Tiger In Watercolor
Interview with Jessica Douglas
Video Game Designer Envy
Video Game Designer EnvyWombat Droppings
by Ursula Vernon
So I'm an artist and writer, as y'all may or may not be aware. And now I would like you to pull the shades and lock the doors and hunch close to the monitor, so that I can admit a shameful thing.
I totally envy video game designers.
Don't get me wrong, I don't envy the work involved. I've worked at a game company and I was married into the industry for awhile (rather like farming, game companies tend to require full spousal agreement and commitment, because it is ALWAYS crunch time) and I have absolutely no desire to work there again. I do not play well with others, and the notion of having to work with sixty or seventy other people to make my vision a reality appeals to me only slightly more than a broken glass cocktail. It's just not gonna happen.
But man, do I envy the immersiveness of the final product. (Is immersiveness a word? Spellcheck claims not. Well, it should be. You know what I mean. The involvement of the player. That.)
People just don't get that involved in art. I mean, I love art, I can stare at a good painting for... well... minutes, I guess... but compared to the sixty hours I put in on Dragon Age: Origins in my first playthrough or the hundred hours I've put in on Jade Empire over the years or Knights of the Old Republic or God of War or... well, y'know. They don't compare. Books come off a little better -- I'm a very fast reader, but I re-read, so there are some Robin McKinley books I can say I've spent forty hours with... but again, over twenty-odd years, not a month.
And time's only one aspect. The other is interactivity, and there again, video games have something that there is simply no duplicating in other media. As soon as you click the mouse to make your character walk forward, you are invested. Even if it's a terrible, terrible game, even if the interface is dreadful and the writing worse, until the moment when you throw down the controller, you're doing something. You are the one acting, not just being acted upon.
I envy that. Even in the worst game ever made -- which, by the way, was called "Big Air Wakeboarding," and I worked on it* -- you have to DO something. You don't just absorb or not, you interact, and because of your interaction, you become in some small way invested. You have to care, a little tiny bit, because you're doing something.
It's not even an emotional thing. It's a brain and muscle thing. You try to avoid the bombs and try not to die, even half-heartedly, even if you're just waiting for the microwave burrito to finish up.
There's no real equivalent with art or books. For awhile, I had some vague equivalent -- the belief that if I started a book, I must finish it -- but that stopped in mid-June the year I turned thirteen, when I attempted to read the Silmarillion.**
Even movies don't quite do it, because you're not interacting. This, I suspect, is the reason that long cut-scenes are death in games -- you're playing a game! You're DOING something! Stop making me watch cut scenes and let me stab things!
(Tangentially, there was a murder/thriller/mystery thing that was really quite good otherwise, but which had the premise that the murderer was using his victims in order to get artistic reference for the cut scenes of a video game. Fine, whatever, we'll suspend our disbelief about exactly how many polys you require to display mortal anguish and whether they managed to get the mouths right, but the book lost me when the games succeeded because of how awesome the cut scenes were. I took it back to the friend who loaned it to me, who is not a gamer, and explained exactly why "You can't skip the cut scenes!" is one of the most savage criticisms one can level at a game. I'll believe Hannibal Lector killed his way out with a ballpoint pen, sure, I even sat through the crap with the fried brain and the trained man-eating pigs, but the masses watching cut scenes twice? Pfffff.)
Now, I'm not saying books need to be interactive or anything like that, or that you can't get emotionally invested in a book. Books are fabulous, my life is spent in large part reading or writing them, and there are times when all I want is to read a good book and I have wept over books far more often than I have over video games.***
But you have to write a good book, perhaps even a great book, to get the kind of commitment from the audience that you can get with even a mediocre game. As soon as they have to walk forward or click a button, they're involved.
And damned if I don't envy that a little.
*My first and last project with that company, before they ran out of money and I stopped coming into the office.
**Could. Not. Do. It. I know that a bunch of people are booing and throwing things at the screen now, and I freely admit you're better people than I. I never finished Dune, either.
***Jade Empire, Shadow of the Colossus, and yes, I sniffled a little in the middle of Bard's Tale. And *coughmumblecoughneverwinternights2whenyourdadshowsup*
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