229: Symphony of Play

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Symphony of Play

Modern games often look to cinema when it comes to inspiration for their storytelling. But there's another medium that may apply more directly to the experience of play: musical performance. Ollie Barder examines how Guitar Hero and Strauss may have more in common than you think.

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Brilliant article. A view I must say I've never really thought of till now, but after thinking about it, I couldn't agree more.

Some very interesting points here and a cool way of looking at the medium.

However... as an opera singer I take offense to opera being called a dead medium!! Yeah, sure, operas aren't hugely successful, but they are still being written and performed. Operas aren't successful, but neither is any type of classical music, that's just how classical music works.

Plus you're also going with the interpretation that musicals aren't opera, which is not a forgone conclusion- there's plenty of grey area.

Interesting enough. I do agree that cutscenes tend to distract from the actual game, and are jarring when you were immersed. MGS4 failed miserably for me, mostly because I couldn't stay immersed in the game, due to the incredibly lengthy cutscenes.

I have to say, that was a complicated read. I probably need to read it again to get what you were trying to convey.

No discussion of video game storytelling is complete without mention of of Half-Life 2. Half-Life 2 was the most significant advancement in video game story telling this decade. By never having you leave the perspective of Gordon Freeman, and having him remain silent throughout, you really felt like you were the protagonist. It created a level of immersion that no other game has been able to accomplish, in my opinion.

Take, for instance, the first section of the game when you're on the run. By having the helicopter shoot at you every time you stepped outside, the game slowly created a Pavlovian response. Eventually, when I came to a section where you had to go out into the open briefly, I felt legitimate fear. Think about what an accomplishment that is. It's easy to create a dystopic world where you can see how scary the oppressive regime is, but to actually make you afraid of it, to make you feel like you are being hunted down and not just a hero you identify with. The ability to replace the protagonist with the player is something unique to video games, and it practically creates a whole new paradigm to what art is and how it relates to its audience.

Think about it. For all of history the way artists got their audiences to experience and understand their art was through the vessel of a relatable protagonist. And when done well, this method can make you empathize with the protagonist and feel the emotions they feel. But the emotions are always one step removed, they always go through the middleman of the protagonist, and it's diluted in the process. Now, video games can remove that middleman. The fundamental purpose of the protagonist is completely gone, unnecessary. The paradigm has shifted: instead of trying to create a relatable protagonist to garner an emotional response from the viewer, the goal is now to create a level of immersion deep enough so that the viewer can experience the emotion directly.

This is the reason why video games as an art have such a huge potential. Eventually, when developers realize the power of this, the focus of gaming advancement will be on immersion, rather than photo-realism. The way you control and view the game will become more and more immersive, and one day they will probably be something like virtual reality.

Yes! This is what I've been saying! Gaming is too worried about creating a story - designers fear that the medium will not be recognized as a potential artistic tool unless it does. But it doesn't need one! Yahtzee said it well when he said making games more like movies is like making a movie out of pages so it's more like books, but it goes further than that - to take the analogy further, it's like if you had to stop after every round of Monopoly to read the story of the downtrodden man on the thumbtack who might finally make enough money on real estate to afford the operation of his grandma. Gaming and storytelling are different media! They don't kiss! Video games not the next step of storytelling after the cinema - they are the next step of interactive entertainment after role playing games.

Gaming has the ability to create a story, but it shouldn't force it on the player - that's killing its greatest strenght. (I just posted on another article how Bioshock did it well because the story was done when the character arrived - this allows the player to be just a witness, and so feels neither forced nor poorly put together.) I have also mentioned repeatedly how games like Dwarf Fortress have enthralling stories by not forcing them on the players. Read one of their Let's Play and look at how, even though there's no real characterization of the dwarves, players will still fall in love with their powerful swordsmen (sorry, swordsdwarves) or their moody engravers or the brave women of the fortress guard that carry their children into battle. Hell, there's a massive thread of love for a bug that caused an elf to become the dwarven king. That is what gaming needs - not to tone down the clichés so that they remain understandable between bouts of clearing the room of enemies, but to make clearing the room of enemies be the interesting story.

I'm just including the mandatory reference to Loom.

image

Mr games industry.

It seems that you've been living two lives. One life, you're the hardcore games industry, maker of cinematic experiences for a stagnant market. You have vocal fan sites, pay your taxes, and you... help your landlady carry out her garbage. The other life is lived in computers, where you create exciting video games and are guilty of breaking all the rules of traditional narrative we have a law for. One of these lives has a future, and one of them does not.

(I like this article and one of my favourite games is Rez.)

I have known books to be based upon authors favourite songs and work so i agree, base game stories to music.

Interesting article, agree with quite a few of the points.

Skooterz:
MGS4 failed miserably for me, mostly because I couldn't stay immersed in the game, due to the incredibly lengthy cutscenes.

Bang on, i didn't pay £40 to watch a sodding movie!

Stoopkid:
No discussion of video game storytelling is complete without mention of of Half-Life 2. Half-Life 2 was the most significant advancement in video game story telling this decade.

Hell yeah, right on brother! I really don't think ther has been any significant steps forward in story telling since the gaming Holy Grail that is HL2!

My point all most exactly...

Stoopkid:
No discussion of video game storytelling is complete without mention of of Half-Life 2. Half-Life 2 was the most significant advancement in video game story telling this decade. By never having you leave the perspective of Gordon Freeman, and having him remain silent throughout, you really felt like you were the protagonist. It created a level of immersion that no other game has been able to accomplish, in my opinion.

It's a great method, I'll give you that. Another recent game to use this to their advantage is Dead Space (except for the last 10 seconds) and it was a lot more engaging than the similar Resident Evil games. BioShock took a similar route to.

While I think the proposed concept is interesting, I also think some others they need to strike a balance. For example Condemned, while using cutscenes had many large portions in first person.

Plus it would depend on genre since Bethesda RPG games don't use cutscenes but the delivery is different to lets say Metal Gear Solid... a game where there's too much. To quote Unskippable "I think Hideo Kojima is afraid the gameplay will get in the way of his movie."

I agree that there SHOULD be games which do this. However, I think that games can be even broader then this makes it out to be. There are fantastic cinematic games, ones which use play more sparingly, as a medium through which there is a powerful story. And indeed, this cinematic experience is balanced perfectly by the more limited play experience. Take Final Fantasy. The play is in some ways limited, but it acts as a framework to tell a powerful story. If Final Fantasies were more like music then film, they would be weaker. I think the lesson here is that there should be games which are structured more like music. There should be games that explore more structures period. Whereas music is just sound, movies are sound and sight, and books are language, games are capable of melding every last component of human experience in every way imaginable. I'm not convinced that a music-like system is better then cinimatic approaches, but it definitely would be worth a shot.

Have you ever performed Leonard Bernstein's 3rd Symphony? I think that's an excellent example of a story being told orally over music. That and the Ring Cycle. I do agree that rhythm games are great at emulating the conventions of musical performance. It's simplified, to be sure, but play the drum set for Rock Band and you could actually transfer part of that somatic memory over to a real drum set.

A very interesting thought on games, something I never really considered as an analogy but something that sounds like the right direction for story-telling in games.

Years ago when I discovered Roguelike games like "Angband" or "Nethack" (someone mentioned "Dwarf Fortress" earlier so that counts as well), I always considered those better "role playing games" than any other actual RPG like "Final Fantasy" (FF) series simply because they were more interactive throughout the entire game. In FF 12, you always start the game with Vaan, and you always do the same static main quest along with any static side quests in the game. He is always a poor street urchin when you start playing as him and (possibly, never played that far) depressed as to what has happened to his brother.

On the flip side, a Roguelike game allows you to craft your protagonist any way you want: Wanna be a Dwarf warrior? An Elf mage? How about a Human cleric? The game grows even more complicated later during the game, like a tense moment in clearing out a room of monsters as that character, or finding a nice item during one dungeon session that really compliments that character. Sure it could be said that Roguelike games hardly have any story, but could those moments of tense choices and surroundings in that game session be a possible story unique to that player?

Anyone can flip over the back of an FF box to see one of the bullet features describing an "epic" story in the game, yet they are always scripted and have static characters with their own goals and intentions that lead the story. A Roguelike game doesn't promise anything like that, but instead molds itself around the player's own character to add a possible level of immersion based around their own choices--and considering the many types of characters and many situations that can occur, that is a very unpredictable yet possibly rewarding story to the player!

However I do know that FF comes from a culture that really enjoys expressing their stories through visual media and apparently it is very popular there (Visual Novels or even good Eroge games are an example). Though for me, I always preferred to have the "game" in my games than any story...as I'm interested in my own experience, my "story", then what is pre-defined in the game.

I sort of thought along these lines when I realized that all games are basically quicktime events, and guitar hero in particular.

you can make fun of guitar hero and the people who choose to play it rather then a real guitar, but it can actually be a lot more complicated then playing an actual guitar, and the gameplay amounts to little more then reading, and playing on a modified single stringed instrument, a modified tableture.

But all games require some sort of skilled input (except Miyamoto's new "Plays For You" Design, which I don't have a problem with in the applications it's being used for). Playing a Fighting Game is actually a lot like playing an instrument especially. For me, at my skill level, where I know basically what the buttons do, and I have a few combos in my pocket, it's very much like playing a improvised piece of music, and in fact, I get the same feeling playing a Fighting Game that I did playing the bass guitar for many years.

Many times when I finish a particularly awesome combo, I end with a flourish.. My hand will compulsively move, off the controller and my fingers will move, almost like a dance, in much the same way that after a particularly awesome bass riff, I'd do the same thing.

So yes, I totally understand what they're saying comparing gaming to music, and some genres fit that bill better then others (like I said, Fighting Games are VERY musical in their execution), but the whole idea rings true to me.

Interesting. I'd no idea that music was so complex. Makes sense really, but the problem is, music isn't a big story telling medium; ok, they have some stories in them, but they aren't focused on that, nor do they often have long or complexity stories.

Still, might be a good starting place.

Doug:
Interesting. I'd no idea that music was so complex. Makes sense really, but the problem is, music isn't a big story telling medium; ok, they have some stories in them, but they aren't focused on that, nor do they often have long or complexity stories.

Still, might be a good starting place.

*Gasp* how dare you?! Music speaks to only those who have good ears and tail coats!

For many games, gameplay is quite divorced from any narrative meaning. Of course, there are notable exceptions, and these tend to prove the rule (HL2, Bioshock, Ico, Shadow of the Colossus). It wouldn't be a problem if they just let the game be a game, instead of trying to marry it to a "cinematic" story-telling device.

I think cutscenes that remove control from the player have their place, but for immersion, they don't really help. Games like Half-Life, Bioshock, or Dead Space do well to maintain immersion by never shifting the perspective, and it seems a silent protagonist is a common theme. I don't think that's absolutely necessary, though, as I found Prey to be quite immersive, even if it had some flaws. It was telling a simple alien-abduction story, and the player character's responses always seemed legitimate for what was happening around him.

Stoopkid:
No discussion of video game storytelling is complete without mention of of Half-Life 2. Half-Life 2 was the most significant advancement in video game story telling this decade. By never having you leave the perspective of Gordon Freeman, and having him remain silent throughout, you really felt like you were the protagonist. It created a level of immersion that no other game has been able to accomplish, in my opinion.

Take, for instance, the first section of the game when you're on the run. By having the helicopter shoot at you every time you stepped outside, the game slowly created a Pavlovian response. Eventually, when I came to a section where you had to go out into the open briefly, I felt legitimate fear. Think about what an accomplishment that is. It's easy to create a dystopic world where you can see how scary the oppressive regime is, but to actually make you afraid of it, to make you feel like you are being hunted down and not just a hero you identify with. The ability to replace the protagonist with the player is something unique to video games, and it practically creates a whole new paradigm to what art is and how it relates to its audience.

Think about it. For all of history the way artists got their audiences to experience and understand their art was through the vessel of a relatable protagonist. And when done well, this method can make you empathize with the protagonist and feel the emotions they feel. But the emotions are always one step removed, they always go through the middleman of the protagonist, and it's diluted in the process. Now, video games can remove that middleman. The fundamental purpose of the protagonist is completely gone, unnecessary. The paradigm has shifted: instead of trying to create a relatable protagonist to garner an emotional response from the viewer, the goal is now to create a level of immersion deep enough so that the viewer can experience the emotion directly.

This is the reason why video games as an art have such a huge potential. Eventually, when developers realize the power of this, the focus of gaming advancement will be on immersion, rather than photo-realism. The way you control and view the game will become more and more immersive, and one day they will probably be something like virtual reality.

I fear that I must disagree, Gordon Freeman killed the bad guys, but in all other narrative respects, he(and by extension the player) are non-entities, the NPCs are still the ones telling the story.(not that it detracted from my enjoyment of the game at the time.) OP It was an interesting read, but I think your definition of the word "story" is too broad, I see pictures in my head and experience certain emotions when I listen to music that I like, or play it on my guitar, but that isn't the same thing as a story.

I listened to A Life Well Wasted for the first time today, and while I was listening to that, this topic occurred to me (I'm not sure why A Life Well Wasted triggered it, but whatever). Totally awesome that this showed up while I was thinking about it. Anyways, I really enjoyed this article, and agree with it.

copycatalyst:
I think cutscenes that remove control from the player have their place, but for immersion, they don't really help. Games like Half-Life, Bioshock, or Dead Space do well to maintain immersion by never shifting the perspective, and it seems a silent protagonist is a common theme. I don't think that's absolutely necessary, though, as I found Prey to be quite immersive, even if it had some flaws. It was telling a simple alien-abduction story, and the player character's responses always seemed legitimate for what was happening around him.

Yes. The silent protagonist is a pet peeve of mine; I can't think of a single game where it actually added anything useful, and several where it was just ridiculous (and yes, that includes HL2 -- why the heck would Gordon Freeman, a known character with known [well-educated] background, mysteriously remain mute for the entire game? Even when being directly asked questions? Maybe the mic in his HEV suit is broken, but that doesn't explain why he's silent before he gets it).

A few games are a little more on the fence (eg. Dragon Age), by putting words into the mouth of the protagonist although leaving out the actual voice acting. This is a little better (at least they're not inexplicably mute), but it just seems lazy.

Prey is a good example of a game that took the other approach, having a fully-voiced character and thus a "real" story. (There are others, of course.) I much prefer this, when I can get it; it's even better when it does support some variability in the protagonist (eg. Mass Effect).

Sewblon:
I fear that I must disagree, Gordon Freeman killed the bad guys, but in all other narrative respects, he(and by extension the player) are non-entities, the NPCs are still the ones telling the story.(not that it detracted from my enjoyment of the game at the time.)

Exactly.

That explains the humongous appeal of music and rhythm games... we've been conditioning ourselves to them all along!

Miral:

Prey is a good example of a game that took the other approach, having a fully-voiced character and thus a "real" story. (There are others, of course.) I much prefer this, when I can get it; it's even better when it does support some variability in the protagonist (eg. Mass Effect).

Well, I wouldn't go so far as to call Prey's story more "real" than HL2, but HL2 is all told by the setting, the sights you see, and the NPCs. So while Gordon's mute behaviour requires a bit of a suspension of disbelief, the rest more than makes up for it (to me).

Sewblon:
I fear that I must disagree, Gordon Freeman killed the bad guys, but in all other narrative respects, he(and by extension the player) are non-entities, the NPCs are still the ones telling the story.(not that it detracted from my enjoyment of the game at the time.)

Gordon is a bit more than just "the guy who kills baddies." He is seen as a catalyst, a paragon, and a leader (somehow). But I agree that he's sort of a non-character, just a window into the world of the game.

[quote="Miral" post="6.157444.3926863"The silent protagonist is a pet peeve of mine; I can't think of a single game where it actually added anything useful, and several where it was just ridiculous (and yes, that includes HL2 -- why the heck would Gordon Freeman, a known character with known [well-educated] background, mysteriously remain mute for the entire game? Even when being directly asked questions? Maybe the mic in his HEV suit is broken, but that doesn't explain why he's silent before he gets it).

A few games are a little more on the fence (eg. Dragon Age), by putting words into the mouth of the protagonist although leaving out the actual voice acting. This is a little better (at least they're not inexplicably mute), but it just seems lazy.

Prey is a good example of a game that took the other approach, having a fully-voiced character and thus a "real" story. (There are others, of course.) I much prefer this, when I can get it; it's even better when it does support some variability in the protagonist (eg. Mass Effect).

[\quote]

Except the silent protagonist is rarely silent. The dialog is just skipped over and implied. Like when anyone asks Link what his name is. There's a short pause, and then they say "oh? Link?" which they didn't psychicly pull from Link's silence. Link says it, but there's no need for the player to hear it.

copycatalyst:

Miral:

Prey is a good example of a game that took the other approach, having a fully-voiced character and thus a "real" story. (There are others, of course.) I much prefer this, when I can get it; it's even better when it does support some variability in the protagonist (eg. Mass Effect).

Well, I wouldn't go so far as to call Prey's story more "real" than HL2, but HL2 is all told by the setting, the sights you see, and the NPCs. So while Gordon's mute behaviour requires a bit of a suspension of disbelief, the rest more than makes up for it (to me).

Sewblon:
I fear that I must disagree, Gordon Freeman killed the bad guys, but in all other narrative respects, he(and by extension the player) are non-entities, the NPCs are still the ones telling the story.(not that it detracted from my enjoyment of the game at the time.)

Gordon is a bit more than just "the guy who kills baddies." He is seen as a catalyst, a paragon, and a leader (somehow). But I agree that he's sort of a non-character, just a window into the world of the game.

Yeah the mythology around Dr.Freeman helped the resistance get off the ground, but what did he personally do of relevance that wasn't a variation of "kill the bad guys"?

copycatalyst:
Well, I wouldn't go so far as to call Prey's story more "real" than HL2, but HL2 is all told by the setting, the sights you see, and the NPCs. So while Gordon's mute behaviour requires a bit of a suspension of disbelief, the rest more than makes up for it (to me).

Well, that's kinda what I was getting at. I fully agree that HL2's story is better than Prey's, but that's at least partly because there's more of it, and there's more going on behind the scenes. In terms of the A plot, they're both "aliens are invading, gun them down!", but the Native American spin in Prey seemed more compelling somehow (freshness, maybe?). And it was more emotionally charged, despite being able to predict the major emotional crises well in advance. But Prey didn't have much more than the A plot, and HL2 had quite a few subplots going on. And they capitalised on those well in the following episodes. (Despite how annoyingly long it's taking to get there.)

A sound suggestion... oh wait, that's a pun.

copycatalyst:

Sewblon:
I fear that I must disagree, Gordon Freeman killed the bad guys, but in all other narrative respects, he(and by extension the player) are non-entities, the NPCs are still the ones telling the story.(not that it detracted from my enjoyment of the game at the time.)

Gordon is a bit more than just "the guy who kills baddies." He is seen as a catalyst, a paragon, and a leader (somehow). But I agree that he's sort of a non-character, just a window into the world of the game.

The somehow is quite simple...
image

copycatalyst:
For many games, gameplay is quite divorced from any narrative meaning. Of course, there are notable exceptions, and these tend to prove the rule (HL2, Bioshock, Ico, Shadow of the Colossus).

I would disagree with that. You could say that gameplay always has narrative meaning but sometimes it is haphazard, not considered properly or actually works against the story the game is trying to tell. Bioshock is often named as an offender here. I would say that HL2 is fairly neutral with good and bad parts while only the Ueda games you mentioned are properly in tune (too keep up the music analogy.)

It wouldn't be a problem if they just let the game be a game, instead of trying to marry it to a "cinematic" story-telling device.

I think that works. If a piece of music sounds good then it is good and if a game plays well then it is a good game. You can put a layer of meaning on top of that though, like if you play a sad tune then sing a comedy song on top of it then the tune becomes oddly comic. Games do that a lot in my opinion but in an unthinking way by using market proven gameplay then just building whatever sort of cinematic story they want on top of it.

I think cutscenes that remove control from the player have their place, but for immersion, they don't really help.

The more I think about it, the more this cutscenes are bad because they remove control from the player idea sounds like a fallacy. To go back to the music analogy, is music bad when one of the performers stops playing an instrument for a moment and takes in what a soloist is doing? I don't think that removing cutscenes is a bad idea but think that they should not be allowed and enjoyed if they improve a game.

Glad people liked the piece but the rabbit hole does go a lot deeper than people may think. Though due to wordcount and the technical nature of both subjects, the Escapist editorial (wisely) kept my approach as more of a primer.

On the player/musician level the similarity of play is very obvious but on a compositional level both media have profoundly obvious linkages as well.

Specifically, games are "composed" in code and a variety of scripting languages. As a designer, I work in languages like Lua, XML as well as C++. Coders then build the "instruments" which I then compose to in script.

The difference between musical composition at this juncture is that musical instruments don't really change over the ages, whereas in games the "instruments" can change on an almost per game basis - as the technical advancement in the medium means you're constantly having to incorporate newer and broader functional parameters.

The way musical notation is written is also very similar to how games are scripted. In that sense, a designer is more akin to a composer in my eyes rather than a simple source of ideas. As the key is in implementation of the script not just the conceptual impetus that initially fuelled that.

I'd like to write about this in more detail one day obviously, if only to dispel the nonsensical myth on what designers do on a daily basis (personally, I think the title "designer" is a massive misnomer anyway!).

That all made a scary amount of sense.

Definitely an interesting read, but I have to disagree. I think that video games should find their own way of telling stories without emulating movies, books, music etc.

I don't buy it. So games have cues as to how a player plays them (some games have terrible triggers: COD4) and not everyone can just play one. Great, so what?

There is a reason being cinematic is good, and the article fails to realize this, GAMES ARE VISUAL! So why therefore, is it wrong to have emphasis on them flowing visually? The article rants on, but does not make that many concrete arguments in it.

And also, why must we even have these categorization? A game can be cinematic, fully interactive, and whatever it is the article wants them to be. If you guys haven't noticed, games incorporate more than one artistic aspect to them. There is interaction, visual art, sound, music and an array of writing in them. We can have all of these at once.

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