March 23, 2017

Unlearning Cinema

If there was ever a gaming trend that needed to die a hundred times over, it would be opening credits. And closing credits. And all credits. At least, credits as we know them.

 

Have you ever considered why staff rolls are used at the end of a film? Imagine you’re making a film. You want all of the people involved in your production to get fair credit for their work, so the right thing to do would be to acknowledge all crew members involved within the film itself. But where do you put those acknowledgements? On the one hand, you want them to be visible, in a place where audiences would definitely not miss them. On the other hand, you don’t want them to be jammed into the film in a way that breaks the flow of the story you all labored for so many months (or even years) to tell.

 

It follows, then, that the elegant solution to this problem is to insert these hypothetical acknowledgements at the end of the film, safely outside the story proper but in a place where everyone would see it.

 

Those last words are very important. “In a place where everyone would see it.” Of course the theoretical acknowledgement of your hypothetical staff would be a wasted gesture if no one, or next to no one, had been able to see it.

 

But do you know what all end-of-game credits sequences have in common? That you’re unlikely to ever see them.

 

By implementing a credits roll at the end of your game, you ensure that the player will have to reach the end of the game in order to see them. And although that isn’t a problem if your game is easy enough that players are virtually guaranteed to finish it, that rarely ever happens. In fact, statistics show that only 10 percent of a game’s playerbase will ever actually finish the game. Maybe it’s more than just an unfortunate coincidence that everyone knows about Mario but few outside the industry know about Miyamoto…

 

So if endgame credits are such an inefficient practice in videogames, why do we still cling to them as an industry standard?

 

Well, isn’t it obvious? Because movies did it.

 

Are we there yet? (Source)

 

Now we’re getting to the part I really wanted to talk about. Videogames ape movies. A lot. Especially triple-A games, and especially in ways that aren’t especially practical. The examples range from half-hour cutscenes to lens flare in first-person games (a concept which immediately breaks down when you consider that a camera effect is being applied to what is ostensibly a naked-eye perspective) to artificially dropping the framerate from 60 to 30 fps in order to look more “cinematic” (But don’t films run at 24 frames per second?) The credits example is especially egregious for two reasons, the first of which is that they are the solution to a problem that we don’t have.

 

Because videogames are naturally non-linear, there are plenty of other nooks and crannies we could store this information in than at the very end of the game. There’s always the option of placing the credits in a separate screen accessible from the Start or Options menu. It’s a gesture that’s already being used but could stand to be more widespread or even standardized, regardless of how easy your game is, because in this context it just makes more sense.

 

In fact, we could go even further. Because videogames are input-driven and aren’t in constant motion like film is, the player has the option of lingering in one place for as long as she wants. What this means is that instead of the standard rolling credits, we can implement a static credits screen where the player can look at the credits for as long as necessary, and perhaps even read them all (one of the unspoken difficulties with film credits.)

 

And on top of that, why not make the credits interactive? Why not, for instance, allow the player to select a staff member and get a drop-down list of every single track, model, level, character design, animation, etc. she was responsible for? We get something tantalizingly close to this in Super Smash Bros., which turns the staff roll into a rail shooter where hitting the name of a staff member will cause detailed information about that member’s specific contributions to appear onscreen, something that becomes even more impressive in Super Smash Bros. Melee, where the names don’t exactly move in a straight line.

 

Arguably the best credits sequence ever.

 

Of course, the credits don’t have to move around. Like I said, it’s really an advantage to be able to leave the credits on the screen for an indefinite amount of time, waiting to be thoroughly read. But either way we’d be solving one of the long-standing problems with writing acknowledgements for a 200-part team, especially multiple people working in the same position: Making sure people know who was responsible for what, and ensuring that one person doesn’t get credit for someone else’s work.

 

For example, we still don’t know exactly which songs composer Koji Kondo composed within those soundtracks he co-composed with another composer. This is particularly tricky when it comes to cases when he only contributed a small portion of the overall soundtrack, sometimes just a single song. Due to his high profile as Nintendo’s most famous composer he will inevitably get all or most of the credit. And this isn’t because of any ulterior motives on his his part, but just because most people would simply assume that was the case, and there would be no reason for them to find out otherwise (We can’t all hang out on the Video Game Music Preservation Foundation website.)

 

Take Pilotwings for instance, one of the many soundtracks players attribute to Koji Kondo. In reality it falls squarely into the aforementioned “Koji Kondo only did one song for this game” category (And yes, that is its own category.), with the brunt of the work falling on the shoulders of composer Soyo Oka, whose contributions were unfortunately lost in her supervisor’s shadow. Her work got misaccredited to Kondo because the latter was just so darn famous. (I think that was the only reason. At least, I hope so.) Many people don’t even realize that she was involved in the project at all.

 

Granted, she was mentioned in the end credits (behind Koji Kondo)…but remember what I just said about credits?

 

But the most telling example of our bizarre relationship with film is of opening credits, which we are beginning to pick up (See The Last of Us, one of the flag-bearers for “cinematic games”, for a good example) just as mainstream films are beginning to do away with them. Which really reveals the truth of the situation: That it was never about what we can learn from previous mediums (which would have been a more understandable goal.), but about co-opting their rules as a shortcut to their success. It doesn’t matter whether the tropes are outdated, impractical, or superficial. If it looks “like a movie”, we’ll take it, because Hollywood Envy is a real problem.

Pictured: Probably the worst offender. Not pictured: A James Bond movie, although we apologize if it isn’t immediately obvious.

As much I don’t approve of this, I can understand it. Cinema has a lot of things we don’t, at least not yet. It has glamour, genuine public respect (as opposed to the uneasy resignation people seem to have with gaming,) prestige. It even has a handle on this arcane “story” concept.

 

And not to sound bitter, but filmmakers had it easier, too. There has never been a “Battle for Cinema.” (Google Search is always lots of fun. If you type in “the battle for cinema” you’ll get about 6 results, no duplicates. Granted, I did use quotation marks for zero in on relevant information.) And even if there was, it was nothing like the Hellish uphill battle we have to endure to get anything even baseline artistic made in our environment, because cinema wasn’t co-opted by Big Business moments after its inception. On top of that, because it wasn’t tied to nigh-impenetrable, hundred-thousand-dollar computer hardware, early filmmaking was much more approachable and accessible than early videogame-making; if you could get a camera, you could make a movie, and it was a lot easier to learn to operate even a primitive camera than it was to program a PDP-1. (Make note of this. This is very important, and I intend to expand on it down the road.)

 

As a result, cinema has had a lot of freedom that gaming has not, not to mention a lot more time to develop. (But what good is time if you don’t get to use it to explore yourself as an art form? Within 50 years of film’s inception, we had Fritz Lang, Yasujiro Ozu and The Maltese Falcon.) All of this puts cinema in an enviable position, that of the cool big brother that everyone likes and wants to precisely imitate so that maybe, just maybe, some of his coolness would rub off on them. Just so you know, this is how you get “game directors” like David Cage, most FMV games (but fortunately not all of them!) and the god-awful Spike Video Game Awards.

 

Oh <em>no</em>, of <em>course</em> you're not.
“I’m not a frustrated movie director.” -David Cage (Source)

 

But this isn’t the only reason we still cling to the vestiges of film like an omelette to the bottom of the frying pan. Consider this: When movies were still shot primarily in black and white, people were statistically more likely to dream in black and white, and when movies made the switch to color, those dreams became less commonplace.

 

What I’m trying to say is that, because cinema is such a ubiquitous artform, it has such a stranglehold on the way we instinctively understand storytelling that in order to pull off decent narratives in videogames, we’re going to have to unlearn a lot of the things we think we know about what “narrative” even means. Part of the reason we rely so heavily on cutscenes to provide dialog and plot is because we’ve never seen it done any other way.

 

We’re going to have re-learn things like continuity, meaning and dramatic effect. We may even have to develop something similar to the Pure Film Movement of early 20th Japan, which advocated the development and use of forms of expression tailor-made for the medium in a time and place where film was still trying to distinguish itself from theatre. And what we’ll need most of all is to have the courage to address these empty spaces in our formal vocabulary. It may be easy to hide behind conventions that feel safe and familiar, regardless of whether or not they really fit, but we have to be willing to ask ourselves some hard questions about what our form needs to truly flourish–or we’ll risk falling into a state of arrested development.

 

I like videogames. I also like movies. But personally, I’d really like to keep them separate.

Radical Helmet
About Radical Helmet 8 Articles
A purely digital, low-poly entity. I love my helmet. You can reach me at radicalhelmet@plus10tofireresist.com.
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