No more growing pains? Sigh.
Start with this and we’ll go from there. It’s MTV Multiplayer’s Stephen Totilo responding to comments made by journalist Heather Chaplin at last week’s 2009 Game Developer’s Conference. This link from GamePolitics has a bit more on the subject, via Pixel Vixen 707.
So it’s apparently not the medium that is in its adolescence, but rather the purveyors and consumers of that medium. Not a thoroughly outlandish theory when you step back and look at the subject matter of the most popular adult-rated games on the shelves. From Chaplin’s mass audience-minded view as an NPR contributor, gaming’s buffet of zombies, space marines and sociopathic anti-heroes don’t exactly find easy comparisons with Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.”
There are shades of a high art vs. low art debate to her contentions – at least it’s art, right?! – but Chaplin’s fiery oratory at GDC comes off most as a plea for more high-minded output, particularly from the industry’s most popular players. And I call foul.
First, there’s a quote from game theorist Espen Aarseth, author of Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature, that I want to share:
”In the film-to-game business, it is easy to spot the pattern: Only certain types of film become games. Key words are action, science fiction, horror and war; in other words, spatial spectacle. Interestingly, games do not seem to afford the transfer of many genres that we recognize from book to film: romance, psycho-drama, period-historical, or biography. Successful book-to-film transfers such as Remains of the Day or comic book to film transfers such as Ghostworld, will never make the leap to game and for good reason: The narrative affinities and affordances shared by books and films are not shared by games. In other words, we are not witnessing cross-media storytelling, but rather cross-media spectacle-making.”
Now of course Aarseth is referring specifically to games formed out of films here, but the subtext implies that genres such as “romance, psycho drama, period-historical or biography” wouldn’t fit within the medium of video games. To be fair, I think Aarseth is over-generalizing a bit. Spatial spectacle is obviously a major component in games, but I don’t think it’s right that it be tethered exclusively to “action, science fiction, horror and war.”
You want gaming’s analog for a Gondry-esque philosophy play, complete with whimsical characters and colorful environments? See Braid. How about a meditative video essay along the lines of Baraka or Winged Migration. Give it up for Flower. Or a thought-provoking exercise in magical realism, a la Pan’s Labyrinth? I give you The Path. Spatial spectacles, the lot of them, freed of their expected generic trappings.
All of that said, I think Aarseth’s quote offers a truer explanation for gaming’s focus on seemingly “juvenile” sensibilities. Braid, Flower, The Path, and their ilk offer proof that games can transcend long-held generic conventions, but it’s also no surprise that the bulk of what’s most popular is derived from a more traditional definition of “spatial spectacle.” You know, explosions, spurts of blood, etc. Not only is it easier to follow these pre-existing patterns from the concept stage, it’s also what the majority of consumers are happiest with. Getting back to Frost: his road not taken may have “made all the difference,” but it’s not the one that the mass audience will walk.
Here’s a snippet from Totilo’s write-up, a paraphrased quote from Chaplin, that I also want to touch on:
“At the same age of their medium, Chaplin said, movies had had Fritz Lang and were on the verge of Citizen Kane.”
We’re still a good five or ten years off from Citizen Kane, but that’s besides the point. At the very least however, gaming has had its Birth of a Nation. If Pong can be called our Lumiere clip of a train arriving in a station and Pac-Man, one of the many early chase films, then I’d say that Super Mario Bros. could stand in for Birth of a Nation (which would somewhat jarringly put Shigeru Miyamoto in league with D.W. Griffith) for establishing a baseline catalog of medium-specific conventions.
Not that I’m trying to assemble some definitive canon here. I’ll leave that to scholars like Henry Lowood. I’m just using these hastily thrown together examples to drive home my point of view, that Chaplin’s GDC comments were unfairly critical of the game development community and perhaps even slightly misinformed.