Believe it or not, the NEW YORK TIMES has a regular video game reviewer. Yes, games have become a respectable media in and of itself now; whether that thrills or scares you, I leave the choice to you…
Anyways, the review of MARVEL: ULTIMATE ALLIANCE 2 in the TIMES was an interesting read today. It was not so much for what it said about the merits and faults of this particular piece of software, as for a diversion made by Seth Schiesel as he considered why some of the themes and tone of the source materials the game was based on (in this case Marvel’s CIVIL WAR Series) could not be conveyed through the game itself:
But there is something more subtle and interesting going on in terms of the differences between how traditional and interactive media tell stories.
Noninteractive media like books and movies allow the viewer some psychological distance from the characters. That sense of remove is a big part of how linear media can explore complex topics of morality: by depicting characters you are not expected to agree with, but merely understand. Great tragedies, after all, are propelled by characters who believe they are doing the right thing, not those trying to be villains.
For instance, a depiction of the psychological struggle of a Nazi soldier as he tries to reconcile his genuine patriotism with a realization that he is serving an evil regime could make a great novel. Books and films are filled with poignant characters who believe they have to do the wrong thing for the right reason. In a civil liberties plot like Marvel’s Civil War, the noninteractivity of print may allow readers to empathize more easily with the motivations of a character they disagree with.
But a game forces the player to occupy a character. That psychological distance is eliminated. And so the other side must be reduced merely to the Enemy. The story of that Nazi soldier would make a culturally uncomfortable, and politically impossible, video game because the player would probably have not merely to witness but also to act out the killing of Allied soldiers and possibly civilians.
This is an important point to ponder for anyone wanting to share stories in this day and age: There is now a clearly delineated strength-to-weakness consideration when choosing how to tell a tale.
Take for example this work. By doing it as a novel, or as a “hot media” if you want to take a Marshall McLuhan-based approach, we get to see Hope struggle with what she must do, and consider her actions and consequences before she sets course. Now, if I had been inclined (and more technically adept) to try and do this story as a mod to SID MEIER’S PIRATES, much of the contemplation she goes through as she sails aboard the Gale would be lost amidst the button pushing and joystick-jabbing.
Oh, all right; no, I did not forget QUESTPROBE, try though I might… (Yet one more bad idea from the 80s; the more I look back on the time, the less I’m finding something to remember fondly from then other than velcro sneakers…)
I would note that what you can do with software written for an Xbox is infinitely more versatile than that for a Commodore 64, which means the observation still has room for applied virgin speculation. While there are plenty of questions raised and to be answered by such choices, considerations regarding how best to approach a tale to be told and what form might get the writer the best return if sold to that market, there’s one out there that stands out for me:
Whether writers who go with their strengths and under the old rules might not be making sales getting heard are going to become more common.
What makes this a topic of interest is that, if anyone who doesn’t invest that much in what motivates a person through whose perspective the story unfolds around can call themself a writer, then we have a major redefinition of the craft. It makes one of the biggest changes to how we tell stories since the invention of the novel, and redefines how we need to take in a tale. Not since film criticism under Pauline Kael have we had to re-evaluate how we look at the art of telling a story, and what this means overall for how we process what we’re told.
And I’m not sure whether that thrills or scares me…