Sunday, September 6, 2009

Why "Six Days in Fallujah" was really cancelled

"Bang! Boom, ratata, boom, bang!" she said, while holding an imaginary rifle in her hand and doing her best to impersonate a testosterone driven male gamer, mouth agape and pupils dilated.

The person sitting across from me was my potential future boss, the creative director of a noteworthy agency in BC, interviewing me for a job. This was her reaction to me saying that video gaming was one of my hobbies. It was inspired by her general impression of video games (violence, explosions, guns, etc.), and followed by the question whether I was really into that

My answer to her question was a protest. It started with a sigh and continued along the lines of "You shouldn't think that way," and "That's not really fair." But as I continued to explain my viewpoint, I was simultaneously realizing that her opinion, while unfair perhaps, was at the same time perfectly reasonable in its origination.

For what reason was there to think otherwise?
Even for those of us who know that there is so much more to video games than B-rated action movie rip-offs, it is no small mental challenge to dig up a glorious example of deep storytelling from our memories, without having to go many years back in time.

There was a time that video games were giving us thrilling glimpses of a new kind of storytelling, rich with emotion, philosophy, experimentation and unparalleled immersion. There was content on par with fine literature. Ironically, that was also the time when gaming was associated only with kids, teenagers, and adults who had horribly failed at getting a life. Gaming was far from being hailed by the incumbent media as a "cultural phenomenon." It was nowhere near being mainstream, and its appeal was deemed childish at best.

And then video games did what all the other media before them had done to gain mainstream popularity: they dumbed the content down. It was in the fashion of a brat screaming and begging for attention: loud, crass, inappropriate, irresponsible, hormone-driven. Gone were long chunks of dialogue from the screen, "because people did not like to read." Gone were thought provoking stories, "because people just wanted to have fun." The content did not mature up, but rather got an "M for mature," meaning it adopted a behaviour pattern rife with sex, violence, nudity and coarse language, just like a rebellious teenager imitating his/her impression of what an adult is. And it worked like a charm!

Today, video games are not simply a childish waste of time, produced entirely by isolated programmers here and there, doing some coding while they are slacking off on their full-time jobs. It is a big, serious industry, employing many professionals from a wide variety of digital fields, and serving a global market worth billions. The content strategy has served the industry well indeed. Or so it seems, if you ignore what is starting to happen now.

What got you here won't get you there 
It was back in April, Konami announced that they were dropping the controversial game Six Days in Fallujah even before it could see the daylight, due to an overwhelming outcry against the game's premise. The premise was a digital reenactment of one of the key battles of the Iraqi War, in the style of a First Person Shooter. It was criticised by both Pro-War and Anti-War commentators. Some blamed the game for trivializing war, while others said it was glorifying war. While these points might seem contradictory to a non-gamer, it should sadly be noted that war games (to date) have an uncanny knack for pulling off both offenses at the same time.

Yet there is something in this story that does not make sense at first glance. After all, this was not the first attempt to portray the Iraqi war. There are already many movies made about almost any war in recent and far history - most of them featuring Americans fighting in somebody else's country. Why such a strong reaction to a game when seemingly anyone can make a movie about anything related to war?

Add to this puzzle the fact that there are games such as Modern Warfare, Battlefield series, and many more, taking place within the context of imaginary conflicts that are blatantly obvious anagrams of real world conflicts, and yet faring merrily in sales figures with nary a protest, nor an objection. So what's going on here?

The answer is simple. When it comes to handling sensitive subjects of the real world with due care, video games just have zero - none, null, nada, squat - vote of confidence from their audience. The situation is exactly that of the previously described rebellious teenager who, upon asking if he/she could take the keys to the family car to go to a late night party, is given the answer: "Yeah, right. Like that's gonna happen in a million years."

Six Days in Fallujah is not the only manifestation of this. It is a similar thing that happened to the game Super Columbine Massacre RPG at the Slamdance festival of 2006. A different kind of reaction stemming from the same sentiments came for the last Resident Evil game, blaming the developers for being insensitive about racism.

Movies do not suffer from the same bias because that medium has long proven itself capable of "adult responsibility" with many fine examples of film making. They have deserved and earned the benefit of doubt that saves them from being cancelled even before being filmed.

While the braindead marketing philosophy of the last century might think of these controversies as "great publicity for games," (Dante's Inferno, you hear this?) the truth is that there is no more ground left to be won by such tactics. In fact these very tactics are becoming a hindrance for video games in their rise to the dominant medium of the future throne. Especially at a time when the whole global business community is engulfed in change towards more social responsibility, this particular industry runs the risk of drawing more and more ire from gamers and non-gamers alike, for its glaring indifference and reluctance to grow up.

It is now time that the teenager should get a clean haircut, learn to self-administer mouthwash, and start wearing something that doesn't have skulls and pentagrams on it. Such a thing is far from being unimaginable. It used to be, in fact, a reality.

The humour in the Secret of the Monkey Island was comparable to Terry Pratchett. The haunting riddle of Planescape: Torment was no less profound than any quote from Nietzche. The noir style of Grim Fandango could make Tim Burton jealous. The video games industry used to be that responsible person (and still immensely fun) a long time ago. And it can become that person again.

But how, you ask, will video games prove themselves worthy if they are not even given a chance? My answer is: learn to mow the lawn first before you ask for the car keys. Work your way up from less sensitive subjects and show the world you are ready to take the responsibility of being the dominant medium.

As a good example to that, I recommend looking at how Battlestar Galactica series handled the topic of terrorism, war, and even suicide bombings admirably, without offending its audience. There are lots of similar examples out there, if one wants to find them.

(Note to journalists and researchers: Next time, before you publish an article about storytelling in video games, please do take time to study the matter in depth. When you ignore all those fine examples of storytelling as if video games started off with Grand Theft Auto, you end up misleading your audience and hurting the credibility of your authority in the subject field.)

(Note to my interviewer: No offense meant to you at all! It's still okay to hire me!)

P.S. I have copied the comments from game-devs about my article in a new post, which you can find here. Or you can join the Game Developers group on LinkedIn to see them there.


Simon Conyers said...

As a gamer myself I am used to people's negative views of videogames as a both a medium and as a hobby, but I would protest against the idea that there have been no recent examples of mature storytelling in games. On the xbox 360 you only need to look at titles such as The Darkness, Mass Effect, Dead Space, Oblivion (Elder Scrolls), and BioShock to find excellent and adult story telling that fully immerses you in the world of the game. Half life and its sequels were also very rich in both plot and character development. Although they are certainly outweighed by the mass market shooters, it is not fair to say that all developers have completely ignored the narrative power of video games.

Taylan Kay (Kadayifcioglu) said...

Thanks for your comment, Simon.

I agree that the games you mentioned all have storytelling elements. But you said it yourself very well bu using the phrase "adult storytelling," which does not always imply maturity. The concept of Dead Space, for instance, is a rather obvious rip-off of the movie Event Horizon. The sex scenes in Mass Effect really add nothing to the story, and main the story of "guy/gal saves the universe" adds just as much to video game storytelling as the movie Independence Day has added to film making. Oblivion's story is pretty much the same. It's hard to get past the carnage in Bioshock. Haven't played The Darkness so I can't say. But the point is those games do not have much to say in the end: there is little (if any) deep meaning that makes you think after playing the game, no thorough exploration of morality. For the most part, they are all no-brainers in a sense. I might have gone too far to discount them altogether, but it's only because I know they could do so much better.

Anonymous said...

An issue with Six Days is neatly captured in this quote from the developer on Wikipedia

''s not about the politics of whether the US should have been there or not. It is really about the stories of the Marines who were in Fallujah and the question, the debate about the politics, that is something for the politicians to worry about. We're focused now on what actually happened on the ground.'

The difficulty is that the Iraqi war is about politics, it is about the civilians conveniently recategorised as insurgents, and the ethical axis. The mature assessment advocated should be advanced by games taking a mature view of their subjects.

Lacking such a mature view, mature analysis is still possible, but on other axes: the arrow of enculturation, apologism, or straightforward rewrites of history.


Sam Clarke said...

None of the older games you cite display any of the deep meaning or moral exploration you seem to be demanding from games either.

Your dismissal of Bioshock is also ridiculous. Here is a game that questions the player's relationship with games as well as examining themes such as free will, hubris and karma. Bioshock's narrative strengths are impossible to replicate in any other medium.

You also dismiss a story because it is "guy/gal saves the universe". Name me a narrative from any medium that doesn't conform to some kind of story-telling stereotype. Be it an epic journey or a romantic development, in many ways the overall story arc is increasingly less important than what happens along the way.

There was only one overt sex scene in Mass Effect and it DID add to the story. Do you know why? Because the story was your own. The scene is completely optional and is dependent on the choices the player makes through the game. If you craft a path through the game whereby you alienate every NPC you won't be getting no loving.

No other medium allows the user to forge their own narrative in such a unique way as games do. The best moments in Fallout 3 (a game that rendered the whole moral spectrum for players to explore) are those that were unscripted and could only ever have happened to you and your unique situation.

Games have only been a serious story-telling medium for about the past 25 years. As a rough comparison, movies were only just including sound.

Games have a long way to go, but that is what makes them so exciting.

Taylan Kay (Kadayifcioglu) said...

Sam, thanks sharing your opinion.

I have received criticism from other people on the same issues, and judging by their common ground, I think people are missing the real point that I tried to convey in my article.

My goal was not to offend you by criticizing your favourite games. I have enjoyed those games as well, simply because, yes, they are some of the best that video games have to offer at this point in time and I love games. But that is not the point. I could also challenge your first statement that the games I mentioned did not include such depth of narrative, but that is not the point either.

The real question is whether the current narrative style is enough to advance the medium and expand its audience.

You and I are captive audience. I will buy the next Mass Effect, even though I know it'll mean saving the universe yet again. But for video games to conquer even more hearts and minds beyond yours and mine, something needs to change. As you said, games have a long way to go, and I was simply hoping to give them a small nudge with my article. That's the main point.

Btw, anyone interested in hearing more opinions from game-devs can check the Game Developers group on LinkedIn. I will add the comments from over there in a new post soon.


Taylan Kay (Kadayifcioglu) said...

Here's the link to the other comments:

JP Sherman said...

My take on this is a little bit different. As to the specific game 6 Days in Fallujah, I wished the game would have been made, I would have happily bought that game. While I can understand the point of the protesters, good art rarely goes without some controversy (I remember the surrealist film Un Chien Andalou caused a human stampede).

With the aspects of story telling, I think that video games have a greater potential for stories than film. I compare film to rail shooter games. You're lead along a pre-determined path, you dont always know how you'll get to the end, but ultimately, you do. With this media, we've been given The Godfather and Carrot Top.

The dissonance with video games is that it has to stay within the realm of "fun". I wonder if we're programmed to think that games have to be fun in order to be good. Even if there are some emotional moments, we know that the game is trying to be fun. Film is not constrained to that expectation. While Mass Effect, Bioshock, Oblivion and classic games like Day of the Tentacle or Star Wars Alliance have had rich storylines surrounding the fun, we as gamers as an industry are coming closer to breaking that "fun" tradition and truly being an interactive medium. I doubt it will be a blockbuster game, but I hope there will be some good experiments in the future.

Btw: Good luck on the job!