Saturday, December 31, 2005

why study video games...


"The real indicator [that video games have arrived as an art form] will be when somebody confesses they cried at level 17."                                                                                             
–Steven Spielberg, U.S.A. Today, 9/16/04

                It is my goal in life to tell heartbreaking, horrific, sublime, visceral, redemptive stories that arrest your attention and make you think. This is how I approach our unique cultural moment—and the riddle of being alive.

                I learned to watch TV before I learned to read. I had a cable box, and unrestricted access to it, by the age of seven. I had an Atari, a Commodore 64, a Nintendo, and a Sega Genesis soon after each came out. I was a 'video geek' before there was the term. I reference nearly every observation that crosses my mind against a movie or game that I have seen. There is no escaping it—my whole life is stories.

                From a film background, I tried to create a pure fiction narrative that would double as a hi-concept story source—much like the original Mortal Kombat game or Clive Barker's Hellraiser mythology—capable of producing a movie, a video game, action figures, etc. I spent the last five years of my life developing 'The World Without a Name,' whose open-ended design is intended to house and perpetuate storylines and characters as they build organically, unendingly, cliffhangingly, toward an epic and inevitable doom that may or may not come. The central storyline concerns the ultra-violent struggle between the heroic villain, Zachary Killgore, and the villainous hero, Jake Bloodstone. Theirs is a rivalry old as human conflict, embittered by the clashing of every successive generation, and rendered irreconcilable by incalculable layers of grievance. It is a blood feud. Blinded by emotion, unwilling to share power, and haunted by the human neuroses that causes men to seek glory even unto self-destruction, the war of Zachary and Jake will scorch the heavens, poison the seas, and forever threaten to pitch the world into shadow and flame.

                Zachary and Jake, schooled since the age of three at the Killingworth Military Academy, are named dual Supreme Kommanders upon the death of their mutual mentor, Karter Burwell. Immediately, Zachary plunges the Empyre into the bloodiest civil war in recorded memory. He seeks to topple a Malebranche regime he considers nothing less than the Empyre's cancer. Jake, the people's champion, finds himself fighting to suppress the rebellion and maintain the infernal Malebranche in power. His will to destroy Zachary will make him the devil's hammer.

                Emperor Malebranche XXX, current ruler of the fatally corrupt B.C. Empyre, descends directly from an avarice-demon. Each successive Malebranche has proven regressively inept, making this emperor the most cowardly, cruel, and foolish of all. Of course, they have each possessed an abnormally far-reaching gift for self-preservation and a supernaturally severe distaste for parting with money. They literally feel a stabbing pain in their chest the moment they overpay for something. No one has ever cheated a Malebranche out of money and lived to tell the story.

                The B.C. Empyre occupies a thousands of miles long stretch of land termed 'the godz own kountry' by the original settlers, those hardy, wayward rogues—long since deified—who washed up on the shores of the Maroon Sea many thousands of years ago with no memory of the world from whence they came. At least that's the story they committed to posterity. History remembers them as 'the city-founders.' Where they planted their flag there evolved the city-state of B.C., the metropolitan heart of the most politically, militarily, and economically dominate human organizational entity in the known world.

                In 'Bad Blood Born,' you will witness Zachary and Jake travel ill-advisedly deep into the Deadwoodz Forest and join forces as children to capture and domestic the cyclopean giant, Kurrupt, later unleashed by Zachary as an instrument of war. Kurrupt, who develops a special distaste for Zachary's machinations, will have his chance for vengeance when Zachary is fed to him at the beginning of the 'BBB's sequel, 'Blood & Bones.' You will find the disembodied, battered souls of recently slain savages leaping into Zachary's heart—a metaphysical phenomenon called 'reaping.' And you will discover, among the many species of brutes who live along the dark edges of the world—where the map falls off into shadow—the blood black brutes of Darkonia. Ruled by Venemous, the vengeance-demon, these creatures drink enchanted blood before battle to achieve a psychosis-like trance. Imperial Kaos Killers, guardians of the frontier, call it 'poison-sick rage.' Meanwhile, Metro B.C. festers like an open sewer, moist-damp and filled to bursting with the Empyre's cast away sins. Outlaws, arch-criminals, and the forsaken cluster like blood-clots around the dredd-gangster warlord, Nefarious, the shadow-thickened center of the city-state's inmost core. It falls to Jake to assassinate this waking nightmare.

                The World Without a Name is a place where you should not wander off alone. This is a world where misfortune has a way of finding you, where the very elements conspire toward your doom. This is a world where the shadows listen closely to your inner most thoughts and encourage your transgression. They whisper in your ear and tell you what you want to hear. The shadows wrap themselves around the place where your heart sinks deepest and rob, borrow, beg, or steal their way into your confidence—they cause you to forget yourself and lie down with them in the mire.

                The world is expressionistic in that intense emotional fluctuations can find their logical culmination in severe mood weatherings such as blinding hail storms and bursts of red flame. Rancor, when appropriately cultivated and dwelt on to perverse over-abundance may result in the object one's acrimony being suddenly swallowed by the earth. The shadows respond to certain powerful personalities that capture their attention. A slow corruption and bonding may occur resulting in a sequence of dark gifts—each accompanied by a slow-burning curse. Eventually, a deservingly horrible soul might become a dark lord, at once the ruler of a sub-shadowrealm, and its slave. The World Without a Name is an anachronistically archaic place populated by millenniums-old demons trapped on deserted islands, graverobbing gangsters, and the haunting memory of atrocity. This is a world of brutality, greed, horror, genocide, love transcendent, arch-criminality, demented idealism and wars to end all wars.

                Ultimately, I found that I was unable to communicate my strength of feeling and vision utilizing pure black words on white paper. For instance, my notebooks--where 95% of the work resides--remain far more visually arresting than the actual book. There are tremendous amounts of maps, character sketches, musical cues and/or mood symbols that for practical reasons are lost in translation. This is deeply frustrating. After spending an extreme amount of time mining video games—as well as RPGs, comic books, and movies—for ideas and inspiration, I realized that my material, and more importantly, my artistic sensibility, lends itself naturally to the video game format. What video games do better than any other media is spell out in explicit detail the characters, weapons, fighting moves, magic spells, mapped out locations, and the various other elements of an immersive secondary world.

                Video games occupy the cutting edge of contemporary storytelling. In games such as Resident Evil: Outbreak (2004), the Punisher (2005), and Hitman: Contracts (2004), I have found the most uninhibitedly high-concept, explicitly themed material, the larger than life, archetypal characters, and the hyper-stylized universes. Here I have found unabashedly dark worlds filled to bursting with anti-heroes, tragic curses, cascading dementia, demons, gangsters, gothic horror, ultra-violence, fury and redemption.      Here I have found the proper medium for The World Without a Name.

                Unlike any other storytelling format, video games can map out an internal, mediated environment for you, the viewer/gamer, to explore. The world has a geography. This provides a platform for detailed, textured explanation unavailable in other formats. For example, I had read the 'Lord of the Rings' trilogy and watched all the versions of all the movies—including all the supplementary material—many times. But it was not until I played the game 'LOTR 3rd Age' (2004) that I truly had a sense of the landscape of Middle-Earth. Scenes from the entire trilogy were re-edited and re-mixed in order to position you, the gamer, as the protagonist. The timeframe and the motivations of the various characters within the larger political schematic of the epic saga became more clearly elucidated. The tactile, free-roaming, richly detailed internal world of Middle-Earth provided a depth of understanding that went beyond that which Tolkien could convey with words alone nor Jackson via nine hours of screen time. I'd experienced the quest from the perspective of the original fellowship.  

                The primary strength of video games—total immersion into a secondary world and first-hand visceral experience—is tempered by the medium's primary flaw: a lack of emotional engagement with the characters. This disconnect can partly be attributed to the function of the current play, watch, play, watch convention rendered industry standard by successful games like the original Playstation's Resident Evil (1996). Secondly, cutscene animation is still a bit jerky and unrealistic and simply not on par with modern live-action or animated films. Most importantly, the writing could be better. I believe the next generation of gaming consoles—and the next—will address these limitations. Video game cinematics will eventually rival that of actual films and simultaneously, these killer graphics will integrate into the game flow.  Artistically, there will be many, many important creative decisions to be made from both a game design standpoint and more importantly, that of storytelling. I want to be a part of this decision-making process. More to the point, I would like to be a writer and story developer of video games who takes the format to the next level via sophisticated, worthy narratives  driven by fascinating, engaging characters.

                I would like to make a video game that makes an audience cry.

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