Applied Game Theory, R.I.P. 1: Melodrama and Realism

For the past five years (more or less), Kurt Squire and I have written a monthly column, "Applied Game Theory," for Computer Games Magazine. We recently learned that the publication is going out of business. Computer Games Magazine will be missed. It had a great bunch of columnists and writers and really took games seriously as an emerging form of expression, writing thoughtful reviews and well-informed opinion pieces. Unfortunately, if my experience was any indication, it didn't necessarily reach engaged readers. I have met only two or three people who mentioned reading the columns in the five years that we were writing them, compared to the clear evidence of reader engagement with what's going on in the blog. Given that, I thought I might share a few of the highpoints of the columns off and on for the next few weeks. Today's selections deal with aspects of game aesthetics -- specifically with the relationship of melodrama to game design and with the concept of realism as it applies to games. Enjoy!

Games and the Melodramatic Imagination

Want to design a game to make us cry? Study melodrama.

Don't snicker, o ye hardcore gamers. Although we associate melodrama with the soap opera -- that is, "girly stuff", melodrama has appealed as much to men as to women. Sports films like The Natural or Seabiscuit are classic examples of this, and in fact, most action-oriented genres are rooted in traditions from 19th century melodrama.

The best contemporary directors of melodrama might include James Cameron, Peter Jackson, Steven Spielberg, and John Woo, directors who combine action elements with character moments to generate a constantly high-level of emotional engagement. Consider this passage from Cameron's The Abyss during which the male and female protagonist find themselves trapped in a rapidly flooding compartment with only one helmet and oxygen tank. Games include puzzles like this all the time, but few have achieved the emotional impact of this sequence.

Cameron deepens the emotional impact of this basic situation through a series of melodramatic devices: Playing with gender roles (the woman allows herself to go into hyperthermia in hopes that her ex-husband, the stronger swimmer can pull her to safety and revive her), dramatic gestures (the look of panic in her face as she starts to drown and the slow plummet of her hand as she gasps her last breath), emotionally amplifying secondary characters (the crew back on the ship who are upset about the woman's choice and work hard to revive her), abrupt shifts of fortune (a last minute recovery just as we are convinced she is good and truly dead), performance cues (the rasping of the husband's throat as he screams for help), and an overarching emotional logic (she is brought back to life not by scientific equipment, but by human passion as her ex-husband slaps her, demanding that she not accept death). When the scene ends, absorbed audiences gasp because they forgot to breathe. Classic melodrama depends upon dynamism, always sustaining the action at the moment of maximum emotional impact.

Critics might argue that these conventions are unique to film, but most melodramatic techniques are within reach of today's game designer. The intensity and scriptedness of a scene like this couldn't be sustained for 40 hours, but it could be a key sequence driving other events. Classic melodrama understood the need to alternate between down time and emotional crisis points, using abrupt shifts between emotional tones and tempos to further agitating the spectator. And, we often associate melodrama with impassioned and frenzied speech, yet it could also work purely in pantomime, relying on dramatic gestures and atmospheric design ­ a technique platform games do well for fun or whimsy (think Psychonauts), but few games use for melodramatic effect.

Some most emotionally compelling games are beginning to embrace the melodramatic. Take, for example, the now classic game, Ico. The opening sequences work to build sympathy towards the central protagonists and use other elements of the mise-en-scene to amplify what they are feeling at any given moment. The designers exploit the contrasting scales of the characters' small physical builds with the vast expanses of the castles they travel through. The game also relies on highly iconic gestures to communicate the protagonists' vulnerability and concern for each other's well being.

One lesson that game designers could take from classic melodrama is to recognize the vital roles that third party characters play in reflecting back and amplifying the underlying emotions of a sequence. Imagine a scene from television drama where a mother and father fight in front of their child. Some of the emotions will be carried by the active characters as they hurl words at each other which express tension and antagonism. But much more is carried by the response of the child, cowering in the corner with fear as the fight intensifies, perhaps giving a hopeful look for reconciliation. Classic melodrama contrasted the actions of the protagonists and antagonists with their impact on more passive characters, helping us to feel a greater stake in what is occurring. Games, historically, have remained so focused on the core conflict that they spend little time developing these kinds of reactive third party characters with most NPC seemingly oblivious to what's happening around them.

Finally, the term melodrama originally referred to drama with music, and we often associate melodrama with swelling orchestration. Yet, melodrama also depends on the quality of performer's voices (especially the inarticulate squeaks, grunts, and rasps which show the human body pushed beyond endurance) and by other expressive aspects of the soundscape (the howling wind, the clanking shutters, and so forth) -- elements that survival horror games use to convey fear, but are rarely used for other emotions. Game designers can not expect to achieve melodramatic impact if they continue to shortchange the audiotrack.

Want to design a game that will make players cry? Study melodrama.

Game Realism? Get Real!

Arguments about video games and violence almost inevitably hit on the question of whether, as video game graphics become ever more realistic, we will reach a point where games are indistinguishable from reality. This is basically the old undergraduate trap of confusing realism and reality.

Realism refers to a goal in the arts to capture some significant aspect of our everyday experiences. No artwork achieves absolute fidelity to the real, and it is pretty extreme to imagine anyone anywhere at anytime confusing art with reality. Realism in the arts, in fact, gets judged as much in terms of its break with existing artistic conventions as it does in terms of how it captures the real. Realism is a moving target not simply because technologies change but also because techniques shift.

As a result, nothing dates faster than yesterday's realism. For example, the Italian Neorealist films (Open City, The Bicycle Thief) were acclaimed in their own era for their use of non-actors, improvised dialogue, location shooting, and episodic structures, all of which were read as creating an unprecedented relationship between cinema and reality, but today, viewers groan over their swelling music tracks and reliance on melodramatic cliches. The Method Acting associated with Marlon Brando in the 1950s was celebrated for its realistic depiction of everyday inarticulateness, yet again, today, such performances can seem extraordinarily mannered.

What does this suggest about realism in games? In part, it tells us just where artists are pushing contemporary conventions. Innovations in artificial intelligence might create more natural-seeming non-player characters; "immersive" interfaces try to situate the interface within the fiction of the world; expansive worlds (such as Grand Theft Auto) create open ended interactions with the game world; accuracy in detail in Medal of Honor recreates a specific historical event; realistic physics cause the world to behave in a consistent manner, and photorealistic graphics allow for less-cartoonish games.

Any or all of these traits may get called realism. Almost never does a game design team focus on all of these elements of realism at the same time. They make choices about where realism will achieve the desired aesthetic effect and what needs to be stylized in order to ensure intensity and immersiveness.

History tells us that most people don't want absolute realism. The Italian neorealist Caesar Zavatini once proposed making a movie which showed 24 hours in the life of characters who did absolutely nothing. If Zavatini were to make such a game, nobody would buy it. We want games to break with everyday experience. Otherwise, what's the point?

In many cases, the realist style may represent a move away from absolute fidelity to the real world: for example, many people read black and white and grainy images in film as more realistic than crystal-clear color images, even though most of us experience the world in color. Photorealism depends on the representation of camera flair lines which are a property of camera optics, rather than reality.

Because we read realism against existing artistic conventions, breakthroughs in realism call attention to themselves -- they are spectacular accomplishments. When the marines behaved "realistically" in Half Life, it was so compelling precisely because we read them against how npcs had functioned in previous games. As long as the artistic devices are foregrounded, we are unlikely to forget that we are playing a game. Realism isn't about creating confusion in the mind of the consumer; it is about using the medium to call attention to some aspect of the world around us. And more often that not, the best way to help us see the world from a fresh perspective is through exaggeration or stylization

Game reformers are not the only people who confuse realism for reality. Game designers seem relentless in their push for more realistic graphics, often failing to explore other potentials within the medium. There is no reason why games should embrace photorealistic graphics just because they can. Design teams confront realism as a technical rather than a creative challenge. In other arts, realism is understood as an aesthetic option, one thing the medium can do. In cinema or painting, say, the push towards realism is held in check by a push towards expression or abstraction. The absence of such a counterbalance in games means a gradual narrowing of the visual styles present in games. We would personally welcome games which embraced stylization and exaggeration, which offered us radically different experiences, if only game designers could get over their infatuation with realism.