Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The RPG and Me

Despite my uneven record with RPGs, I've recently installed and started two 2009 releases on my shiny new PC: Dragon Age: Origins and Divinity II: Ego Draconis.  And my conclusion is this:

No, seriously, I really hate party-based gaming.

I'll admit that I had an irrational love for Divine Divinity.  It was, and remains, one of the worst names ever given to a game.  But oh, what fun!  I'd never have picked up this isometric Diablo II look-alike on my own, but in July 2003 I had a brand-new gaming-capable desktop for the first time in seven years (sound familiar?) and a friend brought DivDiv for me as a gift.  I installed it at something like 9:00 p.m. and became vaguely conscious, some time later, that I was both thirsty and needed to pee, and also that it was after dawn.

That summer I was unemployed and transitory, between college and grad school, so I had some time on my hands.  I must have poured at least a hundred hours into DivDiv and I still can't say why except, and this is important, that it was fun.  The story was fairly derivative, the translation errors (Larian is a European studio) were occasionally painful, and the mechanics were simple... but I loved it.  The game had hooked me and I was bound to see it through to the end, and to replay it on occasion as the years went on.

All the games I've loved through the years have hooked me in that fashion.  I've played and enjoyed games that didn't, but anything on my Top 10 or even Top 20 list has generally made me completely lose track of time at least once.  So it's an experience I welcome.

Dragon Age had piles of rave reviews behind it.  I managed to end up with a free (gifted) copy and looked forward to playing a for-really-MODERN game on my new machine.  So I sat down to play.  Went with a City Elf, Female.

I'll give them credit for writing; I liked her origin story.  And I'll give them credit for graphics; the world is gorgeous and a couple of the male characters around were indeed attractive and fun enough that I wanted to play until I got to a romance stage.  But something just didn't click.  Nothing hooked me.  And so I put in a few 30 - 90 minute sessions out of obligation, and haven't been back since.  I'm maybe five hours into the game but every time I see that icon I think, "I could, or..." and end up firing up EQ2 or Fallout 3 or Solitaire.

But then, last weekend, I managed finally to get my hands on Divinity II.  It's far less well-loved, and to many it suffered from the ill-timed comparison to Dragon Age, as both were RPGs released near each other.  But to me, Divinity II is massively more entertaining.  I wandered, slightly disoriented, for a few minutes but then old memory and gamer instinct (thank goodness for the standardization of WASD) took right over and I was in a game I'd loved seven years ago... only better.  I'm old enough now to tear myself away at bedtime rather than staying up until dawn (being married helps with this), but I got cranky doing it.  I want to keep playing!

The only way I've been able to describe why I love Fallout 3 but not Mass Effect, why I'll play Divinity II but not Dragon Age is this: I seriously hate party-based games.  I play a rogue, a thief, an assassin, or even a warrior -- but I play alone.  Summoned creatures and NPC allies are too much trouble.  They get themselves killed, they blunder in the way, and they need controlling.  I'd rather strategize on my own time.  Whether that strategy is to stealth-and-snipe (how I played Bioshock or Fallout 3) or to hack-and-slash (the easiest and occasionally most entertaining way to play, well, anything), I like doing it my way and not accounting for others.

The odd counter to this is that I enjoy time spent in an MMORPG.  Admittedly, I spend more time solo than grouped, but I like grouping and I used to enjoy raiding.  I think it's because players in an MMO (theoretically) do their own thinking, and I don't control any character but my own.  And I never play pet-summoning or charming classes.

So Mass Effect 3 will be a game for my spouse only, and that's cool.  I'll be Kratos, going solo, in God of War 3 and we'll both be happier for it.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Film and Games: Still Different, Still Art

The big news online for gamers today is that Roger Ebert will let us play on his lawn.  I respect the man, I and respect his willingness to say, "I shouldn't have said that."  He's right; a wise man (or blogger) knows when to shut his mouth and just listen, when the areas of one's expertise have been passed.  

There are a couple of key points in Ebert's own response, though, that show the flaws in his own argument.  He writes: "If you can go through 'every emotional journey available,' doesn't that devalue each and every one of them? Art seeks to lead you to an inevitable conclusion, not a smorgasbord of choices. If next time I have Romeo and Juliet go through the story naked and standing on their hands, would that be way cool, or what?"

That's a valid point, if it's the one you want to make.  (I would disagree, but that's irrelevant.)  But the game that touched off the whole firestorm was Flower.   

Flower is a narrative game.  There are no derivations.  You can choose whether to move clockwise or counterclockwise around a given area, and that's about it.  The game progresses through six distinct stages, with distinct and unchangeable goals in every stage.  There are no alternate endings; the game is entirely linear and tells a very specific emotional story.

The thing is, it's not the kind of story you could convey very well in a standard narrative film.  If it were to be film at all, it would have to be a 15-minute French art-film.  And even then, it wouldn't convey the emotions quite the same way.  The story of Flower is felt by the player, as you exuberantly ride the wind or duck wildly from a storm.  

The games that best fit the "art" mold are the games that use the meta-narrative of player control -- or lack thereof -- to add that extra dimension to the experience.  As a French art-film, Flower would bore the pants off the majority.  As a downloadable PSN game, it entranced players worldwide.

Similarly, there are talks of a Bioshock movie.  Leaving aside the entire seriously problematic genre of "video game adaptations," Bioshock is likely to suffer some of the same problems in a game-to-film transition that Flower would have.  To be sure, you have a human protagonist, which helps a great deal when making an effects blockbuster.

Verbinski is also on-target when saying the movie would have to be a "hard R."  Bioshock is a violent game, but not, generally, a gratuitously violent one.  (Though the player can choose, to a point, to be more or less so.)  But the pivotal scene of Bioshock must be shown in on-screen space.  The viewer absolutely cannot have the option to look away -- because what makes that scene work, in the game, is that the player has no option to look away.  The scene, which I have written about before, is made potent by a meta-narrative of control.  The game wrests control away from you and forces you to stand by, passively, and stare at a monstrosity of a cut-scene unfolding.  And there lies the emotional impact, the art and artistry, of the game.

In order for a film version of Bioshock to have any emotional impact, rather than being another zombie slug-fest, the creators of that film would have to work very hard to come up with something to fill the void left by taking any active control away from the viewer.  An entire film is, by its nature, passive and out of the spectator's control; that hole would likely be the failure point of such a movie.  For that failure point to exist, the interactivity itself must be a point of art.  And Roger Ebert would be a wiser man still if he would allow himself to see that.