Friday, February 22, 2008

Andrew Waxes Philosophical on Videogames

Originally intended as a comment to a blog post by Zeros 2 Heroes founder Matt Toner, asking for thoughts on the notion of comics to videogame translation.

When reading it (if anyone can be bothered), it should be borne in mind at all times that my knowledge of videogames doesn't extend much further than Pong. Nevertheless, until I see otherwise, I do separate writing for videogames into a separate category than writing for traditional narrative media. The former is more involved with concocting scenarios (much like a role-playing game referee), while the latter's concerns are more on telling the story the creator wants told. Looking at it from the other end, a reader/viewer of traditional narrative media take the role of witness, while gamers are participants.

Says the guy who doesn't know the difference between a Wii and Intellivision.

In case it comes across that way, I don't think there's anything wrong with anybody taking part in those activities from any side of the equation. Most important to me is that the writing is still writing, it's just writing focused on a different set of goals than those I've generally focused on (I'd still like to take a crack at writing for a videogame somewhere down the line, something that the paragraphs I just wrote are going to make highly unlikely, I know.)

Anyway. What I wrote:

I read a quote yesterday that crystallized what it is that makes it difficult for me to engage with many video games. From an MSNBC story that starts off about a guy trying to blame videogames for the latest American college shooting spree, and turns into an examination of videogames as educational tools, by Ian Bogost, creator of a health-promoting Sims-like game called FATWORLD:

'Unlike television or even novels, instead of telling stories, video games represent systems and complicated interactions between multiple dynamics,' Bogost says. 'They're a model of the world rather than an individual story within it.'

The quality of narrative in videogames has long been their greatest weakness (IMO). Action seems to take precedence over character--you're allowed some limited roleplaying in stuff like World of Warcraft, but my understanding is that even then, except under exceptional situations, there's no defining narrative, no beginning, middle and's all middle.

At least that model has a social networking system going for it, so the big payoff doesn't necessarily need to be in the form of reaching the satisfying end of a story well-told.

If I thought they had a chance in hell of overwhelming the more traditional narrative media, I'd actually a bit alarmed by narrative-oriented videogames, which, if I'm to understand some Bioware staffers I've talked to, are constructed more or less with the desired storyline, plus a bunch of other options that will eventually take any semi-competent player to the desired conclusion via what's presumably an inferior storyline.

This is actually why I stopped refereeing live roleplaying games and started writing seriously--my players kept f#%&ing my stories up. The kind of videogames I'm describing seem designed to have the stories f'd up, which I'd think must be terribly frustrating (a frustration somewhat alleviated by a decent to substantial paycheque for what is, after all, still writing.)

It seems to me the comics that are most likely to lend themselves to videogame adaptation are ongoing, action-oriented series--ones that, like a videogame, exist more or less constantly in the middle of a story that will never reach an end. Spider-Man can fight Doc Ock a million times and neither of them will ever die (permanently). That sort of arrangement seems reasonably transferable to a videogame medium--though in that case you end up with a situation where the player might actually reach a completely unsatisfying story conclusion, having Spider-Man get killed because the player lacks the skillset to beat the villain du jour.

Still, that seems like the best, or at least the easiest, sort of comic to translate to videogame.

Less easy, or to my mind convenient, are what I'm going to call 'graphic novels' (a term I try to avoid because it unfairly denigrates the idea of the 'comic book', but which in this case is easier than constantly repeating 'comics that actually function as complete stories.')

Any story with a defined beginning, middle, and end is going to provide a number of challenges to someone trying to bring it to the videogame medium. I'm guessing the videogame fan's priorities are substantially different than mine, so provided there's a certain level of entertainment to be had in whatever journey/challenges the player has to make in the game could make for an enjoyable gaming experience.

For myself, I'd rather have an enjoyable narrative experience. And while comics and videogames both (and movies and a lot of other narrative forms, for that matter) tend to be collaborative efforts, at the end of the day, I don't have to go through the first five segments (pages/minutes) of a comic/novel/movie before I 'get it right' and am able to experience the next five. I just get the (presumably) best story the creator(s) could produce, period, end (if you'll pardon the pun) of story.

So, to finally get around to something resembling an answer to the question at hand: a graphic novel would offer easier transition to film or, depending on how open-ended the concept was, television. But the existence of an established, ‘proper’ ending could lead to problems, both technical and aesthetic (does anyone want to play a game where they know, ultimately, the protagonist/player's struggle is going to be in vain?--Not that there are a lot of comics out there that end like that, but as an extreme example of what I'm thinking of.) On the other hand, action-oriented comics that are designed, up-front, as intellectual properties with no defined ending would, I'd *think* (I'm totally talking out of my ass here, if you couldn't already tell) would be easier to translate to videogame format, while presenting potential problems when it comes to adaptation to other media (esp. movies, where some form of artificial, probably producer-mandated world-shattering climax to the storyline is going to be required--which leads to the question of how one will come up with an equally world-shattering/satisfying conclusion to each sequel.)

None of which is to say any comic couldn't be translated into a videogame. It's just a matter of what a given comic/graphic novel's owners'/creators' storytelling priorities are, how skilled/talented the people adapting a property to a different medium are, and how much money the people who see the business potential in facilitating that adaptation are willing to shell out to make it happen. I'm sure someone could make an entertaining game based on Charles Burns' BLACK HOLE. But it'd be a hell of a lot easier to make one based on The Punisher.


No comments: