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Can a Video Game Make You Cry?

As the technological sub-culture nears its fiftieth birthday, Jon Evans investigates whether we should believe the hype.

SECURITY IS TIGHT at EA Montreal. Most of the sleek downtown complex, one of six development studios owned by gaming giant Electronic Arts, is off-limits to outsiders. Given the stakes, the secrecy that shrouds its “undisclosed projects” isn’t surprising: earlier this year, rival developers Rockstar Games' Grand Theft Auto IV grossed $500 million during the first week of its release. Video games will soon surpass movies as the world's most lucrative entertainment medium; in this competitive environment loose lips can sink shiploads of investment dollars and years of work.

One of the start-ups that rode the early eighties video-game explosion begat by Pac-Man in the early eighties, Electronic Arts is today the eighth largest software company on the planet. Much of its success comes from titles based on sport licenses (NHL 08) and film franchises (James Bond 007: From Russia with Love). EA, however, has decided to follow the example of more “story-driven” concepts like Grand Theft Auto IVand Halo, two of the industry’s biggest hits. Army of Two is a recent result: a team-based shooting game, it allows players to control the actions of two characters, private military contractors Elliot Salem and Tyson Rios. Released last year, Army of Two garnered rave reviews and topped sales charts.

Narrative gameplaying engages the same impulse that drives our interest in books and movies: the hardwired human need for story and character. But senior EA producer Reid Schneider, a ten-year industry veteran with Hollywood good looks, believes such games are different from any other storytelling medium: “The story is nonlinear,” he explains, “Game creators don't control the pacing. So the emotional experience of gaming is less about plot and more about the characters.”

Sounds about right—except that, notwithstanding the obsessive relationship that often develops between a player and his favourite game, calling it an “emotional experience” seems a little far-fetched. Most game protagonists possess all the personality of Pac-Man’s ghosts. The hero of the bestselling Halo franchise, for example, doesn’t even have an actual name: he’s just called Master Chief. Supporting characters are rarely more than caricatures spouting overripe dialogue. As for story, well, “Nobody cares about your stupid story,” declared Ken Levine at the most recent Game Developer's Conference.

Levine is the creative director of the widely acclaimed Bioshock (2007), so his statement may come as a surprise. Bioshock asks players take the role of Jack, the lone survivor of a plane crash who finds himself in a dystopic, war-ravaged underwater city called Rapture. In a life-and-death struggle with Rapture’s unstable founder Andrew Ryan, Jack fends off attacks by mutants and drones, all the while facing the moral dilemma of whether to kill or rescue genetically-altered little girls. It’s never clear what he should do, and the outcome hangs on his (your) decision.

But whatever “emotional experience” Bioshock offers is tied to what is basically a series of mazes that players must explore, while killing or escaping bad guys and collecting stuff. In other words, for all Bioshock's visual beauty and apparent moral complexity, it is fundamentally the same game as Pac-Man.

It's easy to infer from this that video games are only about the visceral gratification of solving puzzles and blowing things up: meaningless, escapist entertainment; devoid of gravitas, psychological depth, and vivid characterization. Even “story-driven” games like Bioshock provide no actual story, only enough pretext to get give the gameplay traction; and who could possibly care about the characters of a pretext?

But people can and will get emotionally involved in video games—if they're compelling enough. Floyd proved that almost thirty years ago.

In 1977, a batch of MIT students created Zork, a game set in a sprawling underground labyrinth that consisted of nothing but words on a screen. The goal was to find the treasures and return home. Players typed commands like "go north" or “take lamp”; the game responded with a paragraph or two of description, explaining what happened next; and the back-and-forth continued until the game ended. Zork sold more than a million copies, and its creators founded Infocom, a company devoted to developing Zork-like "interactive fiction."

Infocom’s finest hour was Planetfall, a game where players find themselves in the role of a crashlanded starfleet janitor exploring a derelict complex, aided by a robot sidekick named Floyd, a comic, endearing character who says things like "Oh boy! Are we going to try something dangerous now?" Floyd doesn't actually do much, and the player can hardly interact with him. But it is well documented that near the end of the Planetfall, when Floyd makes the ultimate sacrifice to save the janitor, many a player grew misty-eyed.

Floyd was not alone. Strong men have wept at the denouement of Ico (2001), a stunning and innovative Japanese game in which the protagonist helps a princess escape an otherworldly castle. The ultimate in companion-bonding came in Portal (2007), which won more than 30 Game of the Year awards. In one of its levels, our hero must carry a “Weighted Companion Cube,” with a pink heart painted on each side. While there are implications that it can speak, it never does. It turns out the cube must be destroyed in order to progress—and many players report that immolating their inert, inanimate Companion Cube was far more emotionally wrenching than killing the cute little girls in Bioshock.

Books and movies provoke a vicariously different emotional reaction. They have characters, not companions. However much we might identify with a fictional protagonist, we don't have a say in their actions. Video-game protagonists, by contrast, are part-character, part-us. This helps explain why people get upset when their “player-characters” or PCs (a term borrowed from tabletop role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons) get hurt or act in ways they do not condone. After Army of Two was released, Schneider discovered that “people are really sensitive to their character saying inappropriate or un-politically-correct stuff. They take that really seriously.” It's fine for other characters to say mean things—but not your character.

Maybe this is the reason so many game protagonists are faceless nonentities: their creators figured it was easier for players to project themselves onto empty templates. Or maybe it was laziness. Whatever the reason, until the end of 2007, the heroes of most games were literal nobodies: anonymous, inoffensive blank slates.

Enter Niko Bellic.

There’s a good chance you already know I mean the anti-hero of Grand Theft Auto IV, which in itself is remarkable. Rockstar Games has created, for the first time in the history of video gaming, a human character who even non-gamers talk about by name. A sardonic, strong-and-silent veteran of the Balkan civil wars, Bellic arrives in Liberty City—an ersatz New York—searching for the American dream, but instead gets caught up in crime.

Most of his personality comes via movie-like “cut scenes” between game missions, but even during game play, GTA IV treats characters and relationships as important: you can eat, drink, and go to clubs with friends, meet girls and take them out for dates, all (probably) without a shot being fired. It's often crudely done, but several characters in GTA IV, particularly Niko, his cousin Roman, and his friend Dwayne, are as interesting and fully realized as those in a decent novel. (The female characters, alas, suffer from the game's madonna-whore complex.) And the climax of the story, where a character close to Niko is killed – an event that depends on a choice the player makes – has enough emotional oomph that you can't help but develop a certain sympathy for Niko's subsequent lust for vengeance.

It helps that the game itself is on the cutting edge of the technically feasible, its sights and sounds so immersive that just driving around Liberty City can be mesmerizing. And unlike Halo, Portal or Bioshock, which force players through their levels with a heavy hand, GTA IVis a “sandbox game,” wherein players chart their own course through a self-contained world, encounter other characters, and embark on a series of mini-missions that accumulate into a story.

Every new storytelling medium is initially promulgated by technicians more than artists. Gutenberg's press was first used to disseminate existing works, with little to no printing of new authors. In film’s early days, it was the camera inventors—George Smith, the Lumiere brothers, Melies—who chose what stories to tell, and how. The video-game industry is now nearly fifty years old, but is regularly revolutionized by Moore's Law, which dictates that computers double in power every eighteen months. As a result of this endless exponential growth, the limits of the technically possible keep expanding, the game industry remains in a kind of perpetual infancy, and the technicians have stayed in charge of the stories.

GTA IV is a watershed: both the most successful game ever and the industry's biggest step yet towards meaningful and original storytelling. (Not to mention a hell of a lot of fun.) To quote the New York Times, it is "a richly textured and thoroughly compelling work of cultural satire disguised as fun," superbly written by Dan Houser and Rupert Humphries.

Sadly, most gaming companies haven't even been trying to make games this good. They didn't think there was any money in it. For decades, the industry's collective wisdom has declared that gameplay is king, and story is window dressing.

In 1997, when Mary de Marle was hired by Presto Software to write Myst 3, she attended a meeting with another video-game company, where she was introduced as "Mary, our writer." The other company's CEO, who she diplomatically declines to name, looked at her and asked, astonishment in his voice, "You're a writer? So what do you do?" As he left the meeting, she overheard him saying to his underlings, "We have to go hire a writer!"

Ten years later, the industry still hasn't quite accepted that idea. Instead, they hire writers and promptly hamstring them. During the concept phase of game development, several people will work on a new game idea for weeks, but writers – the very people who can spark the “emotional experience” Schneider talks about – may not be brought on until the game is well down the technological highway. During full production, which may include well over 100 people, programmers produce the game mechanics, artists design the settings, and writers create the game's characters, plot, and dialogue, which are passed on to “level designers” who build the territory and antagonists that players will face. And for the sake of better gameplay, level designers—the very job title shows a basic gaming assumption—will often arbitrarily change the writers' work.

This seems understandable: above all, games must be fun. But that doesn't mean story and character need to be thrown under the wheels of gameplay. Contrast the process described above with the creation of GTA IV. Hauser and Humphries first decided on the game's protagonist and setting, and created the game's entire storyline before farming the work out to mission developers, who they supervised. It was story first and game mechanics second, with both evolving to meet each other's demands. The industry will presumably learn from this lesson, and we can look forward to more thought-provoking games over the next few years.

But in the long run, the wave of change ushered in by GTA IV is likely to be swallowed up by the tsunami-like success of games clumsily known as “massively multiplayer online role-playing games,” or MMORPGs. The most famous of these virtual worlds include Ultima Online (1997) , Everquest (1999),  and above all, the phenomenally popular World of Warcraft (2004), which recently passed the eleven million player mark (with up to one million online at any time) and which rakes in as much as a billion dollars a year (gamers pay a monthly fee). The addictiveness of MMORPGs stems from integrating the fun of gaming into a social experience.

This transition to MMORPGs may echo the fate of text-based games twenty years ago. Games like Infocom’s Zork, faced with extinction in the retail gaming market, moved online to become MUDs, or Multi-User Dungeons: text-driven fantasy adventures full of territories to explore, monsters to kill, quests to achieve and puzzles to solve. It was multi-user because, anticipating MMORPGs,  more than one player could play at the same time. The number of students who failed out of university because of obsessive MUDing led to the acronym being rewritten as “multi-undergraduate destroyer.” Fewer academic careers were destroyed by Infocom games, but MUDs tapped into something that Zork never could. People. Real people (sitting at their computers, long into the night, just like you). An entire society.

The social hierarchy of MUDs included newbies (those just getting started), players (regulars), and wizards (creators with godlike powers who moderated MUD society). Wizards also made new puzzles, monsters, objects, and whole new areas of the world. The interesting thing—the innovation, you might say, with the most far-reaching consequences—was that anyone could become a wizard. If you were a successful player, and someone that other wizards had grown to know and trust, you too could be raised to the MUD Olympus.

Twenty years later, that history is repeating itself, right down to the unhealthy addictions: girlfriends and wives who have lost their men to World of Warcraft sardonically refer to themselves as “Widows of Warcraft.” The only difference today is that unlike MUDs, MMORPGs are to date created entirely by their corporate owners—except for Second Life, which is like a video game without a game. It doesn't take a crystal ball to predict that the next step in online gaming will be an effective merger of Second Life and World of Warcraft: the empowerment of players to create their own territories, buildings, creatures, and eventually their own games. Indeed, last year a company called Areae took that step by debuting a website called “metaplace” that aims to “provide an open, easy-to-use interface which will allow users to create virtual worlds that can run anywhere.”

"User-generated content," to use the industry's cheerless term, has been around for decades. One of EA's first hits in 1983 was Pinball Construction Set, which let you create and play your own pinball game. In the nineties, the first-person shooter Half-Life allowed players to design new mazes. As of last September, players could use a game called Spore to guide the evolution of a species all the way from  single-cell organism to space-travelling civilization (a million people paid for the Spore Creature Generator before the game itself was even released). And the possibilities go far beyond in-game material: “machinima” is an emerging filmmaking technique where programmers/animators use video games to create music videos (“Fett's Vette”), TV series (“Red vs. Blue”), and movies (Ben X).

As Reid Schneider says, “everyone's creative.” Whether the masses will start using games to tell their own stories remains to be seen. But the prospect of massively multiplayer games becoming an open medium is intriguing. World of Warcraft devotees may turn to creating their own missions, their own worlds, and inviting friends to collaborate or play in them: a kind of collective storytelling. Corporations may build marketing campaigns or training materials around branded game worlds built by freelance experts. Instead of recruiting teams of writers and designers, game companies may simply let the tried-and-tested worlds of talented ordinary gamers bubble to the top.

“We're still discovering the techniques for telling a good story, and allowing the players to tell their own,” says Mary de Marle. Outside the meeting room of de Marle's new employer, Eidos, desks are being assembled, and a pool table installed. The game maker, home to the Lara Croft: Tomb Raider and Hitman franchises, is growing fast. Video games are big business, but it's clear that she for one is far more interested in her storytelling craft than in financial lucre.

Ironically, even as authors and screenwriters look down on game writers—and they do— it's the latter who are exploring uncharted territory, making new discoveries, and defining a new genre of storytelling. Are video games the world's next significant art form? Maybe not yet. But check back in ten years. Most games might still be dreadful, but some, whether user-generated or written by artists, will have a whimsical, satirical, or avant-garde brilliance—and a few might make people weep.

[Reprinted from issue #30, Winter 2008]

[Jon Evans is the author of four novels. His journalism has been published in Wired, the Globe & Mail, the Walrus and the Guardian. His web site is www.jonevans.ca, and he Twitters at twitter.com/rezendi.]