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Opera, not Movies

January 20, 2009

At a conference I attended a while back, I heard a refrain often used by certain portions of the game industry: “film envy.” To generally summarize the point, game makers look to film for reference points when making computer games rather than looking for new (or other) models for the potential of games.

This of course ties into the idea of remediation popularized by Jay Bolter and Richard Grusin in their book, Remediation: Understanding New Media. The idea is that new media look to old media for reference point to frame its creation and consumption– radio was theater with sound, tv was radio with pictures, film was recorded theater, etc. While computer games aren’t a medium per se, remediation was and is an unavoidable part of the development of games within the digital medium.

So yes, there is film envy going on. Like games, stories are a fundamental part of the human experience. The most lionized form stories take today is that of film. And so game designers and developers reference the visual and narrative strategies that the 100+ years of moving pictures has developed. What works for film does not really work for computer games. Computer games are not films, just as they are not stories (this is much better discussed by Greg Costikyan here).

Perhaps a better though unexpected reference for the use of narrative by a different medium is opera. Yes, stories are told by opera, but they take a very different form. For one, the marriage of music, voice and acting require different approaches, and value different aspects of story. In opera, story creates the trajectory for the opera, and provides the context for the music and vocals. But it is not really the heart of the creative form. The music and vocals are. The storyline of many operas can be summarized nicely in a sentence or two. That is fine for the medium, as the real value lies in the sound, not the story.

Attending a performance of Turandot or Tristan und Isolde would be an eye-opening experience for most game folk, as it might suggest there are other ways for stories to operate within a different creative form.

16 Comments leave one →
  1. January 21, 2009 8:22 am

    The way I see it games are a completely new media indeed because they are about interaction. Essentially, no previous media relied on such thing as its pillar, as some have used it only to enhance the experience.

  2. January 21, 2009 11:44 am

    I’m happy to see this topic being discussed more frequently again.
    I wrote a related piece not long ago on how a push for “better” storytelling effects massively multi-player online role-playing games.

  3. January 21, 2009 3:15 pm

    To be quite honest, I find that a very strange article. This is because the basic game has a starting condition, gameplay and an ending condition. This is the same as a story with a beginning, middle and end. What you do within the gameplay and middle is merely details. If you have good gameplay taking you from story node to story node, is it not a good game? If the story is good and includes interactivity, is it not a good story? Whether a game or story is good or bad depends on the measurements and benchmarks.

    The article leaves me with a lack of respect for the author, because I disagree with the points, and how they are supported. It seems to me that the games he is trying to go for is a game in VR. It’s the same to me as those who say you can’t have good education in games without sacrificing the gameplay. Just look what Brathwaite says about that.

  4. January 21, 2009 6:05 pm

    I recently read GregCostikyan’s article for a class, and was left me impressed. I’ve always been more of a ludologist than a narratologist in thinking, though, seeing how rule set can create play apart from story, and story without play is basic entertainment. I think, especially now with online gaming being so popular and game genres [in the mainstream] getting tired, that the way we think about and play games will be changing quite a bit in the near future. Perhaps as games and gaming changes, it will mature into a medium distinct and apart from film and all the rest. In this way, instead of envying and emulating media from the past, it will inspire the media of the future by offering up a wholly new experience for people. The key, I believe, will be in distinguishing games apart from entertainment and recognizing it as art.

  5. January 21, 2009 7:53 pm

    No, keep your respect. I feel that two people can be in disagreement and stil be 100% right. Othewise, most game designers would be mortal enemies. In this case, I find there are a number of interesting points.

    Another thing, one could easily argue that a story node is not game at all, but a reward as it often is in Rpgs. You kill to advance the story. There is also the player created story that rises from play.

  6. John Sharp permalink
    January 21, 2009 8:08 pm

    @ Alvaro: I agree with you that games are about interaction, but I wouldn’t agree they are new or a medium. Games have been around for as long as people. I’d also say they aren’t really a medium, but a cultural form. Film is a medium, as is radio and television, but all can deliver the cultural form of story. That make sense?

    @Steven: Are you talking about my little piece on opera rather than movies? Or Costikyan’s longer piece that I reference? I’ll assume Costikyan’s, as I don’t use the phrase story node. I’m not sure I understand what you mean when you say, “What you do within the gameplay and middle is merely details.” Can you clarify?

  7. jcaskey permalink
    January 22, 2009 12:45 am

    I think Alvaro was trying to say that video games in particular are (or can be) an artistic medium, whereas the overarching, all-inclusive idea of a “game” is, as you say, a cultural form.

    It’s an interesting analogy you’ve drawn, in any case. To look at media that focuses on the technical skill and expression involved, rather than the motive or message.

    On the other hand though, that’s what some games are all about, the message. Many games aren’t made to show off technical ability at all, they’re created to make a point.

  8. John Sharp permalink
    January 22, 2009 11:50 am

    @ jcaskey: I think my main point with the opera vs. film analogy is that we need to recognize the unique value in games– that they are a form of second-order design that requires a different way of thinking about visual, aural and narrative content and structures.

    I don’t mean to discount the meaning of games, but rather suggest it is located somewhere other than the storyline and the moving image– it is in the player’s decisions and the meaning that evolves out of the play experience.

  9. jcaskey permalink
    January 23, 2009 5:22 am

    That latter point is well made, but it seems to divide the medium. On one hand, you have the art of the experience, of the decision-making and mechanics. On the other, you have the art of the craft, which is much more subjective and easier to relate to more traditional forms of art.

    Of course, the epitome of the art form is when all the elements work together.

  10. John Sharp permalink
    January 23, 2009 11:38 am

    I agree that it is easier to “grok” the aspects of games that are similar to film and other forms of storytelling. And I see the value of image and sound in games– they are the interface through which we “see” the game. But the problem, for me, is that many overemphasize the filmic elements and don’t get to the heart of games— the decision making and the rich experience that it unfolds.

  11. January 23, 2009 2:15 pm

    @BBrathwaite: It’s the only thing I’ve seen from the author, so I stated that the individual piece left me with the lack, though I probably should have clarified that. I also didn’t specify the type, because I was trying to sum up my reaction. Perhaps it would be better to say that I’m not impressed and don’t agree. Till I see more, the comment must contain the qualifier about that article. It’s the key to the statement, because that’s all I know of that person. I try not to judge people on a single piece. My mistake if it came across that I do.

    I think that while games may not be a story telling medium they are completely compatible with stories, as they are a story making medium. As such they can be used to tell or create stories in many ways, limited by the situation and skill of the creator(s).

    To limit a story, in it’s best form, to a static linear story is a sad view. It’s comparable to education being lectures, homework and tests. It’s seems so closed minded to me.

    @ John: Yes, I was talking about his piece.

    There are beginnings and endings for both games and stories. Between those is the experience. Gameplay happens in a game. A story somehow unfolds in a story. How those things happen and what happens are merely the details of the experience.

    If I change the numbers and functions within a math equation, it doesn’t change the fact that it is math. Remove the numbers and put in letters, and it’s still math. Remove the explicit functions and you can be doing discrete math or word problems. It’s still math.

    Bouncing a ball can be both a game and a story. There is play with a goal, and something happens that can be told, all between a beginning and an end. Each bounce of the ball can be a seperate occurrence. That time bouncing the ball could be an occurrence. All the times that person bounces a ball could be an occurrence. Every time anybody bounces a ball could be an occurrence. Yet, there is still gameplay and a story. Those are just the details, the rules of the experience. How you define the rules and what mediums you use define the experience, whether a game or a story.

  12. jcaskey permalink
    January 23, 2009 4:32 pm

    Ok, I can agree with that. Most concentrate too much on the imagery, and not enough on the elements that set games apart as a medium.

  13. January 24, 2009 7:06 am

    There are many types of music: relaxing, hard, dancing etc. All this types are good and all this types are different. Exist music, that based on good lyric and music, based on melody. Both are good. Music with emotional melody and nice lyric is good too, in spite of core of music is melody. Sometimes music with tearful lyric is more compellig to my emotions, then melody or lyric alone.

    Similar situation is with games. Game based on good gameplay – wonderful. Game based on good scenario – another kind of game, but nice too. Example: “Hotel Dusk: Room 215 for DS”. Gameplay is poor (for me), but game has nice scenario and good critic.

    PS Sorry for my poor english

  14. Chris Pioli permalink
    January 24, 2009 9:34 pm

    I think what lies behind games is “action and reaction”. The art in a video game is how the software reads “actions”, calculates a response, and outputs a “reaction.” Action is what you command your player-character to do when in the game environment, the reaction is what the game does in response.

    Action is determined by choice, reaction is what designers choose to have occur in response. I think the art in videogames comes from creating unique, surprising responses from user-input. I’d always thought Grand Theft Auto would be more interesting if the player character developed a reputation amongst the city folk. Perhaps he was a hitman and when he enters a particular neighborhood, everyone turns away from him, parents close their childrens’ eyes and drag them off the street, one man walks up at you with a pistol in his hand exclaiming “You killed my sister you bastard!”, not knowing that killing a hooker might just piss someone off. And then as you turn the camera around, you notice men in suits following you – the feds, undercover detectives, rival gangs, you don’t know. But it’s chilling, isn’t it?

    I don’t play GTA games, but I’d think that if I were to design one, I’d want to design features like that: something that causes you to think. That’s what separates video games from film, when we make choices, the game makes choices back at us.

  15. January 26, 2009 1:00 am

    The opera analogy is especially apt in regards to contemporary videogame aesthetics: over-designed, over-produced, top-heavy, pompous, baroque, totally infatuated by narrative (which tend to be overblown, melodramatic, and clumsily told), totally obsessed with lavish production values, too long, too loud, too slow, and trying too hard to be big and important.


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