Gamers are NOT gonna like what Spielberg and Lucas have to say about games

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Jun 14, 2013

That "are games art" debate is rearing its ugly head again.

Steven Spielberg and George Lucas are each responsible for some of the best (and the worst) theatrical spectacles that cinema has had to offer in the last half-century. As a result, filmmakers and moviegoers alike tend to look to them for words of wisdom on storytelling. But what the two of them had to say about the nature of gaming and its limitations will have a lot of gamers absolutely furious.

Remember when Roger Ebert infamously said that games were not art and how it spawned a huge debate? Well, what Spielberg and Lucas said recently is about on par with that. While at a panel at the University of Southern California on Wednesday, the two filmmakers spoke about the nature of games and gaming. The topic comes up in part because of Spielberg's involvement with a new Halo TV show. But it was Lucas, at first, who spoke about games and, boy, did he not hold back.

Storytelling is about two things -- It’s about character and plot. Character is what movies and television offer, but it’s a concept the gaming industry is just now discovering. Like sports. It’s about Tebow. It’s about, you know, Kobe. They’re starting to realize that if they focus on the characters it makes the game much richer. But by its very nature there cannot be a plot in a game. You can’t plot out a football game. You can’t plot out feeding Christians to lions. It’s not a plot.

Now, just to jump in quickly, George Lucas is aware that there are games where sports are not involved, right? Also, not to belabor a point, but Christians being fed to lions could be a plot of a story. Without getting religious, there's kind of already a very well-known story in the Bible where a guy named Daniel gets thrust into the lion's den. Maybe Lucas missed that one in Sunday School?

More important, though -- games have plots! They may not always be great plots, but if you've ever played a Final Fantasy game (or anything else from Square Enix, for that matter) you've seen some games with plots. Tomb Raider, Uncharted, very many LucasArts games (ironically), and tons of others -- they have plots.

But Lucas isn't done yet.

Telling a story, it’s a very complicated process. You’re leading the audience along. You are showing them things. Giving them insights. It’s a very complicated construct and very carefully put together. If you just let everybody go in and do whatever they want then it’s not a story anymore. It’s simply a game. And so you just have to make the divide between games and stories. The big deal is that videogames are going to have more character… But you’re not going to have a plot that says, you know… it’s not going to be Shakespeare.

Jumping in again. Can't a story have a strong focus on character and still, you know, have a narrative? When it comes to videogames, there's two major schools of thought in this regard. Companies like Nintendo, for example, believe that it's usually best that the main playable character have as little in the way of character as possible. The idea here is that the gamer himself then feels like the protagonist, which creates a more immersive experience. Still, there are many game developers who will craft rich, dynamic protagonist who you can control, but whose character is very much already written in stone. The game is still immersive, but the writer keeps a little more control of the narrative.

Also -- can we talk about William Shakespeare for a moment? We look at Shakespeare's language now as being incredibly florid and, often, hard to decipher, but at the time, he was writing for the common man. And for the credit he's given (and deserves) for writing great stories and characters, many of his plots boil down to either "will they or won't they fall in love" or "people do greedy, horrible things and then everyone dies." Are the plots of games so dissimilar? With more and more people playing games, aren't gamers kind of our everyman today?

But let's get Spielberg in here, who sees a fault in the way we play games as a means to get a high score. Spielberg talks a bit about a game where the concept is that babies are being thrown out of a building on fire and you have to catch them. Here's where he sees the trouble.

That idea came from an urge of a gamer to say, ‘Let’s create an empathic experience for a player to save babies.’ Who’s more helpless than a baby thrown into the air, heading for the ground? You gotta catch the baby. But as players started to play the game they stopped looking at the baby as a human being and they started looking at the baby as a score… So they were looking at the numbers they were racking up, and the baby became parenthetical to the calculation in scoring more points than your friends and being able to brag about it at school the next day.

That is actually a very fair point. Writer for the latest Tomb Raider game Rhianna Pratchett said something that we think touches on this topic in a similar way.

So, effectively, the business model is gameplay first, story second. And that makes sense to anyone who's been playing games for the last three or four generations of home consoles. When, for example, Final Fantasy VII came out for the original Playstation in 1997, it was (and still is) considered to be one of the best games of all time. The game also, however, heralded a dark period for games where long CGI cutscenes were favored over strong gameplay.

One more critcism from Spielberg:

You watch, and you get kind of involved with what the story is, and you hate the bad guy because he murders people in an airport and stuff like that, and then all of a sudden it’s time to take the controller. And the second you get the controller something turns off in the heart. And it becomes a sport.

That is true of many games, but there are outliers that suggest the possibility for more. Last year's PS3 exclusive Journey, which deftly explores the beauty and agony of our mortal, human existence, is not really about getting a high score or killing the bad guy -- it's about finding peace with the life we have instead of living in fear of our inevitable death. That's not sport and it absolutely requires the player to open their heart in order to be receptive to the very deep and powerful message the game hopes to convey.

Once we are hands-free, truly hands-free, and we’re totally immersive -- and that’s a whole other technological platform because I believe we need to get away from the proscenium. We’re never going to be totally immersive as long as we’re looking at a square. Whether it’s a movie screen or a computer screen, we gotta get rid of that. We got to put the player inside the experience, where no matter where you look you’re surrounded by a three-dimensional world. And that’s the future.

Probably important to point out that we stare at boxes when watching movies and TV shows. But, hey, a fully three-dimensional world sounds great. We're just not sure it's necessary.

(via The Verge)

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