When you write for a range of media you begin to realise that some things are easier to achieve in one medium than in others. A novelist can describe things in paragraph that would take hundreds of man hours to render in a film, and films can tell stories with a quirk of an actor’s eyebrow that would required a day in an expensive motion capture studio to achieve in a videogame.
Artists and writers in any medium want their works to be relatable. That’s probably pretty obvious, but what might not be obvious is that a creator cannot use the same techniques across all media to achieve this.
I’m primarily a novelist (look, here’s proof!) but I’ve also written scripts for the screen, designed videogames and, in a particularly enlightening experience, adapted a novel for film. You know how so many book-to-film adaptations end up being awful? Yeah, turns out there’s a reason for that.
Books and films are very different beasts, and while it might seem that all you’d really have to do is make the stuff that happens in the book show up on the screen, the process isn’t nearly that simple. There’s an economy of assets to consider. It’s certainly not the only thing that makes book-to-film adaptions hard to get right, but it’s what I want to discuss today, because it’s also applicable to games.
The novel is a wonderful medium in that the only thing really restricting the author’s vision are the limits of their language’s vocabulary. If I want an entire fleet of spaceships to show up at any point, I just have to write ‘and then a big fleet of spaceships showed up,’ or hopefully something a bit more eloquent, and the reader is presented with a fleet of spaceships.
Showing an entire fleet of spaceships in a film, however, is difficult and expensive. It’s going to require either some seriously involved model-making or hours of expensive CGI work, or more usually a mixture of the two. In general the further something is removed from something you can find in our everyday world, the harder and more expensive it is to create in a film.
That’s why James Cameron’s Avatar is among the most expensive films ever made. Despite the fact that it’s a pretty simple science fiction story at heart, Cameron had to render an entire alien planet, with unique flora and fauna, geographic anomalies like floating islands, and a species of sapients with their own culture and customs. I could probably describe the world of Avatar‘s Pandora in a single page of a book, but convincingly bringing that world to life on film takes a team of hundreds several years and many millions of dollars.
That’s not a problem in games. One of the great things about videogames is that you can pretty much render anything you want for the same amount of time and money. In fact, the opposite of films is true with games; the further something is removed from something you can find in our everyday world, the easier and less expensive it is to create in a game than in a film.
Floating islands? No problem, just get your standard ground-based island and translate by Y. Want a planet with a green sky? That’s an expensive post-processing job in film, but in a game you just need to change an RGB value. How about recreating a famous landmark like Notre Dame? I can just walk up to that and film it with my phone for a total cost of basically nothing (the cost of a journey to Paris notwithstanding), but you can bet that lovingly recreated version in Assassin’s Creed Unity took a lot of time and money to research, model and accurately build.
The most powerful example of this, the point at which the economy of assets for films and games diverge the most, is in rendering human emotion. We’re naturally wired to express emotion through our body language and facial expressions, but despite the incredibly accurate and very expensive motion capture tools used by some modern games, this is impossible for us to pull off realistically in a game.
I can take a phone camera and any one of my friends and record a performance with more relatable human emotion than the most expensive Quantic Dream tech demo, despite the admirable steps this studio and others have taken in bringing us closer to realistic human faces in games. And because our human expressions are so subtle and our ability to recognise flaws so powerful- which leads to the much-maligned ‘uncanny valley’ effect – this will always be the case, or at least it will until our technology and our artistic understanding become several magnitudes more advanced.
All of which makes me wonder why so many studios see the drive towards realism as something of a holy grail for emotive games design. The release of new consoles has seen many developers dive towards creating ever-more realistic games, and we’ve already seen blockbuster games that are seemingly willing to sacrifice basic functionality for increased fidelity. Even when the games turn out well, the results are still a long way off the detail you’d expect in a film, and we’re left with a sort of approximate good-enough-ish representation of the real world.
Why do more games not play to the strengths of the medium, rather than trying to ape film techniques? Film is a much more established medium, and there’s an understanding now of how best to leverage the advantages of the format. It may seem that every other film these days is a massive-budget CGI-fest, but these blockbusters are actually in the minority; by far the majority of films are about groups of people moving around and doing things, because people talking and doing stuff what the medium of film is best at.
And even among the outlandish spectacle films – your Avatar, your Guardians of the Galaxy, your Interstellar – the best of them ground their expensive special effects in the performances of actual human actors, because this is the easiest and most effective way to make the work relatable.
I makes me a little sad to see so much time, money and energy being spent by games studios on trying to recreate the real world, when the nature of polygonal art means we could be creating anything we want. Games let us design worlds where waterfalls flow upwards, where islands float in the sky, where grass is blue and the sky is green and where the laws of physics are malleable. Not only do they let us imagine such worlds, they let us do so for less money and less effort that accurately recreating another corner of the war-torn Middle East.
And when games do play to their strengths the results can be astounding. Journey has more emotional resonance in its 2-hour playtime than the entire of David Cage’s oeuvre, because it uses the unique strengths of the medium to say something about human emotion far more effectively than it could by aping the techniques of cinema.
This is why it’s the games in the indie scene – those not striking out for the prohibitively expensive realm of photorealism – that are achieving the goal of creating relatable human emotion. Games like To The Moon, Papers Please and Gone Home are generating more emotional reactions among players than a stunningly rendered old-man-head can ever hope to, and they’re doing it without ever showing a realistic human character on screen. Perhaps this is a lesson some of the big games studios could benefit from learning.