Spilt Milk Studios' Andrew Smith looks at what game developers can learn from books, poetry and film
[Andrew Smith is MD of UK game developer Spilt Milk Studios. This blog post was originally published on the Spilt Milk Tumblr, which you can find here.]
Books are great, aren’t they?
I’ve recently finished the quite wonderful The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman. It’s a modern fairy tale for the post-Potter generation, about a young orphan growing up and growing into his adult self amongst the vine covered tombstones and dank mausoleums of a small town’s Graveyard, his only family a ghostly one. It made me yearn for parts of my childhood that I had long forgotten, and even parts I’d never experienced.
I’ve since started reading Joe Abercrombie's The Blade Itself, which is part one of the First Law series. So far it’s been an imaginative and vividly written fantasy romp with a pretty seriously dark sense of humour, a robust attitude towards the modern uses of Anglo-Saxon, and a refreshing disdain for a lot of its characters.
If I’m completely honest, reading certain passages of The Graveyard Book reminded me of Limbo, Soul Reaver and even a little bit of Ico. Meanwhile, The Blade Itself brings to mind elements of Soul Calibur and The Mark of Kri.
But that’s not what caught my blogging interest - it’s that I can’t remember the last time a game reminded me of a literary work. Perhaps it’s because the written word finds life solely in our imagination, while games (in fact any visual medium) take the ‘lazy’ route of actually visualising things and so the reality of a game, etched in ever-more-realistic photons, can never live up to the realities we conjure when we engage in any good work of fiction.
But I’m inclined to think beyond that, to the fact that games are often inexpert at summoning any kind of memorable atmosphere, let alone building consistent emotional tone and creating any affecting subtext.
Since the dawn of time, man has used storytelling to communicate experience - ostensibly to educate and, as a result, survive. As we have evolved, so have the ways in which we tell these stories, and the reasons we all feel the need to. Every other storytelling medium has - separately and under its own steam - learned from all of those that came before it. Pictures came first, telling story both made up and documentary in nature.
Many years after words supplanted those pictures, both song and poem built off of plain prose through rhythm and music - each of them deeply in debt to story, but more efficient than plain words or unaccompanied pictures in communication of emotion. Then moving pictures (at first silent and black and white, then moving beyond that) became the primary method of storytelling, again through more efficient means with sound, colour, picture and motion all becoming more than the sum of their parts.
But all of these advances first built upon the old, and then developed a nuanced language of their own through iteration and exploration if their own limitations and peculiarities.
So videogame are the next step. Adding the undeniably powerful aspect of interaction means we offer a way to experience a story itself rather than simply the telling of it, using all of the strengths of our mediums’ progenitors, and adding our own.
But we’re also developing in a different world - one where information is free, knowledge is cheap, and tools are readily available. We’re more able to realise our dreams than ever before and I believe this has had the (potentially damaging) side effect of making us greedy and impatient. Think about it for a second - we’re able to literally build our dreams and experience those dreams in ways that weren’t possible mere decades ago - the power to not only relive experiences, but experiences we could never have lived before, in ways we never could before. It’s intoxicating!
But we’re a young medium, videogames, and so works like Gone Home and Kentucky Route Zero are the exception rather than the rule. I’m of the opinion that more games need to directly reference more classic works (of literary fiction, epic poem, song, portrait, film… and all the others) to learn the language of storytelling before we can move beyond that to the zenith that I know we can achieve.
We are all about experiential storytelling. It’s obvious why we can surpass all other kinds in terms of offering immersion, understanding and the ways we can affect those who play our offerings. I just think that movies, comics and songs were not afraid of mimicking or taking inspiration directly from stories like those told by The Brothers Grimm, or such as Beowulf or The Aeneid, yet strangely we are. We’re painfully aware of reinventing the wheel (mechanically as well as in many other ways) when we should be embracing the opportunity to do so.
I myself have some (very early) plans to create something directly inspired by the classic fairytale Sleeping Beauty - and not the Disney version. It’s not chosen at random, and I want to combine it with a deeply personal story. We shall see what happens.
Perhaps we’ll see more of this kind of thing in the future? I know I’d love to see it happen.