Paranoid Rambling the Sixth
Computer Games, Not Computer Movies
by Richard Rouse III
 


In an essay by Chris Crawford which I read some time ago, he referredto computer game designers as having "movie envy."  What he meantby this was that many computer game designers in some ways wish they weremaking movies instead of games, and hence try to get their computer gamesto emulate films.  One of his most salient examples was that of scrollingcredits in computer games, where the names of the designers, programmers,artists, and so forth scroll by the player much as they would at the endof a movie.  His conclusion was that "movie envy" has resulted inparticularly poor computer games, and that we'd all be better off if gamedesigners concentrated on making games instead of making half-assed movies.
 
And  Crawford is by and large correct:  the computer gamingindustry has a pretty bad case of movie envy going on, and it's reallynot doing any of us any good.  Magazines such as Next Generation almostnever get through an issue without making some reference to how the developmentof computer games as an art form somehow parallels the artistic developmentof movies over the course of this century.  As designers, we see thefame, the wide-spread appeal, and the cultural validation that movies havereceived and, dammit, we want that for ourselves.  So we say: "Yeah,we're just like movies, right now is like 1910, and just in a couple ofweeks society's gonna come knockin' at our door offering us fame beyondour wildest dreams and more money then we'll know what to do with." But this is more wishful thinking than anything else; the similaritiesbetween computer games and movies are truly far fewer than the number ofdifferences.  We need to realize that as of now we're still a fringeart-form with little mainstream appeal, and it's really too early to tellwhether or not computer games will ever evolve to become the mass-mediaphenomena movies are.

You Say There are Similarities?
 
That's not to say that computer games and movies aren't similar insome ways.  Using the definition of art that Scott McCloud presentsin Understanding Comics (and which I happen to agree with) both moviesand computer games are art-forms:  both games and films are somethingwhich helps humans to neither survive nor procreate, and which are both,in essence, useless.  Hence, by McCloud's definition, they're art. Both are art-forms that communicate to the audience using a combinationof constantly changing audio and visual information.  Both can, butby no means have to, tell stories;  just as there's really no storybehind games like Pac-Man, Bumbler, or even Doom, movies don't have totell stories, as can be witnessed in the work of many experimental film-makers,such as Bruce Connor.  Both computer games and film are largely collaborativemediums, where it's extremely difficult - though not impossible - to createa work in the form without the assistance of others.  And both aredependent on technology to communicate to their audience, though computergames to a much greater extent than films.
 
Most interesting to me is that both arise out of other art-forms, yetuse a means of communication which is significantly different enough fromtheir stylistic ancestor to cause them to be perceived as a discreet form. Movies arose out of stage plays, and in fact many early films were merelyfilmed versions of plays, where the camera never moved, there was no editing,and the audience's experience was in many ways the same as going to thetheater.  These early films are very far removed from what we thinkof as "movies" today, and one could argue that they weren't a separateart-form (from stage plays) at all.
 
Roots, Bloody Roots

Computer games can trace their roots back to games played between multiplehumans, whether these are in the form of board games such as Risk, Monopoly,or Diplomacy, role-playing games such as Dungeons & Dragons, or gamesof "war" that children (and sometimes adults) play with each other. There were also some "solitaire" games, such as the card game of the samename.  (One may also be able to trace the development of computergames back to the likes of pinball and other coin-operated "amusements." But I think these by and large have little relationship to the games whichare being created today, and comparisons with such early forms are moreappropriate in the way in which games are sold to the public througharcades than to what actual content and form of computer games.) Similar to movies, many early games, some of which are still very populartoday, are little more than straight adaptations of established non-computergame forms.  For instance, often when I talk to a non-computer gameplayer and mention that I design computer games for a living, they're boundto say:  "Oh, computer games!  Those are great!  I've gotsolitaire for my computer and I just play it for hours!"  I'm oftentempted to answer "That's not really a computer game," conceding that thoughit is a game and one can play it on one's computer, it's not significantlydifferent from the gaming experience one has if one uses a deck of cardsand plops them down on the table in front of oneself.  In the sameway that a filmed stage play isn't really a film - or at least isn't differentenough to be considered a unique art form - strict adaptations of boardor other "traditional" games to the computer can't be considered a districtmedium.  In order for a game to truly be considered a "computer game,"for me it must present a gaming experience which would be impossible withoutthe computer.  (Special aside:  can anyone tell me why peopleplay computer solitaire?  Please?  Someone?  If you havea good explanation other than "can't afford the cards" or "don't have abig enough table" I'd love to hear it.)
 
It's important to note that computer games did not arise out of movies. Sure, lots of people many of them "new media" company executives bereftof a clue have tried to substitute elements of films in place of wellconceived game design ideas and have called the results "interactive movies." But when one gets down to the core of the computer game, when one searchesand locates it's archetypal form, one will find that it's based on a game,not a movie.  In the case of really bad "interactive movies" it maybe based on a ludicrously simple, unfair, and unfun game, but it's a gamenonetheless.  In the final analysis, computer games are as fun andstimulating as their base games are, regardless of what pyrotechnics maybe layered on top.
 
Irreconcilable Differences

So I've listed the similarities between computer games and films thatspring to mind.  What's different about them, then, you may ask? Everything else.  The biggest, of course, is interactivity. In films one watches and experiences the art form.  In games one acts,watches, and experiences the art form.  For a film, everyone in themovie theater has the same experience of watching the film:  theymay enjoy it more or less, some may understand some sections better thanothers, and some may react differently to different stimuli than others. But they've all seen the same thing.  In computer games - or welldesigned ones, at least - nearly every player has a unique experience,which was generated as the result of the actions they chose.  In moviesthe film-maker only has to worry about one-way communication:  howis he going to deliver his message to the audience?  In computer games,designers must be concerned with both how information is communicated tothe player, as well as how the player communicates back to them via theirsurrogate, the computer.  A computer game that cannot do both of thesewell is a failure.
 
The above observation that the core difference between movies and computergames is interactivity may seem like an obvious statement and, indeed,it is.  But enough so-called game designers have missed this obvious-as-the-nose-on-your-facedifference in their attempts to design computer games that it bears repeating. Though Chris Crawford's mention of scrolling credits as a good exampleof "movie envy" may have seemed like sarcastic nit-picking, it's actuallya pretty good example of how game designers can lose sight of what mediumthey're working in, as a result of their secret or at least sub-consciousdesire to be making movies.  In a film the audience is unable to interactwith the projector, and so in order to communicate a long series of names,the film-maker is reduced to having them scroll slowly in front of theaudience.  Sure, audience member Joe Bloggs only wants to know whothe Best Boy Grip is, but he has to wait for all of the other credits toscroll by to get to his item of interest, due to the limitations of themedium.  He has no way of controlling the information presented tohim.  But in a computer game, ah-hah!  In a properly designedcomputer game credits sequence, he should be able to scroll or flip throughthe credits at any speed he wants.  When Joe's done reading the firstset of credits or if he's only looking for who the Quality Assurance Leadon the project was, he can just flip onto the next screen by pressing akey.  Making him sit through scrolling credits in a computer gameis absurd, when the very nature of the medium allows him to go lookingfor exactly the credit he wants to see.
 
Who Cares About Scrolling Credits?

Of course, scrolling credits can hardly be considered the ruinationof a computer game, but what about when the designers put movie-copyingelements into other points of the game, where instead of interacting theplayer spends most of his or her time just watching?  Then we endup with bad games, as we've seen time and time again as poorly made movieshave been sold to us as hot new games.  Still more important is thatwe must realize that making broad-based comparisons between computer gamesand movies is hardly useful, and may in many ways be damaging to our understandingof where our art-form is and how it should develop. So when someone saysthat computer games right now are at the same technological level as filmswere in 1910, careful thought will reveal that this is a ludicrous, absurdstatement.  How can one compare something so different as movies andcomputer games in such a manner?  It's just about as useful as comparingpulp fiction novels and pop songs:  sure there are some similarities,but the two forms are more different than they are similar, and broad-basedanalogies drawn between them are likely to be useless.

Of course, that's not to say that computer games cannot learn valuablelessons from film, especially in terms of storytelling.  When I recentlyinterviewed Jordan Mechner [look for the interview itself elsewhere inthis issue IMG] and asked what he thought of the potential use of filmtechniques in computer games, he answered:  "Film has an incrediblyrich vocabulary of tricks, conventions, and styles which have evolved overthe last hundred years of film making.  Some of which have been usedin computer games and really work well, others which are waiting for someoneto figure out how to use them, and others which don't work very well, andwhich kill the games they get imported into."  Mechner isn't talkingabout merely slamming full motion video sequences into games that don'tneed them, but rather examining film techniques such as cross-cutting andchanging perspective and determining how best these can function in a computergame, if they can function at all.

A lot of game designers are big fans of movies (as is a very large portionof the U.S.A.'s population) and I must admit that I'm one of them. Probably I'm a bit more of a fanatical movie buff than most.  AndI'd be lying if I said that, if someone up and offered me the chance towrite and/or direct a film, I wouldn't jump at the chance.  But rightnow I've decided to devote my creative energies to the creation of computergames, and I must not try to pursue my potential movie career through thegames I design.  Because if I did I'd have neither a good computergame nor a good movie, and what good would that be to anyone?  Surecomputer games and movies have similarities as art forms.  But weas game designers must realize what medium we're working in, and realizethat designing a good game has very little to do with directing a goodmovie.


This column was originally printed in InsideMac Games.