Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Games About Real People

By Kirk Hamilton

So, Monday's post about "Mass Affect," a joke game based on the real lives of SF Hipsters has really struck a chord with the internet. Somewhat incredibly, it got picked up and syndicated on Kotaku.  Wow! Glad to see the folks over there enjoying it. I do feel I should point out that the whole thing was meant in good fun, and I believe that most of those Hipster-clich├ęs are old enough hat that that they shouldn't truly ruffle any feathers.

I sent it around to a couple of bloggers I know/enjoy, and Mitch Krpata, who writes the always-enjoyable Insult Swordfighting, pointed out that in truth, it would be nice to see a game about ordinary people in the real world. I had had the same thought - after finishing the post, I realized that, hipster-mocking aside, "Mass Affect" could be a compelling, original game.

There's no denying that the games we play today are sorely lacking for relatable (or even original) settings, characters, and protagonists. These days, it feels as though Space Marine-bashing is almost as popular as Hipster-Bashing, and there's a reason for that. And now that we have Nathan Drake, AKA the platonic ideal of "Affable Hero In Over His Head," we just don't need another one. (I'm looking at you, Dark Void.)

Personally speaking, I would love to see more games based on the real world, games that manage to tell stories about real people facing real problems in a way that feels true enough that they still engage us and are effective dramatically.  We don't always need to be invading the Helghast homeworld or finding the Chintamari stone - there is plenty of drama and intrigue to be found in the lives of ordinary people.  From a writing standpoint, it's not as easy to do, perhaps, but it's possible - just look at a show like Friday Night Lights, an aching, beautifully-drawn odyssey through the lives of regular people in drab, rural Texas.

I've wanted to see something like that in a game for a long time. Among western developers, Rockstar perhaps comes the closest to recreating the real world with their projects, but as much as I love GTA (particularly IV, as the controls in San Andreas were just too finiky to ever really get into), I have long been frustrated by the studio's need to create beautifully rendered, living cities, and then... give you nothing to do in them but blow shit up and kill people.

It's one of the (many) reasons that Bully is actually my favorite Rockstar game -  the humor, drama, and intrigue in the life of a pissed-off boarding-school kid wound up feeling much more compelling to me than did the humor, drama, and intrigue in the life of a homicidal Eastern Eurpoean immigrant.

Don't get me wrong, blowing shit up and killing people is certainly fun (in a game, at least), but I wanted more. When Rockstar announced that they'd be releasing downloadable "Episodes" for GTA IV, I was pretty excited - could they finally have burnt themselves out on the 70+ hours of vehicular manslaughter in the main game? Might we see something different?

Could you imagine, say, how much fun a "Bully"-esque expansion involving boarding-school kids in Liberty City could have been?  Suddenly, cars would be out of the question, and bikes, skateboards, and cabs would be the only way to get around.  The city would immediately feel so much larger, the Burroughs so much farther apart, and we would finally need to USE the amazing working subway system that Rockstar so painstakingly built. There are so many other possibilities that I couldn't possibly list them all here - attempting to steal and drive a car, walk around listening to your iPod, get into rivalries with kids at other schools... basically, a host of of gameplay ideas lifted from Bully and superimposed over Liberty City's grand canvas. The imagination soars.

But alas. What we got was The Lost and the Damned, a drab, joyless murder-quest that has hugely soured for me over time, and The Ballad of Gay Tony, which I quite enjoyed, but still couldn't quite shake the feeling that it was more of the same.

Japanese studios appear to be experimenting with more of what I'm looking for - though I've never played them, the Persona series sounds like it might be just what I'm talking about. And actually, Square Enix's highly-enjoyable DS game The World Ends With You, with its style-obsessed, outwardly-shallow but touchingly human characters, comes pretty damn close to my own Hipster RPG, parallel-worlds and magic-enhanced pins notwithstanding.

But developers could do so, so much more. Last year's incredible Uncharted 2 showed us what motion-capture technology is capable of, that characters can be rendered on-screen to seem real and alive; it's time to put those characters into more relatable situations, to let us play through a world that is closer to the one we inhabit every day. Quantic Dream's upcoming Heavy Rain looks like it's going to be the first western game to really go for it - I'm very interested to see what it's all about, and while I suspect that it will be very divisive and far short of perfect, it certainly looks to be a bold step in a very interesting direction.

But for now, we wait. When I wrote that Mass Affect post, I thought I was kidding. But now that I think about it, I'm not so sure I wasn't just wishing.


johnnytruant said...

Nice to find a blog that discusses videogames in an adult, educated way. Sorry if this is patronising, but keep it up.
I agree that games could do with a bit more realism, but don't forget the reason most people play them in the first place is to escape drudgery. We need fun and entertainment, that's a real challenge for a games designer if they've got to put it in an environment without aliens or superheroes or big guns. That's how it seems anyway as you've pointed out not many have done it yet (not for an adult audience anyway).
I'll be as interested as everyone else to play Heavy Rain and Alan Wake, I just hope they aren't elongated cut scenes with added QTEs.

Anonymous said...

I read about "Heavy Rain" the other day, and I asked David to get it so I could play it. I told him, "I want to make bad decisions, virtually."

Kirk Hamilton said...

@johnnytruant - thanks! I totally get that games can (and should) be a venue for escapism, but perhaps not all of our games (or at least the vast majority, as they are today) need to be so far removed from daily life?

I'm certainly not suggesting that we do away with the Uncharteds and Mass Effects of the world, but a little variety could only be a good thing.

It feels like up until now, games stuck with fantastical settings in part because their audiences like them, and in part because they were easier to get away with from a technical standpoint. Rendering real people in a believable way is just much harder than rendering aliens or robots for which your audience has no frame of reference.

Now that we have the tech to do it, I'm eager to see more developers tackle real people acting like... well, real people.

Another way to put it is that while Star Wars is awesome, not every film needs to be Star Wars, ya know? Rushmore was really good too.

@sonia - yeah, it looks like a pretty wild game. I'll be interested to hear your take on it.

johnnytruant said...

Rushmore is my favourite film and if there was a game like it then I'd be first in the queue to play it (I suppose it would actually be quite like Bully and I've never played that, so I've just disproved my own point [yay for me]).
I agree that more games with good stories set in the real world should be made, it might even help legitimise our hobby. Let's just hope that Heavy Rain fulfils at least some of its promise.
And that Wes Anderson scripts a game someday.

Brian Longtin said...

Funny you mention that not every game has to be Mass Effect; in the first installment, one of my favorite elements were the Citadel missions that involved more normal-person, conversation-based objectives like settling arguments.

Don't get me wrong, I love some high space-drama, but the more human stuff was what made it a cut above other games.

Kirk Hamilton said...

@johnnytruant - yeah, you know, I could actually see Wes Anderson making a game sometime in the future. Meticulously-created worlds are his forte, after all... stranger things have happened, and the future the lasts a long time.

For now, while Jimmy Hopkins from "Bully" is a bit more Holden Caulfield than Max Fischer, it's as close as we've got, and worth checking out for the writing alone. I bet the 360 version is like ten bucks online.

@Brian - good to see ya over here! I loved that interaction with the pregnant widow and her dead husband's brother, talking about her baby and that potentially-dangerous genetic treatment. I don't think I've ever seen a game address risky prenatal treatments before. Or since.

There's a very nice (and very subtle) callback to it in the sequel, which just further demonstrates the care and thought that went into the ME2 writing.

Though there do seem to be fewer of those types of interactions in the sequel, at least with not with randoms... like they replaced those with the personal stuff you do with your party members.

Which, if it's gonna be one or the other, was probably the right way to go. But I do miss those glimpses into the little people's lives.