Secrets of Creation II: Air
Last time I talked about the concept of “Breath” which is my catchall term for the details which give life to a storytelling world. Before I get into this entry’s main topic, which I have dangerously titled “Air” (see: you’re full of hot,) I wanted to expand on the idea of “Breath”
In Secrets of Creation I, I spoke of how David Fincher’s Zodiac used “Breath” to give a sense of time and place to the movie -however imperceptible it may have been to the general viewing public. Now I want to talk about how these same concepts effect the very different world of game design.
There are several things which change when one shifts from movie storytelling to game storytelling. They are as follows:
1) POV (point of view) – Although games are no stranger to cinematic techinique, there is no denying that games are far more tethered to consistent POV than are movies. Aside from cut scenes, a game world cannot simply jump from one angle or character to the next without disorienting the player because of…
2) Interactivity – A game is interactive. Above all else a player must be able to successfully follow the on screen action/drama. If an audience watching a movie does nothing they will reach the end of the movie at the same time as everyone else. They might need some help understanding what they saw but they will reach the end. A game player must move the story ahead themselves and there is no guarantee they will remain interested and invested enough to do so.
3) Exploration – In movies, what you see is what you get. If you are looking at Keira Knightley’s beautiful mug there is no way to turn your head and look at a nearby lake. A movie must suggest what you would see if you did turn your head with a combination of dialogue (ex: “I’ve never been to the lake before,”) and composition. A game has the option of making a trip to the lake (which adds nothing to the actual storytelling) a viable choice.
Though I am not a game designer nor a code monkey (I’m not even a code slug), I have played enough games and understand enough about the different mediums to make my opinion, if not valuable then valid.
“Breath” in video games is the details that draw you in. The Doom clone FPS shoot’em up Duke Nuke ‘Em was the first FPS to allow glass to be destroyed, and I remember fondly shooting up something or other in the red light district and being rewarded with bloody money laying about. That small detail gives the world “breath”.
Another good example is the Ultima series which was the first role-playing game to give the villagers trades and daily routines. Rather than standing around waiting to talk to you, the game suggested that these people might have better things to do than wait for you to come up and ask them about the King’s Secret Ice Cream Shoppe. Sometimes this same idea can be accomplished in much simpler ways. Giving a character a peculiar animation might do the trick.
Let’s try it out. Say we have a game where you need to go see a mechanic and get something from him. This will crossover with “Air”.
The Breathless version. You arrive at the mechanic’s shop and he is stanidng next to a car. He tells you what you need to know, and when you satisfy his needs he gives you what you want.
Breath’d version: From some distance away (or a screen if we’re talking adventure gaming) you hear banging. As you approach it gets louder. When you get close enough to the mechanics shop you hear “swearing” coming from inside. As you enter you don’t see a character you can interact with. Then suddenly from underneath a nearby car pops out a mechanic who dusts himself off and offers you a greasy hand. He explains his situation and you find a way to solve his dilemma in order to get what you want.
Notice how different the experience was? On the one hand you enter and you have to talk to the NPC before you even know something’s wrong. On the other you hear banging, you hear “swearing” and before you even find this guy you know he’s got a problem that needs solving. Notice how much more involved you’ve become in this world just by a few small details?
The way these details create a sense of space and depth I call “Air.” It’s about how you fill your screen with cues to the five senses. It’s about making the world seem like a character in and of itself. Thus the world full of breathing things has an atmosphere or “air” all around it.
I’ve been playing the new Sam and Max games from Telltale Games since they started this wild experiment in episodic gaming over a year ago and I can tell you the “Air” in their recent releases has improved significantly. When Episode 101: Culture Shock hit I was too elated to have my favorite dog & lagomorph crime fighting team back to notice but by Episode 103 I knew exactly what was lacking. Can you guess?
“Air”. (Is it annoying that I use quotes everytime? Or more annoying that I am making up stupid terms for things like I have tenure?)
Aside from launching Max into the air with an open palm slap and a few small ticks here and there, the world of Sam and Max was much less lively than in the original hit game. Partially to blame is the 3D graphics engine which can’t quite live-up to the fluidity (budget conscious fluidity might I add) of traditional 2-D, but it was more than that.
Where as back in the day, Sam and Max would have thrown hatchets at the dartboard, now they merely quipped and walked past. In Hit the Road Max would spontaneously complain about having to go to the bathroom which was part of a rest stop puzzle, now he keeps to himself unless spoken to. Out on the streets, there was no life. A car passed by but nothing sucked me in.
Luckily, the series has steadily improved and Sam and Max Episode 203: Night of the Raving Dead gives most of its characters something more to do. Flint Paper was especially fun in this chapter and each episode this season has done a visual gag with the characters of Sam and Max themselves.
Having zombies on the streets in 203, Sybil and a giant triangle in 202, and Max’s robot in 201 has brought the world more to life than before. However, it’s still not anywhere close to the classic gaming that spawned the genre. It’s more like an interactive webcomic right now.
In order to reach that next level, the designers must think of their world in terms of their senses something they are simply not doing right now for whatever reason (probably money). Stinky (or the character so named but probably not the real Stinky -spoilers!!!) should be ordering food and taking it to the tables in the diner. There should be customers who call out orders or something. She could even throw things (the Monkey Island people would have thought of this solution!) Even just having her eyes follow you or her head turn in your direction would probably be enough. ( They did that in Quest for Glory!)
At some point Bosco should have to go to the back to get your purchases or check to see if he has something in stock. Just saying…
By the way, I love the dancing in 203. Sam is adorable.
Getting back on track. “Air” in games and movies alike gives you the sense that when you walk away or leave a scene, that action continues while you are gone. So that when you arrive somewhere new, you have a spatial sense of the world that exists outside your immediate frame. In both mediums, this sense must also suggest that the characters and the setting exist at the same time and interact with eachother. Whether that comes from, opening a door or breaking glass it doesn’t matter as long as it works. The Legend of Zelda series, for years now, has given you the option of cutting down the town signs. You can’t cut down a door or damage the houses, but those signs can be sliced. That makes it feel like you are part of that world. In the serial Sam and Max being able to pick up the phone or taunt a captured Leonard serves a similar purpose.
In a horror movie when you hear scratching coming from inside a closet that gets louder as you approach, that detail makes the camera feel claustrophobic. You don’t want the sexy co-ed to open that door. It works that way in the game Resident Evil as well. Except in that case, you are in control. And you know that the only way to go on in the game is to investigate those noises and shiny objects. By filling the game with long stretches of quiet moments, it increases the tension and the magnitude of the shocks when they do come. In that case the “Breath” and “Air” are actually the stillness and those things which draw the eye away from the repetition; a glinting object, a fallen body.
And now, I’m out of breath.