gamesVSlife: Next-gen starts with a pen…

...some paper, a rubber, a ruler, and some crayons.

August 4, 2012 / 07:52 AM EDT / (@admeady)

Technology doesn’t have to be the sole definition of progress. Bigger budgets, bigger boxes, bigger teams – they only imply bigger, not better, experiences. Progress doesn’t have to be trapped by transistors and other computery-sounding words.

Indeed, for an industry that prides itself on drawing in three dimensions, we don’t half think in one-dimensional terms.

We can’t pretend like we used to. Those awkward animations, that bit of corny dialogue, those boxy hands – their limitations said “Hey, help us out here”. Imagination drew those ethereal fingers; imagination transformed that collection of pre-rendered backgrounds into a world worth saving.

But as technology empowers artists to draw bigger and better blocks, video games are dragged into an increasingly literal world. Developers don’t need the power of the player’s imaginations any longer – they have gigahertz and gigabytes to do it for them. That symbiotic relationship between an artist’s work and an artist’s audience is ever dwindling.

No, we can’t fix things like we used to. But Kara – Kara is different.

Not only did Quantic Dream compel me to care for a digital illusion of a mechanical replica of a human being, it took them just four minutes to do so – that’s the exact moment when the pit of my stomach twisted, and I knew Kara had to be saved.

But it’s fear, not polygons, that humanize her. It’s an emotion we can all identify with. The biggest of us, the smallest of us, the toughest of us, the most fragile – we understand this most basic impulse. It’s not difficult to emphasise with something’s desire to live, even if it is a digital illusion of a mechanical replica of a human being. Without fear, Kara would be just another bundle of pixels.

We’re often presented with likeable characters. Rarely, though, are we presented with believable human beings. Emotions, like fear or doubt or despair, are sacrificed in the name of sheer ‘badassery’. They invest so much in drawing every scar, scratch, bruise and bump that they neglect what some developers have understood since the age of bleeps and bloops: that true immersion lies in attachment. That emotional connection between us and a world’s inhabitants.

But video games have grown up, mostly. They look mature, they swear a lot, they drink on the weekends, they smoke on the weekdays – they even get into the occasional bar fight – but something’s not quite right. They’re still awkward, even shy, in some situations. They don’t know what to say, they don’t know what do, and they don’t know how to act. It’s this – not how many zombies they can draw on a single piece of paper – the industry should pay attention to.

A new generation shouldn’t have to be defined by a new purchase. It should be defined by a collective breakthrough: a technical breakthrough; an artistic breakthrough; an emotional breakthrough – a point where video games portray characters and worlds with as many dimensions as the engines powering them.

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  • http://www.di.fm Spicy Chicken

    Nice article Adam!

    If I may play devil’s advocate… even Kara, great though it is, presents for me another problem. It may have been realtime, but it was still a cutscene. The question is how do you recreate the emotional link in actual gameplay? Kara is a great, concise, brutal masterclass in effective, super efficient storytelling of the highest order, no question, but if you excuse the way this sounds, it’s still ‘just’ that. It doesn’t constitute an actual game or gameplay, regardless of how it’s visuals are constructed.

    I think, back in 2001, Namco nailed this with Ace Combat 4: Shattered Skies. Everything was built around an emotional connection to an enigmatic ‘enemy’ in the game. And felling him out of the sky was a very somber moment. More than Sephiroth, more than anyone, that character was one I didn’t want to die. He actually respected me, his opponent, even though we had never met, and demanded his fellow pilots do the same. He himself mourned every enemy he took down, and wished the war to end. If anything, you felt he was probably happy to have at least been defeated by someone he respected as much as me.

    The cutscenes in the game are mostly 2D, beautifully drawn and backed by perfect, peerless music, but still, nothing too flashy. Yet that moment in the skies, far above the clouds, when I ended the life of a character unlike any I’d seen or fought before was very strange and hard to forget. And most curious of all, this is a story told all in third person, at the pen of the boy and eventually man that lost his family in a single burning moment thanks to HIM, my ‘worthy opponent’.
    But all the cutscenes in the game combined couldn’t convey what I felt at the moment his plane was banished from the world. It was something you had to do, something you had to ‘play’ to appreciate, it was an emotional hit that was rooted in the actions of gameplay itself.

    To this day that game says more to me about the ironies and mixed emotions of war than any research, book or film I’ve seen or read before or since. Even knowing everything I knew about the character, the actual moment when I took his life was almost instantaneous. Another fighter, just a bit more skilled. Another target, just a bit faster. But ultimately, just a distant explosion in the air having clicked a button, a moment, shorter than the blink of an eye, between his life and bittersweet oblivion. And if you take current drone technology into account, it really is just the click of a button, and you don’t even have to be there anymore…

    I remember watching the replay, with just the sounds of aircraft, gunfire, bombs, missiles and explosions (nicely done Namco), trying to figure out how I felt. I had received an ‘S’ at the end of the mission, which was supposed to be the highest rank. S for Super, S for Splendid, S for Supreme and so on. But all I could think of was how Sad that he had died, Sorrowful that our fates had determined that one of us should take the others life. THAT was one hell of an emotional connection, and it happened right in the midst of actual gameplay. I finally realised though I started the game hating the man, I’d come to a point that I didn’t want his story to end, even though I knew it had to, and it was this that had hit me when I finally pressed the button and fired the fateful missile. Ending the life of one that had referred to me as one of the ‘last good men’. And indeed, the war was not yet even over…

    So yes, Kara’s great, but well rounded characters we can identify with is only the first step (and I’ll grant many fail even at that). Whether you can maintain/capitalize on that emotional connection in the midst of actual gameplay is the real question. Too often games, even with good storylines, ruin the suspension of disbelief and emotional attachment in the midst of playing the game.

    An insecure, clumsy but well meaning girl suddenly chops down a million enemies with a sword, because, um, in the GAME that’s what her character does, even though the cutscenes imply the exact opposite. >_>
    An intelligent, mature child (or even, in some cases, adult) is suddenly stuck behind a wall, seemingly unable to grasp the concept of walking around things, etc. Or even worse, unable to grasp the concept of hiding from people shooting at them with GUNS.
    Because, erm, well you know, A.I. issues and so on… ‘Help me, Help Me!’ <_<

    And so I think that how you intelligently work the characters into the game proper is what matters most, otherwise it's just a nice story with a somewhat related game attached. Speaking of, something tells me Naughty Dog will achieve this in The Last of Us, the dialogue during the actual gameplay scenes is what's impressed me most of all so far. Everything is 'in character' and consistent with the cutscenes, really well done!

    • Adam Meadows

      That’s a good point. There’s a disconnect between gameplay and cutscenes.

      Some games humanize their protagonists well:

      Resident Evil series: the simple act of the protagonist clutching their stomachs, I think, adds a human element to no end. It injects a sense of damage, of vulnerability.

      Metal Gear Sold: the option to save Meryl through gameplay. It’s not a decision – it’s tied directly to your performance. You have something to lose. Snake is also clearly concerned about saving her.

      Your Ace Combat tale reminds me of Zone of the Enders – where one of your enemy’s slowly dies as she tells you not to save her. And, of course, Mass Effect.

      I think mechanics have gone away from humanizing characters, largely. Regenerating health alone has done a lot to take away from this.

      Will reply in more detail soon!

    • bebestorm117

      I realized after playing Heavy Rain I was not attached to the characters and I really didn’t care about them. For instance I really cared about John in Red Dead Redemption. Don’t get me wrong HR is a great interactive drama and I truly enjoyed it. I totally see your point.

    • Adam Meadows

      I think Fallout 3 etc manages it to a lesser extent with its follower system. The fact that your ability to play essentially determines whether or not they die. It’s not some binary decision like other RPGs. 

      Your ability to interact with your dog in Fable is, I think, a lean towards such an integration. But the fact the dog can’t really die, if I remember correctly, lessens its impact dramatically. There’s no fear of loss – there’s nothing really to lose. 

  • Lorelai

    i love this article ..quantic dream’s engine kara is the most powerful and i love how they use motion capture with 65 camera according to David cage says * we can shoot several actors – their body and their face – at the same
    time. It’s not a small change, but at the same time this is how Avatar
    and Tintin were shot*
    @gematsu-489d0396e6826eb0c1e611d82ca8b215:disqus its not a cutscene its a realtime play if you saw gamespot interview with david cage when Jodie holems above the train everybody thought its a cutscene and david cage interrupt them and said its not a cutscene you have the full control of the character..i cant wait for Beyond two souls

    • http://www.di.fm Spicy Chicken

      Erm, I think we may have our wires crossed. ;)

      I wasn’t referring to nor did I mention Quantam’s new game Beyond: Two Souls (which indeed does look interesting). In fact you were the first person to bring it up in this thread.

      I was referring specifically to Kara the tech demo and it’s depiction of a newly constructed being in distress, which indeed IS, technically, a cutscene, regardless of graphics engine. Realtime graphics doesn’t equate to gameplay as such, by your own definition, having direct control is what defines actual ‘gameplay’. Kara is a (very) well scripted and directed cutscene using state-of-the-art realtime graphics technology, and I’m a huge fan of it as tech demos go, but it does not constitute actual gameplay.

      All this being said, if Kara the tech demo really did become Kara the game, I’d be most excited by that. ^_^

      • Lorelai

        i tottally agree with you … Kara engine is now being used for Beyond Two Souls thats why i bring it up in my comment :]

  • zerolegacy0

    At first I didn’t want to post a comment to this, but this is something I believe in strongly. I usually see games as art, and I’ve always wanted to see them break the “games are for kids” mold. Which has partly come to fruition, except now they’ve become throw away entertainment. The business side of games has taken away from the creative side, and to me this is simply heartbreaking. I can only see this trend increase along with massive budgets, and massive profits.

    Gaming is no longer a niche entertainment form. Popularity comes with certain consequences. Who needs a compelling story, deep innovative gameplay, or rich human characters? Those aspects no longer sell games, and we who see games as art are only the vocal minority.

    To stay on topic, I agree technology isn’t the next generation. The next generation has always been ideas, which is made easier with the coming of new tech.

  • InternatlGamer3

    yes i agree about the Kara demo.
    What i want is an industry that doesnt ship out like a million FPS COD clones, that is getting old.I want my games to be worth the $60 or 70 i spend on them for PS4,Xbox 720. I want games to NOT be fully focused on 80% graphics and beautiful lush environments. They need to stop shortening games, and then focusing on MP.

    I’m tired of some of my purchases being 10% single Player, 90% MP. I want more RPG’s like back in last Generation, the 32-bit generation and the 16-Bit Generation

  • InternatlGamer3

    im not saying FPS games suck cause i have quite a good number of them. I’ve been more into RPG’s since last generation when I first got my hands on a PS2.I own 95 games since them all disc based including Japan-only titles.

  • zakou

    I want a game based on this demo

  • dr000d

    Emotions are replaced with badassery, because the average idiot gamer would just say “lol another goddamn angsty emo!” and dismiss the game.

  • Aldridge517

    I like the way Adam thinks.