Learning from the Masters

I yelled and screamed at this game, in a good way.
I yelled and screamed at this game, in a good way.

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons has been on my list of games to play for quite some time.  When I heard about it I was really excited because of its potentially rewarding control scheme but quickly leapt off a building because it was only going to be released on the XBox 360.  I quickly forgot about it.  I tried to ignore all the rave reviews.  I was doing a pretty good job at it, too.

Then I exploded when I saw that it was going to get a Steam release.

I finally finished it recently and all I can say is that I wish more games were like this.  The team at Starbreeze Studios and Josef Fares took all the right risks but constrained themselves in several ways to create a very streamlined, polished, and emotionally powerful video game.  You really don’t get to see this type of work in the mainstream and it’s frustratingly unfortunate.  Why is that?

The short answer is because us game makers are too scared to admit that we don’t know what we’re doing in game land and just trying to do what people seemed to like (sold well).

We’ve instinctively put stories on top of these systems to make the cold sterility of rules more palpable, even diagetic.

The long answer is more complicated… a lot of it has to do with business and another big chunk of it is that games are still very young.  Being young is fine and it’s not to say that we don’t have our fair share of hotshots and pros but we’re all still groping within our own little worlds.  We’re still trying to explore what it is to be an interactive experience, what it is to be a game.  However, there are elements that have been infused into games because games end up being transmedia experiences.  We’re also focusing on the wrong things.  In other words, next-gen tech is never going to save us.  Ultimately, a game is just a set of rules that the player abides by, a safe space where the player can explore a given system, so we can all forget pushing graphics any further.  We’ve instinctively put stories on top of these systems to make the cold sterility of rules more palpable, even diagetic.  Chess is a simple game but its pieces take on the meaning, and even shape, of real world things like kings, queens, and knights.  These things can look like random bits and pieces but the game would still be fun.  So do we really need dynamic sub-surface scattering to be fun or impactful?  These technologies can surely add to an experience but the power of the mind—suspension of disbelief—is still the ultimate tool.  It’s funny to think that the Queen has complete movement and is a very powerful unity while the King can hardly move and is the most important.  What were the designers trying to say?

Kentucky Route Zero and cave paintings share a simplicity.  Beauty in restraint.
Kentucky Route Zero and cave paintings share a simplicity. Beauty in restraint.

We add additional meaning to games because sterile rules are like hard edges and we want that sleekness of Apple products.  Too much focus on graphic fidelity is just a marketing and money earning machine.  They don’t want you to know that good games don’t need next-gen.  In fact, your dad’s-gen is fine.  Caveman is fine.  Chess is fine.  We add story and meaning so the thing is easily consumed and experienced.  Thing is, we’re terrible at doing this.  The state of games is that there are many extremes.  The mainstream is focused on pleasing the little sociopaths that resides in each of our soul’s with mind-numbing first person shooters (yes, I’m totally guilty here too) with so much realism that it’ll blow your eyeballs out but it’s these games that really help the bottom line.  On the other side, we have a lot of ‘casual’ games that appeal to a wide variety of audiences but at the same time to don’t offer the depth or gravity that some hardcore games have been known for. The fact is that being casual has also helped the bottom line tremendously because they’ve taken advantage of people who aren’t accustomed to gaming tricks and snatch their coins like a slot machine in a Vegas airport.  In between the two polar opposites is a weird space where there’s a lot of noise.  You can get a lot of nonsensical stuff as people try to experiment or attempt to become appstore superstars but every now and then, probably as people get tired of the monotony from their jobs at the poles and backup to the middle-ground, you get really interesting things.

In this gray space, you get people who do weird things.  Essentially, you get people who take risks.  In many cases, these people come at games from the outside and bring with them a fresh perspective.  A famous European director, Josef Fares, decided to make a game and somehow managed to find someone to fund his team.  From the very start, Fares brings some very interesting things to the game development table:

  • A unique upbringing (from war torn Lebanon)
  • A master of his original craft, film and storytelling
  • Willingness to take risks: unusual control scheme that was probably there from the beginning
Boots?!  Yeah most mainstream games kick you in the face with its heavy handed narrative cliches and do X to get custcene! No, click for a video explaining Brothers' game mechanics.
Boots?! Yeah most mainstream games kick you in the face with its heavy handed narrative cliches and do X to get custcene!
No, click for a video explaining Brothers’ game mechanics.

Most importantly, though, Fares came with an open mind because he was new to game development and probably didn’t have a good grasp of what language—the verbs we have in game design, the tropes that exist in most games—he had at his disposal.  Instead, he was familiar in a different language and adapted from there.  That translation was magnificent.  There are things that are done in well known mediums that still aren’t being done in games because us game developers don’t spend enough time talking to outside people and trying to convince them to help us (God, help us, please!) or we alienate those outside (because we all know that popular games teach kids to kill each other).

Some may say that the strategies involved to create some of the most riveting moments in games this year were set-ups or even disingenuous.  The two links in the previous sentence are both to the same article but what’s really interesting are the comments in both.  Many agree that the tactic of putting you through panic (like a roller coaster or rickety bridge) in order to heighten your arousal (not just sexual, mind you!) and manage your perception about a person or situation isn’t good.  Wait.  Why does this mean a game is overrated or lying to you?  Truth of the matter is that stories have been doing this for so long.  It is a set-up!  But it’s not trying to lie, trick, or steal your money.  These kinds of strategies are there to provoke a particular emotional reaction.  This is the art of storytelling.  It’s about the pacing, empathizing with characters, pulling the rug from underneath you.  What can cheapen it is how heavy handed the direction is.  Subtlety is the trait of a master and on many occasions Brothers was a masterpiece.  It becomes more relevant in the games because it is an interactive—active and not passive experience that may make this feel like we’re being cheated but that’s okay!  Reading a book or watching a movie is a suspension of disbelief and so is games.  Hell, we even made up a new name for that called the magic circle.  Suspend your disbelief, step into the circle, do whatever you need to do to relax and know that you are on a journey.  Yes, a game allows you control but you are interacting within the designer’s system the same way you are reading the author’s words and looking at the director’s uhh… moving pictures.  In all these mediums we are going through a curated experience, a story is being told to us whether.

The player is telling the story with their own hands and not waiting for the story to be told to them as reward.

It's too high for either brother to get up but with a little help...
It’s too high for either brother to get up but with a little help…
What’s really amazing is that the masterful storytelling, the subtlety and the use of delicate strokes, was evident in the game mechanics as Brothers progressed.  Each consecutive challenge that the two brothers encountered built upon their relationship as well as exhibited growth in each character.  This is not the do X to get cutscene reward.  That kind of division between game and narrative is the antithesis of collaboration.  There are some cutscenes in Brothers to set the story up but it’s interesting to note that there is no understandable dialogue in the game.  The people in Fares’s world speak a different language.    Much of our understanding is based on our basic knowledge of human interaction, gesticulation, and intonation in the voice acting.  It’s incredibly refreshing to see and even more impressive to see how language barrier really doesn’t matter.  It wouldn’t really work in a film and obviously not in a book.  Because we rely on the characters’ physical movements and guttural sounds to derive meaning, the unique interaction that games afford bridges that communication barrier in a profound way.  Each brother can perform some kind of physical action based on context and each time they must interact with each other in a cooperative manner.  The older brother helps the younger by hoisting him up to high places, the younger helps in return by dropping a rope down.  Holding down the trigger button to perform these actions and the dual thumb stick navigation becomes the words between the two brothers.  The player is telling the story with their own hands and not waiting for the story to be told to them as reward.

As mentioned, another strength of the game was that it didn’t try to tell too much in its story.  It’s simple and can be universally understood.  It’s so simple that I believe it crosses all cultural barriers, too.  Fares was brought up in wartime Lebanon and left for Sweden the moment his family was able to in order to escape the violence.  It’s these personal experiences that can truly make a work connect with a large audience because it speaks to the essence of humanity.  But it’s also the auteurship and the willingness to take risks (of telling such a personal story or using a new way to tell them) that enables a work to transcend its peers.  This is why Telltale’s The Walking Dead does so well.  Season One focused on the player’s paternal/maternal instincts in taking care of a child who becomes the symbol of survival, hope, and innocence despite the protagonist’s own sullied and violent past—a representation of the present and the past.  Yes, the game took advantage of heightening your emotions creating tense moments and seemingly difficult decisions but Telltale did with great success.  Brothers and TWD both look towards the future by constantly creeping out of despair and tragedy by honing in on very basic human concepts.  The focus in both these games is like a small nugget of gold hidden in a sieve full of dirt and muck, but as you progress through the game that nugget is polished by the stream’s cold running water and the dirt and chunks of sand are washed away.  By the end, you’re rich.  Rich with meaning and catharsis.

A lot of games have too much muck sticking around.

More often than not, we game makers are insulated from the outside world and even when we do ask outsiders to join us the outsiders, too, begin to lose touch with what’s beyond the bubble.  I suffer from this a lot myself.  Coming from a creative writing background then learning how to make games from an artist’s perspective to be bogged down by the realities of game development and being a business disheartens me at times.  It’s hard.  Experts from the outside and even specialized experts (like a game writer) on the inside must try their best to keep their minds open.  A willingness to collaborate is key but so is the drive to convince others to take risks.  Who cares if you bring in your novelist friend when neither party says that a novel’s format is no good for a game.  It’s no good when you take that novel form and do something crazy and interesting with it but back down when the higher ups say ‘no’.

A paradise forgotten.  A paradise lost.
A paradise forgotten. A paradise lost.

To learn, in the most general sense, is always to keep an open mind.  In our case as master game developers, master film directors, master writers, master whatevers, we are learning and must learn from each other.  As a developer, when I invite a writer on board I have listen to what they have to say bu at the same time they must be listening to me too!  A true collaboration doesn’t happen when one side dominates the other.  Everyone needs to be taking a risk to make something new.  Like a good marriage, good collaboration is about learning to give and take—compromise.  As developers, we’ve only just begun to open the dialogue to outside experts to come help us.  However, there is still a lot that can be done to make it more welcoming and to have these masters want to come work with us.  The only way is to start reaching out to them not by business card but by allowing the work speak for itself.  Popular media already has a certain perception about our industry and our wares but the tides are slowly beginning to change with the Brothers, Walking Deads, Kentucky Route Zeroes, Gone Homes, and Journeys coming out.  If we don’t strive to keep the momentum up by creating these interesting games (or almost games), the tide will die and we’ll never reach shore to save ourselves from being forever locked up and forgotten in Rapture.