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Dhruin March 2nd, 2007 23:46

Obsidian Entertainment - Blog Updates @ Official Site
 
On the Obsidian blogs, Rob McGinnis continues to pump out the toolset info and Josh Sawyer writes his second piece, this time discussing writing and mature themes in games:
Quote:

A lot of game developers are really concerned about games not being taken "seriously". It's always been my opinion that if you have to ask for someone to take you seriously, you are not worthy of serious attention. If people find your content to be meritous, merit will be given. My concern about the lack of mature themes in games is personal. I think most games have uninteresting stories that explore irrelevant or trite subjects and they are really boring as a result. I don't care about pitting technology against nature; it's a trite theme. If it hadn't been explored in dozens of games already, it might be interesting. I don't care about focusing on high-level concepts like the "nature" of good and evil; it's far removed from anything I deal with on a daily basis and it is usually discussed in an explicit, heavily didactic manner.
More information.

Corwin March 2nd, 2007 23:46

Josh is certainly becoming a cynical old bore!! Good grief, they're GAMES he's talking about, not RL. If you can afford to buy the game, plus the PC capable of running it, then poverty isn't really an issue for you. Should it be? YES, in RL, but not in a game. Actually some of these issues have been dealt with in games; Fallout comes to mind, but rpg's, don't naturally lend themselves to these issues. Sims and to a lesser extent perhaps Strategy type games could focus on JS's concerns.

Is the writing shallow? Of course it is, with a few notable exceptions. Some of the Ultimas, PS-T and Fallout are good examples of solid, depth exploring writing, but most games are dressed up H&S dungeon crawls. So what!!!! If that's what people want to play, then that's what devs will make. Sure, I'm Old Skule and I want more than that, but I'm a niche market and there's not enough money there for the big guys. If I want a great story and mental stimulation, I have to read a good book, rather than play a game. I wish it were not so, but I can't see things changing much in the near future, can YOU!!

magerette March 3rd, 2007 04:16

As always, Josh Sawyer has a lot of interesting thoughts, and I like the way he tries to come at things from a different perspective but I think he's setting his bar pretty high if he thinks the "serious" topics he mentions are going to be effective in a game:


Quote:

Why doesn't anyone make a game about poverty? Why doesn't anyone make a game about capitalism and the rights of laborers under it? Why doesn't anyone make a game about racism?
because it wouldn't be any fun to play?

He seems to realize this when he then says:

Quote:

…People don't want to talk about things like poverty or racism or the pros and cons of a capitalist society — because they suck.
and if these topics are seldom explored to any purpose in films and literature, how much less effective would a game be?

On the whole I prefer a quote from the interview with the dev at Gamecock:

“But I do completely disagree with …the idea that this industry needs to “grow up.” This industry needs to lighten up. We make games. "

Geist March 3rd, 2007 09:50

I don't agree that the sorts of mature themes Sawyer mentions would necessarily be ill-suited or ineffective in games. I think RPGs are ideally suited for this purpose and many of them already explore issues such as slavery, rebellion and the clash of cultures, but sadly they treat these topics in a highly superficial manner. There's no fundamental rule stating that most people only want action and simplistic cliched narratives. This view is constantly cultivated and reinforced by the games industry, but is it an accurate reflection of human nature, or merely an attitude that we've become conditioned to accept?
If you feed a dog nothing but bones and he gobbles them down happily, that alone is no reason to infer that he wouldn't like them even more if they had some meat on them.

Planescape:T is often held up as a game that provided a greater than average level of depth, but wasn't embraced by the general gaming market. But, PT is only one example. The Ultimas, on the other hand, were very successful. There are precious few examples of rpgs we can refer to that make a genuine attempt to tackle complex themes and engage the emotions and ethics of the player; not enough, in my view, to decisively conclude whether the addition of such features would be beneficial or detrimental to a game's commercial success.
That said, if a game like The Witcher manages to deliver state of the art visuals, a fun combat system, and rewarding gameplay, I can't imagine that the addition of mature narrative and complex moral choices would detract from the game experience.

abbaon March 3rd, 2007 10:42

Quote:

Originally Posted by Geist (Post 21334)
There's no fundamental rule stating that most people only want action and simplistic cliched narratives. This view is constantly cultivated and reinforced by the games industry, but is it an accurate reflection of human nature, or merely an attitude that we've become conditioned to accept?

Perhaps neither. Like you, I don't believe that morally ambiguous scenarios or realistic motivations would necessarily harm the sales of a game. I think that the average game writer throws you into endless battles of good vs evil, pitting you against cardboard villains with no better reason for their actions than a lust for power, because he's not very good at his job. Better writing will follow the inflow of better writers to the industry.

Mind you, I would be the first in line to not play "a game about poverty". Forget that.

aries100 March 3rd, 2007 12:52

Actually, I happen to agree with mr. Sawyer….

But I also feel the need to point that in games such as Baldur's Gate 1, there was a brothel, where you could free the prostitues, iirc. In ICWD 1, there were a slave pen, where some race (the yanti) held people captive. IN BG2, there also was a slave pen, where you also could free the slaves. And also in BG2, there were the
svirfneblins who were forced to work against their will; you could also help free them.

I think maybe the good Mr. Sawyer has forgotten Morrowind (and Oblivion) and how the Dunmers hate (sort of) other races like he has forgotten that one of the finer points in MW main story, iirc, is whether or not, you will free the slaves.

I agree that as of yet we can't talk about slavery & poverty & labourer's right in realistic terms. Therefore wee need to talk of these things when they are set in
a fantasy setting like the narrative structure in BG1 or Planescape Torment.

But maybe, just maybe we could make games about real things, conflicts and interests. I know that there is a game being made in Denmark by Deadline
Games which features a journalist in the Middle East conflict. The main mission is to get as much information as possible from both sides of the conflict. I also know that Red Cross as well as the United Nations have games which features how to get aid to people that has just been through catastrophes such as the tsunami of late 2004.

I also think that the main plot outline in NWN2 touches a bit about on poverty as you are just a farm boy, who happens to be in the right spot at the right time when something is happening. The same goes for the main plot in Dungeon Siege 1.

However, I would certainly think that adventure game that features an investigative reporter uncovering child labor, slave labor an underpaid labor,
would be a very cool idea.

Ionstormsucks March 3rd, 2007 16:40

Well, personally I think that games are a form of entertainment that isn't really suited to cope with topics like racism, slavery, religion, politics, etc. on a complex level. There are very few movies that are able to do that… so I seriously doubt a game could do it. There are a few series that tried to do it - Star Trek comes to mind - but as much as enjoyed watching an episode from time to time, their discussion of "mature" topics alwayas made me grin, and I just couldn't take it seriously. Most of these topics are just way to complicated to put them at the core of a game. Take religion for example… ask the political leaders of different religions how one should treat members of another religion - they will all tell you that you should treat them with respect and tolerance. Then have a look at the situation how it really is, and you'll see that it is just not that easy.
I fear that especially topics like religion, racism, culture, etc. would only be presented in an environment of political correctness that does not mirror realities. It also has some kind of educational touch that some people might reject. Personally I would feel very offended if a game tried to educate me.

As far as I understood Saywer, he really wants some in-depth discussion of such named themes, which does not only offer a black, and a white side, but also shades of grey. But I think that is fairly impossible. One who places themes like these at a core of a game will find himself, sooner or later, forced to voice an opinion. You might try to be objective, but I doubt you'll succeed since these are highly emotional topics. You cannot discuss the war in Iraq without giving an opinion… at least not for long. At least the danger of not being objective is always there.

Another problem is that games often take place in other worlds, universes, etc. Therefore complec topics could only be discussed on an allegoric or pseudo-perallel level. I consider that a very bad thing since the danger of simplification is obvious.

The main problem however lies in the mechanic of games itself. Games are interactive - they make you, the player, act. However, If you want to treat a topic with the necessary objectivity, you have to reduce your audience to be an observer. That's the point where action and the serious discussion of a theme collide. If you make a game about World War II and you really wanted to represent it in a serious and objective way, you cannot let the player run around shooting nazis.

I do reject Sawyer's argumentation that everything that doesn't place serious topics at the core of things is banal. Take novels like Sir Walter Scott's Rob Roy or Alexandre Dumas's 20 Years After. While these books do in fact touch on political themes, they never place them at the heart of the story. The main story IS often very simple, consisting of mainly love and adventure. But they also offer a solution to the mentioned problems above. You don't place slavery, religion, war, etc. at the core of a game but incorporate a game (with a trivial or not so trivial plot) into a setting which features such problems. Make a game that takes place in USA of the 17th or 18th century, and voila - there you got your slavery. But let the player decide for himself if he wants to find out about the topic or not.

aries100 March 3rd, 2007 17:11

Ion, I agree with most of what you're saying:

Here's a game of sorts that could be sort of interesting (not an rpg, though)
http://adventuregamers.com/article/id,727/

There is also the game named "Intrique at Oakhaven plantation" from mystery.manor.net (again, not an rpg, though)

I agree with you that the novel by the authors you mentioned seem at first to
be about love and another trivial plots. Much like Victor Hugo's The Hunchback at Notre Dame at first seem to be about love and stuff, but really is about how the church doesn't want freedom of speech that challenges the church's authority.

I doubt that a game set in the 1750's or even in the 1850's would be able to make right now, if it indeed did include slavery etc.

It seems to me that many strategic games as well as many fighting games (FPS games) do take place during WWII. (some takes place during the WW1, other takes place during the Korean war, the Vietnam war). And some games takes
place during recent events such as Desert Storm, a certain even in Somalia,
and I have seen that the new game from Bethesda Softworks "Roque warrior" is set to take place in North Korea.

It it not that there isn't any games out there, who deals with politics; these
games just camouflage themselves, imo, as shooters, tactical combat games and such things. (imo).

magerette March 3rd, 2007 17:56

My problem with putting extremely real and serious issues at the core of a game is that almost inevitably they would be trivialized and oversimplified, much as the profound topics of our day are cannabalized by the news media. It would take an exceptional writer to do justice to these themes, and an exceptional publisher to have the guts to bring it to the public.

We would be much more likely to end up with the compromised attitudes already cited in WWII games—oversimplified issues of good and evil are about all the game world normally deals with…and if we can't even get a good stereotyped traditional rpg made because the audience is percieved as niche, how much less likely is it that a publisher would take a chance with something genuine that the mythical "casual gamer" could only be supposed to yawn at?

I'm not necessarily against someone trying, tho.

abbaon March 3rd, 2007 18:27

Quote:

Originally Posted by Ionstormsucks (Post 21350)
As far as I understood Saywer, he really wants some in-depth discussion of such named themes, which does not only offer a black, and a white side, but also shades of grey. But I think that is fairly impossible. One who places themes like these at a core of a game will find himself, sooner or later, forced to voice an opinion. You might try to be objective, but I doubt you'll succeed since these are highly emotional topics. You cannot discuss the war in Iraq without giving an opinion… at least not for long. At least the danger of not being objective is always there.

There's no objective interpretation of a contentious subject. In those cases, objectivity means presenting the different sides of the debate. Fiction is particularly suited to this, since it allows you to impart those opinions to your characters, to voice and to act on them. You'll only be as successful as your understanding of the subject and your honesty will permit, but that limitation doesn't push "shades of grey" out of the realms of possibility. It just puts it beyond the reach of the writers who come up with the likes of the Far Cry story.

Ionstormsucks March 3rd, 2007 20:35

Quote:

Originally Posted by abbaon (Post 21364)
There's no objective interpretation of a contentious subject. In those cases, objectivity means presenting the different sides of the debate. Fiction is particularly suited to this, since it allows you to impart those opinions to your characters, to voice and to act on them.

I very much agree to the first statement, and, at least partly disagree to your second statement. There are very few pieces of fiction that achieve to present "both sides of a story" without emphazising either the one or the other. I'm not saying it's not possible, but I'm saying it's difficult. In the case of games it seems to be even more difficult, because of their interactive nature. I can read a book or watch a movie without really getting involved. I do not have to like the main characters or their actions. I do not have to act, but can be just a mere observer. In a video game however, I have to act, and therefore will usually be forced to take sides.

Corwin March 4th, 2007 00:56

Moral choices can be placed in games and have been successfully; the Fallouts for example, and from what I've read, The Witcher will also. Unfortunately, Diablo sold better!! That's the bottom line for a publisher.

Ionstormsucks March 4th, 2007 11:37

Quote:

Originally Posted by Corwin (Post 21392)
Moral choices can be placed in games and have been successfully; the Fallouts for example, and from what I've read, The Witcher will also. Unfortunately, Diablo sold better!! That's the bottom line for a publisher.

Well, of course you can implement moral choices into a game. Nearly every modern RPG does it, and many other game types as well. But that's not what Saywer is talking about…

Quote:

Even video games with good writing are usually banal and puerile in their content. The exploration of themes in games is typically shallow and any didactic purpose the writers attempt to achieve is usually aimed very low. When an eleven year-old already inherently comprehends and accepts the lesson you are trying to impart, you know you're not dropping the bucket too deep into the well. A converse problem is that the themes being explored are so far outside of a player's daily concerns that they simply do not care.
He seems to want to leave that somewhat abstract area of moral choices and do something more concret. But to be honest, I'm shivering if I think about the didactic purposes that writers might try to implement into games.

Corwin March 4th, 2007 12:05

I'm shivering thinking about playing a game based on poverty and American capitalism!!!!

Geist March 4th, 2007 15:15

Quote:

Originally Posted by Corwin (Post 21392)
Moral choices can be placed in games and have been successfully; the Fallouts for example, and from what I've read, The Witcher will also. Unfortunately, Diablo sold better!! That's the bottom line for a publisher.

You may be right Corwin, but I'm still not entirely convinced that we in this thread constitute only a niche market:) . There are other possible reasons why games like Fallout and Planescape were less of a commercial success compared to Diablo (e.g. the turn-based combat and unusual settings).
If Oblivion had simply provided a more mentally stimulating and morally challenging storyline, I just can't believe it would have sold less copies as a result.

The sad part is, it's not a lack of writing that's the problem. RPG publishers are frequently putting more than a novel's worth of text/speech into their games. So why is the writing generally so trite and simplistic? Is it a result of the lack of quality among game writers as abbaon suggested, or due to the constraints imposed on them by higher-ups who prefer to adhere to the same old formulas that have 'worked' in the past?


As for dealing with serious, morally complex issues in games, I would disagree with Sawyer when he says:

"These subjects are either never broached or are explored through proxies that defuse the seriousness of what is being discussed. E.g. elves and dwarves might express shallow "fantasy" racism against each other, but you're probably never going to see two humans with different skin colors express racism toward each other in a serious exchange."

Allegory is a very powerful device; some of the most memorable works of literature make use of imaginary worlds to impart a serious message about society. A concept such as racism can be just as poignantly demonstrated between an elf and a dwarf if it is told in a compelling way so as to ellicit guilt or sympathy from the player. You can even make someone feel sorry for a rat if you try hard enough - I'm reminded of that comic which someone posted in the Off-Topic forum in which a slain rat carries in his inventory an illustrated letter from his kids that reads 'Daddy, we love you, please come home'
A fantasy setting tends to hold greater appeal for our escapist desires and is often less threatening than a contemporary one; for that reason I believe it to be a potentially more effective medium for the treatment of challenging subjects.

Ionstormsucks March 4th, 2007 17:58

Quote:

Originally Posted by Corwin (Post 21423)
I'm shivering thinking about playing a game based on poverty and American capitalism!!!!

Hehe, me too. But let's face it… we can discuss the pros and cons as much as we want. The major question however seems to be - would games want such topics, even if it were possible to persent them in a playable from.
After all, video games in general adress a certain audience. And I'm not talking about age groups here. I mean have a look at the movies. The overwhelming part of movies that are made are action and adventure movies. Maybe a few horror movies, crime and love. But there are very few political movies, and most of them are not overly successful when it comes to earning money. It's basically the same with books. More or less at least. Here the rate of political books, or books that adress social problems might be somewhat higher, but production costs are much lower.
Now look at the games industry - I'm not an expert, but from my impression it seems to be a hard business. Be successful and sell a lot of games, or you won't get any more money for your next game. I doubt that games that would pick up political or religious themes would be extremly successful. I'm not sure if I'd buy them. If I'm playing a game, I want to relax. Games belong (for me) to the world of entertainment that is very much keyed to fun, action, and adventure. If I want information about war in Iraq, discrimination of foreigners, child labor, etc. I pick up a newspaper or a book that is dealing with such a topic.
Don't get me wrong, I don't think that Saywer's intentions are wrong or something, but I think they are a bit too ambitious.

Corwin March 5th, 2007 01:24

Let's see, I'm a rich American capitalist whose business suffers a hostile takeover and I'm about to be thrown out of my company. To prevent me taking any action against them, the ruthless head of the takeover firm has me drugged to cause memory loss and thrown into prison somewhere. As the game opens, I awake unsure who I am, or where I am, locked in a prison cell, destitute.
Suddenly, there is a commotion and the head of the takeover company (who I no longer recognise) comes racing through my cell with some of his suits and exits through a secret door. I decide to follow……….

Do you think this 'original' story might make a great game? :)

Ionstormsucks March 5th, 2007 10:16

Let me think…. Bought!!!

Geist March 5th, 2007 13:52

Will it be available in Canada?;)

Quote:

Originally Posted by Ionstormsucks (Post 21459)
I doubt that games that would pick up political or religious themes would be extremly successful.

Yet, plenty of games have taken up these themes and been reasonably successful. Morrowind was set in a land in the throes of religious strife, whose citizens relied on slavery, while themselves suffering under the yoke of military occupation. It even featured a monopolistic 'corporation' that was corrupting local factions in order to secure exclusive access to valuable natural resources. These are heavy political themes. The Gothics and Fallouts have ventured into similar areas.
A game doesn't have to take place on 21st or 20th century earth in order to deal with difficult issues that humanity has had to grapple with for millennia, that we face today, or that we might have to tackle in the future.

The issue, imo, is not WHETHER games should take up such themes(they already do), but HOW they go about presenting them. The current method is, as has been copiously pointed out, juvenile and simplistic - akin to a treatment of American capitalism played out on a monopoly board.
I have nothing against a game which has no greater aim other than to be fun. But, if, as a developer, you do decide to lower your bucket down the well and pursue more complex subjects, then don't bring it back up with only a splash of water; at least try to do the subjects some justice. I agree with magerette that the chances of that happening are slim, but there are some glimmers of hope on the horizon. The devs of Two Worlds, The Witcher, and Dragon Age all profess to place an emphasis on more mature storylines and even Bioshock aims to focus on endowing enemies with emotions and realistic behavioural patterns. Maybe we're slowly climbing out of the rut.

Ionstormsucks March 5th, 2007 15:30

Quote:

Originally Posted by Geist (Post 21585)
Yet, plenty of games have taken up these themes and been reasonably successful.

Well, maybe I was a bit unclear here, but I thought it was obvious what I was talking about. I was talking about games that do not only superficially touch on certain topics, but dicuss them in depth, and place them at the core of a games (as Sawyer more or less demanded).
Quote:

Morrowind was set in a land in the throes of religious strife, whose citizens relied on slavery, while themselves suffering under the yoke of military occupation. It even featured a monopolistic 'corporation' that was corrupting local factions in order to secure exclusive access to valuable natural resources. These are heavy political themes. The Gothics and Fallouts have ventured into similar areas.
A game doesn't have to take place on 21st or 20th century earth in order to deal with difficult issues that humanity has had to grapple with for millennia, that we face today, or that we might have to tackle in the future.
Here I very much disagree. You cannot talk about something without naming it. You can of course use a political, social, or religious theme and implement it on an abstract level into your game. But I'm not sure if that would do justice to reality. I have the feeling that on such a level simplification is almost unavoidable.
Keep in mind that we are not talking about moral choices here…


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