Inspiration and Mimicry: Video Game Design
Posted by deckard47 on October 2, 2008
The mainstream press still doesn’t write much about video games. When it does, it’s dismissive, almost always for the same reason. We’re forever hearing, in the inevitable comparison of video games to other media, that the games we enjoy are “derivative” of film and television, novels and stories.
It’s no secret that video games often want to be like other forms of media. Whether it’s novels, movies, poetry, or theatre, video games are the ultimate bastard children of the modern creative world. They’re the heirs of all of these forms of entertainment, but they have yet to master any of the things they borrow. Video games constantly strive to attain the narrative clout and cohesiveness of novels, the cinematic “flair” or style achieved by movies, the beauty and force behind good poetry, and the sense of participation and immediacy of theatre.
One can argue that video games fail in these areas because they are a medium inherently different from these others: their interactivity demands that we rethink what we mean when we talk about the narrative, style, beauty, and participation of older media.
But as I said, video games aren’t quite there yet. They still ape other art so closely that it’s hard to see how they’re slowly changing the very forms they borrow. Thus, the reviewer (or enthusiast) has a problem: how do we judge games today, games that are so often pale imitations of movies or books? Do we use the standards we’d use on books and movies, knowing they’re old fashioned, or do we try to hold games to a different standard even when they so plainly want to be judged like other kinds of art?
To be fair to the games of today, especially the great ones, we need a way of talking about them, and of evaluating them, which acknowledges how indebted they are to outside sources. In fact, we need a way that evaluates how well they manage their debt, how good they are at tying themselves to other parts of the cultural mainstream. Even as we acknowledge the need for innovation, and for radically new ways of gaming, we need to be able to talk about the right way and the wrong way for games to be derivative. We need to see this sign of the medium’s youth for what it is—a strength and a weakness—and we need to say how and why it’s good when it’s good, bad when it’s bad.
Some games, like some movies, fall into the trap of referring to outside sources too much. Anyone who has seen the most recent Alien versus Predator movie understands what I mean: when ¾ of your movie is designed to make the viewer feel like they are watching clips stolen from other movies, your movie becomes derivative, unoriginal, and insipid. How, then, can one leverage cultural capital to create meaningful, relatable themes and characters?
It helps to have a few good writers working for you. Half Life 2 is great in part because it leverages the rhetoric of many dystopian, paranoid works of fiction. Breen’s looping speech on the intercoms of that broken Earth is friendly, convincing, and chilling. You understand why Earth gave in to their benefactors’ “benevolent,” brutal rule. But Half Life 2 doesn’t harp on this theme for the whole game. It doesn’t make the entire game about how scary and depressing everything is. It doesn’t strip-mine the great, famous dystopian narratives. Instead, it looks at the existing literature, takes what it needs, and moves on. HL2 does this for the zombie game/movie (Ravenholm), Starship Troopers (Antlions?), and modern issues and fears stemming from present-day wars (Iraq, terrorism).
The reason HL2 doesn’t offend, bore, or amuse in its clever theft is that it is interested in resonating with us at a level both more abstract and more visceral than what you get if you just cite a theme, source, or licensed property every two seconds. It doesn’t hit you over the head with the fact that you are a terrorist to Dr. Breen, or that your friends are insurgents, or that you are responsible for explosions and bombings. If it did, players would balk, they’d wonder where they’d heard this all before: people don’t like their relatable moments to be telegraphed with the subtlety of a gunshot. They like their messages carefully wrapped up, well written and acted, and then buried under interesting, exciting locations and plots.
I’ve chosen the violent and destructive aspects of Gordon Freeman’s fight for freedom for no special reason. I could have picked any number of elements from that game. That’s what makes a good game, one that teases and pleases with multiple, interesting (but never bluntly employed) connections to players’ lives.
Bioshock, The Witcher, Mass Effect, and Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune all succeed in the same way the Half Life 2 does, to different degrees. The Witcher concerns itself with issues of racial discord and political intrigue. Mass Effect plays out like an extended season of Star Trek, nodding to various other sci-fi franchises along the way. Bioshock (a game made famous by its aspirations) draws on Aynn Rand, art-deco themes, and the recent surge in scary-little-girl horror movies, among other sources. Drake’s Fortune goes the route of quality over quantity: it mines various adventure and pulp entertainments, from Sahara to Romancing the Stone to Indiana Jones. It succeeds by perfectly replicating the kind of swashbuckling, otherworldly, rough-and-tumble adventure we’ve come to expect out of those kinds of films.
Many games attempt to succeed using these tactics. Often, they stumble where Drake’s Fortune doesn’t, and few if any follow the multi-referential route taken by Bioshock and Half Life 2. Max Payne 2 for example, believes that it can create an absurdly “noir” world, characters, and plot. The result is a buffoonish, “dark,” and “adult” piece of entertainment. They’re so busy slapping you in the face with how dark and tortured Max Payne is that they forget the importance of good writing, or interesting characters.
All video games up to a point are derivative. They deal in common memories and experiences, like all forms of entertainment. The difference between video games and movies, or books, is that video games have yet to discover their own set of meaningful, enduring tropes. For now, we’ll have to settle for the ideas and established themes we steal from other sources. If that’s to be the case, then developers should take a hint from these great games: there’s a difference between mimicry and inspiration. There’s a reason why Gears of War and Halo are not great games: their settings, plots, and characters have all the originality of a Michael Bay movie. Good ideas are only good as long as they are respected and improved upon, or looked at in a different light. The more people realize this, the less time I’ll spend listening to grizzled space veterans saying “fuck” 12 times a cutscene.