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June 2008

We do melodrama

Liquidocelot2_2   Snidwhip

Melodrama: the triumph of moral virtue over villainy, and the consequent idealizing of the moral views assumed to be held by the audience. --Northrup Frye

Melodrama teaches, consoles, punishes and rewards; it submits the phenomena of life and human conduct to the immutable laws of justice and offers reflections upon men's actions and feelings. --Henry Jenkins

Melodrama gets a bad rap these days. Most people consider it a pejorative term - a word we use to describe soap operas and tear-jerker "chick flicks." One sure way to chip away at someone's credibility is to accuse him of being "melodramatic," suggesting a kind of exaggerated performance that shouldn't be taken seriously.

In my business (Theater) we see melodrama very differently. To us it's an important mode of writing and performance that arose in the 19th century and that continues to influence plays and films today. In its original context, melodrama simply meant underscoring onstage dialogue with music to enhance the dramatic effect. Using that definition, nearly every movie you've ever seen is a melodrama. And that's probably not too far from the truth, even if we apply a more modern definition of the word.

Melodrama is a powerfully persuasive delivery device. In his seminal book The Melodramatic Imagination (1976), Peter Brooks argues against the notion that melodrama is all about emotion and spectacle. Brooks sees melodrama as dealing with the problems of recognition:

...specifically the recognition of individual virtue in a world where appearances are always deceptive. Melodrama evokes a universe where a cosmic struggle between good and evil is being waged, a struggle that nevertheless remains hidden behind everyday appearances. Only at moments of heightened emotional intensity does evidence of this other world break through into our own. Melodrama tries to make this otherworldly struggle that structures our own existence visible through elaborate staging effects, a heightened delivery, and a reliance on gestural as opposed to verbal language.[1]

That sounds like an uncanny description of Metal Gear Sold 4 to me...and the vast majority of other narrative video games as well. Interestingly, the balance between gestural vs. verbal delivery that Brooks articulates has been the focal point for much of the critical debate surrounding MGS4. It's a highly melodramatic game, but its verbosity (often superceding its gestural gameplay) perhaps prevents it from fully realizing melodrama's potential. In other words, the problem with MGS4 isn't that it's melodramatic; it's that it's not melodramatic enough.

Lest you blanch at the notion of Solid Snake lumped in with Days of Our Lives or Waiting to Exhale, I would suggest to fans of Braveheart, Lost, CSI, and virtually every sports movie ever made that you are also fans of melodrama. The Call of Duty series, the Final Fantasy series, Bioshock - even significant portions of GTA IV - all rely on melodrama to deliver their experiences.

And at the center of these tales is the classic Melodrama Hero - a man (sometimes, but rarely a woman) of strength and courage who must do great deeds in an environment of heightened emotional intensity; a hero who operates within a clearly defined world of good and evil, charged with restoring order and stability from chaos. Solid Snake and Dudley Do-Right are cut from the same cloth. One may be a conflicted hero with lots more backstory (and, okay, Dudley is a cartoon caricature), but dramaturgically they function in remarkably similar ways.

One more note about MGS4. Given the dominance of melodrama as a storytelling mode in video games, I think Kojima's efforts to do something different with his latest game are laudable. Clearly, MGS4 operates well within the structural confines of melodrama. But Kojima is also reaching for another classical dramatic mode: tragedy.

Unlike melodrama, tragedy focuses on the flawed, solitary hero who must learn a hard and painful truth about himself and/or the world around him. He is ultimately powerless to prevent his own or his society's doom. Melodrama aspires to happiness and resolution. Tragedy aspires to a hard-won recognition of truth. We can debate its merits, but in this regard perhaps MGS4 is a tragedy after all.

Note: For a more dedicated discussion of melodrama as it relates to video games, I recommend "What Melodrama Could Teach Us About Great Game Design" by Henry Jenkins and Matt Weise.

Masafumi Takada and the craft of game music

Nmhostuz9 I've written rhapsodically here about No More Heroes and why I admire the game so much. Oddly -  I have no idea why - I never mentioned the music in the game. This is a huge oversight because Masafumi Takada's score and sound design play a big role in the experience delivered by NMH. Takada's compositions for the ten ranked assassins are especially notable because each boss is a distinctive twisted personality requiring a unique musical signature.

So to right past wrongs I will recommend an interesting interview with Takada at Gamasutra. Takada talks about his work at Grasshopper on NMH, Killer 7, and several other games, as well as his collaboration with designer Suda 51.

I was astounded to learn that Takada has no studio and does all of his composing and sound design at a desk in his office situated among other departments.

If you feel something different about the audio in the Grasshopper games, it's probably because the audio department is on the floor where everyone else is -- together with the graphic, project management, planning and programming departments, so the audio staff is producing work in an environment where they can easily communicate with the rest of the production team. That can take the project in a good direction.

You can read the complete interview here.

The joy of keeping score

Scorecard There's a video game connection here, I promise. At least I think so. Stick with me. :-)

If you've ever attended a baseball game, you may have noticed the fan with the scorecard and the pencil tucked behind his ear. On the surface, he may appear less enthusiastic than other fans - less likely to leap out of his seat on a deep fly ball, less likely to join in the clap clap, stomp stomp cheers.

A casual glance at this fan might even convey the impression that he's disinterested, especially compared to the guy sitting behind him wearing the authentic team jersey, screaming at the top of his lungs, clutching his fourth beer in three innings. Now this guy is a fan. He supports the team, and he makes sure everybody knows about it, including the umpire who can't hear him. The guy with the pencil behind his ear? He's obviously not a real baseball fan.

Believe me, nothing could be further from the truth. By the seventh inning when the game is a 12-0 blowout, Mr. Diehard will likely be in the parking lot, wiping mustard off his shirt, trying to remember where he parked his car. Meanwhile the guy with the pencil remains immersed in the action, following every pitch. This guy truly understands the game of baseball. This guy is keeping score.

I can't think of another American sport where a sizable number of fans monitor every on-field action and record it on a sheet. It's a ridiculous thing, when you think about it. All the game data is already captured by professionals paid to do so, and this information is readily available online after the game. Modern stadiums display a steady stream of constantly updated information for all to see, including hits, runs, errors...even pitch speed.

What is the point of keeping score?

Scoring a ballgame brings you closer to the game being played on the field. A young boy or girl who learns to score develops an appreciation for the game that goes beyond home runs, wins, and losses. While it's certainly possible to enjoy a game of baseball without keeping score - and I personally don't score every game I see - doing so can reveal interesting tendencies and situations that unfold in a game.

Every game of baseball presents a series of situations requiring decisions. The game unfolds at a pace that allows an attentive fan to engage in this process in a deliberative way. The fan keeping score will often see things that other fans miss. Knowing, for example, that a pitcher has thrown 5 consecutive fastballs on a 2-2 count makes it easy to be the genius who accurately predicts a homerun hit by the dead-pull fastball hitter on a 2-2 count.

And, of course, a scorecard becomes a permanent record of an experience that will never be reproduced. It's quite possible - and I know I'm in uber-geek world now - to pick up a scorecard from years ago and relive the experience of a game inning by inning, just as it unfolded. In fact, some of the early radio play-by-play announcers learned their craft by calling games purely relying on information conveyed by a scorecard.

So what's the video game connection? I think it has to do with the fact that we're talking about two simultaneous experiences: playing a game and thinking about playing a game. Scorekeeping enables you to keep a close eye on both. Even though you are only watching the game being played, you are heavily invested moment by moment in real time. You are not detached. You care about the live event unfolding, even though you can't control it.

But aside from the game, you're also heavily involved in between the events, thinking about strategy, considering possible outcomes, imagining possibilities. Scorekeeping isn't just about keeping score. It's about monitoring all sorts of useful data and tracking its impact on your experience.

When I think about some of the classic RPGs - many of which I've been evaluating for my RPG syllabus - it's this aspect of the gameplay that jumps out at me. Modern games like Mass Effect and Lost Oddyssey have largely removed or obscured the "tedious" scorekeeping aspect of gameplay in favor of enhanced action and automated progress features.

I'm not deluded enough to think modern gamers are clamoring for more micromanagement features in their video games, but I do think it would be useful to consider ways to make this aspect of gameplay more interesting, rather than simply removing it or dumbing it down. Adding an FPS mechanic to an RPG isn't a bad idea per se - especially if it's done well - but I'd love to see more effort directed at improving the core RPG experience by enhancing its defining features, rather than simply adding more stuff from other popular genres.

I haven't spent enough time with it, but so far I'm very interested in the ways Sid Meier and his team have tried to find a balance between nuanced turn-based strategy gameplay and accessibility in Civilization Revolution. I realize this is no easy task. Perhaps one game can't be all things to all people.

Nevertheless, I'd like to think it's possible for me to be a fulfilled "scorekeeper," and I'm willing to give up a little subtlety if my casual friends are willing to learn how to keep score. Personal experience may be no guide at all, but I didn't learn to manage a baseball scorecard to gain valuable insights into the game. I did it because it was fun.

Note: the title of my post refers to a terrific little book by the same name. If you're interested in "how scoring has influenced and enhanced the game of baseball," I recommend it.

So long, asshole


George Carlin was a great man. In the formative years of my life, he taught me many things about courage, principled dissent, and the power of words. Roughly half of what I think I know about comedy, I learned from George Carlin. He was a genuine hero to me, and to the end of his life he never let me down.

I distinctly remember watching the very first live broadcast of Saturday Night Live. Carlin hosted, did some stand-up, and basically blessed the proceedings with his comic imprimatur. I remember thinking the show had no chance whatsoever. Too edgy for mainstream America - sort of like Carlin.

I played his albums at home when my mom was away. I pretty much wore out "Class Clown," which I still consider one of the greatest comedy recordings ever made. My mom knew I listened to the Carlin records - heck, I think she actually bought most of them for me - but Carlin wasn't her cup of tea. I've since come to realize how important that little gift of autonomy was to me. Thanks, mom.

Carlin told the truth. Hypocrisy drove him nuts, and he attacked it with brilliant precision. But he also had a big heart. I recall watching Thomas the Tank Engine with my son when he was little. Carlin could easily have phoned in this voiceover gig, but he read his part with softness and conviction. My son had no idea how complex Mr. Conductor really was.

A few years ago Carlin appeared on Inside the Actors Studio, and he spoke about his Catholic school education. I think his words convey something revealing about what made George Carlin tick:

I wanted people to know that the disrespect that I had for the dogmatic aspect, and for the inconsistency, and in a lot of cases the cruelty of Catholic doctrine, was tempered with an affection and a gratitude that I had for this wonderful setting that I considered like a garden ... where they let me grow ... be a creative person and think for myself there, so I kind of wanted to kind of illustrate that, and go, thanks and no thanks.

In 1972, Carlin was arrested in Milwaukee for uttering the famous "Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television." For old times sake, here they are again in all their infamous glory.

  1. Shit - The bird shit on the statue.
  2. Piss - I have to piss like a race horse.
  3. Fuck - Fuck you.
  4. Cunt - She has a gorgeous cunt.
  5. Cocksucker - Go to hell, you cocksucker.
  6. Motherfucker - You are a motherfucker.
  7. Tits - Hey, nice tits.

Thanks for everything, George. When you see that motherfucker Lenny, tell him we miss him too.

A good day for gamers

Smile_by_hatethisfool_2 This is a happy post. No whining about cutscenes, complex controls, or stereotyped characters. No lamenting the infancy of the medium. No wishing for games to be more or better than they are right now. This is a buoyant, contented post brought on by a series of recent experiences and a bit of reflection.

In the afterglow of GTA IV and MGS4 - and I choose that term quite deliberately - I've been thinking about how these two AAA titles have provoked us to consider, analyze and debate the current state of video games and the road ahead. Whatever you may think about these games, they unquestionably demonstrate a commendably high degree of ambition and commitment to excellence.

The creative teams that built these games clearly poured everything they had into them, and one senses an unmistakable authorial signature woven into both. These games stake their claims on delivering a clearly-defined set of experiences, and neither shy away from addressing ideas or advancing points of view. We may interpret them in a variety of ways, but GTA IV and MGS4 clearly attempt to reflect on the world we live in, and they do so in often bold and critical ways.

And they're such different games. The sandbox vs. the predefined path; shooting and carjacking mayhem vs. stealth and geopolitical intrigue; Western vs. Eastern design aesthetic. It's tempting to juxtapose GTA IV and MGS4 and interpret what we see as a snapshot of the modern video game landscape. Toss in World of Warcraft and Wii Fit, and there you have it. The state of video games in 2008.

But, of course, that's wrong. I think what excites me more than anything else about video games is the way they consistently confound such simple-minded thinking. Today's gaming landscape is significantly more complex and nuanced than it was 10 years ago. A gamer today - even someone jumping in for the first time - has so many terrific options, so many possible points of entry, that I can't imagine a better time than now to be a gamer.

One commenter to my previous post has been urging us to revisit interactive fiction games, which can now be played within a modern browser, no interpreter needed. There's a thriving community of gamers writing and playing these games. If this kind of gaming floats your boat, it's out there. I recently wrote about ARGs and wished for a game experience that blended real and fictional worlds in imaginative ways. A commenter recommended an entire community of creators and players.

Hardly a week goes by that I don't hear from an Earthbound fan, just interested in discussing the game, wondering if I've played it, eager for conversation.

On the recommendation of a friend, I decided to load up Oblivion again (PC version) the other day. As with many such games, the modding community has managed to significantly alter what this game looks and plays like. If you're interesting in playing with games in ways that go beyond simply "playing" them, you've got more free tools than ever available to you, and more games to mod.

A former student visited me recently and asked to see Mario Kart Wii. When I turned on the system, he saw the main screen and said, "You can play Super Mario World on this?" He had no idea. He nearly fainted when I showed him my other VC titles. A blogger friend recently reported on his experience re-playing Chrono Trigger. If it's old games you want, they're out there (though you may need to do a bit of nefarious prep to play some of them).

I've been plowing through some RPGs for possible inclusion in my RPG seminar this fall. Load up DOSBox, and there's Pool of Radiance from the old SSI Gold Box series. It's like a revelation. I had all sorts of trouble playing these games when they were released, mainly due to hardware incompatibilities. Today, they're nearly all available for little or no money and easily playable on my Mac, PC, or even Linux. If I run into trouble, I can nearly always find help online in less than 5 minutes.

My wife plays Picross on her DS when she can't sleep. My niece plays Nintendogs with my sister. I'm turning Burnout Paradise into a demolition derby with a bunch of guys I've never met from Europe. On Thursday nights I meet up with a couple of colleagues in Lord of the Rings Online to discuss a project we're working on together. We voice-chat while we level up and traverse Middle Earth. My in-laws visited a few weeks ago. They're big movie fans. We played Scene It and had a blast.

I played Rez HD yesterday with my new way-cool headphones and couldn't stop smiling.

A good friend of mine likes to send me Meebo chat messages in the window you see to the left. He always appears under the name of a different character from a Hitchcock film. I'm challenged to name the film with no Wikipedia assist. This, of course, is yet another kind of game. :-)

Yes, video games must evolve. Yes, video games need their own language. There will always be much to do, and I'm not suggesting we stand pat. But could I be enjoying games more than I am now? Will gaming be more satisfying to me when the next phase emerges? I wonder.

The genius blind spot

He achieved what no other known man has achieved. To watch his work is like being witness to the beginning of melody, or the first conscious use of the lever or the wheel; the emergence, coordination and first eloquence of language; the birth of an art: and to realize that this is all the work of one man. --James Agee on D.W. Griffith

Hideo Kojima is a genius and will always be so. He is the epitome of videogame creativity and a revolutionary of the art.  --comment post by grilledcheese345 on 1UP user blog.

    Dwgriffith_2             Hideokojima_2

Few critics or scholars would question D.W. Griffith's stature as a genuine artist of the cinema. His profound impact on the history and evolution of motion pictures is well documented, and filmmakers from Eisenstein to Spielberg have sung his praises as a true genius of the art. That James Agee quote lays it on a bit thick, though. :-)

Despite "grilledcheese345's" proclamation, the jury may still be out on Hideo Kojima. Nevertheless, it's not hard to find all sorts of game writers, enthusiasts, and fans of the Metal Gear series who believe Kojima represents the best of what video games can do. The requisite-but-utterly-unscientific Google search of "Hideo Kojima genius" turns up a whopping 175,000 citations, which proves nothing but suggests plenty of people are interested in the question. Few game designers have been so thoroughly and publicly vetted, with no shortage of opinions on either side of the "genius" question.

I'm not terribly interested in proving Kojima a genius, but I believe we can accurately call him an auteur, and it's this aspect of his nature as an artist that has me thinking about D.W. Griffith and some interesting parallels between the two. My focus here is on process and the ways an artist's approach and sensibilities can shape and define the work they produce. In the case of both Griffith and Kojima, I believe they both possess a certain blind spot that prohibits them from fully achieving their artistic ambitions.

Drawing parallels between Griffith and Kojima is fairly easy because they're both Type-A artist personalities. They're both legendary perfectionists, demanding the highest quality work from their collaborators and famously willing to discard weeks or even months of work if it is deemed inferior. Beyond personality, both men are attached to the epic, attracted to big, sprawling stories spanning decades of time. Both see storytelling and empathetic engagement to characters as the central focus of their work, and both are drawn to multi-character narratives with numerous subplots.

Both artists harness the very latest cutting-edge technologies - often requiring specialized innovation - to serve their needs. Despite the achievements these technologies enable, both lament their limits, wishing for tools that would enable them to realize the full scope of their ideas.

Finally, both Griffith and Kojima see themselves as singular authors of their work, creating films and video games as forms of personal expression, exploring their own ideas and beliefs - social, political, theological - through the language of their respective media. They are evangelical pioneers pushing their young industries forward, beyond novelties and amusements, to be acknowledged and respected as art.

But I'm most interested in another connecting point between Griffith and Kojima. I believe both artists suffer from a particular aesthetic blind spot - one that emanates from their inabilities or unwillingness to shed the limiting conventions of a pre-existing dominant art form that clouds their visions and restricts their power. For Griffith it's the Theater; for Kojima it's Film.

Though he didn't invent any new techniques, Griffith did more than anyone before him to establish a unified language for film based on the unique power of continuity editing. He understood how to use closeups, cross-cutting, and a variety of focal lengths to communicate meaning to an audience. He was a true filmmaker in ways his predecessors were not.

But Griffith was a product of the theater. He began as a playwright (mostly unsuccessful) and continued as an actor. Griffith's concepts of performance and characterization were derived from theater, and this fact is painfully apparent in his films. His actors are frequently overblown and highly gestural. Their performances, drawn from 19th-century melodrama conventions, are out of place and incongruent on film. Throughout his work we find theater actors giving stage performances on screen. Griffith clearly didn't yet understand - or simply wasn't equipped to know - that this new form of presentational art would require a new style of performance. As a former actor, he relied on what he knew, and what he knew was theater.

Of course, many early silent films contain such stilted performances. It was a transitional period. But it would be a mistake to assume these were unavoidable conventions of the era. Other filmmakers of the same period - most notably Abel Gance and Ernst Lubitsch - made films that look much more "modern" by comparison. They somehow understood better than Griffith that film acting required an entirely different approach than theater acting. It's telling that Sergei Eisenstein - the one filmmaker more influential than Griffith - borrowed, refined, and evolved everything he saw from Griffith...except the acting style, which was apparently of no use to him whatsoever.

As I've made my way this week through Metal Gear Solid 4 - which I consider a brilliant and inspired game - I keep coming back to this notion of a blind spot. In my view, Kojima's design for the game is marred by his inability or refusal to break free of a cinematic paradigm that both defines and ultimately limits his work. Despite all the terrific gameplay, compelling storytelling, and plain old great ideas that MGS4 contains, Kojima's decision to deliver significant portions of the experience as passive movie-viewing undermines the player's interactive engagement. It's a jarring aesthetic collision, not unlike the acting in Griffith's films.

Interestingly, both Kojima and Griffith nearly overcome these issues by their savvy in other areas. His theater training may have impaired him in some ways, but Griffith always hired interesting, talented people. Lillian Gish almost single-handedly rescues several of Griffith's films from the ham-fisted performances of most of the other actors.

Similarly, Kojima's reliance on cutscenes can be tiresome, but he is a fine and gifted filmmaker. One can easily track his maturation from the original MGS. Unlike other so-called cinematic games like Mass Effect, the filmmaking in MGS4 is visually creative, high-caliber stuff. As with Lillian Gish, it's almost enough to make you forget the blind spots.

So how to account for it? Arrogance? Stubbornness? Or is it really just a blind spot? A certain inability to see the strangling grip of an old mode on a new one. An infatuation with the pretty girl who won't love you back. If the very thing that limits the artist is also the artist's primary mechanism for delivering content - as it is for both Griffith and Kojima - that blind spot is a very pernicious thing.

Griffith and Kojima can't be ignored. They both do so many things so very well. And the sheer ambition and personal commitment to excellence they demonstrate is beyond laudable. But I think it's possible to see Griffith as a necessary artistic forerunner to the filmmaker who finally turned on the light. If Eisenstein was that filmmaker, I wonder who that game designer will be.

Things worth doing

Scholar22 Yesterday I opined that it's unfair to compare Metal Gear Solid 4, or any other game for that matter, to Citizen Kane. I explained why, and you can read all about it here.

I received a fair number of useful comments on my post, some wondering why we should bother at all with such comparisons. That's a fair question, so before I leap into another cross-media chasm, I thought I'd take a shot at answering it.

I'm not keen on the idea of searching for video games' Citizen Kane moment. Games don't need a single universally-acclaimed title to legitimize the medium, and the more we continue to measure ourselves - artistically, economically, and otherwise - against film and the movie industry, the less likely games are to fully realize their singular potential.

I've also written here about my hope that video games develop a language of meaning that exploits the unique interactive properties of the medium. Borrowing from film, literature, and theater can be useful, but as countless other people more articulate than me have pointed out, games must ultimately stand on their own, and they are at their best when they create an experience that cannot be replicated in any other medium.

Having said all this, I'm about to compare an artist from one medium (Hideo Kojima - video games) to an artist from another (D.W. Griffith - film). Why? What is the point of such a comparison when it's so clear that video games are ill-served by our critical tendency to juxtapose them with movies?

As a scholar-artist (I do hate that term, but I'm stuck with it) I believe studying and comparing the work of other artists is an inherently worthwhile thing to do. Media, time period, style, cultural differences - none of these ultimately matter. A 21st-century Bolivian painter can learn from an 18th-century European composer. It happens. Likewise, an astute and sensitive scholar can draw useful and illustrative connections between two disparate works of art, enhancing our understanding and appreciation of each.

A scholar might point out, for example, that the Occurians in Final Fantasy XII tend to speak in iambic pentameter. She might also observe that the da-dum, da-dum rhythm of this poetic style is closer than any other to the beating of a human heart. Why do these little scholarly factoids matter? I believe they help us better comprehend the artists' intentions (writing in metered poetry is no accident), and they add a certain richness to our understanding of the game. Without spoiling it, I'll simply note that the Occurians may be aware of the persuasive qualities of iambic pentameter, as was Shakespeare and many of his greatest characters.

I could go on to suggest the Occurian Venat is an obvious Prometheus figure, but I'll stop now. :-)

There is also the matter of process. How artists go about doing what they do - their methods and techniques - are also worthy of careful thought. Studying the ways Harold Pinter, for example, says so much with so few words could be of great interest to a game writer. We needn't fear the British Theater unduly influencing video games in the process. What is Bioshock, after all, if not an amalgam of all sorts of influences - some thematic, others technical. To his credit, Ken Levine has acknowledged these along with his "worthless liberal arts education."

I contend these things are worth doing. Thinking hard about a game or a novel or a play is a good thing. Drawing connections among things we know and care about is a pleasant and intellectually satisfying activity. It is a way of seeing. And sometimes, when an artist sees - really notices something for the first time - that something is very often a realization. An instinctive feeling of connection. Sudden first-hand knowledge of how connected everything in the universe really is. And feeling part of that connection. Being inspired by it. And creating something new. Something that connects.

I've gone on here longer than I intended. Apologies. I'll return tomorrow with an essay on Griffith and Kojima called "The genius blind spot." I promise not to strain. ;-)

Apples, oranges, and parallels

Metalgearsolid4 Metal Gear Solid 4 is not the Citizen Kane of video games. For understandable reasons, lots of people have theorized which game, if any, will finally achieve the artistic stature of Orson Welles' cinematic masterpiece. Presumably, such a game would finally sway the cultural critics who see video games as mindless diversions and lay to rest the “games as art” debate once and for all.

MGS4 is a terrific game, perhaps even an important one. GTA4 is a great game too. So are Bioshock, Shadow of the Colossus, and Super Mario 64, all of which have received the Kane-comparison treatment. Whatever claims might be made about the greatness of these games, none of them approach the achievement or influence of Citizen Kane. Not even close.

Considered contextually, the comparisons just don't work. Put another way, our precious video game child may be tall for his age, but he's still growing up. Video games need more time to mature before I'll feel comfortable making the same kind of cross-media comparisons one might make between Melville's Moby Dick and Ford's The Searchers. There is no video game analog to Citizen Kane. Yet.

Citizen Kane was the artistic culmination of 60 years of motion pictures. Welles and his team of collaborators - including, most notably, cinematographer Gregg Toland - extended, revised, and refined the already well-evolved language of the cinema in ways no one had done before. Not everything they did was new, but their unconventional approach to camera movement, shot angles, editing, deep-focus photography and many other innovations elevated a medium that had already reached high levels of achievement and aesthetic sophistication in the previous decade. In fact, many critics still see the 1930s as a Golden Age of movies, unsurpassed even today.

Still, if MGS4 is an important game in the history of the medium, as I belive it may be (I need more time with the game and more time to think about it), comparing its impact to an analogous movie can be a useful way to frame the analysis. Not a perfect way, of course, but still worth doing, I think.

Sjff_01_img0061 But as I've noted, Citizen Kane is the wrong film. A far better and more accurate comparison can be made between Kojima's Metal Gear Solid 4 and D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation. Notwithstanding its overt racist ideology (for which I find *no* parallels in MGS4), Griffith's film was a deeply personal magnum opus years in the making. Full of technical and narrative innovations, it was the most ambitious project Griffith ever attempted, and it built on the newly-laid foundation of a medium still emerging from its infancy.

Movies aren't video games. I get that. It's 2008, not 1915, and I get that too. Is Kojima the D.W. Griffith of video games? Probably not. I don't know. Maybe. I'll return tomorrow with a more thorough comparison of the two and a closer look at some interesting parallels in their work.

The absent dad

Mr_incredible Tomorrow is Father's Day here in the U.S. and in about 50 other countries around the world. To all you gamer dads out there, I wish you a happy day spent with family doing things you enjoy. In my house, games with co-op modes get a lot of attention on Dad's day, and I recommend defining "co-op" liberally to include Lego Star Wars, Guitar Hero, Frisbee, a long walk, making pancakes, and the classic retro game of catch in the backyard.

Dad's are cool. As a father myself, I say this with no effort to be objective, but I think fathers are often fascinating people, quietly leading interesting lives, even when we fail or fall short. While mothers may represent the face of parenting to many people - we've celebrated Mother's Day in the U.S. since 1914; Father's Day wasn't officially recognized until 1972 - a good, caring father plays a vital role in the life of a child.

And it's not all about sentimental sighs and Kodak moments. Fathers can be brave. Fathers can be heroic. Fathers can do deeds of daring on behalf of their families. Novelists, playwrights, and filmmakers have been telling us their stories for as long as those media have existed. Everybody agrees fathers can be engaging and compelling characters. Everybody, it would seem, except video game designers. Where are the video game dads?

Consider the wide range of fathers depicted in films like 3:10 to Yuma (2007), The Incredibles (2004), John Q (2002), Frequency (2000), Field of Dreams (1989), The Pursuit of Happyness (2006), The Rookie (2002), Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989),  Life is Beautiful (1997) - not to mention dozens of older films like To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), Father of the Bride (1950), Kramer vs Kramer (1979), and The Kid (1921). All of these films - dramas, comedies, action movies, sports movies - position fatherhood as the narrative and thematic centerpiece. Being a father can drive one to take risky action, weigh strategies, self-sacrifice, pull your hair out - all sorts of interesting and empathic conditions and situations.

I'm sure demographics play a big role here. Gamers are perceived as relatively young, so it is assumed (perhaps correctly) these consumers have little interest role-playing as a family man or purchasing a game featuring such a character...unless he's a really bad-ass dad. Solid Snake in MGS4 interests me in this regard. He's old (and that's a welcome novelty), but not burdened by family responsibilities. At least as far as I know. I might have missed a subplot somewhere.

Most game designers I've met are also young. I wouldn't hazard a guess as to what percentage of male game developers are fathers, but I'm guessing it's low relative to workers in other industries. This may also help explain why we see so few fathers featured in video games. I'm not blaming anybody for anything here. As they say, "write what you know," and a designer in his 20s may not feel comfortable or credible creating the sort of character I'm looking for.

Narrative games, like other media, rely on stakes to elevate the hero's imperative. "Save the world" is certainly a clearly defined and easily communicated imperative, but how many more games do we need to tell this story? A dad who must save his family; a dad who must sacrifice for his family; a dad who must stand up and do the right thing because his son or daughter is watching him - these imperatives are no less compelling and potentially much more richly interesting than yet another mission to save the planet.

So to all you whippersnappers making games [grin], I say: You are awesome. You do incredible things. I admire (and envy) you, and I'm earnestly grateful for all you do. I'm just suggesting that on Father's Day, why not give some thought to us gamer dads. We're out here in increasing numbers, and I believe we're hungry for a character or two we recognize and can relate to. If you make it, we will come. Or something like that.

Do it for dear ol' dad. :-)

Brainy Gamer Podcast - Episode 15

Knxtansmitter_2 What to do with all this video game freedom?; I do a 180 on Burnout Paradise; The game I want to play (hint: nobody's made it yet); Why boundaries can be good for artists, and why Jade beats Niko even without green lipstick; plus listener email - all in this chock-full edition of the Brainy Gamer Podcast!

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Related links

Criterion Games Crash FM Podcast
Kieron Gillen's New Games Journalism
GDC Radio Podcast (at Gamasutra)
Roger Travis' Living Epic Blog
Manveer Heir's Design Rampage Blog