Chungking Espresso

Filmic Connections, the Dead & the Needing-to-be-Shot

Posted in Film, Gaming by Simon Ferrari on May 3, 2009

Responding to this post by my man LB Jeffries; re-posting here so I’ll remember it.

Only two arguments with this. First: “And yet in a video game it is ourselves we care about. It is our own character or the person we are playing with whom we connect first.”

That isn’t a distinguishing characteristic, and it isn’t necessarily true, either. Ebert is wrong to say it’s “the people” that are important in film. Most films ask you to identify with a single protagonist and stick with them despite their actions. The body count metaphor for success you use is echoed exactly in Falling Down with Michael Douglas, and any number of spaghetti westerns. The unique thing isn’t that these same systems aren’t represented, but that you can force the player to confront their own actions (physically, as they hold the controller) rather than the actions of somebody else who they’ve only identified with mentally/emotionally. My thinking here probably has something to do with the fact that my favorite games and films are the ones that attempt to manipulate your identification with the protagonist.

Second: it never struck me until today that Steve Gaynor’s description of the immersion model is basically the summary of how to create travelogue cinema verite documentary films. I suppose this isn’t so much an argument with either you or him, but perhaps something we should study if we hope to achieve this wonderful Promised Land where AI doesn’t totally suck and do and say the same stupid things with every playthrough. Certainly the illusion of spontaneity is there if you’re willing to bite, but game AI still usually follows the rules of “if the player can’t tell it’s stupid, make it stupid to save cycle counts.” We need to get to a stage where we’re willing to give up narrative continuity and a few really great textures to waste processing power on AI that’s disruptive and therefore enlightening.

Also, Celia Pearce and Henry Jenkins came up with the idea of game design as narrative architecture a really, really long time ago. It’s a shame to attribute it to anyone else.

Finally, this article is a really great summary of the pieces you’re covering, but I don’t think any of these pieces are attacking the questions we need to answer (with the exception of positing procedural rhetoric as our analogue for editing, which I think is an important connection). For instance, how are all the psychoanalytic connections we’ve made in film over the past 40 years altered by games? We could write for a lifetime just analyzing these differences (there are quite a number of feminist game theorists doing just that, but these ideas have yet to enter popular writing).

You mention Mirror’s Edge, right? So the other day this incoming 1st year is talking to me about the male gaze in Mirror’s Edge and Portal. And I ask, but the game camera and the cameras watching the female protagonists are different. How do you address the fact that Glados is female? How is the first-person camera acting different following the fact that we are identifying explicitly as female? Do we necessarily sexualize/objectify a female protagonist if she’s in third-person camera, or only when the creators want us to (ie Lara Croft’s muddy bottom in Underworld)? So here’s a short conversation in which Laura Mulvey’s idea of visual pleasure in the cinema is completely destroyed by the examples of two games. These are the filmic connections that are important to distinguish between and analyze.

Cut scenes and linearity in games have been dying for awhile. Time to put some bullets into the kneecaps of other cinematic tropes we’ve carried over.

EDIT: I’m actually working on killing one cinematic trope next semester: the idea of a continuity of space established by Classical Hollywood Cinema and Lev Kuleshov in early Soviet Montage film and then carried over directly into the shifting frames of Adventure and Zelda. Not going to tell you how I’m going to do it; gotta figure out how to program it first, then I’ll show you!

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15 Responses

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  1. Krystian Majewski said, on May 3, 2009 at 3:50 pm

    “waste processing power on AI that’s disruptive and therefore enlightening”

    Argh. So many people get this wrong, I thought you would know: AI is not a processor intensive thing to do. Actually, the ONLY thing that uses a lot of procession power nowadays is GRAPHICS… and in rare special cases collision detection & physics. Everything else is negligible and it’s quality can’t be explained by not having the cpu muscle.

    When you are developing a game, every developer finds comes to the following problem – it’s very simple to make a AI that is BETTER at playing the game than a player. It very difficult to make one that is fun to play with. So they mostly just settle for making a perfect AI and dumbing it down so an average player can win. Because what we enjoy about playing with other human characters is very difficult to define. It’s not a problem of processing power – that would be something a smart computer geeks can figure out. It’s a problem of understanding fuzzy subtle terms of human psychology and behavior.

    • Simon Ferrari said, on May 3, 2009 at 4:18 pm

      Hmm so my understanding of AI came from a lecture by this dude named Dean Lawson who did the AI for some strategy games like Risk and some Civil War things. He didn’t seem like a genius, but I guess I took his words without a grain of salt. He conveyed the fact that it was easy to make an AI that is perfect at playing a solvable game (like most strategy games are), and that you generally design your “hard mode” AI first and then fuck with its decision-making to create easier difficulties. So I understood that.

      But he also kept talking about cycle counts and the need to save them. He said that the most visible AI could be complex and thus be process intensive but that the decisions the player couldn’t see could be simpler and thus less process intensive. I guess maybe he was working on portables or older PC games so this was an issue. He definitely didn’t come off as really being in the field on current gen games, so maybe his work experience skewed things. In any case, thanks for the info! I had tried to do my homework 😉

      But really we’re not talking about decision-making AI. We’re talking, like you said, about AI that feels more human. Is it really true to say that all this requires is teaching psychology to programmers? There’s got to be some finesse there that nobody quite has down. Even Facade comes off cheap, awkward, and unrealistic when I play it now.

      • Simon Ferrari said, on May 3, 2009 at 4:30 pm

        “Is it really true to say that all this requires is teaching psychology to programmers?” It strikes me that you didn’t actually say that. I’m just trying to figure out exactly what the issue is.

      • Krystian Majewski said, on May 3, 2009 at 6:05 pm

        “Is it really true to say that all this requires is teaching psychology to programmers?”

        I wrote something similar at first but then I deleted it because I realized that there is a flipside: it also means to actually make physiology deliver the kind of concrete results that could be translated into algorithms. So it’s also about teaching physiologists how to program.

        And since I’m not an AI expert I would take that guy’s word over mine. However – he was talking about strategy games where I can understand that a AI that need to control lots of units can get into a stage where it affects the performance of the game.

        But when we are talking about Facade, we are talking about a whole bunch of different problems which actually aren’t so much AI-relevant. When you do a game like Facade you need to actually record all the verbal responses in a sound studio and the AI’s Job is to select the most appropriate one. The apparent intelligence of the AI is highly dependent on the number of pre-recoded choices.

        Developing AI that would be able to write it’s own dynamic verbal responses is impossible right now. Computers just lack an understanding of the context – of our world to be able to articulate meaningful sentences. And then you would still need to transfer those into a believable voice which is still hard to do.

        That’s why I always cringe when technology nerds are showcasing things like Cinema 2.0 and speaking of how it’s the end of the actor. Wow, cool dude, you have a virtual character that is indistinguishable from a real one… so what now? Are we going to shoot him in the face like we do since 20 now? I fail to see the revolution.

        My point is: yes, there are a lot of things that prevent us from developing things like Facade further. But they have little to do with CPU power, they have more to do with understanding.

        But we do some baby steps. At least Nintendo does some pretty believable Dogs. 😉

  2. Krystian Majewski said, on May 3, 2009 at 4:07 pm

    And as for my opinion on the article in question

    “The mistake is understandable: both methods of storytelling tend to produce a final product that visually resembles the other. To someone watching you play a video game, it looks like you’re generating a movie.”

    That’s actually a big deal. Both Movies and Games communicate with an audience by means of a stream of pictures – an animation. Movies and games are the ONLY media that actually do that. Movies are just a much more controlled way of doing so while games are participatory. They have differences but they are related.

    So it is only natural that a game developers would “steal” from movies when they would go about developing a visual strategy for their games. Movies have been around for some time and they developed a pretty established repertoire of techniques and insights on how to convey meaning in a visual, animated way.

    I agree that doing games requires thinking one step further but a good understanding of movies is quite important. Because right know, there are rarely any games which are as effective at conveying meaning as movies are. We are good at making games “fun” and “addictive” but we aren’t good at making statements about anything outside the game.

    I have big hopes on Heavy Rain. I’ve seen Fahrenheit and I’m convinced that it can work.

    • Simon Ferrari said, on May 3, 2009 at 4:26 pm

      I’m in agreement. I’ve found my film studies and production background to be amazingly helpful, yet I’m still of the school of thought that cinematics in games are awful. If anything it gives you a firm understanding of how film works so you can avoid making a game like a film when you’re working on one. If you haven’t studied film, you’re unlikely to know that something you’re doing is actually common cinematic practice. Plus there’s a lot to be said for learning how visual rhetoric works in cinema and photography before attempting to use it in games (because we can’t ignore that images and environments speak to us independently of the mechanics in games).

      And let’s be honest, game cameras are fucked. They’re boring. We need some people who understand cinematography and programming to work on them. Not assholes who think they should either be free-floating up the avatar’s asscrack or trapped 6 feet behind him/her at all times.

      • Simon Ferrari said, on May 3, 2009 at 4:27 pm

        My colleague and summer-roommate Thomas Lodato is actually doing research with a camera he built in Unreal hooked up to useability metrics. The idea is to find cinematic camera angles that are both visually dynamic and playable. Which basically requires hundreds of hours of playing and performance monitoring.

      • Krystian Majewski said, on May 3, 2009 at 6:10 pm

        Well yes, that’s what I ment. People are preaching that games aren’t movies, yet most games even screw up the fundamental cinematographic basics. We should get them right before moving beyond them.

        And that camera project sound very intriguing! Do you have a link?

      • Simon Ferrari said, on May 3, 2009 at 7:07 pm

        Oddly enough, I’m one of the only people in my program who blogs about their work to document it. Most people just have their projects on portfolio disks. I’ll ask him when he finally comes home from his girlfriend’s house if he’s got a website of it. Otherwise maybe I’ll FRAPs some of it to show.

  3. Nick LaLone said, on May 3, 2009 at 9:08 pm

    I don’t usually read LB Jeffries. I guess i’ll head over there after posting this and see what he has to say. I wanted to say a couple things here first, though. I tend to talk about where people are coming from and not what they’re saying and if i’m doing that here, I apologize.

    I think you sort of illustrate just how much the game is changing. Now that we’re getting to a place where the graphics of a game can be as realistic as we want, I believe that the focus is going to switch, and you can see it happening already, to more experiments with narrative. I’m very happy to read the things that you write only because everyone else seems to be stuck in the way that games are right now and how they were, not how they’re going to be.

    While I hate to talk about Kojima (as everyone does it), I am looking forward to what he does next (though i’m sure he’ll do another stock trading game first). If he does what he has been complaining about (being trapped by cut scenes), maybe he’ll actually, through frustration, find a new way to deliver content about a story.

    The interesting thing is, and while I know you’ll hate me for saying it, looking at the movies, Children of Men delivered a hell of an atmosphere with little more than having televisions on every time they could manage it.

    • Simon Ferrari said, on May 4, 2009 at 12:34 am

      Heya Nick! Here’s one thing I said to Krystian above:

      “Plus there’s a lot to be said for learning how visual rhetoric works in cinema and photography before attempting to use it in games (because we can’t ignore that images and environments speak to us independently of the mechanics in games).”

      I agree with you, the careful arrangement of mise-en-scene in films hasn’t fully been understood by level designers for games. Those little set pieces in Fallout 3 with the dead people surrounded by bottles of booze and drugs in a bathtub? Totally fucking hamfisted compared to what the same thing would look like in anything except a cheap genre flick. So, +1 to Children of Men, one of my favorite films the year it came out.

      I studied film for 6 years yo! I got into grad school at Southern California for production but couldn’t afford it. I’m as hardcore a film buff as they come. I love movies, I love how they work. But knowing all I know about film, I feel that I’m slightly better at understanding how games are unique than people who haven’t studied film. Most people who make games haven’t studied film, and most people who write about film haven’t studied games. It takes a multi-disciplinary approach to figure these problems out. I’m not saying I’m the only person in the world who gets it, but I cringe every time a game blogger writes about “the Citizen Kane of games” based on one article or book they read about the film. When you read blogs by people who’ve actually studied both, like Henry Jenkins, you never see them writing shit about the Citizen Kane of games. It doesn’t make sense to even ask the question.

      I have to admit I know nothing about Kojima. I just got the PS3 and I plan on picking up MGS4, but the whole series has always turned me off. I start puking when somebody starts talking about something they loved in the games and they start saying shit like “Raven Wolf decided to trick Snake into going out into the open by sniping Marble Dolphin, but then Cloud Master Heaven Snake 6 came in on a helicopter and helped Snake run to cover and then I was in a boss fight for like 2 hours crawling around trying to eat bunny rabbits so I wouldn’t die fighting Raven Wolf.”

      I’m sure it’s awesome when you’re playing it, but God Damn does it sound stupid when you start talking about it. Only exception: I want to experience the Psycho Mantis fight from MGS 1? 2? whichever it is. Need to find copies of those games at some point.

      • Krystian Majewski said, on May 4, 2009 at 4:46 am

        I agree with you on Children of Men. That one might be actually also a great example on how movies are able to absorb game aesthetics. That great scene in the apartment house at the end is just one ultra-long shot where people are constantly dying while the character moves through an environment – resembles a Call-of-Duty-style game.

        MGS is really something weird. I’ve tried so hard to get into it but I just don’t like the gameplay. At least I managed to get trough the first 3. I thought MGS2 was really good story-wise. Lots of cool post-modern self-referential effects. The Psycho Mantis is also nice. It’s from MGS1. You might want to check out “Twin Snakes” for the GameCube/Wii (if you got one). It’s a PS2-level remake of the PSX original.

      • Nick LaLone said, on May 4, 2009 at 12:27 pm

        The Boss fights in any of the MGS series are always sort of silly. It’s nice that they are almost always the embodiment of some type of feeling (this was especially evident in Metal Gear Solid 3) but most of them ended up being Mega Man style, bring the right weapon and you’ll have no problems.

        The Metal Gear series really really suffers from movie syndrome. The game feels so tacked on. It looks and feels like an afterthought, as a vehicle to move us from one plot point to the next. It’s really unfortunate and the stories are so convoluted you can’t help but appreciate them for their maddness. I would suppose that being Japanese would allow them to make more sense, but then again, that’s the only thing a native born would say about something coming from somewhere else. 2 and 3 are worth playing. 3 is a more entertaining experience but 2 really has some moments that are just…….idiotic but amazing.

        He’s interesting just because he’s taking the current method of distributing an idea and maximizing it for everyone to see. It’s not working, he knows it and he wants us to know it, but we keep buying it.

        You and I keep coming back around to the multidisciplinary approach to things and I wholeheartedly agree. It’s very very needed. I wish that more people would actually get away from games for a few years, study something else (like Sociology, Psychology, Literary Criticism, Film, Acting, Storytelling, or even something like Art appreciation). Only after looking at something else for years, should I think they be allowed to get at gaming, especially game design. I realize this is contrary to some of what you say, but I don’t think a gamer coming from a gaming background, without any other background at all, will ever manage to make a meaningful contribution to critique or even design.

        The problem with talking about games in terms of games is typically they take 1 of three forms: “IS GAMES ARE ART?” “WILL KILLS THE GAMING WORLD?” “NINTENDO HATES US ALL?!” I’d love to actually talk about these things instead of talking around them as a routine namedrop game.

        Shadow of the Colossus
        Ah, but Ico
        Appropo but for what saves you in Prince of Persia.
        I see, but dare I say Mario 64?
        Ah, but Aeris dies in FF7.
        Sarcasm like No More Heroes?
        Nah, more like Earthbound.

        Game Critique offered up the idea of examining a game that doesn’t matter. I sort of like this idea. I wish I could come up with a meaningful way to discuss games that was already established and was completely separate from fandom. Gaming fandom, in general, seems to be some sort of horrible monster in my mind.

  4. deckard47 said, on May 4, 2009 at 10:13 am

    @ Simon: “Raven Wolf decided to trick Snake into going out into the open by sniping Marble Dolphin, but then Cloud Master Heaven Snake 6 came in on a helicopter and helped Snake run to cover and then I was in a boss fight for like 2 hours crawling around trying to eat bunny rabbits so I wouldn’t die fighting Raven Wolf.”

    But that was my favorite part! I’d like to second/third the Children of Men bit: that scene (and most of the background/unobtrusive characterization/scene-setting) were extremely effective. The scene with Theo running and running and stuff happening all around him was not just technically impressive but exhilarating in a way most “exciting” action sequences in movies (and games) can only try to be.

    Also how is Ultimate Undiscovery moving along?

    • Simon Ferrari said, on May 8, 2009 at 2:14 am

      Oh bugger I missed this comment. In stops and starts! I keep dropping it to play something else. Maybe I’ll get to serious business on it next week. Cut scenes becoming almost too much to bear at this point.


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