Un-Adapted: Finding Our Way Back to the Native Language of Games
With the release of the film adaptation of Prince of Persia just two weeks past, and with its dismal box office figures still in the headlines, the connection between games and cinema seems to be garnering more and more interest. Granted, Prince of Persia’s box office reception is not terribly surprising considering the reputation of it’s forbearers; the list of video game to movie adaptations to date could also easily be titled ‘semi-notable b-grade sci-fi and animated films from the early aughts’. That said, it’s interesting as well that the converse is true. The list of movie to video game adaptations, while containing a few standout-hits (The Matrix, The Warriors), is mostly filled with titles easily located in your local gamestop’s $9.99 and under bin. In trying to find an answer to this conundrum, of why the meshing between these two genres tends to fail so badly, let’s take a look at what might be next to those neglected adaptations in the discount bin.
In this hypothetical bin, for starters, we’ll probably find old leftover copies of the greatest hits series (that’s understandable), sports games, American Idol franchise spin-offs, fitness games, cooking, painting, brain-enhancing games and so much more.* What’s striking to me about this seemingly hodge-podge assembly is that all of these games are not really (or rather not just) games. These games are games+, games that are designed, above all else, to make you fit, make you smarter, make you more talented, or to remind you of some of other non-game experience. It seems like an increasingly rare thing, to try and find a game that is just a game.
It is a very American practice to make even the most already pleasurable experiences multitask like this. Our grocery shelves are lined with elaborately packaged food-stuffs, manufactured not to taste but to nutrient. Promising to fill you up and make you skinny, smart, and healthy. Yet at least with food it’s easy to see where this trend has taken us. People don’t eat for the experience and pleasure of consuming, but eat in order to … (fill in the blank with anything but ‘satisfy hunger’). The multitasking trend in gaming is similar to the one in food, and while not exactly linkable to the obesity-endemic, is a legit problem all of it’s own with repercussions affecting almost all genres of entertainment.
Games and movies tell stories. To the uninitiated eye they tell stories very similarly with narrative arcs, beginnings, middles, ends, conflicts, and resolutions. Some may even say the only real difference is that with games you just point and click your way through chapters, like the ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ titles we all knew and [loved/hated] when we were kids. However, understanding why this is not the case, is the key to understanding why the titles continually fail at crossing genres.
Games will never have the captive audience and compositional sensibility that movies have. However, in terms of storytelling power, games have a major advantage on movies in two ways: they enable a state of flow and unique state of empathy. The experience of being in the state of flow is one of supreme joy and happiness while engaging in the activity in which the individual is immersed. Games, with their addictive and consuming paths to play are ideal for leading players in to flow.
What this essentially means is that, in being an active rather than passive participant in the telling of the story, a gamer has the potential to become far more engaged in the story than if they were passively being told the story. The other enhancement to the experience of narrative in games comes from the active 1st or 3rd person Point of View. In any game (especially rpgs & fps) the player is able to either see his avatar or see through his avatar’s eyes while playing, controlling every action of his puppet and psychically extending his will in to the playable character. This can create a strong empathic link between the player and his character. For instance, let’s say a video game villain insults or taunts the character that you’re playing as; chances are you’ll react much more strongly and aggressively than if it was just another silver screen hero being insulted. This is because it is as if you and your ability in playing as that character are being insulted as well.
In games you can spend hours in a state of flow**, truly being someone else. When you smash a box, defeat the monster, save the princess; it is you the player doing those things as well as Mario. In more psychologically complex games, this same mechanism allows players to test and see how deep their empathy can go in challenging them to walk in another’s shoes for a bit. In doing so players can get that experience vital to any real work of art - a glimpse at the way someone else is making sense of life. A great new example of this would be the game Heavy Rain, in which players take on the role of one man stuck in a dismal noir world. Thrown in to near impossible yet not at all fantastic situations, players are then given near-total control of their destiny and told to pretty much just go and see what happens. I can only hope such a game is sign of things to come in this increasingly diverse industry.
The specific actively empathic state is what is unique to games, it is what gives them their potential and power. It is because of this high potential for a new kind of storytelling altogether, that it saddens me to see the market near saturated with these ‘games+’ titles. A game is a powerful enough entity on it’s own - like a fresh crisp apple in early fall, it doesn’t need preservatives, added vitamins and minerals, and dye to make it delicious. In the same way games don’t need to be infused with a real world non-game thing in order to be good. Games have a truly special language of their own born from a kind of storytelling that is only possible through interactivity. It is a language that does not translate easily or well in to other genres. Instead of these obscure translations, let’s focus instead on making (and supporting) games that are made in the language of games. Let’s play games, because we want to play games. If we want to be fit, we’ll go to a gym, if we want to cook, we’ll go to the kitchen, and most importantly - if we want to see a movie, we’ll go to the theatre.
*Entirely un-official speculative study (i.e.: don’t quote me).
**Many here will recognize the word ‘flow’ and immediately think of the awesome psp/ps3 title from awhile back and if you did go there - you’re close. The 2007 ThatGameCompany title was developed around the concept of bringing the player into a psychological state of Flow. Flow was originally theorized by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi as a state in which a person becomes completely immersed in their activity and is able to harness all of their emotions and intellect to the purpose of performing the task at hand.