Tuesday, July 28, 2009

VGA 6-3 ~ Multiple Perspectives and Adaptive Bastardry at Zack’s Expense

Are there any more games out there that depict multiple perspectives in one coherent title? The only one that initially jumps out in my head is Eternal Darkness (but there must be more because my head won't shut up, so apparently I've played others, I've just forgotten now). For further parameters, I’m referring to a tale that strictly encompasses the personal trials of at least five or more people.

This post is most certainly inspired by my recent reading of World War Z, a fictional post-apocalyptic documentary by Max Brooks; it’s actually the first bit of fiction I’ve read in quite a few months and I was left very impressed with it. In my naïve cynicism upon finishing the book, I glanced around online expecting to find a film adaptation for it. Lo’ and behold I did, and after skimming some of the cursory details of some bidding war between studios, I gave up reading any more (I was actually mad at myself for having even the slightest amount of hope that maybe the book wouldn’t get a film adaptation). In case that doesn’t clue you in, I’m not a big fan of cross-media adaptations of the same story. Books to movies, movies to books, games to movies, games to books---everything between those (disregarding some canonical backstory novels) just pisses me off. Generally, this is because they show no honor to the source material they’re drawing from, that and they don’t even attempt (not anymore anyway) to earnestly individuate the adoption to the respective medium (e.g. The only Harry Potter movie I can even remotely respect would have to be at least twenty-four hours long). The pillars that most of my arguments stand on are no doubt stringent, but that doesn’t mean they’re void of flexibility.

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In fact, I analyze how most of these crossovers operate within my own parameters of that flexibility; that’s just how I judge any worthwhile artistry within them. For all the time that fans, critics, and media-connoisseurs waste on trying to rate things on their own merit, they often disregard “perspective sourcing”. A more accurate term would be “subjective compromise”; this means what one person is able to grant or let slide in a newer adaptation of a model originally designed for another medium. Only a few make it through because general perceptions and tonal conditions allow leeway for a bit of compromise (e.g. a science fiction book that translates to a film rather successfully). However, even some of those only work one way and aren’t reverse-compatible to begin with.

Before I get carried away, take note that I’m not specifically referring to an objective system of any sort, just a guideline of checkpoints which can’t be tampered with in any way. Design is only worth its salt amongst the rules that can be stressed and strained. The most common solution games can come up with these days typically revolves around surreptitiously building around the system. Very few designers ever try to beat the system anymore. There’s an inherent fear in this business-dominated industry for that; there’s nothing wrong with admitting it, especially considering that window will gradually open over time (as the variety of design for titles increases). Now I’m not saying the system can be beaten, but the appeal of watching a designer “fail” at it is what I grant immediate respect towards. This is because of the genesis of ideas that flourish and fall in any given title on those grounds.

The system can be broken though, but that’s going take quite a few designers, each with their own big set of balls. These cross media adaptations are a perfect vehicle for smashing that wall. Keeping in the theme with WWZ, I’d generally agree with the typecasting of American and Asian life principles. These principles trickle into every facet of our culture, including their design; contrary to whatever argument stands against that, the U.S. and Japan stand as the brute forerunners for the video-game industry. Very few nations could stand together in such an artistic complement as well (i.e. diametrically opposing each other on numerous fronts). Let’s obey the stereotypes for a moment and look at the numbers argument that those along the Pacific Rim are raised and pronounced for discipline and memorization. They’re taught in that style and it filters into everything they accomplish and create (hence the techno tag Japan has gotten for itself). As much as I’d complain about a studio like Nintendo, their existence is totally plausible, as is the “messy makeup” of Japanese design studios that have attempted to break away from that mold while falling into it even more (e.g. Square).

Over here in the States however, we value individualism and honor those who stand out in anything even remotely resembling a positive light (whereas in Japan, castes such as the burakumin exist for a reason). So, the tradeoff for being taught to think as opposed to memorize? We Americans lose our sense of discipline. Certainly not entirely, but it’s hazy when compared to those who are raised on it (e.g. Japan). The antinomy is ironic considering how much of a timid problem racism still is in this country (look at the “proud flag” that the African American community has tried to wrap around its culture during the past half century).

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These social defense mechanisms are silly, necessary, and understandable all at the same time. We marvel at these cultural differences at every turn, but when one actually calculates the circumstantial, geographical, and cultural makeups of each nation, it becomes infinitely less fascinating (to me anyway). Think about the honorifics and dialects used in Japanese dialogue, whereas New Yorkers are continually painted with such an impolite hue. Even that can be broken down; this is considering that such a city is built fundamentally around a time-based consumerist culture. In many instances, I’d imagine it to be rude in the “cultural capital” of the U.S. to even expect a “Hi!” from someone.

Me, I’m from the South…wayyy the hell down South, so I and anybody else even remotely from these parts can empathize with the principles in culture. If anything, the “bubble” at America’s Sunbelt most closely resembles “original” Asian-esque principles in the United States (though we probably resemble China more than anything else). If you want an example, look at the culture shock a Northerner generally experiences when in the presence of Southerners. Most people in my part of the country consider it extremely rude when one doesn’t stop and uphold a twenty minute conversation with them (instead of just saying "hi"). These conversations are usually full of banal platitudes and more noteworthy as drawn-out signs of respect than any useful application of conversation (I could launch into my extremist tangent here with a diatribe on how the South has been overcome by making mannerisms a modern day currency, but I won’t). The South clings to superstition, ignorance, and pretense to communicate its own culture. That’s why we’re still a breeding ground for the more uglier deformities of modern day ideologies (e.g. you might be surprised how much racism still runs around down here, on both sides of the fence no less).

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If you want to offer me exceptions to the rule, I say don’t waste your time. I’m aware of them, but their usefulness in this discussion is nothing more than shallow attempts to prove me wrong. I don't care about the minority alternative right now (go laugh at the irony of that statement)

Now, I certainly skewed off topic with that, but I’m still roughly on the same path if you’re paying attention. I’ve tirelessly demanded perceptions shifts from the gaming industry and I’ll continue to do so until I see some spark of inspiration to shut me the fuck up. That spark will start in the design for such titles. It’s easier for the cross-adaptations because these are worlds not totally reliant on creative foundations and constructs. Designers must learn how play to the medium, not the culture. Human culture is built off thousands of idealized falsehoods created over the course of many millennia. You can’t beat those falsehoods, you can only break them (e.g. creating a truly offensive game).

WWZ broke the system by indirectly making an precise social commentary on a large scale disaster (wrapped in disguise with the creative nerd trappings of a zombie apocalypse). Speaking as someone who was right here on August 29th 2005, I’ve no problem attributing praise to the book on even those grounds. Anybody who suggests otherwise is too blinded by their own selfish bias and suffering to see reason (Hell, I still walk to the damn library just to get online).

Games have problems they must first overcome in order for a title like this to work at all. So, in response to that aforementioned stupid movie (which I have no intention of investing hope in on any level), I’ve decided to offer up a thesis for why World War Z would translate much better as a game than a film (or even anything remotely resembling the idea). With respect to Max Brooks’ book, I’ll state that this title will never exist most likely and it can’t even be made now (I lost that kind of faith in people once I turned ten years old). The film will most likely come out to generate pure income and lukewarm praise at best. This is simply something that can’t exist in the same beat that “true” artificial intelligence can’t yet. This is more about “artistic math” (numbers diluted by human integration) though, so that means there’s a very good possibility that it can never exist. AI is pure math being pushed by human will, so it’ll come regardless, that’s just a matter of time.

“Zack’s Game”

Scale
To accurately represent a disaster event, an expansive depiction is absolutely mandatory. This is something that usually cannot be done over the course of a two hour film. Even in the context of a trilogy, it’s a bit of a stretch (by long fucking odds nonetheless). This means specifically that a believable disaster of such epic proportions must be felt in visceral inches. I say believable in the loosest term as well. This is taking into consideration that Brooks got away with wrapping a geek’s playground (zombies) into what became such an engrossing read. Some troupes belong in certain mediums to “feel at home” and although film popularized the zombie culture, it also campified it at the same time. A film version of WWZ loses it’s true rights as a film as the thematic of something such as zombies at that level invests much more of its worth in the culture of gamers (and potential gamers), plain and simple (not too unlike how modern film is trying to commit theft of the superhero visage right now). Let's not forget that a game can generate this result at far less costlier resources than a film ever could as well. By default I attribute any kind of “ground zero” being more graspable by scale in interactive entertainment.

Cultural
As a segue from the my scale stance, this stands as something games have to work harder to do. To color culture in a game means to warp stylings around intricate parts of design. The degree of variance in individual stories would have to create a certain threshold dynamic. This means that the game would have to at least appear to be designed conceptually by different people. The same feel and system doesn’t have to communicate consistently from a fundamental jumping point. Just because a game is being designed by the same people doesn’t mean that it’s required to have the same consistent tone throughout; only a unity in dynamism is needed, nothing more, nothing less.

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Stylings
The aesthetics would be an issue for a game of this type, because the deviation from most forms of “realism” would cause strife among too many people for a game like this. The good thing is that this isn’t a sandbox or open world concept. It would, could, and should be a very linear or directed experience. The only technical issues I can think of would be the number of on screen models for something like the battle of Yonkers (and problems such as those have creative circumventions everywhere).

Length
Given that a game can still clock in at 20+ hours before it’s deemed excessive for me, I’d say this works as an advantage for the medium. The only thing that beats out a game in that regard is a book. The amount of accepted investment in a game is a serious advantage that too few take an advantage of. I’d imagine this is due to a lot of things, most prominently the growing praise for those two hour experiences (e.g. Portal). Turning this into an episodic thing isn’t out of the question either. Especially since the time periods between releases can be accomplished with a video-game easily nowadays. Those intervals could also allow for some natural individualistic design to kick in as well, depending on how frequent the episodes could make their appearance. The length is also reverse engineered to exponentially increase the value of the aforementioned scale muscle, and that’s just a side benefit. It’s not a requirement in my eyes.

Creative Schisms of Misery
Remember in Eternal Darkness how nearly every character suffered a dismal end at the conclusion of their respective chapter? The title hid behind that makeshift sort of novelty to avoid directly addressing what I’m alluding to now. How long do we have to wait to have a character actually survive only to survive surviving (yeah, I know…)? That would be quite something to see in a game, to have that acceptance beyond death as more than a mere thematic novelty (almost the opposite direction of my death musings from previous posts). Atmosphere is important in this area, so the competence of craft in how designers will construct their world from the ground up would be the determining factor here, in my eyes anyway.

Medium Definition
Though it may induce sighs, this would actually call for “zombie” to be defined once again. Ideally, I’d personally love to see something along the lines of 28 Days Later, but that’s not what WWZ was about and it would be far more difficult to translate that kind of terror to a video-game (I don’t care what anybody says, Left 4 Dead is NOT it). To continue borrowing that rule, I’ll state that it was the 28 series that conveyed a sense of hopeless virulence to me, they remain the only zombie films to do so as well. It’s the potential that I continue to see in the Resident Evil series, what went into hibernation with the emergence of Las Plagas. Video-games have yet to give the player something beyond “convenient fodder” and that’s what I want redesigned---reimagined. I want to be terrified by that virus again and I want the exhilaration of hopelessness to become penetratingly potent.

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“They scare me more than any other fictional creature out there because they break all the rules. Werewolves and vampires and giant sharks, you have to go look for them. My attitude is if you go looking for them, no sympathy. But zombies come to you. Zombies don't act like a predator; they act like a virus, and that is the core of my terror. A predator is intelligent by nature, and knows not to overhunt its feeding ground. A virus will just continue to spread, infect and consume, no matter what happens. It's the mindlessness behind it.”

-Max Brooks


Ludic Perception
How does one circumvent and tie multiple social issues into a game? You emphasize the dynamic between them all. Not only that, but you have to know how to compliment people while insulting them at the same time. Imagine how much less of a problem big breasted females would generally be in games if we had more than a handful of realistically depicted women? It’s about balancing out the scale of offense here. People are going to hate and distrust you either way developers; it’s your duty to earn that distrust, to tell the truth by hiding behind well-crafted lies, that’s the definition of any artist.

Moving Past Dead Rising
Don’t get me wrong, I love Dead Rising, but I want something on the other side of the spectrum because as far as I’m concerned, Resident Evil sits in the middle like a very stupid child. This is one of the bigger humps for games since they have to know how to deal with their own limitations. That includes the way gamers still consume them. The walls of interface will have to be torn down brick by brick for this to ever happen. We’re all still too enamored with standing tall over our enemies as opposed to learning from our skull beneath their foot. There still remains too many fundamental areas where gamers are unwilling to admit that they’re being played by the game as opposed to playing the game themselves. That’s just the sad reality of the situation.

Design
Design in the game wouldn’t be as hard as one would initially assume it to be. After the previous Dead Rising presence is sufficiently complemented, I’d imagine this to be fairly easy. Why? Well, because of the common troubles we take for granted now. Weaponry, ammo, class distinctions among enemies, etc...---they can all be restructured and re-established after this point. It’s just a matter of finding someone to do it (in the right time-frame), that’s all.

To close, I’ll just reiterate that this isn’t just a reaction to this book being made into a movie, but a disrespect to the responsibility placed on compatible venues. I see video-games as a better medium for this and I lovingly welcome any contentions people may have for me (this specific blog-post more than most of my others stands as an exemplary setup for that idea). If one just has to drag a “world” across artistic borders, I’m not going to allow any across the “state-line” without my own condescending and ever-questioning scrutiny. I don’t have the power to stop them, the patience to stand them, or the pertinacity to destroy them.

~sLs~