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The Ebert Trap (Fan Creations)

by Cody Miller @, Music of the Spheres - Never Forgot, Monday, February 20, 2023, 08:17 (372 days ago) @ Cody Miller
edited by Cody Miller, Monday, February 20, 2023, 08:22

https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2023/01/the-last-of-us-video-game-hbo-show-episode-3/672889/

What's frustrating here is that much of what Ian Bogost writes here is technically correct, but not for the reasons he thinks.

The problem with video-game storytelling is a structural one. Games demand action, and action, for better or worse, entails movement through space and collision with other objects in that space…But the expectation of movement and collision also limits the capacity of games, especially games that want to tell stories.

In games, exterior action is easier than inner life. Movement and collision detection, doors and drawers, ropes and firearms. What a character thinks or feels still must be communicated by language, and that requires either dialogue or artifacts—like the found note on the fridge—or both…This framework does not lend itself naturally to the development of deep, emotional human characters.

What's frustrating is that he's taking the failures of AAA gaming and generalizing that to the medium as a whole. He's absolutely correct, but only when you look at modern AAA games which base their stories around such 'exterior action'. It's why Bioshock Infinite was an FPS and not an Adventure Game. But these are creative failures on individual levels, not a failure of the medium.

Games like One Night Stand, or Kentucky Route Zero and others like them do not base their stories or mechanics around such external action, all the while making interaction a central and essential part of the experience (as long as you ignore achievements / trophies). They offer character empathy beyond dialogue and and artifacts. They are unadaptable because the fundamental themes and experience is inexorably linked to the medium, all the while never asking you to partake in the typical 'action' of what's obligatory in AAA games.

I've mentioned before that theoretically game adaptations into film stand no chance if the game is sophisticated enough, but there I only outlined this in terms of visual fidelity and film language. While briefly touched on, I failed to adequately explain that the nature of the interaction itself is as of much importance. Games whose experiences are limited and whose stories are shaped by the need to run and shoot and jump in a game system that can sustain hours of such actions can give way to adaptations that are free from those limitations and can thus rise above those shortcomings.

But that is again a creative failure on the AAA developer, not a reason to proclaim video games a storytelling ghetto. His criticisms of Last of Us are correct, but only insofar as Naughty Dog crafted a game around the same old shit we've been doing in games forever. To extend the logic and assume games are narrative wastelands is simply ignorant, and ignores the games that exist right now that are unadaptable without losing a huge part of the experience, and whose verbs are far more sophisticated, internal, and emotional.

But even beyond that, it seems as if he's not recognizing that the story of The Last of Us was specifically crafted around the idea you would be traversing and shooting and playing, as if that were a failure rather than a successful creative choice for the game. The reason he finds the show thin and boring is precisely because the action fills in the gaps, the time, the struggles, it's all intrinsic to the feeling of connection. When you help Ellie onto a raft for the 10th time, or boost her up, you're developing a narrative connection that isn't really possible without a set of goal based interactions. Is the Giraffe section going to be as good, when in the game it was a nice surprise after expecting just another boost up to hide some loading? The repetition actually has a narrative affect.

The notion that removing all of that leaves the experience bare and uninteresting is precisely why games are NOT worthless as a means to tell stories. And yet his criticism is the medium, not the adaptation that like nearly all game adaptations just doesn't seem to fully appreciate or understand what you give up by not letting the player interact.

I'm hoping this changes, both as experimentation in games continues and as critics who better understand video games begin to write and make their voices heard. Perhaps it's a defense, as the prestige of film and television wane, rightfully challenged by games with their irrefutably wider possibility space. These critics are smart - however their knowledge of games are too narrow and tainted to apply that knowledge meaningfully. Art criticism is behind with regards to the video game. It needs to catch up.


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