I was at a Q&A after a screening for Another Earth and the Lead Actress/Cowriter Brit Marling made a really interesting comment that I feel applies almost more to games than to movies.  Someone in the audience said that the movie was far more thought provoking and challenging then the very traditional SciFi feel of the trailer would lead you to believe.  Her response was that the big budget Hollywood movies have gone for spectacle over substance and she wanted to make something different.  She wanted to make something that would force you to ask yourself questions and that she used the SciFi elements to help facilitate your self exploration.  After she said those words I knew that was what I had been trying to articulate for a long time.

I want to make substance over spectacle.

My day job is to work directly on the base Unreal Engine in various capacities and so my work ends up in a lot of other games.  Unfortunately most of the games made with Unreal fall very neatly into the spectacle category.  Some disregard substance entirely.  While I have no objection to people making those games and I enjoy playing them from time to time, I feel like they are dominating the marketplace and that bothers me.

Often I will be in a conversation with non-gamers, attempting to defend the industry as having some worth beyond just a good/bad way to waste some time.  These conversations often lead to questions about finding artistic worth in games like GTA or Mortal Kombat or sometimes even WoW and I usually respond with we are more then our court cases and our addiction problems.  The market is so much broader and there are so many titles with interesting social and self commentary that make the player better for having played them and the society better for having supported that artistic work.  I try to make the case for the medium I work in and love, and I fail.  I’ve tried to come up with a game, just a single game, that I feel has said something of worth and import (even if it’s a well developed theme for narratives used in other mediums) and has impacted my life and society for the better.  Maybe one exists, maybe you feel you have a collection of games that match that criteria, but I can’t think of one.

I’ve had games that have moved me to feel a range of emotions and I’ve felt for characters that are suffering loss, but it’s always seemed removed from my personal life experiences.  I’ve never felt that I might want to change my choices or my life because of a video game.

When I was younger and I read Atlas Shrugged there was a scene where ***spoilers*** John Galt allows his creations to be destroyed to keep them from falling into the hands of the government he was fighting against. ***spoilers***  That act has changed and challenged my thoughts about intellectual property, both created by others and by myself.  Numerous other scenes from that book had long lasting impacts on my political and moral views and still do to this day.

Other completely disparate examples from a different medium might be Eternal Sunshine or 12 Angry Men.  Both obviously different types of movies with different ideas and concepts in focus, but both strongly challenged myself and my values.

This is not to mention the exhaustive collection of biographies, documentaries, and other non-fictional works that have impacted my life in countless ways.  All of these things combined, make our society better by challenging our norms and our ideas and forcing us to confront ourselves as human beings.  They force us to decide what path will make us better people and whether we want to follow that path or not.  In my mind, these are the things worth doing and as an industry we have failed to challenge or inspire or push anyone beyond the spectacular into the substantive.

Before I get too far along I want to say something about GTA and MW2 and all the games that are “challenging our moral values” currently.  The argument that putting us in situations like the “shoot the civilians in an airport” scene or the “here’s a city and a gun, do what you want” plots are challenging us morally seems ridiculous to me.  Not one of us will likely ever be in a situation like that and even if we were we wouldn’t treat it the same as a video game.  Playing GTA or MW2 does not enable you to make wiser choices later if you should happen to find yourself in a similar situation.  It, hopefully, does not educate your system of morality and I doubt it even challenges you to be a better person, it just reinforces a societal norm that violence is fun when it doesn’t actually hurt real people.

With that out of the way, why have we failed at this?  Have we failed to follow through because of an individual failure to use the medium towards those ends.  Is it a lack of accepting culture that enforces and rewards low substance standards.  Or is it that the medium itself is just incapable of delivering that same self reflection we recieve from these other, more mature art forms.

I don’t believe that the medium is incapable of delivering important life changing messages, and I will continue to not believe it until someone can convince me otherwise.  I feel like the culture we live in does predominantly support spectacle over substance, but it’s not enough to just scapegoat the average consumer.  While Transformers does really well at the box office, so does Eternal Sunshine.  Big blockbuster movies can be influential, meaningful, insightful films that make us question ourselves and change who we are, and still bring in more than enough money to justify the production costs.  Films also cost way more to make (currently at least) and have larger teams working on them, so cost and manpower isn’t holding that industry back.  Yet we still don’t have documentaries or biographies or powerful, life changing fiction in games, we just have 20 new shooter sequels, a new Madden, and a new music game with another peripheral to buy.  Why?

I don’t know.

Part of it may be a lack of funding for new ideas and untested IP.  It may be what seems to be the common managerial style of people with money driving the development and changing focus and ideas at will (and usually for monetary reasons).  There’s also the possibility that there are too many creative people with too many conflicting ideas making too many compromises, so that the final product isn’t as focused and challenging as when it started.

With books it’s easy to see why these wouldn’t be issues (generally speaking) since typically a book is written by one person and often times (maybe more so in the past) without any promise of getting published.  Sure the editing process once you do get a publisher will probably change some things, but it takes a lot more for a publisher and an author to agree to change something when there’s an almost finished work in front of them, then when there’s a prototype for a game that will take two more years to finish.

Although the exact opposite can be said for movies since most require a publisher to sign on early and fund the entire operation and there is no shortage of creative types working on a film.  So how have they managed this?  How do they release life changing films?  I don’t work in movies so I have no idea, but we should probably start taking notes.  I feel like having a single director in charge of the direction of a project is a key piece of the puzzle, but it’s not the only one.  Kojima is even listed explicitly as a director on some of his games and while they usually tell a story fairly well, I’ve never felt the need to question my core being or my morality because of it.


So I don’t have any answers, but I do like raising questions.  I’m interested to know what your thoughts are and if you agree with anything I’ve said.  Please feel free to post all the games you think have changed your life and how they’ve impacted your life below and feel free to tell me that I’m taking this too seriously and I should just shoot some things.