some more thoughts on video games and their relation to other media

My son Sam (6) is a natural-born movie buff, and that is a good thing. His younger sister, Kit (5), not so much. Sam wants to know how movies are made, how effects (both narrative and special) are achieved, how “they get it to look that way.” Kit is attracted to characters.

I’ve tried to carefully manage my kids’ exposure to movies, not so much to keep them ignorant of subversive material but to present a canon: Star Wars movies are good, Barbie movies are not. Justice League is good, The Wiggles is not. Pixar is exceptionally good, other studios require a more project-by-project assessment. The purposed end result of this cultural editing is that, when they become old enough to choose their own entertainment, they will be able to recognize quality over crap. I also want them to have an understanding of movie history and be able to appreciate older movies (like, you know, Raiders of the Lost Ark).

(My wife, who is a children’s librarian, takes care of the books.)

(And while I’ve stopped, let me just add that, by and large, our kids have developed very good taste. Left to their own devices, they have chosen Wonder Pets, Spongebob Squarepants, Jimmy Neutron and Fairly Oddparents as their televisual entertainment, all of which are pretty good shows.)

Here’s the thing: as we move into the 21st century, an idea is, increasingly, no longer being conceived of as “a book” or “a movie” or even “a TV show.” Instead, an idea is a piece of “intellectual property” that can begin as almost anything and is not deemed worthy of widespread distribution by major media outlets unless it can be a movie, preferably a series of movies, a TV show, a video game, a website, a children’s book, a theme-park ride, a line of toys, a brand of furniture, a clothing label and a school of architecture.

This has been happening, of course, since the beginning of time. I’m sure that soon after a caveman drewa picture of a mammoth hunt on a cave wall, another caveman copied the images and printed them up on cheap t-shirts. The rule seems to be, it doesn’t matter what the origins of the idea are, if an idea is worthy it will eventually find its proper expression and that expression will dominate the public’s understanding of the idea.

An example: Gone With The Wind was a huge bestselling novel when David O. Selznick decided to turn it into the most popular movie of all time. But how many people who went to see the movie had also read the book? One in five? One in ten? And in the ensuing 70 years, of all the untold millions of people who have watched Gone With The Wind, how many have read the book? One in a hundred? One in a thousand? Say “Gone With The Wind” to people, and the image that comes to mind is not this but this. The same could be said for Jaws, The Godfather, the James Bond series, Mary Poppins and The Bourne Identity. They were popular books before they were movies, but the movies made were so definitive that it’s hard to imagine someone reading the books and not seeing the movie playing in their head while they read. The movie adaptations have supplanted the source material in the minds of the public.

Superheroes present another interesting aspect of the adaptation question. Superman, for instance, was a huge hit right out of the box on comic-book racks, but the radio show was also a huge hit, and many aspects of the character, including the “faster than a speeding bullet” line, were written for the radio show, not the comic book. The Max Fleischer cartoons lent more aspects to the character, then the George Reeves TV show, on and on, until one would be hard-pressed to find the “original” Superman — is Superman, in the minds of the public, a comic book, a daily strip, a radio show, a series of animated shorts, a live-action serial, a TV show or a movie series? When the average person thinks of “Superman,” do they see Joe Shuster’s squinty-eyed drawing, or George Reeves, or Chris Reeve, or Brandon Routh, or one of the other dozens of Supermen who been drawn by various DC artists down through the decades? A similar question arises with Batman. At the word “Batman,” do you see Bob Kane’s Batman, or Neil Adams’s, or maybe Jim Lee’s? Do you see Adam West, Michael Keaton, Christian Bale? (And how many people think of George Clooney? I mean as Batman?)

About a year ago, I showed Sam Star Wars and he became an instant fan. And almost immediately he was able to play the Lego Star Wars video game. And after a hundred or so hours of playing the Lego Star Wars video game, he would watch one of the Star Wars movies again and find himself in an occasional state of mild cognitive dissonance because, well, the movie diverged from what he knew from the video game. On some level he understands that Star Wars was a series of movies “first” and that the video game sprang from the movies, but at the same time he doesn’t necessarily accept the movies as the “official” version of the story.

And Kit? Forget it. She’s too young to grasp the video game and she’s gotten her Star Wars history piecemeal and out of order. She’s watched Sam play the video game quite a bit more than she’s watched any of the movies, and as far as I can tell, she sees no reason to differentiate between the two. They’re the same characters, presented differently, with different “looks” to them, but I honestly couldn’t tell you if, when I say “Darth Vader” Kit sees this or this.

I’m not really fearful that Star Wars will be supplanted in the public’s imagination by its video-game spinoffs (or James Bond, or The Godfather), but I dare say that, at some point in the future there will be some movie that works okay in its own right but works like a motherfucker as a video game. And the title will then be remembered that way. And I think that event will come to pass, honestly, before the opposite happens. That is, I think that the gaming business will develop a video game that presents a better expression of an idea than the original movie sooner than Hollywood will figure out how to make a half-way decent movie out of a video game.

Take Doom, for instance. Great game, and seemingly made for cinematic adaptation. A foolproof conceit — a man alone in a terrifying scenario, a kind of I Am Legend in space. When I first played Doom back in the late Cretaceous Period, I heard they were planning a movie starring Arnold Schwarzeneggar and my heart raced with the enormous possibilities of such a movie. But the eventual movie of Doom, starring the better-than-Schwarzeneggar-ever-was The Rock, was a dramatic non-starter — it utterly failed to establish its own identity as a property — that is, to take the idea of Doom and make it its own. It got across none of the game’s visceral terror and it added a bunch of crap on top of it that had nothing to do with anything. And I would say the same for Mortal Kombat, Tomb Raider, Street Fighter, Resident Evil and, yes, even Super Mario Bros. So while Half-Life is a great game, by any standard (I just played it again — ten years later it still kicks ass), the only thing Hollywood could hope to do with Half-Life is shorten it and give it slightly better production values.

In other words, weep not for the troubled Halo project — it’s just going to be a bad movie of a great game. But keep an eye on, say, Juno, the Video Game.


Story structure: it’s not just for movies anymore

It is 1995 and I have purchased my first PC.

A friend of mine tells me about this game Doom that is the wildest, scariest, freakiest, most addictive thing he has ever encountered. I happen across a free shareware version of the game at Staples and think “What the heck, I’ll try it.”

The next 24 hours or so are a blur. I’m aware afterward that my arms hurt from working the keys so frantically for such an extended period of time, but otherwise it’s just me and the game.

Part of the appeal of Doom is that there is no apparent story: you are, apparently, something called a “space marine,” and at the beginning of the game you find yourself, unannounced and without a guide, in the middle of some kind of research facility somewhere on Mars. There are rooms and hallways and staircases, but every place looks the same and nothing makes any sense. There are unexpected rivers of toxic wastes running through rooms, and stacks of exploding oil drums everywhere. You have no idea what’s going on, you only know that monsters, zombies, imps, demons and other unholy creatures are trying to kill you. You’re all alone, everything is your enemy. At any moment, walls might slide open to reveal more horrible creatures, or they will just appear out of nowhere in a sparkling green blob. Levels have no perceivable design difference or goal — each one is just a series of rooms you move through with escalating confrontations with monsters and at the end of one you find a specific room and push a button and that takes you, somehow, to the next level. There are trick walls and hidden surprises and secret weapons. If you are supposed to be some kind of soldier, you’re operating without a battle plan, without backup, without comrades and without a rendezvous point. There is no object to your adventure but to get through it and there is no point to the game except to scare the crap out of you and make you keep playing it. All this is set to a cheesy, tinny, insistent music soundtrack that is as silly as it is effective.

Shortly thereafter, the folks who made Doom also make Quake, a game where you play, um, some kind of soldier, again trapped in some kind of weird science-fiction world where hideous, stomach-turning monsters wait for you within ingeniously-designed castles and laboratories and whatnot. Quake is somewhat more imaginative than Doom, features monsters ranging from angry knights to exploding blobs of blue protoplasm, has weapons like a nailgun and some kind of lightning-shooting thing, and a dense, suffocating score by Trent Reznor. Again, you’re given no explanation as to who you are or why any of this is happening. Again, you’re on your own, abandoned, left to figure things out for yourself. Instead of getting to a room with a button, you move from “slipgate” to “slipgate,” a kind of teleportation pad that takes you to the next level. Somewhere in there it’s mentioned that this “slipgate” technology is the key to the whole situation: some military scientists (I think) have developed this teleportation device to transport equipment from place to place and in the process have accidentally opened a portal to another dimension.

And time goes on, and Doom and Quake have many, many sequels and spinoffs and ripoffs and imitations and I enjoy playing a lot of them.

Then along comes Half-Life. It’s only a few years later (1998) but it feels like a hugestep forward in gaming. After five minutes of Half-Life, Doom and Quake and their progeny feel crude, silly and pointless. In Half-Life, you fight your way through recognizable spaces with specific purposes, offices and hallways and research labs. The creatures you’re fighting are just as horrifying as those in Doom or Quake, but there is an unnerving psychology to them — they don’t merely attack, they think and scheme, lay traps and panic. You have friends and allies, clear goals and specific, logical destinations and a complex motivation.

Half-Life is hugely involving, much more so than the earlier games, a whole world to get lost in, and I am playing it for two weeks before I realize that it has, essentially, the exact same plot as Doom. You’re on Earth, sure, and you’re a scientist instead of a soldier, but otherwise the games are the same — hideous monsters appear out of nowhere because, yes, scientists have developed a teleporter that has accidentally created a portal into another dimension.

I am dumbfounded — the two games are conceptually the same to the point of copyright infringement, but feel completely different. How has Half-Life managed to do this?

The difference, it will not surprise readers of this journal, is story structure. In Half-Life, you’re not an anonymous grunt, you’re a specific person with a specific purpose. You’re not in some formless, pointless structure, you’re in a detailed, recognizable space, one you can relate to, a place with filing cabinets and worn linoleum tiles and a dropped ceiling and soda machines and telephones. This makes the monsters more disorienting and terrifying — they seem to be as frightened of you as you are of them, the difference being that they shoot lightning out of their hands to defend themselves.

You work your way through the thrilling, terrifying, underground, Area-51-type research lab known as Black Mesa with only one goal in mind — get upstairs. You are repeatedly told that your only hope for survival is to get to the surface. The drive to move ever upward becomes paramount, and the suffocating sense of being trapped in an underground complex with these horrible creatures becomes unbearable.

Finally you reach a freight elevator that will take you to the surface. Marines are there to rescue you — hooray! You made it! The game is over!

Except it’s not. No, it turns out that the marines aren’t there to rescue you, they’re there to kill you — they’re there to kill everything in Black Mesa. And they may not look as scary as the monsters from the other dimension, but they’re twice as smart and they don’t get confused.

And you realize — the difference between Doom and Half-Life is that Half-Life has a genuine plot, an ever-unfolding mystery that gets weirder and more frightening as the game goes on. Doom is a great game, but Half-Life is a great narrative. It’s like a movie and you’re in it, influencing the plot and at the center of the action. There’s a sense of unspooling narrative that simply isn’t present in Doom, and every time it seems like the drama cannot escalate any further, it does, in frightening and unexpected ways. The other characters have differing personalities, the fights have different structures and brilliant choreography.

You fight marines and monsters on the surface and through the labyrinthine passageways of Black Mesa, and finally you come to the secret of the catastrophe, the teleporter complex that started it all. For the second time, just when you think the game is ending, it takes another unthinkable twist — you must now go through the teleporter, alone and unarmed, to the alternate dimension to destroy whatever intelligence is sending the monsters through. Youthink this might be a single “boss” level, but no, it turns out it’s a whole new world that goes on for another whole third of the game. And you realize that Half-Life has, in fact, a classic three-act structure. Act I is “get to the surface, help is on the way” Act II is “help is your enemy, you’re on your own,” Act III is “stop running and face the evil.” The “twists” are a-line action-movie caliber, and there’s even an end-of-Act-II “low point” where you realize you have to leave your dangerous-but-recognizable world to fight monsters in an alien landscape with its own rules and physics.

I walk around in a daze after playing Half-Life and I realize I’m living through the birth of a new medium. Just as movies began as novelties shown before “real” entertainment, or as nickel entertainments in amusement arcades, well, that describes the early days of gaming as well. Movies went from Train Arriving at a Station to The Great Train Robbery in twelve years and from the 15-minute Great Train Robbery to the maximum-opus Birth of a Nation in seven. Gaming started with Pong and Pac-Man in the 70s and got to Doom in the 90s, then Half-Life a mere four years later. If Half-Life is the Birth of a Nation of gaming, that means that the Gone With the Wind of gaming is still in our future, and the Godfather of gaming as well.

Young screenwriters take note: you may be working for the wrong medium.  Apply your storytelling skills effectively to the medium of gaming and the world will appear at your doorstep.

As for me, my gaming education pretty much ends here.  I’ve played the staggering Half-Life 2 and Doom 3 and Quake 4, but I don’t own an Xbox or Playstation or even a Gameboy.  I suppose as my children age that situation will change.  I invite my gaming readers to educate me in my future choices.