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.
You Say There are Similarities?
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 ö througharcades ö 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.)
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.
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.