Developing Thoughts 18

Level 17 Made Me Cry

This may seem like I’m being a little slow on the uptake, but I wanted to finish off my two-part piece on mechanics design before writing this. Besides, it’s always best to ruminate on these things for a little while before launching into commentary. Reacting too swiftly to news, people’s statements and press releases can give results that are coloured by an initial emotional reaction instead of reasoned thought.

Some of the things I’ve read about Spielberg’s and Zemeckis’s recent comments fall into the category of knee-jerk defensive reaction. To summarise, they both feel that while games are developing their story telling well, there is still some way to go before they will be on a par with films. I must say that I agree with this view and it’s difficult to see why anyone would disagree. There are some fabulous things being done in games and we should be proud of how far the industry has developed in a relatively short time, but at the same time, we need to be realistic about where we are in the larger scheme of things.

Having a go at Spielberg seems a little misguided to me. Here is a man with vision, who has created a large number of excellent, successful films; yet people have jumped on his comments as if he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. While he may not know everything about the games industry, we should be listening to what this man says from the viewpoint of someone on the outside looking in. We should consider how we might use his experience and vision to move game development forward.

Specific attention has been aimed at Spielberg’s quote, “I think the real indicator will be when somebody confesses that they cried at level 17.” Many seem to think that it’s an indication that he’s out of touch with games because no one refers to levels in games any more. Come on, just because we may refer to them as chapters or missions, to all intents and purposes they are still levels, particularly in the way that many games implement them.

To ridicule Spielberg’s statement only shows how little is known about the larger issues; about how story works on many levels. Most reactions I’ve read use the same example to refute his claim – the death of Aeris in Final Fantasy VII. If we have only the one example to turn to, it actually shows how right Spielberg is, particularly when you take into account that it’s the death of a main character – an extreme plot development in any situation. What about crying because the main character’s just been told he has cancer? Or with relief that her kidnapped son is alive and well? Or with joy because the boy meets girl subplot has resulted in a meaningful relationship? This is the real significance behind Spielberg’s statement.

From the perspective of people looking from outside the industry, games have clearly yet to move us in the way that films do. One highly emotional scene from a single game that has forty hours of gameplay doesn’t even come close and shows how far we have yet to go.

Because Spielberg has said something that make games look inferior to movies, some people have simply become defensive. Instead, we should be using this as a springboard to making games reach the heights and tell the stories that not only equal those told in films, but also surpass them. There is an amazing wealth of talent in the industry that can help achieve this, but the key is being realistic about where we are now.

© Steve Ince, 2004