Thursday, February 28, 2008

Where is Gaming's The Wire?

HBO's sensational show The Wire is coming to a close, after five thought-provoking seasons. While not one of HBO's most popular shows, The Wire is often cited as one of the best shows no one is watching. Juxtaposing the problems of inner-city Baltimore (really, any inner-city) with the police department, politicians, education systems, and media that surrounds it, The Wire creates social commentary as to the reasons and outcomes of our society's flaws. Its characters feel real and gritty; its storytelling feels emotional and at times gut-wrenching. Recently, an event happened on the show that has caused me to reflect on the world we live in, in great depth. So where is the video game industry's version of The Wire? Where is our game that forces the user to reflect on the world as a whole and figure out how they fit into that world?

As far as I can tell it doesn't yet exist. Storytelling in video games and storytelling in film and television are two very different beasts, there is no doubt about that. Part of The Wire's low ratings is due to the complicated and tough-to-handle subject matter. However, HBO still left them on the air for five seasons. In the mainstream core gaming industry, if it can't sell millions of copies, it won't be made.

Electronic Arts, Activision, Nintendo, and Ubisoft are like the major four TV networks. They mostly stick with the safe bets. None of the top 20 publishers, however, deliver us games that make us truly reflect, in my opinion. What was the last game that made you think about your actual life or the world you are surrounded by? The games that stick with me the most are usually the ones with the best plot twists (Knights of the Old Republic) or innovative gameplay (Katamari Damacy). There are a handful of games that have made me feel something more than just fear and aggression, however. Ico taught me that I can love another video game character, even if it's only for the duration of the game. Jason Rohrer's Passage made me feel true sadness (If you have not played this game, please play it right now - it literally will take you five minutes and possibly be one of the most emotional games you will ever play). I, however, did little reflection on life after either of these titles. They affected me in the moment, and the fact that they affected me at all stuck with me. Thoughtful reflection did not follow either, unfortunately (Though Passage did get me to think about mortality for a period of time).

So, how can we as an industry solve this problem? For starters, we can start putting thought-provoking moments in our games. BioShock was a decent start; it asked you to make a moral decision, but wrapped that moral decision with ludic elements. Players didn't reflect on whether or not they made the right choice because they truly cared about the Little Sisters (at least most didn't). Rather, they reflected on if the decision they made helped them create the best character. Some saved the Little Sisters because they would get an exclusive Plasmid for doing it. Others killed the Little Sisters because it gave them the most in-game currency. How many saved or killed because it was the right thing to do?

We need to take the moments that can cause self-reflection further. We need players to ponder the meaning of life. We need players to feel sad, remorseful, and disgusted outside of the immediacy. Not all games need to do this; not even most games. Just some games, and not just independent games like Passage. Large, mainstream core games need to make us feel this every once in a while. Sure, the game may be under appreciated by the masses, who want their media spoon-fed to them. However, this is what will make our medium culturally relevant and allow us to move forward as an industry. Only then will we get close to the gaming industry's version of The Wire.

GDC Thoughts

I returned from San Francisco last week, after being at GDC all week. This was the first time I had ever attended the GDC, and it was absolutely fantastic. I learned an incredible amount and was truly inspired by a number of people. The Game Design Workshop was a two day workshop on the Monday and Tuesday of GDC and is an absolute must-attend for anyone who has anything to do with game design. I have never been so mentally drained in my life, than in that workshop which required groups of people to create games in very limited times (Actual games, not just theories). I came out of that workshop with a ton of ideas and critical ways to think about games that I believe will help me forever in this industry.

Notable lectures that I attended were Clint Hocking's talk on Immersive Fidelity, Jonathan Blow's talk on Inverting the Design Process, Ken Levine's talk on Storytelling in BioShock, and Nicole Lazzaro's talk comparing Halo vs. Facebook. I would highly recommend checking out the audios for these talks if you can. I'm not going to talk too much about each talk right now, but I may do so later as I write up more of my notes and begin to understand the subject matter further. I will say that the Game Design Challenge, in which contestants presented their designs for an inter-species game, was possibly the most fun I had at GDC. Steve Meretzky stole the show with his presentation, but I did think that Brenda Brathwaite's ARG (Alternate Reality Game) was actually a better game.

The biggest thing I learned at GDC is that there are a lot of game developers who are trying to challenge the ordinary, from all angles. You have people in the independent scene, mainstream gaming, flash gaming, and all other walks of life who feel similarly to myself. That was phenomenal to see. I truly believe that together we can make this medium more meaningful.

The Beginning of a Rampage

"On the Rampage, Pip, and off the Rampage, Pip -- such is Life!”
- Joe Gargery, Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

So begins my own personal rampage on the world of game design. This is a blog I've been contemplating for some time. Wanting to write, due to my personal vocal opinions and general interest in the evolving craft of game design. Not wanting to write, due to fear of time commitment and my own perceived lack of experience in the gaming industry. However, giants such as N'Gai Croal, Stephen Totilo, Brenda Braithwaite, Bill Harris, and Raph Koster have pushed me to start this blog up. Not directly, mind you, but rather with their continual insightful and intelligent discussion of gaming, which has often spurred a flurry of action within my own peanut of a brain.

So, what is the goal of this blog? First, is to provoke thoughtful discussion on theories of game design as well as commentary and critique on current games and gaming news. Second, is to regularly maintain and update this blog. As of right now, I am committing myself to updating a minimum once a week. I do not wish for this blog to become like so many others, unattended to by apathetic parents. The third, and final goal, is to challenge the current state of the gaming industry. To sit back idly and watch our medium make the same mistakes over and over would be imprudent. I hope to shed light on what I perceive to be the failings of games and the gaming industry, and propose solutions. Whether or not these solutions would or could solve the problem, I will leave you to decide.

So it begins. I invite you to join me both on the rampage and off the rampage. Either way, it should be an alluring journey. Such is life!