The ESRB has been mocking us for years. There’s a joke at the bottom right of every game we’ve ever purchased: Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Sexual Themes and Use of Alcohol–Mature Gamers Only. It’s a note slapped on our backs, like Junior High all over again. None of us seem to notice the irony, that we calibrate our rubric for adulthood by our tolerance for sex, violence and the nebulous definition of mature themes. If you measured your adulthood by the standards of the ESRB, then the only difference between a child and an adult is desensitization. Kids close their eyes and their mouths and cover their ears. Adults don’t. And this, somehow, is how we see ourselves as gamers, and how designers, legislators, parents and the press expect us to behave.
The problem is not them: it’s us. Games are a democratic form of art, created in the image of their players. We struggle to defend the maturity of games because we struggle to defend the maturity of gamers.
Stephen King has this advice for new writers: Write anything you damn well want. Anything at all. As long as you tell the truth.
The truth is an elusive and malleable concept. And writers share a complicated relationship with the idea of “truth”. Our culture admires its greatest writers with an almost beatific reverence. If literature were a religion, we would have canonized Leo Tolstoy, Vladimir Nabokov, Salman Rushdie, Jane Austen, T.S. Eliot.
There’s something strangely narcissistic about a writer and his art. As if the act of writing constitutes something more profound than sitting at a desk in a quiet room and putting one word in front of another like a bricklayer building a dry stone wall. As if writing–and only writing–somehow transcends every other form of craftsmanship, as if it’s anything more than writing, practicing, scrapping drafts, revising, good days and bad days. Do carpenters have a muse? Do dancers and glassblowers and tailors suffer romantically their versions of writer’s block? How many graphic designers, acoustic guitarists, electrical engineers and professional cooks struggle to capture the “truth” with the same feverish desperation of a writer?
Bioware has a habit of sparking controversy. One begins to suspect the Bioware/EA policy toward public relations involves saying precisely the wrong thing at exactly the right time, a tactical delivery of commentary just incendiary enough to foment debate. In August, Bioware Co-Founder Greg Zeschuk infamously anticipated the decline of the RPG as a relevant and useful term. Zeschuk’s insight speaks to the growing trend of cross-pollination between video game genres: First Person Shooters incorporate design elements of platformers and puzzles (Portal), puzzle games aspire toward literary profundity (Braid), strategy games become increasingly cinematic (Starcraft II, Shogun 2: Total War) and strong writing becomes an expectation, rather than a pleasant surprise (Gears of War III).
Zeschuk’s commentary touches upon a cultural preoccupation with genre. Genre is a problematic concept, one from which we struggle to liberate ourselves in the name of innovation, and yet depend upon as a means of cognitive organization. Genre signifies a tradition, and every new RPG grapples with that tradition, adhering to some of its practices and discarding others. It might help to think of the genre as a kind of family tree, where every new game simultaneously claims lineage to its ancestors while attempting to break away from them. To that end, Bioware has attempted to create something of a dynasty for itself, insomuch that a set of tropes and a recognizable design philosophy follows every Bioware RPG.
I imagine Bioware would like to call its dynasty–its legacy–the Western RPG. A subset of the increasingly nebulous genre, the “Western RPG” identifies itself with an emphasis on narrative, a gleeful indulgence in dark and mature themes, and a kind of understated self-consciousness as the hyper-literate Liberal Arts major elder brother to the FPS/Action genres, with a woolen vest and a copy of Strunk and White. The Western RPG is dialogue-heavy and knows it–Dragon Age boasts 742,000 words of written dialogue. It’s a genre that wears the quality of its writing as a badge of honor.
So why is it that the dialogue systems in the tradition of Western RPGs remain more or less the way they’ve been since Planescape: Torment in the late 90′s? In the last five years, RPGs have experimented and innovated and gambled with just about every element traditionally associated with the genre; turn-based encounters have made way for kinetic and violent third and first person combat, the familiarity of the D&D ruleset has become subverted for streamlined mathematics, and level design has evolved from static maps and fog-of-war to sprawling worlds scattered across a galaxy. If Greg Zeschuk is right, then genre-blending is changing everything we’ve taken for granted about RPGs.
So why not dialogue?
We tend to talk about games in terms of certain qualities: a rubric of practical elements repeated in the summary section of every conventional game review. Gameplay, Graphics, Music/Sound, Replay Value, and some variation thereof, such as “Presentation” in lieu of “Graphics” and “Longevity” instead of “Replay Value.” We take these categories for granted, satisfied apparently to divide our games into its basic audiovisual and ludological ingredients, then reverse engineering a composite score that somehow articulates the totality of our game experience in a single digit number between zero and ten.
I’m not trying to be smug; there is after all a practical aspect to signifying our potential enjoyment of a game by a number, and it is the same pragmatism, however imperfect, that we use in ranking movies between one and four stars or classifying library shelves into Mystery, Fantasy and Science Fiction. Taxonomy is an imperfect but necessary system the alternative of which is just plain confusion.
We know that games are not the sum of their individual components, in the same way a good story is more than just a good plot. In fact, given that the purpose of my blog is to slowly convince you that all good games are in fact good stories, let’s talk about what makes a good story, and see if our definition of a strong story illuminates the real rubric against which we judge the quality of our games: the impression a good story and a good game leaves on us that we cannot express as an average of four numbers.
The taxonomy of popular culture is self-contradictory. We categorize our art through strange, paradoxical rubrics: we love remakes, reboots and adaptations, yet hate imitation; we excuse graphic violence in visual media, yet object to suggestive sexuality; we admire rebellion and the avant-garde, yet our art yearns for a romanticized past: steampunk, neo-Victorianism, retro-futurism, post-apocalyptica.
Our cultural lexicon praises simultaneously that which is realistic and that which is imaginative: real and unreal, visceral and cerebral, pragmatic and idealistic, gritty and beautiful. These words constitute not antitheses, not oxymorons, but complementary ideas. It is strange–and strangely characteristic of us–that we are able to appreciate two seemingly contradictory ideals: realism and fantasy. In fact, we seem to have no trouble determining the difference between the real and the unreal. At least, we may identify the unreal as that which exists only in the imagination: a product of fiction and speculation. But why is it that we cannot similarly identify realism?
Inherent in popular culture is the infamy of trivia, as if that which is popular skims along the ephemeral surface of novelty: a fad, a network of memes, video games and garage bands. Pop culture has its own language, and it is a hipster cant, circulated along the fashionable sub-cultures of slackers, teenagers and gamers (three words for what is largely stereotyped as one maladjusted being.)
Pop culture is digital, cheap, inorganic, trivial. For this reason, it has always been the purpose of critics to marginalize pop culture out of art, to separate and demarcate that which is temporary from that which is timeless, just as it is the purpose of artists to challenge the borders of that demarcation, and to prove that even pop culture is capable of captivating us and inspiring emotions.
Scott Pilgrim vs. The World opened to, at best, modest box office results, barely scraping into the top ten by its second weekend release during a late summer with limited competition. Popularity broadcast through word-of-mouth, and despite poor gross revenue and middling theatric attention, we–those few of us for whom the film waste, the target audience of gamers and comic readers–were captivated. Meanwhile, the mainstream remained ignorant or otherwise confused. The film seemed wreathed in its own extravagance, and to the untrained eye, held together by a thin web of video game references and fan service. A movie that seemed to revel in shallowness could never articulate depth of feeling. And thus it was, and remains, dismissed.