Thursday, October 6, 2016

Star Wars Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II - 10/20 hours

I think I'm getting into this game. I played it all night last night and I didn't find my attention flagging much at all. There were a couple of rough spots. I got stuck a few times. I had to activate one of the cheats in order to beat a certain boss. But otherwise, it was pretty fun. Call me a wimp if you must, but I'm glad the game is much less maze-like than the original.

Having experienced more of the live-action cutscenes, I have to say that I'm not a fan. Even setting aside the cheesiness of their execution, I feel like they take me out of the game. I think a large part of it is that they are in a completely different art style than the rest the game. However, that can't be the whole explanation because I've played games in the past where the cutscenes are hyper-stylized and it's never bothered me before.

Maybe it's because I've been playing games for over twenty years now and live action simply isn't how things are done. In fact, I don't think I've ever played another game that's used this narrative approach. I was vaguely aware that it enjoyed a brief period of popularity in the late 90s, with Night Trap and whatnot, but back then my game system of choice was the SNES. By the time I got a system powerful enough to run those sorts of games, the fad had already passed.

I wonder why it wasn't more popular, though. It seems like it could at least have found itself a niche. Human actors are much more expressive than even our most advanced animation. You don't have to have a whole team of people working to make sure their mouths crinkle correctly when they smile or frown. You don't have to do that silly thing with the mocap balls to get a realistic walking gait. And of course complicated technical problems like cloth animation more or less solve themselves. If you really want a game to tell a story, it seems like live-action is a good way to cut out a lot of the bullshit.

As far as I can tell, the reason live action did not become more widespread is threefold. First, games tend to have at their heart fantastical premises. Even if you do live-action for the main characters, if your game takes place on a spaceship or in a magical land, you're still going to have to use cgi for the sci-fi technology and/or dragons and wizards and such. This means that game studios would have to have both a strong computer graphics infrastructure and a strong filming and editing infrastructure.

In addition to the expense of maintaining two non-overlapping production facilities, I imagine that it would be difficult to cultivate and hold onto the institutional knowledge necessary to run what amounts to a miniature film studio. I don't know the specifics that go into making a movie, but I'm guessing that even if you didn't have all of your cinematography, editing, and casting specialists in-house, you'd still need to retain the services of someone who knew how to tell a good cinematographer from a bad one and who knows how to hire actors and is familiar with the logistics of running a set (making sure everyone is fed and no one has to hang around too long waiting for their scene, etc).

 It seems like it would be a real problem keeping someone like that around. What would they do during the long periods when your game is being bug-tested and optimized? Video game cutscenes are essentially just short sketches bound together over an over-arching plot. Would producing them even prove stimulating enough for someone with a high level of expertise? How much more do you have to pay your live-action specialists just to keep them from jumping ship for a job that is much less boring?

The second reason I don't think live action works as well is because, frankly, most video game scripts would make for terrible movies. Don't get me wrong, there is some great video game writing out there, but game writing is an entirely different art than movie writing and if you forget that the result isn't pretty. The big problem with trying to write a game like a movie is that most of their actual screen-time, your characters will be acting completely ridiculous. Remember that scene in Star Wars where Luke has to run back and forth between two guard rooms to hit their switches quickly enough that he can then dash over to a nearby bridge and cross it before it automatically retracts (a real thing I had to do in the game)? Of course not, because that would be a stupid thing to film.

There are basically two different approaches you can take to solve this problem - 1)make your cutscenes into their own standalone movie and more or less pretend that the gameplay stuff has no narrative significance. 2)Really lean into the over-the-top nature of your subject matter and have your story take place in a heightened, video-game-esque reality. Live-action could work with the first approach, but then you run into the problem that it's really hard to write a movie that's compelling to watch in five-minute intervals, separated by hours of inattention. And when you try live-action with the second approach, well . . . lines that are fun and badass coming out of a cartoon can often feel forced and unnatural coming out of a human being.

The third reason I think the industry moved away from live-action is that it looks really different from the games themselves. This isn't just a matter of immersion. If you have a setting with a really strong art-design, like, say Rapture from Bioshock, how are you going to keep that up when you transition from gameplay to cutscene? Are you going to try and build a practical set in decaying and water-logged art deco style? Are you going to green-screen the whole thing? Will there be a huge difference in quality between the game's environments and the ones the actors interact with? And what about a situation where you have a villain give a speech that immediately leads into a boss fight? Is the character even going to be recognizable? Will they retain the same sense of menace and danger?

Granted, these aren't exactly 100% solved problems as is, but using computer graphics to tell your story not only saves you redundant work, it allows you greater artistic consistency throughout the whole game.

I think, in retrospect, it was inevitable that live-action would be a short-lived experiment. However, given the current gaming environment, where it seems like no idea gets permanently discarded, it might be interesting to see what people can do with it.

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