Wednesday, September 23, 2009

"Happiness Is a Warm Gun"

Speaking of Beatles: Rock Band, in the Game Informer cover story a few months back, there was a short interview with Yoko Ono, wherein she promoted the game while also briefly addressing the "games as art" question:
Well, I think it is definitely an art form, but also--like all art forms now, it's going toward a very violent direction, you know? So this venture, doing it all with the Beatles, is really beautiful, because it's not that direction at all; it's to just enjoy music, and to learn about music.
I certainly didn't need Yoko Ono to alert me to the violence that pervades gaming, but it's a good time anyway to bring it up again. The depressing reality is that, if, as a budding patron of the interactive art, you wish to explore the medium beyond the casual fare, you will come up against a "core" gaming library built predominantly on violent themes. Sports/racing is a distant second, and there is little else of quality out there to scratch any other emotional itches.

Like everyone else, I have ideas for filling that void. But I'm not a game designer, so I'll start for now by just pointing to a few examples of existing good, fulfilling titles that are neither violent nor casual experiences.

Along the same music game lines as Beatles: Rock Band, the first compelling non-violent video game that comes to mind is iNiS's Ouendan series for the Nintendo DS. The stylus-based gameplay is not radically different from other rhythm game titles. What sets Ouendan apart is the story that goes on behind the timed tapping.

The premise has the player commanding a Japanese cheer squad that responds to the cries for help of citizens facing challenging life situations. For example, one mission sees a restaurateur desperate to attract business, while another has a student struggling to get ready for exams, and yet another has a young man predictably trying to win the heart of the girl he adores. In each case, the Ouendan team arrives to encourage them through their difficulties, and as the player performs successfully, the short stories likewise develop to show the characters bearing down with increasing confidence to realize their goals. Some of the episodes involve conflict, but the others are no less rewarding. Thanks to the emphatic art and well-matched song selections, it's almost always inspiring to feel your cheers motivating these people to happy endings, no matter the obstacle.

Ouendan unfortunately remains Japan-exclusive, but iNiS also developed Elite Beat Agents, a version of Ouendan localized for American audiences. I don't like it quite as much because it strips out all the "Japanese-ness" that is so much of Ouendan's charm, but it's the same basic idea.

Actually, many of the Japanese music games (e.g. PaRappa the Rapper, Space Channel 5, Gitaroo Man) have tied the rhythm gameplay to light narratives, recognizing that the music-playing need not be an end unto itself. It's a shame that, between its twelve or so Guitar Hero releases a year, Activision can't find time to even try for anything of the sort, especially considering it was the fantastic ad for Guitar Hero II for Xbox 360 that really opened my mind to these possibilities that the games themselves have failed to run with.

Moving on to something completely different now, it's about time somebody gave some props to Sony's series of NBA games featuring "The Life." Full disclosure: I worked on NBA 06 and 07 for the PS2. But I worked on them as a tester, playing them twelve hours a day for weeks straight, which should give me every reason to hate them more than the average consumer.

To be sure, these were some severely flawed basketball video games. The gameplay, fundamentally broken, made for neither a competent simulation nor a fun game besides. Seriously, my 16-bit NBA Live '96 was more playable AND more realistic. Hell, even NBA Jam adhered better to certain vital rules, such as the goaltending violation. NBA 06 didn't allow goaltending, but instead of actually programming in the call and penalty, the developers simply made it so that the game rendered intangible any hands that would try to get between the basket and the ball on its way down. That's some of the jankiest workaround BS I've ever seen. There were other blatant cheats too, like how the game would magically teleport your players back to your end after every basket you made, because it didn't know how else to keep you from stealing the brain-dead AI's inbound pass. So, yeah, it was a pretty awful basketball game. Yet it should not simply be dismissed, because it did include one mode that presented the sports video game in a whole new way.

"The Life" was a revolution that sadly nobody noticed. More critically acclaimed sports titles, such as MLB 07: The Show and NHL 09, have drawn praise recently for their "Road to the Show" and "Be a Pro" modes, which allow players to embark on personal virtual careers, starting as rookies and slowly working their way up the ranks eventually to land in the Hall of Fame. It can add a more personal level of investment to play as your own virtual self, instead of controlling an entire team as both talent and management. But these are still modes based around statistics rather than narrative, and they ultimately do not offer much different from the standard season and franchise modes. Whereas "Be a Pro" simulates the grind of a professional sports career, NBA 06's "The Life" treats players to the glamor of superstardom.

The mode is actually a scripted drama, casting players in the role of a thirsty young point guard nicknamed "The Kid." The story follows him through his first NBA season, from the life-changing draft out of junior college to the NBA Finals. Along the way, cut scenes depict his volatile relationships with his teammates, his coach, his rival, his agent, and the press. Licensing and marketing keep the plot from getting into the really dirty stuff that everybody knows exists in pro sports, but it's not entirely a fluff story for kids either. It's a mostly sober tale of a young star nearly overwhelmed by the too sudden transition from the streets to the show. There's even some enlightening discussion of the "Q score" that is so much the concern of agents.

On the gameplay side, "The Life" gives players a series of objectives besides just winning, but, instead of being randomly generated like in "Road to the Show," these too follow a script. Rather than play season after season, the player progresses through a linear series of episodes not unlike the traditional single-player modes of other genres. Instead of full regulation games, most stages are mid-game scenarios that require fulfilling certain conditions to pass (e.g. "Score the game-winning basket with your point guard"). These are usually tied to the story and meaningfully integrated with the narrative. For example, when The Kid wants to establish himself early on as the franchise player, the goals involve hogging the ball to score tons of baskets. Then, after he realizes that he cannot win by himself and must repair relations with his teammates, the objective becomes to dish more assists.

"The Life Vol.2" in NBA 07, a late PS2 release, was much shorter, and the title defense story is never as exciting as the rise up. But the sequel did add an interesting twist by having players alternating between the parallel seasons of The Kid and his nemesis from the first game, "Big W." The rivalry comes to a head in a scenario that pits the two protagonists against one another in a mid-season game. The player plays the first half as The Kid, then switches to Big W to finish things off. The actual execution is kind of disastrous, since players basically end up kicking their own asses, but I know of no other game in any genre that allows players to experience consecutive phases of a single contest from opposing angles.

The biggest problem with "The Life" was that it didn't really play to NBA 06's audience. The divide between those who play sports games and those who do not grows increasingly pronounced. The idea of a cut scene-heavy story mode centering around fictional characters would probably sound preposterous to a sports maniac in search of a simulation with solid mechanics and stat-tracking, while those not interested in sports games would likely still not care. To be honest, even I haven't personally pursued the series beyond the two installments that I got paid to play.

For those who did pick up a copy of 06 or 07, the frustratingly flawed basic gameplay and severe lack of polish probably kept "The Life" from being an altogether enjoyable experience, but the concept was good and fresh. It not only provided a new way to experience sports in gaming, but it featured a story that was roughly equal in length and depth to most action games. Admittedly, that isn't saying much, and, no, it definitely wasn't brilliant writing, but, at the very least, it showed the potential for interactive narratives to be fulfilling without relying on violence.

We as human beings are so much more than just destructive beasts. It shouldn't be that hard to construct a thoughtful and engaging interactive experience that appeals to any of those other aspects of who we are. In fact, in the cases of Ouendan and "The Life," these are both games that basically just add goals and context to existing genres and mechanics. Yet these are badly outnumbered by the Guitar Hero and Madden releases that, while perhaps fun, are decidedly not art. Truthfully, the problem, as I see it, is not so much that the violent games should be less violent, but that the non-violent games are usually even less ambitious.

* * * * *

But the issue becomes further complicated when you consider the recent story of the Karmapa Lama playing violent video games as a way to satiate aggressive feelings. It has often been the not altogether convincing defense of game violence that, by satisfying their violent impulses virtually, players are able to forgo having to express them in real life.

That's all well and good, but I think it indirectly raises concerns about what we get out of our non-violent gaming pursuits. Does playing Rock Band lessen one's ambition to play a real instrument? Does playing sports video games dampen our drive to become real athletes? The number of NFL players who grew up playing Madden would seem to indicate otherwise, but then where does that leave the Karmapa Lama's argument? Realistically, I'm sure that music, sports, and war are probably all different enough to preclude a universal answer.

But I wonder how a video game might capture the concept of "love." Then my mind turns to dating sims. Although prevalent in Japan, serious gamers in the West generally look down upon the genre as one of the lowest forms of gaming. Often nearly devoid of gameplay, these are basically interactive novels of wish fulfillment fantasy, and many veer into erotic territory. If people are playing these as a substitute for real love, then maybe it would be better for us all if gaming were to avoid trying to tackle certain aspects of life.

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