Pixar’s Cars movie isn’t great by any stretch. Still, there is one scene in the film, one moment, that I think pretty much puts a bullet into the brain of the current game business.
I don’t think for a minute, ala Chris Crawford, that the game business is dead. But I’ll join the chorus of respectable people suggesting that it’s high time for the videogame business to set aside firecracker visuals and get back to making interesting games.
Cars, if you haven’t seen it, is another fully digital feature film sporting cute and cuddly characters filled with whimsy and ready-made to be turned into toys and plush collectables. This time, the story follows an egotistical racecar as he learns to appreciate friendship and the qualities of the open road, blah blah blah.
On the road from self-centered NASCAR speedster to more humble competitive racer, the car falls in love with a Porsche who teaches him the beauty of the wide open, rural, American West. The climax of this little automotive love affair culminates in a frisky drive through the back roads that winds up on top a cliff. Here both cars soak in a sublime vista of an endless desert flecked with glowing towers of stone and topped with mountains of cloud suspended in an endless blue sky. The dramatic point is, “Wow, isn’t that beautiful? Doesn’t the scope and beauty of nature humble you? Shouldn’t we kiss?”
The scene itself was ripped from a million other movies, of course. Unremarkable. Hackneyed.
It was also a watershed for the rendering of virtual environments.
For the first time in a digitally animated movie the scene where the characters admire the scope and wonder of nature the scene was actually beautiful. The image on the screen did not require the viewer to suspend belief. There wasn’t a need for imaginative closure. It just was. It wouldn’t have more aesthetically pleasing if they would have matted in a picture of the Grand Canyon and sunset.
So, at that moment, the movies took over in the department of digital wonder, of creating impossibly fantastic virtual worlds.
For the pat 10 years, videogames have thrived and evolved on the simple premise that people wanted to leave behind the humdrum and check out the fantasy places created by game designers. For 10 years, whatever other innovation was going on, the core of the project was always to create more vivid virtual places for games to take place in. And while Hollywood was sort of lurching in that general direction, games put all their effort into realizing virtual places.
Ten years ago, everyone thought that George Lucas had lost his mind because he wanted to make a fully digital film. They thought he was a sell out because he had the nerve to create fully digital characters But now, ten years later, everyone is using the computer to bend reality into precisely designed solutions. Looking back, Jar Jar was just the awkward, low-browed Cro-Magnon of the evolving digital actor.
I know that it seems that cinema has a long tradition of creating virtual places. And it does. But the introduction of the digital changes, or at least moves that fantasy project forward a couple of orders of magnitude. You can build all the giant Spartacus sets you want or craft as many Star Wars miniatures you can afford, but the result always feel like an effect. In the digital world, the complete control over the outcome allows for a heightened sort of sur-reality that is both impossibly fake and yet much more believable.
And that’s why videogames were able to thrive. While Hollywood was sweetening a more or less antique product from the industrial age with a few digital bits of spit and polish here and there, games were creating entire low-poly worlds. Grand Theft Auto III was a huge hit--contrary to the red-faced proclamations of the censors who said it was all about violence—but rather because it felt like a place. It didn’t feel real, but it gave you real feelings of being some place.
Anyone who played GTA III will tell you that there comes a point in that game where you just stop and admire the place. Maybe it’s running along a beach. Or watching a sunset. Or just hanging out on the sidewalk people-watching. For me, it was the bench that sits on a bluff behind the mobster’s mansion. The bench doesn’t serve a purpose, and, due to the limits of the character animations programmed in, you can’t even sit on it. But just standing there, watching the water, I wasn’t playing a game anymore, I was experiencing something beautiful.
Game designers seemed to implicitly understand this appeal, and kept working on flashing up their graphics and expanding the size of their game arenas to make them interesting places. And for a while this worked. These digital Xanadus drew in the crowds in growing numbers.
Eventually Hollywood would strike back. It got some early jabs in, drawing blood with flicks like the Lord of the Rings. But I think it struck deep and hit bone with that scene in cars.
I suppose it was inevitable. Hollywood is about image. They have a huge infrastructure for crafting image. And once they got over some of their basic apprehension about the digital realm, it was only a matter of time until they just pulled their ample resources into a focus on making the most lovely, heart wrenchingly beautiful and exotic places you could imagine.
What this means to videogames is this: Games cannot compete on a visual basis anymore. Hollywood has arrived to create more interesting visual worlds, and people will be as happy to explore those worlds from an inert and non-interactive theater seat as they are from the business end of a joystick or keyboard. We may not have over-estimated the potentials of interactivity. But it seems sort of obvious that we have overestimated how much interactivity people need when it comes to experiencing new worlds. Just ask Disney on this subject. They’ve been shoving millions of people down rail tracks through fantastic worlds for 50 years without much of a worry about interaction. And the lines just get longer.
Over the next ten years, World of Warcraft and whatever comes after it, wont grow because it looks more wonderful. No, it’s going to have to be more interesting, more complex and give players more reason to, well, play. Unfortunately, with all the traffic around the “HD era” I suspect that developers and publishers will step off onto the wrong foot this generation, and stumble badly before they realize that the future of games is in play, not in pushing more pixels to an HDTV screen.