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Opinion: Do Video Games Over-Egg The Epic?

Opinion: Do Video Games Over-Egg The Epic? Exclusive

May 21, 2009 | By Chris Remo

[Why is it that "epic" seems to be the ultimate height of ambition in the industry? In this Gamasutra editorial, editor-at-large Chris Remo explores the merit of games that succeed on their sense of restraint.]

I recently happened upon some footage from the upcoming Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time film adaptation. Without speculating on the quality of the final product, I feel confident in expecting the big-budget Bruckheimer bonanza to be epic, for better or worse.

That sounds like an implicit endorsement. After all, works of epic scale have become so in vogue in recent years that the word "epic" has transcended being a qualifier of scope, and has become a broader positive descriptor that can refer to just about anything that is totally rad.

It's not much of a surprise that a Hollywood adventure film would shoot for "epic." But while the film might end up being a fun, well-made flick (competent director Mike Newell is behind the camera, and talented Prince creator Jordan Mechner co-authored it) I can't help feeling a little dismayed that this cast-of-thousands affair is borne out of a game that I remember so vividly for -- of all things -- its sense of restraint.

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time was a masterful game in many respects, including its well-executed 3D platforming mechanics and clever time-rewind conceit, but Mechner's input as writer, designer, and general creative supervisor is likely what lent much of its unique tone.

The Sands of Time demands a certain amount of patience from its players, its protagonist initially impudent and distrusting before slowly transforming into a sympathetic, appealing character. The game teeters between thoughtful, atmospheric isolation and charmingly tentative companionship -- not the traditional stuff of epics.

Games are clearly capable of those emotional directions (Mechner's underappreciated previous game The Last Express is another fine example) and in many cases being successful at the same time, so why is it that "epic" seems to be the ultimate height of ambition in the industry? Note that for the purpose of this piece, I am focusing on character-, world-, and story-driven games, as opposed to puzzle games, mini-games, sports games, and so on.

Is it a lingering byproduct of the traditional adolescent target demographic, even as average gamer age rises? Is it a function of those seemingly ubiquitous game developer influences -- Aliens, The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Saving Private Ryan, Sin City, 300, Quentin Tarantino, et al?

Is it because games are often played as power fantasies? Is it because, when the default progression mechanic in most games is combat, grand conflict and badassery just make the most sense?

The most recent trailer for BioWare's upcoming fantasy RPG Dragon Age: Origins, succinctly and accurately entitled the "Violence Trailer," epitomizes the epic-fetishism of "hardcore" video game setting, narrative, and marketing to such an astonishingly extreme degree that when I first saw it, there was a brief moment when I considered whether it could be parody.

"Think something like Mass Effect, except more...epic," imwritingsomething comments earnestly in the YouTube thread. Adds VinceM51, "If this was a movie it'd kick more ass then 300."

As time goes on, I've found that I increasingly appreciate games with a sense of restraint, even if it comes only in scattered doses. The continued potential for hilariously proposterous mayhem in Grand Theft Auto IV has been exhaustively documented. But when you're in a less anarchic mood, you can soak up the amazingly atmospheric city, cruising through the boroughs and even slowing down to pay a bridge toll -- just like a real human!

In a wackier example, the unapologetically insane No More Heroes featured ridiculous "part time job" side quests as a minor counterpart to the main course of chaotic (and tongue-in-cheek) violence. I've seen a few online complaints about their inclusion, but I got a surprising amount of enjoyment from watching protagonist Travis waddle around with armfuls of watermelons to make a few bucks.

It's unlikely many gamers have much interest in playing a game that exhaustively recreates all the minutia and mundanity of daily life for its own sake -- nor should they. But I believe there is value in at least allowing for personal (and interpersonal) interactions that are self-initiated, not explicitly tied to the player's direct goal at a given moment.

This can be reflective of a character who, even if he spends a majority of his on-screen time kicking asses and taking names, displays evidence of occasionally also doing something else.

Of course, if I had my way, there would be more games that simply exercised a broad sense of restraint to begin with, making those sharp mechanical contrasts less necessary. In Sands of Time, your only options are near-superhuman acrobatics and one- (or two-) against-the-world combat, but you never get the sense that the game is trying to actually be, well, a Bruckheimer film.

It's a hard trap to avoid in games, because it's so much the standard, and it so neatly fits into the idea of gameplay that increases in challenge or spectacle. Even BioShock, which expertly avoids feeling like a gratuitous player fantasy even while allowing the player to become quite powerful. It explores some of the most interesting themes tackled by games, can't resist falling back on an enormous, somewhat incongruous, bosstastical final boss.

Of course, the failed underwater utopia of Rapture remains one of the most well-conceived, fondly-remembered settings the medium has seen in recent memory. Like the sandy palaces of Prince of Persia or the enigmatic ruins of Ico, it evokes a sense of faded grandeur. It invites us to fill in blanks with our imagination, it creates the potential for speculation and thought, even idle thought that forms no complex theory.

Those places may not be as immediately and directly "epic" as three thousand orcs laying siege to a castle, or a battle-hardened space marine cutting through enemies in the middle of an orbital bombardment -- or a mutated agent who single-handedly lays effortless waste to whole city blocks. But they offer a different kind of enjoyment that can be a refreshing alternative to those time-tested video game tropes. It's not about combat gameplay versus non-combat gameplay; it's about restraint.

I don't believe games should aspire to be an interactive form of film, or any other medium. But that doesn't mean they can't learn something from other forms of expression, which have long understood that there is a place for the action-packed blockbusters and there is a place for smaller stories.

There is clearly a place for the latter in games as well, or I wouldn't have been able to cite examples here. There are obviously many more I could have cited. It's just that it's a disproportionately small place, and we end up with a feedback loop.

It's often unclear how to market those games or even make the proper audience aware of their existence. So if they don't sell well, publishers get frightened away from the franchise or "correct" the direction (see: Prince of Persia: Warrior Within). This then reinforces the narrow focus of traditionally-successful games, and keeps the industry within its traditional understanding that core gaming is necessarily epic and/or badass.

As for a solution, I don't have one to offer. But I suspect that as more developers with more disparate personal influences make their way into the medium, there will be an eventual, inevitable broadening of salable themes, settings, and characters in the games themselves.

There are good signs now and then: Just in the last few days, sales of the brutal yet quirky and relentlessly imaginative Zeno Clash seem to be supporting a confirmed sequel. And, if a leaked internal teaser is to be believed, Team ICO's next protagonist doesn't wield a combination sword/laser to cut down legions of his foes.

Because while it's good fun to engage in an old-fashioned epic power fantasy, it's not all that video games can do.

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