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Game Buzz 26: Games Can't Do Drama? Yeah, Okay... But You're Missing The Point

Jonathan Lester
Controversy, Drama, Game Buzz, Mike Newell, MMORPG, Prince of Persia

Game Buzz 26: Games Can't Do Drama? Yeah, Okay... But You're Missing The Point

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."

Game Buzz 26: Games Can't Do Drama? Yeah, Okay... But You're Missing The Point

Time to wipe that smile off your face, laughing boy. Or not...

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.

Game Buzz 26: Games Can't Do Drama? Yeah, Okay... But You're Missing The Point

"All the world's a stage... and all the n00bs and pwnz0rs merely players"- Shakespeare, probably

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.

Game Buzz 26: Games Can't Do Drama? Yeah, Okay... But You're Missing The Point

Rest in piece, old friend

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.

Game Buzz 26: Games Can't Do Drama? Yeah, Okay... But You're Missing The Point

Forget the Rovers Return. THIS is were the drama 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!

Add a comment12 comments
nick  Jul. 30, 2010 at 21:59

...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....

Eldini  Jul. 31, 2010 at 01:35

Read the next part...

"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."

The event wasn't planned by the developer of the game, it was orchestrated by the players, etc.

val  Jul. 31, 2010 at 06:01

Games can do drama and plenty have. There's absolutely no reason why film or tv can do it and games cant, you have CGI movies and games have cut scenes. Are you telling me Metal Gear Solid doesn't do drama? People are FAAAAAAR over-rating the quality of films. There's a couple of well made films a year, the rest are no better than the best games. Is Transformers 2 a better drama than GTA IV? Is the last airbender better than Dragon Quest VIII? The problem is most games don't bother with a quality story, games like gears of war, uncharted, alan wake and infamous actually get tons of praise for their stories when they are all almost non-existant plot complexity with less characters than an average 22 minute tv show.

It's ludicrous to say that the wire has great human drama and yet gtaiv cannot, I really don't see any apposite difference. It's just actors reciting dialogue and performing actions. Drama is not about acting quality or showing subtle emotions in facial expressions (which many games are starting to do quite well), it's about the meaning of words and the quality of the writing. Gtaiv is unmatched in that department, not even by bioware (except in complexity of plot, the writing and acting is of a much lower quality overall). They write so brilliantly in different personalities and vernaculars and make it entertaining and humourous. I can't think of a movie that is as close to as good as it in terms of parody. No movie comes anywhere close.

Is it just about having real actors? Then pixar movies dont contain drama? It's quite simply a case of someone who has a reason to be biased towards the movie industry since that's his job, down playing the quality of games despite not having ever played them. Why you agree with him though is befuddling.

I can't believe you are saying games can't do drama... How is heavy rain not dramatic? It is far beyond the experience of any movie of the same genre. I don't care what you say about lousy acting in some parts or "plot holes", those don't ruin the experience. Movies are not a perfect medium either, they're full of plot holes and lousy acting and generally have nowhere near the plot complexity of heavy rain. It's more like a book than a movie.

We can create our own drama but it's a red herring. Does sport contain drama because occassionally players get into a fight? No. Could the cast of the wire play WoW and create some drama? Sure but it wouldn't be anything to do with WoW or gaming. Unscripted events in games are never going to replace good design.


Tim  Jul. 31, 2010 at 06:51

I have to say that Far Cry 2 provides a great canvas on which to paint. When I played it at a friend's house a while back, we staged this epic ambush against these guys in a jeep. We took them out with an explosive crossbow, only to realize that that jeep was the last one we'd see for over a half hour. I have a couple other Far Cry 2 stories, but I don't want to bore y'all.

But one example of a scripted event that struck a chord with me was in Starfox Adventures (not a pure Starfox adventure-lolpun-but I still love it). I remember when I had to leave Tricky behind to face the last part of the game. I spent the whole game with him by my side, helping me fight and talk with locals, and then I had to go alone. I actually cried a couple tears. I had grown so attached to him, that it was strange to not have him there to back me up. This is probably my greatest (or best remembered) example of drama in games. There are several others (two of the good ones are from Starfox Assault and LoZ: Wind Waker), but this is one of my big ones.

So yes, most of the drama comes from gamers, but you can't say that games themselves (as in scripted cutscenes) can't do drama.

darkspark88  Jul. 31, 2010 at 09:01

I think the drama depends on the imagination and emotional attachment of the player to their characters. When I watch you play Pokemon and see your Pikachu get taken out by one of the elite four, I'm indifferent, after all it's just a game. However to you, you'll create a narrative whereby you appropriate vengeance and imagine you have to rush to the nearest poke centre to revive your companion before they die permanently...in your mind that is..

Jonathan Lester  Jul. 31, 2010 at 12:27

For sure- this is what I've been clumsily trying to drive at. It's all in our heads, basically.

Mike  Jul. 31, 2010 at 12:49

Jon, I can see the point you're making here - that videogames, rather than creating dramatic tension through a self-contained narrative, rely on the tension created when players emotionally invest in the game's outcome.

I disagree, largely due to LucasArts' back-catalogue of adventure games. These were completely linear, with pre-scripted plots, characters, jokes, cliffhangers and set-piece scenarios. No matter how long a player takes to solve a puzzle, it will still be solved in the same way, and cause exactly the same narrative progression. The player never really 'controls' their outcome in any meaningful way. You can't even get yourself killed. The game quite literally refuses to end on any terms other than its own.

And yet they were dramatic. I've not seen many films that brought their characters more vividly to life than Grim Fandango (even more impressive considering that Grim Fandango's cast were dead at the time). For sheer, riveting enjoyment, Sam & Max Hit The Road still outranks every single talking-animal flick I've ever seen. As for the Monkey Island quadrilogy, I genuinely cared about the scrawny protagonist's fate... even though the only control I had over said fate was the ability to gradually nudge him towards it.

A small and not entirely representative sample, I'll admit - but what they prove is that narrative drama *is* possible in videogames, and in exactly the same form as Hollywood's best examples have to offer.

Jonathan Lester  Jul. 31, 2010 at 13:16

@ Val, Tim and Mike: Fantastic points, well made. There's no doubt in my mind that a handful of titles are capable of creating a true emotional response (as I discussed in a previous article)- but they still require us gamers to make the effort to immerse themselves in the experience and use our imagination to fill in the gaps. I'd counter by arguing that linear adventure games and cutscene-driven storylines (for example, Ron Gilbert's fine efforts and the MGS series) use 'films' and non-interactive elements to create the drama- and the actual 'game' bit involves just combining random objects together or sneaking around. Don't take this as an attack on Monkey Island or MGS- rather, I'm saying that Newell might be right that linear 'movie-like' narrative is more important for building drama in these cases.

It's a genuine pleasure to be put in my place by intelligent, well constructed arguments. Keep them coming!

Dunny  Jul. 31, 2010 at 15:55

Red Dead Redemption.

His argument is now Null and Void.

Paul  Aug. 4, 2010 at 21:43

Heh, late to this one but I had to comment...

"When people watch 24, they’re watching for the surprise,"

Seriously? He starts with 24 as an example? That "let's get one cliffhanger every 10 minutes, whether it makes sense or not" show? I like it as much as most, but it's hardly deep human drama, and anyone who thinks that games can't generate that kind of suspense has probably never played one. Oh, and 24 had a videogame adaptation that stayed quite close to its source in many ways.

In terms of scripted games, nothing can beat the twists in Bioshock in my opinion, especially after that game created an immersion world unlike anything seen on a movie screen before. The drama of the nuclear death scene in CoD4 was a dramatic as they come, and who can't get more attached to the protagonist in a 60-80 hours JRPG than they can in a movie? Fallout 3 and Red Dead pretty much beat anything put onto a screen in the last few years.

I like the point about MMORPGs though - it's the interaction between people, be it the guy on the couch next to you helping out in a co-op mission or a massively co-ordinated raid online. While I'm a movie junkie as much as a gamer, no movie or TV show will ever be able to match the shared experience of a great multiplayer game... well, unless you count stuff like Big Brother, which I don't for reasons I don't want to rant about here.

Kendall coombs  Aug. 6, 2010 at 17:49

I'm not going to just get angry and react like most peole tend to be doing in response to this director's comments on the possibilities of games. I agree with some of what you've said, but certainly not all.

Games can do drama. They are capable of it.
The only difference between a (well made) game and a movie (if its live action) are the actors. Argument for the movies is that there are so many subtleties that a person will react to in another human being, so its just not the same, you cant connect because its not a real person in a videogame. If anyone believes this, its untrue, simply because no audience member for a moment believes that the situation or people are real. This tells you its about suspension of disbelief, which you can just as easily have for a realistic game. The best example is the seemingly underrated Heavenly Sword on pS3, which has been the only game i have seen that invested in mo-cap for facial expression (my bad, Heavy Rain as well) and as a result you are instantly more immersed into any given scene than otherwise. With that truth in mind, there is no reason to say that a game cannot do drama, when the medium is literally capable of doing anything seen in a movie.

I agree with your point however that MOST games do not make use of the medium's potential; that's one of the reasons i plan to get into making games. But even if on your list of games that are capable of invoking drama through script alone,you only find a handful;

it only takes a single game doing it to prove that the medium is capable, and therefore, can, create drama.

Now more gamers just need to wise the f*ck up and start appreciating writing, atmosphere, subtlety, detail, etc (in addition to killing things from time to time) so that developers, and probably more importantly, publishers, will be encouraged to push these qualities in their titles. Ok im all essay'd out :)

Jonathan Lester  Aug. 8, 2010 at 21:49

"Now more gamers just need to wise the f*ck up and start appreciating writing, atmosphere, subtlety, detail, etc (in addition to killing things from time to time) so that developers, and probably more importantly, publishers, will be encouraged to push these qualities in their titles."

A thousand times, yes. I'd like to point out that I was using the same broad brushstrokes as both Newell and Ebert- and I appreciate that there will always be exceptions that prove the rule. As you said: it's now up to us to demand publishers and developers to follow their example.


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