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Clint Hocking on Gears of War

Clint Hocking has written a great blog post on Gears of War.

Like Clint, I was (and am) skeptical about Gears of War. I consider it a game worth paying attention to, but I don't know yet if I like it, or think it's great. But I might be changing my mind right now.

Basically, futuristic military settings bore... me... to... TEARS. All of them. Put a muscle-bound guy in some kind of high-tech suit, give him a weapon the size of a small car, one facial expression (either angry or pissed off) and a voice so low it only comes out of the sub-woofer, and you are pretty much guaranteed to lose my interest. The only thing that is worse is if instead you have a 36-24-36 woman in a skin-tight suit (because women are so bad-ass they don't need body armor).

I can't think of an Epic game since Unreal 1 that has not used this kind of setting, which is why I might look at their games for the technology, but not for any artistic intent. But now there is Gears of War, and a new teaser trailer. As Clint says, it promises something different.

I happened to be visiting a friend of mine yesterday who had just bought the collector's edition of Gears of War. The little art book inside has a foreword by Cliff Bleszinski which explained how he wanted the game to be about loss and an emotional sense of the post-apocalyptic. I didn't see much of the game, but I did see how this might work (for a large part through environmental storytelling). Clint outlines some more techniques Epic might be using.

If Epic managed to pull this off, they will have done something incredibly difficult. First of all, they made a highly-polished crowd pleaser, with not just tons of eye candy but also highly integrated controls, camera, animations, enemy behavior and level design. This is very hard, especially since Gears of War has a very particular gameplay style. Epic will not have been able to study many other games for this kind of gameplay. (Note to self: play Brothers In Arms.)

Second, it looks like they managed to put a consistent artistic message in the game as well, while respecting all of the rules of futuristic military settings. This is also very hard. There is a huge difference between artists making bits of nice-looking art, and artists making effective art that works well as part of a consistent whole (and this doesn't just apply to artists either). It requires much more maturity and better artistic management skills. (In Hollywood this is fairly routine, but then, they are more mature and have better artistic management skills.)

Simply being in an environment where you can talk about an artistic message is rare. The two arguments Clint takes issue with in his blog post, "It's a waste of time because it will sell without it" and "That kind of emotional connection is impossible to deliver" are, sadly, very common in the games industry, and not just from the suits in upper management. Your average game developer in his mid-twenties who has been a hard-core gamer all his life and therefore thinks he understands games can be as guilty of believing these two self-defeating mantras as anyone. Kudos to Clint for coming up with good counter-arguments.

So it seems Epic has managed to do two very difficult things at the same time, while incidentally delivering state of the art content and technology. Hats off to them. I may actually buy the game. If only all the protagonists didn't look like identical clich├ęd bad-asses... Remember, the guy with the bandanna is you.

( /wave Susan )

links for 2006-11-15

links for 2006-10-22

Beyond Machinima: Rudy Poat and John Gaeta on the Future of Interactive Cinema

There's a strange article on Gamasutra called Beyond Machinima: Rudy Poat and John Gaeta on the Future of Interactive Cinema. It's basically an interview with Rudy Poat, creative director at EA Vancouver, and John Gaeta, Academy Award winning special effects guy, most famous for the SFX in The Matrix.

The first three pages confused the hell out of me because they keep referring to a project that does something new, but without explaining what that project is. In fact, it occasionally sounds as if Mr. Poat is not sure what his project is yet. It is implied that this is a machinima-esque thing, but then the article shows a picture of a real set with real actors. I still don't quite get it. It has a strong whiff of dodginess, and the references to interactive storytelling imply something that is definitely not what I am thinking of when I use that term. I had some strong flashbacks to the mid-nineties when there was a horde of passive entertainment barbarians at the gates. It's weird, because you'd think a creative director at EA would get interactivity. But meh, maybe I am understanding it wrong.

Still, what I did find interesting is this glimpse at a different approach to moviemaking:

So, the shots are not only created and delivered in real time HD, they can also be loaded up at any time and you can move around in real time. These shots also run on a server, so on a network, a camera man could log in and film in real time. Another person could log in as a lighter and have him moving the lighting around while the camera man is taking pictures. You can have several people at a time logged in working on the film.

[...]

They could all be chatting with each other on a mic, at the same time, and the camera could be recording all of that data and streaming it straight to film.

This is not too dissimilar to the 'sculpting' or sketching approach George Lucas described in the interview from 1997 I linked to a couple of days ago. Technology reshaping the entire workflow of (some) movies. Examining your assumptions. The really interesting question for me is: If this can happen in movies, could it happen in games? Could we have radically different workflows? I hope to get back to this in some future post.

Ironically, Mr. Gaeta shows a much clearer understanding of movies 'versus' games:

Basically, to me, there are fundamental characteristics of cinema and interactive gaming that have developed over many years that are very reliable techniques to capture the imagination of the player or viewer. There are attributes and paths of entertainment that have a lot to do with the experience of not being able to control anything, the mystery laid out in front of you, the unpredictably, the singularity of a sculpted vision as a director and writer can lay out. That's really the polar opposite of interactive gaming, and I'm not going to get into that whole discussion because that's happening on the sidelines ad nauseum, in an interesting way. There's a lot of debate and discussion of why interactivity needs to remain in the particular format that it's in because it's about the play and it's about the experience. I feel that's a completely rock solid theory that people put out there. Interactivity is definitely using a different part of one's brain, and it's a wholly different entertainment experience. I have no interest at looking at gaming and suggesting that story lines can be improved, because that's a completely case by case basis based on what the concept is and how it was executed.

Bravo!

The rest of what Mr. Gaeta says is very visionary, in that it extrapolates certain things quite far - he admits so himself (his awareness of how he might sound is refreshing). I don't know if what he is proposing would ever become more than a niche, but it could become a very interesting niche, kind of cross-media, alternate-reality (in the sense of encouraging viewers to search for more meaning) storytelling.

The question is: how do we actually fuse the best qualities of game and film into a hybrid? I think that could be a phenomenal third place that not everyone has to pursue, but there's a whole new order of entertainment experience that can come out of it.

Clint Hocking has a blog

I don't report or comment on new blogs I read or discover as much as I should. In an attempt to correct that: I recently discovered (via Markus Friedl) that Clint Hocking has started a blog on game design. Mr. Hocking is a writer and game designer who worked on the Splinter Cell series at Ubisoft Montreal.

His blog is good, he gets it.

links for 2006-10-21