“Characterization never works in video games because it forces players to become their puppets. By birthright, the gamer gets to be god. They don’t get to be a puppet. Sakamoto’s Other M has the player being nothing but a puppet to the bad script and even to ‘Adam’.”
And I think you nailed it on the head what’s been destroying videogames for awhile now, but I wouldn’t even just limit that to videogames but all entertainment media. Look at Japan right now. When it comes to RPGs it’s just massive decline. Why? Because most of the games forces the player to just be a spectator. The world doesn’t revolve around them. What games are still doing well over there? Monster Hunter and Dragon Quest. And what do those games do differently from the others? They don’t revolve around “characters” but around their worlds. The player is the center of the universe in those games, which is why they do sell. Dragon Quest 9 especially, because it very closely mirrors the structure of the original Final Fantasy (literally, you create your own character for your party with their own jobs, just like FF, and you go out to fight the evil that threatens to destroy the world, just like in FF). RPGs in the west have fared better because the player tends to be the center of the universe. Also, in the case of games with sequels these games tend to do a better job of chiseling out their worlds so that it’s exciting for people to come back to the world and explore more of it.
I’ve seen other examples of this, of course. The original Star Wars trilogy was more about fighting good versus evil, rather than revolving around “characters”, and the universe itself was exciting to come back to and to see it further chiseled out. The prequel trilogy was awful because they tried to make it entirely about Anakin Skywalker, and tried to be morally ambivalent which made the films awful to watch given how poorly they were executed. You hear the writers for Deep Space Nine talk about how excited they were to be able to have the freedom to expand the Star Trek universe. With Voyager they didn’t seem interested in making what happened in that show interesting or have lasting consequences.
Tom Clancy chiseled out a universe that was so interesting that they were able to make videogames about it. He even wrote an entire novel around the idea of a war game (Red Storm Rising). Something else that I gave serious thought about after reading your site and then reading Hunt For Red October again was how Clancy describes Jack Ryan: A self-made man, an ex-marine who got seriously injured in an accident and had to undergo hard therapy to be able to walk again, met his future wife whose snobbish parents hated him, became financially independent through the stock market and being a very studious analyst and well-versed in history. What gets brought up is how his financial freedom also frees him from having to kiss ass at the CIA or engross himself with the politics, meaning he would be more likely to give an honest analysis and tell the truth rather than kiss ass and bullshit, since his livelyhood wasn’t tied to the job, but rather was something he enjoyed doing. But he seems to embody the true spirit of what makes America so unique compared to other countries in the world and in history. But in many of his books much of the action is a carefully orchestrated game of chess between the good guys and bad guys, and his meticulous research made all of this exciting and interesting.
Michael Stackpole did some very interesting chiseling with the Star Wars expanded universe X-Wing novels, and I’d argue were more exciting than the movies were in some regards. What’s even more interesting is that the author had a board/computer gaming background as a programmer. What’s even more interesting in retrospect is how the villain is handled in those books: The villain is the head of Imperial Intelligence and is basically performing a very big game of chess with the good guys to destroy the rebel alliance. It’s actually very ingenious how she tries to do this: She literally let’s the good guys take the capital of the Empire, but not before infecting the planet with a deadly illness that only affects non-humans. But the disease is treatable by bacta (the stuff Luke floats after Han finds him in the snow). The villain helps stage a coup on the world where 99% of the stuff is produced, which means she will try to break the alliance economically and politically by having the aliens angry at their human allies. The villain is interesting and clever, which forces the good guys to become even more interesting and clever as they try to outfox her. But in the end it was all a carefully constructed game of chess.
Stephen King chiseled out a pretty interesting universe, as well. So did HP Lovecraft. These were all people who led lives that had them doing interesting things, or had them involved in the mechanics of how the real world works, which is something that is sorely missing in today’s entertainment. To me it seems that these days writers become writers because they don’t want to live in reality, trying to entertain themselves rather than others, or at least not the hoy paloy. And the film industry at large tends to snub movies that that try to do this (like a lot of the superhero films that have been successful). Clayton Christensen said that people that are poor become motivated to become financially well off in however way they can. Then their kids live well as a result but have no drive to do something that drives them to become successful in life. I think much of the crap entertainment we have might be a by-product of this sort of complacency. People who learned about life via TV and internet but haven’t actually gone out and lived their lives.
I do know that much of TV these days revolves around “characters” and not the actual world of the show. The world is just there to prop up the characters and it becomes uninteresting by comparison. The characters of the original Star Trek outside of Spock, Kirk, and McCoy didn’t have much “character” development, but that might have made it easier for people to imprint themselves on the characters. And the characters themselves were heroic. Who doesn’t want to be Kirk or Spock? Hell, who didn’t wanna be a Klingon! Even the villains were cool. Look at Dukat and Garak. Why were they so loved? Because they were interesting and showed off the best and worst of their people, just as the other characters in DS9 did. Who wants to be a “hero” in the TV and films of today? No one. Because the heroes aren’t really heroic or interesting at all. It’s all a bunch of cliches written by people who were raised off of TV and pop culture and didn’t actually experience life. It’s not a shock that war veterans can usually write books and they become bestsellers, as they have by default lived far more interesting lives than most of us in most cases (and trust me I got enough war vets for family and friends to know this very well).
Much of what makes TV awful these days is that they focus on the “sizzle” and not the “steak” as you call it. I never watched Lost, and the reason is I have a name for a show like that, the “Jerk Around Show.” Because that’s what happens with shows like that: They jerk you around and you are never left feeling satisfied because they just keep leading you on with a promise of a satisfying payoff but you never get it. In Hollywood we get “stereotypes” thrown everywhere and we rarely get a movie where people are interesting or do smart things. Instead we get CG thrown at us to cover up how awful everything else is.
Anyways, this has gotten long-winded. Hollywood is rotten to the core right now, but it’s also ripe for disruption. I think that it’s just a matter of time before we start seeing people make a serious effort to make entertainment people will want to watch/pay for on the internet. When that happens we’ll likely see Hollywood implode on itself. Either way, I can’t wait for both Hollywood and the game industry die off. Then maybe we can actually have good entertainment coming out again.
You mentioned how the original Star War trilogy was about good versus evil while the new trilogy focused on the characters (mostly around Anakin). You make a great point about moral ambivalence in entertainment.
There is no moral ambivalence in the greatest of video games. “Do you mean Pac-Man good and ghosts bad? Har har, stupid Malstrom.” No. I mean something on the scale of Ultima IV. Ultimas 1,2,3 were nothing more than the typical RPG of the hero to slay the villain. While that may be good versus evil in itself, the hero could be bad doing this (such as slaying people to get better gear). Starting with Ultima IV, the Ultima series became nothing but morality.
When you played Wing Commander, you knew that Humans were good and Kilirathi were bad. You killed Kilirathi. That was that.
The RTS games were so much fun because of the moral certainty. In Command and Conquer, the Nod with Kane were evil while the GDI were the good guys. In Red Alert, the Soviets were the bad guys with the Alliance being the good guys.
Look at Warcraft. Humans and Elves are good. Orcs are bad. Warcraft 2 was so much fun because of this collision. It was also great fun to play the evil Horde. Or with Starcraft, the Zerg stole the show. They were great villains. They were EVIL. It was so much fun to play Zerg and direct zerglings around to maul the silly Terrans.
However, what do we get today? Blizzard no longer has the Horde as ‘evil’ so they aren’t fun anymore. And the ‘war’ between Horde and Alliance don’t make much sense as they ally more than they fight. The only reason they seem to be fighting are racial differences and that isn’t fun. (BTW, why is Christie Golden having any influence on the Warcraft universe? Why let someone, who is incapable of creating her own fantasy universes, mess around in your own?)
In Starcraft, the Zerg have been destroyed. Once a evil, savage race, it is now a ‘slave’ race which was ‘misunderstood’.
In Diablo, Hell is no longer ‘evil’ but only evil in a computational way as opposite of Heaven. In Diablo 3, heaven and hell are more Yin and Yang instead of the Western concepts of heaven and hell. Note the lines by Zolton Kulle about how the ‘angels are also bad’ because, God forbid, we can’t have moral certainty in our entertainment. No! We can only have moral ambivalence! I bet the Diablo 3 expansion story will have the final villain be an angel (that idiot one who yells at Tyrael) where demons from Hell assist the ‘Nephalem’ (because we can’t have Heaven be all good and Hell be all bad. That would be unsophisticated. But it isn’t fun).
Think of the Nintendo games. One thing I LOVE about Super Mario Brothers was its depiction of evil in the game. While it may not seem an pronounced in 2012 as in 1986, but when you go into a castle stage, it feels truly evil with those fireballs coming from the darkness. Super Mario Brothers 3 also had this with the airships and castle stages (and the final castle still being the best final stage in any 2d Mario game. So evil.) Super Mario World fizzles at the end because the last area feels more like a Disco Zone than an Evil Realm. And Bowser rides around in a clown car. That isn’t evil. Luckily though, NSMB Wii got the evil part down with World 8. The 3d Mario games never really had much of evil in them except maybe Mario 64.
One of the best things about Classic Zelda and Ocarina of Time was the presence of evil. Zelda I and II were filled to the brink with evil (that Zelda II game over screen is still quite scary to this day). Link to the Past was all about the Dark Realm which was Evil Twisting the Golden Land. And Ocarina of Time had the future where Ganon had taken over. In other Zelda games, the presence of evil is not illustrated. While things get ‘dark’ in Twilight Princess, nothing feels truly evil.
One reason why people love Final Fantasy 4 and 6 so much is because of the presence of EVIL in them. Kefka was EVIL. Kefka must die! (He made a monument to non-existence!) Final Fantasy 4 highlighted good versus evil. Even the player (as Cecil) has to cast aside the darkness and become a paladin with you actually fighting your Dark Knight self.
“Making things between good and evil is too simple,” says a reader. “We must have sophistication. We must have values.” But what is characterization but the internal tug of war that character has between good and evil?
Instead of Wolfenstein 3d being presented as “Nazis are evil” but as “Nazis have different values than us” which works better? “They are the same thing,” scoffs a reader. But it is not the same thing. If something is evil, it must be eliminated.
It is not that Dr. Wily has ‘different values’ than Dr. Light. Dr. Wily is EVIL. He must be stopped.
One reason that Castlevania has always been a popular series is because good and evil are always easily depicted. The vampire is always bad. And the vampire slayer is always good.
People LIKE good versus evil in entertainment. It is the Light versus the Dark. And now, I suddenly am thinking of Archon.
Above: The Light and the Dark!