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Multimedia works and the “weakest link” principle

Things Ain’t How They Used to Be

A long time ago, I read an article on the internet that wondered about how great all the movies used to be. In the forties, it said, all the movies were so good and now, most are terrible. This, of course, is completely false. This was written before the term “blog” was even introduced and was probably the words of someone who was then very young. A much more likely hypothesis is that bad works tend to be forgotten and that time is an very effective (though sometimes unfair) quality filter.

But still, are there really films of the quality of Casablanca these days? Or, my personal Hollywood favorite, The Maltese Falcon? It not possible to objectively quantify quality, but most people would agree that something is missing to most contemporary films. They have better image quality, better special effects, in many ways they have much more polished acting, more sophisticated editing; they’re shown in bigger, better theaters and even home media is of better quality than most theatrical releases of their time. Surely, we can pull off another movie of the quality of Casablanca, right? But if so, why hasn’t it happened?

This question brings to mind other issues. The apparent low quality of the average movie is not an isolated occurrence. In the same vein, why are so many video games bad? Why are so many Broadway musicals so embarrassingly silly? Did culture peak just a few decades ago? Have we just gone by our equivalent of Ancient Greece’s turn of the 6th century B.C.E.?

Well, I for one don’t think so. Talent abounds. Similarly, our demands in term of what constitutes quality have also risen sharply. To get back to Casablanca as an example, from a purely logical point of view, its story makes absolutely no sense. If a similar story were released today, it would be mocked by any educated critic and blogger. But most likely, before that occurred, its script would be altered to make up for these mistakes. These alterations would most likely severely hinder the suspension of disbelief that the film allows. Some of its sense of idealism and romance is not restrained but is in fact exacerbated by the logical blurriness of its plot.

Bigger is Better, Except When It’s Not

This consideration about Casablanca‘s plot is not the only aspect that would probably not escape the judgement of a modern viewer. In fact, each aspect of a work of fiction or a work of art is condemned until exonerated by today’s standards. And here  is the crux of the problem: the greater number of  media types one uses in a single work, the more one exposes it to points of failure.

Let’s take the example of a musical comedy on stage based on high quality non-musical play. The musical has all the good elements of the original, plus some good music and choreography. In all logic, it should be better. But in reality, that’s rarely the case.

First, let’s look into the hypothetical original. Why was it successful? It had a good text, good acting, good direction, good sets, good sound, good costumes, good lighting and was staged in a good theatre. Now, one could break this down even further. What constitutes a good text? What makes a good theater? But bear with me for now.

Here comes the musical adaptation. It’s much more complicated to stage. In all likelihood, it will require more stage performers who sing and dance, it will require choreography and voice direction, lyrics and music. Let’s say one of these are bad. Let’s say it’s very bad. That would usually mean the whole show it bad. A musical with bad music is a bad musical, no matter how good the text, acting and costumes are. If the music is bad, the whole show is bad.

Now you can explain that really, if you stop and consider how good the text and the costume and the actors are, independently from the music, you’ll find spectacular quality. And that may be true. And you’ll probably be able to convince people. But the overall show will still be bad.

Each time a new type of media is added, the number of parts that can go wrong increases. And it does not increase linearly, it increases exponentially. Adding special effects to a film does not only add the need for special effects to be good, it also requires their aesthetic to be consistent with the overall aesthetic of the whole film, it requires the live performers to know how to work inside of a partially virtual environment and for their direction to be adequately guided in relation for that.

Each medium is not self-contained but affects every other. Any addition complicates every other aspect. If everything is done well, a new medium will add to the overall experience, but if any  single aspect is done poorly, it can ruin everything. I remember when Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace was released, among its numerous criticisms was the fact that the font used for its subtitles was inconsistent with the one used in the previous films. I remember it bothered me, and I was not that much of a fan.

This is the weakest link principle: a multimedia work of art or fiction is only ever as good as its least well used medium. And the more media there are, and the more they are intertwined, the more harshly that rule applies.

A video game with a bad interface is a bad video game, no matter how good the rest of the game is. A play staged on a badly lit stage is a bad stage experience, no matter how good the rest of it is. A TV show with with bad camerawork is a bat TV show, no matter how good the acting or the lines.

The Space Captain and the Orphan Girl

Let me now quickly plug two TV shows I love: Babylon 5 and Candy Candy.

Babylon 5Babylon 5 was a TV series created by J. Michael Straczynski. It first aired between 1994 and 1998. It is not very popular among the general public, but was extremely influential on television writing overall. This  is mostly because of the huge focus that Babylon 5 placed on continuity and character development at a time where most TV series tried to make every episode self-contained. On most TV shows, at the end of each episode, the series was reset to the situation where it was at the beginning. On Babylon 5, however, most episodes took place within a story arc and the overall series plot evolved within the episode and the differences made in the world were permanent.

For example, on Star Trek: The Next Generation, the first officer of the Enterprise, William Riker, meets several women along the course of the series with whom he forms romantic entanglements. They are usually never referred to again in subsequent episodes. In Babylon 5, when the the character Londo Mollari forms a romantic attachment with a woman, Adira, not only is it never forgotten but eventually used against him as leverage later on in the series.

The complex and subtle nature of the series’ plotlines, the number of intertwining stories, the way they were kept in balance with one another is unprecedented tour de force for television, one that led the way for other television series from that point on to eschew the reset format of self-contained episodes in favor of a continuity systems. For example, this influences dramatic series that might otherwise have placed much less emphasis on continuity like Buffy the Vampires Slayer (1997-2003) or ER (1994-20014). It also influenced sitcoms like Friends (1994-2004) or Sex and the City (1998-2004), which show a degree of focus on continuity very rarely seen in previous instances of the format, frequently referring to events of previous episodes, rewarding faithful viewers at the possible expense of casual ones. This was much more prevalent in later seasons of both Friends and Buffy.

And yet, Babylon 5 was, in many respects, a bad series. Some of its dialog was poor. The phrase “Most amusing,” for example, was often used by many characters even though it often fell flat. Some of the acting was, by any measure, poor, while some was excellent. Some sets, costumes and special effects were below-par. Many of that can be explained by the relatively low budget of the series. On average, each episode of Babylon 5 cost half as much as an episode of a Star Trek series produced around that time. But explanations, as explained earlier in this post don’t matter. The fact of the matter is many aspects of Babylon 5 are simply sub-par.

The anime version of the main character of Candy Candy: Candy White Ardlay

A similar assessment can be made of the 1970s anime series Candy Candy, which originally ran from 1976 to 1979 in Japan. The series was a gigantic success in almost all of the countries where it was aired. The only two exceptions were the United Kingdom and the United States, the two countries where the whole of the story takes place.

That success came even though the series was produced extremely quickly. The animation is choppy and there are many factual inaccuracies. Books in English are bound on the right, like Japanese books and not on the left, American servants bow to their employers like Japanese servants, family structures are very hierarchical in way that very foreign to the Western world in which the series is supposed to take place. And yet from South America to East Asia the series was extremely popular with extremely devoted fans throughout Europe.

The flaws in Candy Candy were not limited to the series itself but continued with its distribution. The series was often very badly dubbed. In many cases, the dub was translated not from the original Japanese but from the Italian dub: Silvio Berlusconi’s media group, MediaSet used to buy the rights for Japanese animation, cheaply dub them and resell the Italian language versions to be re-dubbed. This included Candy Candy.

And so it seems that my weakest link theory has been proven wrong. Despite their array of flaws and imperfections, Babylon 5 and Candy Candy seem to be two perfect examples of works of fiction whose qualities made up for their flaws. But is this really the case? Maybe not.

Finding Hal Wallis

Getting back to Casablanca, where is our modern-day equivalent of it, if it can and therefore must exist?

Again, there is a lot of subjectivity involved in ranking works in terms of overall quality. That said, I have an opinion on the matter. It would be silly to name names here, as any specific example would be besides the point, but whatever more or less lines up with some of the Hal Wallis classics nowadays would probably be a high-polish independent work. (Actually, the game Don’t Starve as well as the film Primer by Shane Carruth comes to mind.) However, being independent, they are, by their very nature, distinct from classical works in their overall status.

We are much more likely to accept imperfections in something that is not touted as being the state of the art: artisan bread is supposed to unevenly textured, handmade pottery is not supposed to be decorated in a perfectly symmetrical way. Their roughness becomes an asset rather than a flaw.

But then, what about the inaccuracies in Casablanca? Well, in all fairness, they were never inaccuracies for their intended audience. The vast majority of moviegoers in the forties did not care about such details. And now, the movie has become a classic and this, rather than exacerbate its flaws, transforms them into artifacts of their time: something to be loved and treasured.

What then of Babylon 5 and Candy Candy? They were not classics when they were first aired. And they were certainly flawed.

Well, yes, but their imperfections contributed to their suspension of disbelief. The were coherently imperfect. It sounds unfair and maybe it is unfair, but it works. Had they been polished in all aspects but one, than one rough aspect would have ruined the whole series. But they were rough all over. Their incredible qualities existed not in spite of that roughness but within it. The bad dialog never got in the way of Straczynski’s subtle politics. The silly and incoherent translations did not in fact create obstacles for Candy’s journey through a completely impossible and inaccurate America but made the world she explored more acceptable on the surface of the canvas it was set up on. It’s a work where everything is a little off to begin with, so nitpicking is by definition pointless.

Fiction, art and entertainment are not literal. Through their many layers of allegory and figurative meanings, it’s easy to lose track of what’s what. I maintain that my weakest link principle holds. But the weakest link in that figurative chain has to really be a weakest link. It has to stand out from the rest in terms of its quality as well as its nature. A link made of paper is not the weakest link on a paper chain.

The next question is: will some technical aspects of the current big budget film industry fade away or are they here all to stay? The question is not as absurd as it seems. There are still black-and-white films being made today. Miyazaki’s Ponyo on the Cliff was made entirely without computer graphics. It is not inconceivable that there might exist at some point in the future a trend to make big works of screen entertainment that boast little or no digital trickery and adopt a style closer to the more naive one of classic Hollywood, may it be for cultural reasons or, more likely, for financial ones: there are new kinds of media competing with feature films in the limited realm of paid entertainment.

I don’t actually think this is going to happen, though, or, to be more precise, if it is going to happen, it’s not going to happen that way. The aesthetic motivation is most likely simply too weak. As for the proliferation of different media, I do think it will continue to increase, making the more popular ones diminish their reliance on expensive and superficially spectacular feats. But even that is a long shot.

Treasure Your Medium: Agatha Christie and Game Design

Spoilers ahead. Sorry.

I love Agatha Christie. I mean I don’t just really like her work, I LOVE what she does and how she does it. I don’t love all of her works, but when she does it right, she’s among the best the world has ever know.

There are many reasons why Agatha Christie was so good at what she did. But, as far as I could tell, one of the main reasons is that she treasured her medium. She did not write play-like books, or movie-like plays or novel-like plays. When she was working with a medium she took the best she could out of it. Others do this as well, but the topic of Agatha Christie’s novels make her efforts more visible than many others’.

Let me illustrate with a few examples. First of all, Appointment With Death. This is a famous novel of hers, adapted into a wonderful film, very faithful to the book. At the end, Poirot reveals that the murderer is (shock!) the last person anyone suspected. In both the novel and in the film it’s based on, Poirot explains in detail his reasoning and how and why he gets to his inevitable solution.

The first play Agatha Christie worked on was Alibi, based on what is arguably her masterpiece, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. She was not satisfied at all with that play and proceeded to write her own stage adaptations from then on. For Appointment With Death, she realized that Poirot’s monologues and complex deductions were fascinated to her fans in the novel, but would be tedious to wach on stage: it would then be little more than people standing still while one of them was talking. So not only did she change the solution to the mystery (hint: the only even less likely suspect in the play) but she removed Poirot altogether. In the play, some of the remaining characters, a pair of romantically entangled young people in particular, figure the solution out by talking to each other and comparing views on the events. This is a dynamic, dramatic, visually and psychologically compelling way of presenting the solution, a way that is perfectly suited to the stage. A way that embraces the medium.

Why then did the story of the novel work on film? Films are in many ways closer to novels than to stage plays. Not in every way, of course, but certainly in way that matter here: they can punctuate long speeches with flashbacks (murder mysteries often do that) or with reaction shots. They can emphasize how dramatic a specific part of the speech is with close-ups or camera movements. Plays don’t have these tools. They have other advantages, but none of them would have allowed Agatha Christie to make Poirot’s monolgues enjoyable on stage. So she accepted the limitations of her medium.

Another work by Agatha Christie that stars a young couple as the detective character is one of my all-time favorites: Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?. In that novel, at the very beginning, our young hero, Bobby, finds in the middle of a golf course (brace yourself) a dead body! In a panic, he searches the body and pulls out of a pocket a photograph of a woman. He finds her rather plain. Later on, there is a police examination and Bobby’s co-hero, Frankie, also gets to see the photograph that was in the dead body’s pocket. But she finds the woman in it beautiful. When the two of them try to figure out what is going on in this complicated story, they actually go so far as to argue over that detail. Frankie goes so far as to accuse Bobby of being too choosy when it came to women, an acccusation that Bobby has to take seriously given the tangled nature of his relationship with Frankie. Much later, it turns out that there were two photographs in the pocket. Bobby saw one and that same one got removed from the body before the police got to it. Frankie saw the other. The nature of the narrative text allowed Agatha Christie to describe both photograph in the same language while sounding specific but in fact being vague enough that her reader did not suspect that she was describing two distinct items.

Returning to the stage, Agatha Christie’s stage masterpiece is certainly The Mousetrap, the longest-running play in the world. In it, the main murder takes place on stage in front of everyone. The audience is in front of the whole thing without any visual obstacle between them and the very crime they’re a witness to, but not only can’t they communicate any of it to the characters, the stage is set in such a way that what the audience does see is no real help at all as who did it. The trick is so simple that I won’t ruin it by revealing it here, but it would not work on film, radio or in a novel: The Mousetrap is made for the stage only and only works on the stage.

As for Agatha Christie’s overall masterpiece, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, which has been adapted in movies, TV series, plays and comic books, it too uses its medium to the fullest. Most adaptations try to work around how Ms. Christie takes advantage of the narrated word, but often only attempt to do so in vain. It may work, but it cannot feel as smooth as with simple narration.

Agatha Christie did not just accept her medium but she treasured it. When she set herself up to write a play, she did not try to make it “cinematic” or “like an epic novel,” she made a play that would give her audience an experience that only a play can give. And she was right to do so.

When it comes to games and interactive media, for me, the master of that skill was and still is Ron Gilbert. The way he uses dialog trees creates humor that could not exist in any other way. The two games I enjoyed the most in the recent months, Portal and Braid do similar things. Would Portal, even just its story, work nearly as well in another medium? One trick that works in Portal — whether it is intentional or not — is that, unlike in film, in games we are really usually guided by pre-recorded voices. In that way, the way we are introduced to GLaDOS is perfectly believable. This would not be the case in a film: we would expect a film to polish everything Aperture’s AI says. At the beginning of Portal, the game, we may know that the audio problems of the GLaDOS AI are placed there by Valve, but we are ready to believe that, even within the story, they are just events triggered by Chell’s actions because, well, that’s how games work. The sort of metastory or metastructure that comes out of finding out that GLaDOS scrambles her own messages with static comes as a surprise in the game in a way that would not make sense in the same way in any other medium. Furthermore, this revelation is meaningful in the game: it’s an essential part of how we progressively learn the true nature of GLaDOS, but also, in part, the true nature of what Portal itself is.

If Agatha Christie knew how to accept the limitations of her media and to embrace what made them special, there is no reason why we should not do the same. We may be filmmakers and writers and musicians but when we’re making games, we’re making games and that’s the essence of what we’re doing, just not a cast made after the fact, or an afterthought, but, I repeat, the essence of what we must do.

Why I want to make games

Here at the ETC, a very informative and charismatic speaker asked the students, “Why do you want to work in this field.” This field was video games. In her mind, it most likely was in the AAA industry, but maybe she meant video games in general. I had a looming impression that my answer would be too convoluted to fit in the succinct Q and A format we were in, so I kept quiet. Now that time have passed and I have somehow managed to brush my thoughts into a coherent set of threads, I will answer here.

In short: classics.

Interactive media are in their infancy. We may have come a very, very long way since the seventies, but that’s certain to be only the first few steps of a longer journey still. We’re where the Western novel was in the eighteenth century, where the theatre was in the Renaissance, where painting was in the Middle Ages. We’re still in the times classics are being made.

When I got into Carnegie Mellon, I most likely had a choice between the ETC and Dramatic Writing. In many ways, Dramatic Writing tempted me more, but the ETC seemed to be the right choice. An argument I heard a lot if favor of the ETC is that it would make me much more employable that Dramatic Writing. It would have been a blatant display of a superficial character not to take such an important and practical aspect in consideration. But that was not it.

Why would I have gone into Dramatic Writing? Because I love television. Writing in American television blows my mind, not in every instance, of course, but definitely in most respects. But then what? Let’s say I make it television, for the sake of argument. I get a small job as a story editor on a mediocre show. Then another, then another. Then I get a job as a story editor in a good show. Then another. Then I become a lead writer for that show. Then for another. Then, at last I am given my own show. Even if my new show is a success at that point, what then? I will not be like David E. Kelley, or Aaron Sorkin, or Chuck Lorre. Those people will have moved on by then. And with the Internet and (duh) video games taking center stage, where will television be like by then?

Whereas here, in this medium, I have the opportunity, maybe, someday, with a lot of work, a lot of luck and a bit of faith, to be like the David E. Kelley or the Chuck Lorre of video games. I don’t know if games, or interactive entertainment, or whatever one feels like calling them, are where novels were in the eighteenth century. Maybe they are where novels were in the nineteenth century: big, bold, formulaic behemoths of literature about to gain some level of respectability in the arts. Or maybe that’s where games were in t he eighties and we’ve reached the moderns in games. Maybe our independent games will turn out to have been the Virgina Woolfs or the Prousts of the medium. I don’t know. Maybe one of use will be the Agatha Christie of the medium. Given the opportunity, if earned, I’d take that title with more pride I could express here.

The important things is that games are lagging a lot behind most media and that’s normal and we should embrace it and take it as an opportunity to do great things and to be great for it. Interactive entertainment is where the future is still very likely to be shinier, more beautiful, more challenging, more intriguing, more delightful than the present. And I want to be part of that, in some respect.

First ETC project: sound for a trailer

I picked Metroid: Other M, in great part because I’d never played a Metroid game since the eighties.

This trailer and its accompanying sounds are used under the fair use policy for educational purposes. No copyright infringement is intended. If you believe that the material presented in this video infringes on your rights, please contact me about it.

Are Video Games Art? (part 1)

This question is asked more and more around me. Whether or not video games are art is a point often brought up in both Yahtzee Croshaw’s Zero Punctuation and the excellent video column from the same site, Extra Credits. I had no clear intention to actually give a final answer to this question when I began this first post. At first, I just wanted to take the question apart to, as it were, see what it is made of. After doing that I did come to the answer: “Are video games are? Definitely maybe. Or perhaps certainly probably. It depends.”

Before we go any further, I really need to point out that I am not an artist. I don’t create art. I am not an art expert; I am not an art dealer. I’m just somehow interested and curious about the matter. Any inaccuracy one may find in this post will be welcome, as long as it is somehow constructive.

Art and entertainment

So, before jumping to conclusions, let’s carefully consider the question. It reminds me, first of all, of a line in Federico Fellini’s , when, running after the main character, movie director Guido Anselmi, played by Marcello Mastroianni, a critic asks, “Is cinema art or entertainment?” My first reaction to that question is: how is art not entertainment.

That last question may seem rhetorical in tone. I really don’t mean it that way. I ask it that way as sneaky entrapment to those who like to accuse someone asking this of being philistine by bringing up the very possibility that art and entertainment are the exact same thing. Phrased differently, “How is art not entertainment” could mean, “Art is just a form of entertainment.” Some would pounce on that sentence to accuse the one saying it (in this case me) of being a philistine. If that is what you thought, I’m on to you.*

What I really meant was, “In what way is art not entertainment?” There is a part of entertainment in art. People are willing to pay to enjoy it. Some pay to own works of art, but if you pay to go to a museum, or to go to the symphony or to a rock concert, chances are that one of the many roles of that act is to relieve you of some amount of boredom. That is one way to define entertainment. I’m not denying that art is much more than that. I’m actually stating it outright: art is much more than that. But some works of art, particularly works of art that are structured around a narrative, certainly comprise elements of both.

A designer friend of mine once asked me, “Do you know what the difference is between art and design.” I gave the correct answer without an instant of hesitation: “No, I don’t know.” He told me it was that design adds an aesthetic to something that already has a practical purpose and that art has no reason to be other than itself. For example, if your computer is beautiful and sleek, it’s design. If you keep it on a shelf long after it’s become obsolete because it’s just so beautiful, it’s art. (I have an Mac G4 cube I keep that way.) Another example, if a urinal is well designed, it has a simple aesthetic that doesn’t clash with its purpose. If a urinal is in a museum under the name, “Fountain,” chances are it would be in bad taste to actually go ahead and use it.

Why do I bring that up? In part because according to the definition I just gave, design and art are exclusive from one another. Even if they use the same techniques and tools, one cannot be both one and the other. Note that this definition is not absolute. You may choose to consider that design is subsection of art, but that wouldn’t really change much: there would still be a dichotomy, just not the same one. In that case, some works of art would clearly be in the subsection “design” and some would not.

When it comes to art and entertainment, I would argue that there is, on the contrary, a gigantic overlap. If one takes films like the aforementioned or Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, or Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, there will be, I hope, little objection to their being called works of art. So here, I’m asking: is their artistic aspect and their entertainment aspect parallel? Or are the two different aspects of one thing? Or, if I were to put in a corny, proverbial way, two sides of one coin?

Not a definition of art

So, are video games art? If any of you at this stage are thinking, “Wait a second, you’ve given examples of works of art, and you’ve defined design and entertainment but not art! You sneaky weasel! Why have you not defined art yet?” Then, I defer to your good judgement. I don’t think that any definition of art can be made both wide enough to accommodate all instances of art in the world and at the same time narrow enough to actually keep any sort of relevance.

So where does this leave me? This time I’ll defer to Freud and psychoanalysis in general, where one of the main elements that contribute to classifying a neurosis as pathological is its lack of social acceptability. If you are particularly vain and insecure, it may be a form of neurosis, but it may not be pathological. If you have a strong compulsion to take off all of your clothes in all of public places, it is.

The aspect of that definition that relies on context fits my point about art. What art is, too, depends on context. Would Andy Warhol’s cans of soup have been art in the nineteenth century? How about during the Italian fifteenth century renaissance? Let’s take another example and say that Kazimir Malevich‘s Black Square fell in a time machine and fall into fifteenth century Italy then someone finds  the painting and claims it as his own. Would his contemporaries be impressed? Would they consider it art? It’s unlikely that it would have been considered so outside of its context. This is an example — however crude may it be — of how art is dependent on context and on social acceptance. In some cases, art may even depend on social rejection. When Duchamp made a urinal into a work of art in 1917, part of artistic gesture was that it was scandalous. Nowadays, scandal is in many ways integrated into the concept of artistic merit. When an artist tries to be scandalous, we consider that it’s part of what artist are and we let it to the more conservative groups to be offended by saying that any deviation from the most conventional definition of how one should lead one’s life in “not art.” In any of those cases, the constant is a strong link to a social context.