in these radically different mediums.

Perlin ascribes the inability of some games to achieve the level of engagement found in movies to their characters’ lack of realism. He asks why characters in movies seem more “real” than those in games, and how the story and the game could grow closer together. His goal is to achieve a point where the agency of the player and that of the character are so blurred that an intermediate state between “linear narrative” and “game” is achieved. Of course, the key to this is the narrative approach and the interactive design that drives the game.

The idea of transposing the novel narrative to films did not work until the movies emerged with a particular narrative form that is not always linear. Very few movies that follow a book religiously succeed because the medium demands different approaches to storytelling. For instance, Perlin writes about his ability to sustain the fiction of Harry Potter even after he puts the book aside. Although the movie was very successful at the box office, it received criticism precisely because it was too close to the narrative of the book. Many felt that it did not achieve the same kind of magic the book offered using old-fashioned text alone. Although related in concept, narrative is approached quite differently in literary circles from that of theater and film. Indeed, the debate of what is narrative and what is interactive is not quite resolved and shifts depending on the context. Games are developing a new context and audience who will surely define narrative in yet another way.

Like films and television programs, games usually have definite beginning and end points, but what happens between these points seems, at least superficially, to be dramatically different. Games are designed for extended and repeated playing, and as such necessarily resist narrative closure, and therefore have to provide pleasure for the player in other ways. They have the ability to create an illusion of narrative freedom - players can effectively dictate the course of the story depending on how they perform certain tasks. But, some would argue that there are certain games which progress without possessing a narrative at all. Racing games are the most obvious example - driving around the same track in repeated laps does not constitute a narrative as it is traditionally conceptualized. In the context of games, however, one could counter-argue that this is very much a different narrative - one that does not require writing, directing and acting as used in the movies. In games, the writing is the code, and the directing and acting is shared between the writer and the audience. These are very different worlds indeed - and the interactivity design is the key, not the degree of hyperrealism.

Perlin’s discussion hyper-real responsive characters, that would presumably allow for a real actor with agency to emerge, does not explain the popularity of game formats such as MUDs and MOOs. These simple text-based early game genres (Multi-User Domain, and MUD, Object Oriented, respectively) were successful in working with the player’s imagination, allowing for identification to happen on the basis of world-building and interaction with an online community. MUDs and MOOs are excellent examples of using words and stories that come from conventional literature in such radically different ways that an entirely new form of literature, if it can be called this, emerged.

Games are intrinsically different in their mode of address and almost always lose their magic when trying to assume the narrative rules of movies. Equally, movies are rarely able to give the same kind of thrill that games provide when taking on the action from games, as the Tomb Raider movie illustrates. It will be interesting to see if yet another genre emerges - one that is a true hybrid of movies and games using the kind of software that Perlin’s research group is developing. No doubt there is much more room for diverse styles to emerge in the game world, and the hyper-realistic movie/game hybrid model that seems to be idealized by Perlin could become yet another style, standing right next to a minimalist text-based model. In any case, I believe it is the way the interactivity is designed that will make each future project a success or failure.

Will Wright responds

Ken Perlin responds