This week's gaming headlines have been fairly dull, with the industry focused on quarterly financial reports and lost profits rather than doling out thick globs of controversy for critical vultures like me to pick at relentlessly. However, like a naive lamb ready for the slaughter, Price of Persia's director has stepped up to the plate with a juicy divisive comment. Speaking to CVG, Mike Newell proudly stated:
"Well, here we are, talking about the God damn games again. The answer is yes, of course they can become a threat to Hollywood. But [they can't] do so with drama in any real sense.
When people watch 24, they're watching for the surprise, you know - when is the great big bad surprise going to step out from behind the palm tree. When they watch The Wire, they're watching the human drama of it.
You can't do it without the human drama. And the video game cannot do that. The video game can do all sorts of face-pulling, all sorts of: 'I am a bad man, I have a mean jagged sword,', but it can't do any more than that."
Wonderful. Considering the massive outcry of hatred and bile that gamers levelled at Roger Ebert's similar comments, you might expect me to construct an angry and vitriolic defence for my favourite medium... but actually, I find myself agreeing with Mr. Newell on a very basic level. Much like the vast majority of games absolutely are not art (seriously, anyone championing the artistic merits of Chegger's Party Quiz deserves a frontal lobotomy via Wiimote), games simply don't "do" drama by themselves. Typically a game's story is just an excuse for the fun- and in the case of the likes of Heavy Rain (one of our favourite defences), the drama stems from the fact that the experience is basically a movie that makes you flail about from time to time. A damn fine movie to be sure, but it still proves Newell's point.
What games do provide, however, is the framework for players to create their own drama... which leads me on to the crux of my argument. Using the same broad brushstrokes as Mike Newell, I propose the following:
Games don't do drama. Gamers do drama.
Movies present the trials and tribulations of a third party; people that you can relate to and sympathise with but ultimately just observe. Games, on the other hand, allow players to fully immerse yourself in an experience that changes dynamically depending on your actions alone. By fully investing yourself in a character and a game world, you can experience a level of drama that Hollywood can only dream of... but the game itself doesn't provide it.
Both Felix and I have discussed the rich narrative and incredibly strong emotional reactions that games can deliver- but without us to invest in the experience, it's just words and pixels to a casual observer. For instance, Far Cry 2 doesn't have much of a story and features a mute protagonist... but by becoming the lead character, every little unscripted detail starts to matter. I'm still emotionally stunted after Paul Ferenc died after saving my life half a dozen times. Fable II shocked me into a life of virtual crime and misogyny after my wife was killed by some marauding beetles. Romancing Baldurs Gate II's Aerie and worrying about her pregnancy mattered more to me than my girlfriend at the time (sorry, Laura).
None of these things were intentionally scripted or even part of the story- but because they were happening to me rather than a third party, I was deeply affected by them. The game didn't provide the drama. I did.
I could talk about the likes of Mass Effect, Baldur's Gate...in fact, pretty much anything by Bioware until the cows come home. But the real drama isn't to be found here. The less a game restricts the player with story and linearity, the greater the potential for drama to organically unfurl.
The real "human drama" can found when a game offers no story at all. In MMORPGs.
Human drama simply can't exist without actual humans being involved, and MMOs provide a place for us to... be ourselves. Even the day-to-day relationships between players, guilds and mortal enemies make an episode of Eastenders or Hollyoaks read like the recent Q1 financial investors reports. Gaining and losing friends, arguing over loot, emerging triumphant from raids and sorting out inter-guild relationships provides genuine emotional and dramatic moments that can't be found in cinema. It's as close to "human drama" as you can get- because that's exactly what it is.
And that's just the small stuff. Remember the epic E.V.E. coup that rocked the gaming world a while back? After months of careful planning, a clan completely destroyed the game's biggest consortium and assassinated their leadership, seizing assets worth over $16,000 in the real world. None of this was scripted. None of it was planned by CCP Games. None of it was down to the game or its developer. The corporations were built and ultimately annihilated by the actions of players alone- and creates a truly epic story that rivals anything on the silver screen.
So can games do drama? No, they can't... but that's not the point. The fact is that we can engage in drama that's leagues ahead of anything Hollywood can throw at us just by taking advantage of unscripted moments and actual human relationships. I'd like to see your films manage that, Newell.
Right, I've had my say- so it's time for you to get involved. What were your biggest gaming dramas? Want to crush my argument like a plastic cup? Have your say in the comments!