Reinventing the camera

I just read this interview with Guy Maddin and Isabella Rossellini on indieWIRE. Guy Maddin is a director whose movies have been on my Amazon wishlist for a long time – they sound fascinating. And Isabella Rossellini… I’ve always had a major weak spot for her. But that’s not why I’m mentioning this interview here.

Here is an interesting quote from Ms. Rossellini:

One of the things that fascinated me is that cinema still is looked at as a technology. It was presented 100 years ago in magic shows, like a trick, and they’re still waiting for the new technologies. It’s still promoted that way, the new cinemascope or the new special effect or the digital camera. It’s always the new technology and what artists can do with the new technology, and all the technologies impose a certain storytelling that is forgotten as the technologies progressed.

The reason why this is interesting is that a relatively common argument in the interactive entertainment industry is that we are reinventing the camera for every new work we make, and that this is Bad.

Analogies can be great ways to make a point, but they can also be misinterpreted and lead to mental traps. It always feels strange to me to criticise an opinion without having a concrete instance of it. Nevertheless I’m going to launch an attack, Don Quixote-style, on a point of view that nobody may actually have.

One problem with the camera analogy is that it seems to suggest that there is no technological innovation going on in movies. The quote above shows that this is not the case, and has never been the case. Perhaps the pace is slower than in games, but a closer look reveals that technology in cinema is continuously evolving.

Another problem with the camera analogy is that it can lead to the idea that “content” and “technology” are mutually exclusive concepts. The artist does not spend time building a camera from scratch: the artist uses the camera as a tool to make a work of art.

This is a highly misleading idea. The line between content and technology is very vague, both in cinema and in interactive. In cinema, the director of photography is responsible for making highly technical decisions in order to achieve certain effects that support the experience the director is trying to evoke. This can go as far as developing new cameras, as Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon and Darren Aronofsky’s movies have shown.

In interactive it would be even more foolish to consider content and technology as two separate things. In interactive, technology is content. From scripting to AI to character control, many essential aspects of the player experience are generated in and through code. Interactivity is a function of process, and process implies code – technology. To separate technology from content, the generic engine from the “content” which defines the game, can be useful when thinking about development, but it does not reflect the reality of game development as I know it (and I’ve seen some extreme manifestations of this idea).

If there is something we can learn from the camera in cinema, it’s that it is a form of technology that is well-understood, and, crucially, offers a broad enough range of expression to allow for the creation of many very different works and styles. This is something that we have not yet achieved in interactive. However, I think technology is neither the source of the problem, nor its solution. We’re not limited to a narrow range of subjects and styles because we’re missing some key technology somewhere.

In the context of development, we’re limited because we do not know how to use technology for anything beyond our limits, and we do not have the time or money to learn to go significantly beyond those limits. Even with an eight figure budget and 30 months of development, you likely will not have enough time to explore new ground.

In the context of the industry, we’re limited because nobody wants to remove those limits hard enough, neither people inside the industry, nor our audience. To a significant degree, important creative decisions are based on a more or less accurate idea of what people will or will not buy. This takes the form of a chain of fear. The developer fears the odd idea will be shot down by the manager, the manager fears the idea won’t find a publisher, the publisher fears the distributor won’t want it, the distributor fears the gamers won’t buy it. And gamers don’t know what they want. It’s not good enough if someone in the chain has the right idea: everyone in the chain has to agree. This is a deep problem.

Nevertheless, I remain optimistic. Things are improving, if slowly. The will is there. At some point, it will conquer our fear.

Comments 12

  1. St├ęphane wrote:

    Do you have any ideas about innovative cameras in games?

    I’ve played Galleon for a while and I couldn’t help but reach for the non-existing “camera stick” (and open the inventory it controls).

    Posted 10 May 2004 at 15:14
  2. Jurie Horneman wrote:

    Quit changing the subject. And is Galleon out yet?

    Posted 11 May 2004 at 23:57
  3. Aubrey wrote:

    A mention of Aronofsky? Ahh, the Gods are pleased!

    As for all this creativity vs. technology deal, I think you’re very much preaching the truth, Jurie. I had not thought of it quite as you do, but as I’m making my first humble bedroom game, I’m finding that the old addage that “graphics mean nothing, gameplay is everything” is horribly flawed. The way in which you visually represent your game state’s information can guide and imply function, and, if you are not careful, imply too much! A game, after all, cannot exist without some form of intelligable feedback, and this is reason alone to research and refine our “cameras”. We need the means to explain the game, which occasionally calls for higher fidelity.

    Unfortuantely, there are always going to be people indulging their OCD in technology’s shiney baubles, just as there are always going to be highly strung fellows who find technology inpenetrable, and thus dismiss it. To say technology is merely a means to an end is to ignore that, for video games, it is our soul enabler. Is it best to find the middle ground between tech-idolotry and tech-aetheism?

    On the visual side, I like the recent advent of Non Photorealistic techniques – not just cel shading, for NPR represents all kinds of technologically re-mastered hand-worked animation conventions. At the same time, I do enjoy the “cyberspace” style aesthetics which exist purely to play to the computer’s strengths. In essence they’re beginning to find out graphics card’s own inherent visual conventions, rather than reproducing old styles from a different medium. Shaders and such are opening up a lot more potentials, and it’ll be interesting to discover if they, too, imply a natural, implicit graphical style in the way that triangulated graphics have implied meshes and simple polygons.

    And that’s also the kind of exploration into the games medium that I enjoy – games that make interesting use of interactivity, or those that put interesting interactive twists on what might otherwise end up as static narratives which the player is forced to hand-crank along. I like exploration of the medium’s unique traits more than I like the medium’s use as a mere delivery system for conventional entertainment/art.

    But it’s that exploration this seems to be stifled, as you rightly point out. It’s a pity that the exploration that goes on in the fringes is not well represented in the mainstream, but I am also optimistic about the future. We’ll expand and explore – probably not at the rate that we’d like, but it will happen gradually.

    Of note is Microsoft’s current dealings with Garage Games, PopCap et al, allowing XBox Live downloads of budget/indie titles. It finally looks as if there could be a mainstream delievery system for fringe works.

    Posted 12 May 2004 at 2:28
  4. Mark wrote:

    The technology of film may keep evolving, but the techniques of expression in film are mature and realiable. The techniques of expression in interactive are immature, and to the extent that they are reliable they are also extremely limited. We’re not suffering on the technology side, we’re suffering on the technique side.

    As for Ms. Rossellini, get in line.

    Posted 12 May 2004 at 9:15
  5. Jurie Horneman wrote:

    Sweet! This blog writes itself! :)

    Good points. More in-depth answer later…

    Posted 12 May 2004 at 9:58
  6. Tadhg wrote:

    “In interactive, technology is content.”

    No it isn’t.

    The general ‘reinventing the wheel’ argument, which I’ve put forward myself on a variety of occasions, is not so much about stating that cinema lives in a complete standstill environment (it clearly doesn’t) but rather that the greater majority of effort in the film industry is not so concerned with reinvention.

    So, while you get several blockbuster films every year that push the boundaries of CGI (and get strangely duller over time), the greater majority of high profile films do nothing of the sort. They’re all character and story pieces, for better or worse.

    The distinction with games is that it is still the prevalent trend for technology to come first in most peoples’ minds. Journalistic previews are usually technology-based. Promo material from the likes of E3 are likewise. The industry and it’s hardcore web-reading conference-attending and article-writing rump audience have a HUGE hard-on for technology in all its forms.

    But that technology is not the content. It is the bedrock on which the content is built.

    In Max Payne 2, for example, physics systems are one of the big ‘tech’ sell points of the game. So too, the graphics technology, the bullet time slowdown and so on. These are all the technological enablers.

    But the content of the game is the adventure of Max Payne, the story he goes through, the challenges that the player faces, the look, the violin soundtrack, and the level design.

    The content of a film or a game is the fantasy, the emotive bits, and the fluidity of the experience. None of these things requires new technology every time, but new technology can be a force that enables new content.

    On the other hand, as is more often the case, the constant strive for new technology yields a huge concern with things like costs, and a resultant pandering to the tech audience produces a never-ending stream of highly polished turds.

    It also excludes new audiences who get frankly put off by the geeky willy waving and the ever-more-prevalent amount of confusing language used to sell games.

    Posted 16 May 2004 at 12:48
  7. Jurie Horneman wrote:

    “No it isn’t.”

    What can I say to this? “Yes it is” ? :)

    “Journalistic previews are usually technology-based. Promo material from the likes of E3 are likewise.”

    I disagree. Maybe it’s worse for PC games, but for console games I don’t get this impression. Not that I like journalistic previews or promo material, but it’s not because they focus too much on technology.

    Regarding the rest of your comments: I think we use slighly different concepts of content.

    Posted 16 May 2004 at 14:57
  8. Tadhg wrote:

    Evidently.

    But No it is.
    Or yes it isn’t.
    No, wait a minute…

    As for the journalism, my basic take on this is to say ‘Look at IGN or Gamespot’s preview coverage’. They are often heavily loaded with supposed new gameplay innovations, bigging up tech, about how the game is going to use a whole new engine and so on.

    This is more prevalent in PC-talk, sure, but there are plenty of console games (usually higher profile ones) in the same boat.

    Posted 16 May 2004 at 21:07
  9. Jurie Horneman wrote:

    The player experience is the most important part of a game, and technology can provide that experience in several different ways. It can deliver some key functionality (rendering, physics), or it can work hard to get out of the way (e.g. streaming).

    It can also be a direct encoding of the interactive aspects of a game. Game rules, simulations, artificial intelligence, even player control algorithms – there are many cases where significant aspects of the player experience, especially the interactive aspects, are directly generated in code, and not read in as data.

    The line between this and technology merely being an enabler is vague, but I think the distinction is real. Ignoring it can lead to equating data with experience, and to underuse the create potential of programming.

    Posted 17 May 2004 at 22:34
  10. Bauq wrote:

    Very interesting discussion.

    Posted 28 May 2004 at 4:57
  11. Tadhg wrote:

    Forgot about this one for a bit, just came back to it:

    “The player experience is the most important part of a game, and technology can provide that experience in several different ways. It can deliver some key functionality (rendering, physics), or it can work hard to get out of the way (e.g. streaming).”

    But all that is enablement, not the content as such. From the player-experience point of view in Max Payne 2, knocking over a filing cabinet is slightly different from knocking over a box, even though the same technology is powering both.

    “It can also be a direct encoding of the interactive aspects of a game. Game rules, simulations, artificial intelligence, even player control algorithms – there are many cases where significant aspects of the player experience, especially the interactive aspects, are directly generated in code, and not read in as data.”

    That is still enablement. The technology of a generated AI in code enables a designer to create an interesting character, which is the content that the player interacts with. So the same coding structure may be used for all the NPCs in some kick ass Bioware game, and those characters will all have those interactive code techniques that you specify, but each one of the characters will be a particular personality, which is the content of the game.

    “The line between this and technology merely being an enabler is vague, but I think the distinction is real. Ignoring it can lead to equating data with experience, and to underuse the create potential of programming.”

    It’s quite a clear line, actually. The technology allows game creators to make things. Coders make software tools that designers and artists and so on then fashion into a game via content.

    There is a massive potential for creative coding within that, as there is a massive potential in cinema to use CGI and interesting cinematographic techniques (like in Barry Lyndon) to help create new and interesting experiences. But the content of those experiences, much like the content of Barry Lyndon, is all the artistically-created material, not the technology that permits it.

    Posted 29 May 2004 at 16:37
  12. bwv812 wrote:

    Everyone seems to think Aronofsky is some sort of genius, and he always gets a lot of credit for his “Snorri-cam.” The only problem is that Scorsese seems to have used the same technique in “Mean Streets,” which somehow escapes reference.

    Posted 03 Jan 2005 at 19:41