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Thursday, March 25, 2010

Less Talk, More Rock?

This is a response to Superbrothers' recent essay about "talk" in videogames that was featured on BoingBoing. (Berate me later for writing 1,300 words on why I like words.)

Games have many purposes. They challenge their players, they tell a story, they kill a few hours, they entertain, they expose us to new ideas, they allow us to have a shared experience with others, they can even be art. These myriad purposes are determined not only by the designers behind the games, but by their public reception, and can be debated now as well as any other media.

Yet these purposes aren't exclusive to gaming; the same phrases uses to describe games can also be used to describe films, and there's a common language in the creation of both. Games can have writers (or not), art directors (or not), or sound designers (or not), just like any film. They can be silent or black and white, stylishly animated or gritty and realistic, just like any film. Some might even say that the video game is the 21st century heir to film's media throne; a natural extension of the medium.

In the 1920's and 30's, about as far past the inception of film as we are now past the inception of the modern video game, there was a huge outcry when sound films became feasible for the first time. Academics immediately cried that silent films must be maintained; they were the pinnacle of the medium, and that dialogue would ruin film forever and should be avoided at all costs. Well, your argument is essential the same. And in your defense, some of the greatest minds in film hopped on that alarmist bandwagon. But it's not simply true.

Let's backtrack for a moment. Why were the first films silent? The same reason games were silent too: technological limitations. That's it. There was no unanimous cabal decision on the part of Miyamoto and Alcorn to outlaw dialogue and work in a purely, as you put it, audio-visual medium. They didn't have a choice. And while it's true that games like Pac Man and films like Metropolis function more than well without dialogue or superfluous narration, who's to say their creators wouldn't have utilized these tools if they'd had the option?

You can no more say that Legend of Zelda is a bad game because it's wordy than you can say a Woody Allen film isn't a good film because there's too much dialogue. Similarly, you can't truly argue that Myst is a better game or a Bergman film is a better film because there's less talk. There are thousands of flash games, cell phone games, etc. that use no words at all and still suck. Because in the end, it's not about the quantity of words on screen in games, it's the quality. And just like those first dialogue films of the late 20's and early 30's, not every video game is going to have great or even good dialogue; the whole idea of writing for games is too new. So new, in fact, that most of the story development in games is still being done by designers instead of writers, which is a big part of the reason why many games have terrible writing.

But to say that all game writing is bad and to be avoided, thereby writing off not only incredibility influential and beloved titles like the Zelda series and Final Fantasy VII (whether you personally enjoy them or not) as well as virtually the entire genre of RPG, is ludicrous. It's also unrealistic. Dialogue in games isn't going anywhere, so why not focus on how to improve it rather than digging your heels in and trying to avoid it altogether? It's a pointless exercise.

Words, simply put, are not all bad. As someone mentioned in an earlier response, your attempt to contrast the "flat" text phrase "a joyous reunion" with your illustration of a joyous reunion actually has the opposite effect of what you intended; the words generate a subjective, personal memory that your static illustration could never convey. This emotional connection is only possible through words. In essence, while a picture may be worth a thousand words, the right word can be worth a thousand pictures. Silent films and silent games can easily be beautiful and moving, but can there ever be a [Citizen Kane, or insert your most influential film here] of video games without dialogue?

Probably not. Without dialogue, there is no "Rosebud." There is no "tears in rain." For me, that most perfectly crafted, emotional, and intellectually challenging film that I've know of is Blade Runner, and I strongly believe that Blade Runner would not be as emotionally hard-hitting without its dialogue. And not because dialogue is a necessity.

Dialogue is a tool, just like menus and instructions are tools, and throwing out dialogue as unnecessary is only depriving yourself of a tool that can be very valuable if employed well. There's no doubt in my mind that I find parts of Final Fantasy VII more emotional than anything I could possibly find in "that videogame about those plumbers" or Riven, to find a more tonally-similar project. In the end, the effectiveness of dialogue is all about contrast. It's about using sound and words like an artist uses negative space. The constant flow of dialogue in FFVII makes the silence of Aeris' death all the more heart-stopping. This wouldn't be possible if the entire game were silent, would it?

Menus and instructions work the same way. They can be very useful, but not in excess portions. (To pause for a moment, this kind of text is yet ANOTHER definition of the word "talk" that's vastly different from the other two meanings you've used, but I want to indulge you for a moment.) For me, menus and instructions are like exposition and narration in a screenplay: they can get information across that can't be explained in a better way, but there's usually a better way. FFVII is one of the best examples of a "better way"; it tosses the player head first into the mission and story, rather than the boring them to death with an endless and mind-numbing "practice" level. This is vastly important to the enjoyability of a game, because it gets at the heart of video games' true "natural language": interactivity.

If there is any common thread between all good video games big and small, artistic or out to make a buck (assuming there's a difference between these two), it's immersive gameplay and nothing else. Gameplay that's so effective it puts you in a new world, or into the mind of a character for an hour or two in a way that no film can. The buzzword for this is, of course, "engagement." If interactivity is the ace up the sleeve, the true third (Z?) dimension that can be stretched from two-dimensional films, its length is measured by engagement. Engagement is the be all, end all of video games, and if your game isn't engaging, if its mechanics don't feel right or just plain don't work, no amount of "audio-visual" talent can save you.

And there's only one way to make sure you you achieve this kind of success in a game. To bring this discussion back around to the beginning, the only way to make sure that your game works, to know that you won't have to rely on menus and instructions and (unnecessarily) excessive dialogue to make your game playable and understandable and enjoyable, is to do the right amount of "talk" before your game goes into production, end of story. There isn't an influential, award-winning game out there that was designed purely on a whim, that didn't have a very serious conceptual discussion before its development. So yes; actions do speak louder than words. Actions convey a movement that words cannot. But on all levels of game design, from dialogue to design, words sure can lend a helping hand.

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