Fuck Citizen Kane, where’s the Seinfeld of gaming?

The game defined who I was, and what I was going to do, far before the first bit was flipped. In the conceptual stage someone said “This is a hero’s story. The player will save the world.” Well, what if I don’t want to? What if I’m tired of fixing stupid problems in your world? Protip: I am.

In a 1994 interview in the magazine Fami-Tsushin, Shigeru Miyamoto talked about what he felt RPGs should be like.

Miyamoto: Let’s say you tie someone completely up – even their individual fingers – and then wait a while. Then, if you start to untie the ropes one by one, they’ll of course be happy. Anyone would. The method of sticking someone in an incredibly tight situation then untightening it little by little and then saying, “There! Aren’t you happy now?” becomes very boring as soon as it becomes evident. So, instead of that, my personal theme when making RPG-like games is, “What can I do?” I don’t think creating happiness comes from starting from a negative and returning to zero. It’s starting from zero and ending at one hundred, and I try to think of ways to allow that.

Stopping a meteor from crashing into the planet in Final Fantasy 7 is a return to the balance of “world-destroying meteors don’t crash into the planet all the time, and one crazy fuck doesn’t rule the Lifestream.” GTA4 is about a return to the normality of “gangsters aren’t trying to kill you and your friends all the time.” Heavy Rain and Alan Wake are about “putting an end to a fucked up killer/evil-force, and thus making the world safe and normal again.” But then again, that’s almost every game. Just look at Oblivion and it’s dreaded portals to other worlds.

Sure, Oblivion was fun, but it was silly. Those Oblivion Gates stayed open FOREVER on my game, and it had no adverse affect on the world! Some threat they turned out to be. Why? Because I was having far too much fun reuniting long-lost families and journeying into paintings. Sure it’s easy to say that “Well, that’s why the side missions are there, but the Oblivion Gates are the main thrust of the game!” Maybe in YOUR game, but absolutely not in mine.

My game was not the story of a nameless, faceless, world savior. I was a budding thief imprisoned and then turned loose under bizarre circumstances he didn’t give a shit about! What did I do with this new-found freedom? Why, I set out to fulfill my career as a world-class thief, of course! (And let me tell you; I did it. I was no common thief.)

No, my story was not one of a world savior who was a thief, but a thief who eventually got so bored he decided to save the world. Of course, the game never knew this, and that’s the problem with most games today. They’re not REALLY interactive. Not where it counts, anyway. Not the story.

If you want your game to be cinematic in presentation, that’s fine. In fact, it’s commendable. I’m perfectly fine with “making the game experience cinematic,” as obviously the visual cues of video can be grandfathered into games. But be aware that cinematic refers to camera technique, and how it can influence/inform the viewer. Being cinematic does not necessitate that the story be linear, that’s just the inability of developers to do new things. One new thing. The one thing that really matters any more.

Imagine, instead, that Oblivion’s main plot was removed. Imagine it kept count of each of those times I pick-pocketed, picked a lot, or stole. Or the amount of time I spent doing those things. Imagine it compared that count to my time spent on the main quest. Imagine I agree to a mission of stealing some grand jewel for a princess, so that a prince can’t use it for dowry to marry her, but before accomplishing this, I have to save and quit the game.

The next time I started the game, the game could recognize that I’m a sly thief, not a quick-tempered barbarian, and we could see cut-scenes of my previous exploits with, “The notorious thief again returns to the prowl, preparing for his biggest score yet, the (grand jewel name here)! Can he outsmart Prince X? Will he save Princess Y by stopping her wedding? Will he get caught, and be banned from the city Z?” (Whereas someone who’s spent more time killing, a warrior, may instead approach the problem with a sword, prompting the game to ask “Will he kill Prince X?”)

And it shouldn’t just be a bunch of linear missions for the player to complete, but a gameworld with interesting characters that conflict. A gameworld where the death of a prince matters to everyone. A gameworld where, if I marry that princess, I become King, and people plot against me. Or if I let the Prince marry her, they plot against him. Most games narrowly define the player, as framed by the story. I imagine a game that narrowly frames the story as defined by the player’s actions. That’s the game I want to play.

And the rest of the games? The ones that set up a rat maze for me to run through, that have a narrative with a beginning, middle, and end? One that promises variance, but really just has a few branching plot elements and a little flavor text? I’m tired of you. Really, I am. I’m tired of it, and if you’re not careful, I’m just going to stop playing. Please, I’m begging you. This is getting old. And you pussy-footing around and dipping your toes in it won’t get the job done here. I need a sign that you get it.

Related thoughts that didn’t fit coherently into my final post:
Rockstar, let Tarn “ToadyOne” Adams give tips on your next sandbox game. In fact, give him final say. You can create the content, and just let him give you lessons on worthwhile world building. You don’t get it. He does. I’m sorry you had to find out this way. It’ll be okay; I still love you and am interested in LA Noire.

I’m tired of fighting Bad Guy X. If I’m to be Don Quixote in this pointless exercise, at least let me pick which windmills are important to me. Mass Effect 2, I don’t care about disappearing human colonies so much as I do my friends, despite the fact that I play a “good guy.”

Bethesda, I’m all for your upcoming Elder Scrolls MMO… Just don’t make it about time spent grinding. Levels shouldn’t factor that heavily into things, nor should weaponry. I know that’s very counter-intuitive, but, you know I’m right. Good/creative players should win out, not the one who’s been around longer.

Fuck Citizen Kane, give me Seinfeld. Wait. Let me back up. I loved Citizen Kane. I think it still stands tall today, unburdened by all the merit lauded onto it. And for the record, I’ve seen less than five episodes of Seinfeld. I’m sure it’s awesome, but it just never grabbed me like it did so many others. That said, I think at this point games could probably learn more from serialized TV than film. That “previously, on Lost,” sets up EVERYTHING. (Actually, this thought will probably be recycled… But I’m keeping the title, as “a game about nothing, necessarily,” is pretty much what I want.)