And I quite frankly can’t give a damn about the technical aspect of it as much as the storytelling part of it
So E3 is coming up (for those unfamiliar with videogames, an annual electronics expo where videogame companies typically preview their most electrifying games to sell their games and systems to industry representatives as a main purpose and get the gaming community hype as a side purpose) and one of the things that the lgbt side* of Tumblr is getting ready for is yet another round of lies, lies, and damned lies from Ubisoft:
*ie the best side
“How must it feel for those guys making those E3 demos look so nice, only for it to never get used again”
I might be getting old, but by this point in time gaming graphics are HD enough as a whole that I can’t tell the difference between tech demo and final release as palpably as when I was the indignant teenager expecting honesty from for-profit companies with a mammoth marketing budget. I mean I grew up on games that looked like this
where the gameplay part of it was a separate entity entirely from any form historically of passive visual entertainment, and where even the concept of passively-playing movie-styled story exposition was such a rarity that we considered it a *treat* to sit passively and press zero buttons in this medium that was *all about* pressing buttons. Cutting edge graphical advancement was this
where, for the first time in an entire art form’s history of segregated cutscenes vs gameplay, the promise of Resident Evil’s engine-consistent honesty was realized in MGS’ seamless total integration. The gameplay looked like the cutscenes looked like the gameplay because it was all rendered from the same engine.
Especially in motion, my eyes can’t tell the difference in technical specs without scrutinizing, and doesn’t really care. Not to the degree that blocky lego graphics vs fluid anime-style visuals was immediately and hilariously obvious. I can pick out the serious downgrade in visual fidelity if I sit down with a pen and a worksheet, but to my eye the sin is a loss of detail in terms of the art design — less nuanced shadows, fewer sparks, etc.
The first sin, anyway.
Because for all that gamers’ express complaint with Ubisoft’s trailer graphics vs release graphics did not rouse me — my brain physically registers game graphics as utilitarian, Watch Dogs’ release graphics are already so detailed and functional that my eyes don’t care — the more I watched the gag reel of Ubisoft’s lies, the more my non-rational aesthetic senses were offended, triggered, and cumulatively enraged by all the little ways that big-budget game trailers are narrative and imaginative failures in the manner of what Red Letter Media famously critiqued in the Star Wars prequels.
Videogames do not feel and sound like that
Trailers for big-budget Straight White Male Action Games nowadays are cut like a Hollywood movie scene. Oh sure, they display the HUD and show off the in-gameplay mechanics of someone ostensibly playing through the “actually playing” part of the game and not the part where you sit while expensive actors act badly at you; but their visual pacing and sound design is, artificially, unnaturally, painfully cut to Hollywood movie effect, and does not look or feel like people playing a game in any way, shape, or form.
Take a look for example at the trailer for Tom Clancy’s The Division:
The online community by and large will bitch about the drop in graphical fidelity and definition only. Seriously guys? You’re not bothered by the way the “gameplay reveal” looks, moves, and sounds *nothing* like how any human being ever has ever played a videogame, even for story? You’re not unsettled by how unnatural it feels?
- The character is moving, stopping, shooting, at exactly the right beats for them to play out an extended and detailed conversation between the non-player characters in this single-player mode. There is no gamer in hell who gives a damn about the pacing of NPC dialogue scripts enough or has foreknowledge enough of story pacing triggers to play along this well with the movie aesthetic in a shooty action game.
- The sound design is environmental, atmospheric, designed to evoke the feeling of physically *being there* in a harsh environment trying to survive with your wits and your gun. The artistic-rhetorical intent is to make it feel *cinematic.*
That second one
REALLY GRINDS MY GEARS
A human being playing a videogame DOES NOT GIVE A DAMN about having a “cinematic experience”, as defined by Ubisoft EA etc trying desperately to ape Hollywood. Oh, we’ll think we do, because this is America where there is no god but Mammon and rich-ass Hollywood is his prophet. But in the actual process of pressing buttons and getting engaged with the visceral pleasure of shooting things or kicking butt, all the aesthetic and logistical things necessary to create a “cinematic” experience–the polished and addicting presentation that gets an unexamined life hype as all hell when we observe passively at E3–is only a hundred thousand things that get in the way of actually enjoying the game. Unskippable cutscenes. Formulaic, stupid dialogue. Artificial gates to progress and exploration, on-rails progress, no consequences whatsoever for complete disengagement and apathy.
Human beings, in the process of actually playing and enjoying a game, don’t ever give a damn about *physical* realism, about materialistic immersion. I’m under the firm belief that realistic realism gets in the way of a game being good at all, ever, or at least that’s the effect of enjoying emotionally engaging cartoon/fantasy design vs lazy “gritty realism” aesthetics. The most engaging, immersive videogame experiences are aesthetic/emotional engagement, music and things that hit you in the gut and the tearducts based on the choices you make as someone playing the game to win it. Undertale is a recent community favorite that looks like it came out of the NES era because it uses RPG game mechanic tropes as a dialogue to examine the callousness of the intuitive violence in games and build emotional relationships with the in-game characters. One of the most emotional, engaging, *immersive* experiences I’ve had in gaming looks like this.
Games do not look and sound like E3 trailers do. The “gameplay reveal” trailers shown in the “Ubisoft 15 minute gag reel” do not look, feel, or sound the way games do when people are actually playing through them. The Watch Dogs E3 trailer has the perfect sound, atmosphere, and pacing to feel like a vaguely amazing and awesome spy-thriller-action-something:
Whereas the actual gameplay proper looks and feels like this:
Now I do not believe that this is just an attrition from demo to final release that we have to accept as a physical consequence of hardware limitations. It’s not the lower-fi graphics that makes the actual release play-through such an anti-climactic parody of its trailer ambitions. In the wild, a videogame will repeat the same sound effects, voice clips, and music so often, at such non-uniform and non-standardizable times according to how each individual human moves their game avatar through the world, that any attempt at the self-seriousness that Watch Dogs maintained into the final release cannot but collapse under the weight of its own absurdity. There’s often more fun to be had breaking the game and looping dialogue that’s meant to be heartbreaking and emotional, than to have to coddle the “cinematic experience” the designers wanted you to have and to leap through their arbitrary, unfun loops to set everything in its place.
This is how you do a gameplay trailer that’s honest to the final game experience
Bright colors, exciting music, fast paced explosive enemy-crashing action. Most importantly, playing the game from the actual finished game and recording live game footage from the real game so that gamers who have bought your game and gotten good at it can go back later, recognize where everything in the trailer is from, and point out all the ways that the player is clearly a noob using scrub tactics and leaving the greater depths of the game meta untouched.
You want a story-based trailer for a story-based game? Sure, let’s have one of those.
Wit. Humor. Humanity. Bright colors, fun music, snappy pace. Also, real banter.
The Tom Clancy trailer feels like a low-rent Rocket Jump video.
Of course, in order to have a good story-based trailer for a good story-based game, you have to have a good story to begin with. Tales from the Borderlands is apparently so good that the point and click adventure game adaptation is better than the run and gun shooty action RPG source material. Watch Dogs, on the other hand, collapses under the weight of its self-seriousness and the nihilism of its meaningless tropes. You play a Straight White Man who is Very Angry and on a Righteous Quest for Vengeance, there’s some attempt at moral ambiguity (completely ruined when you’re penalized for stopping a spousal murder before it happens, but rewarded with public approval when you use an IED to blow up a purse thief), but the story runs so hard on *all* the White Action Hero tropes ever that it forgets to have a personality, a goal, or a point.
The E3 trailer for The Division, too. It just felt so safe, so restricted, that I felt like I had already seen a better version of the same movie.
Rocket Jump is a bunch of videogame nerds all grown up into movie makers, that’s done everything from post-modern horror to a series about a high school where you PLAY VIDEOGAMES that ends up becoming one of the most unexpectedly touching and emotional *stories* in contemporary fiction. They made a generic action video playing off various spy/action hero tropes and subverting the conventional narrative of masculinity in this kind of thing, and it has more personality, wit, and charm than all the “cinematic” E3 trailers put together.
The people who put together Ubisoft’s E3 trailers are clearly very, very talented. Even at an artistic level, they clearly know how to do pacing and sound design to a level that they could be telling great stories like the nerds up there who started out with fan videos of Street Fighter and Call of Duty or these nerds who started out with parody videos of Yu-Gi-Oh and Dragonball Z, and ended up with their own studio and official gigs with the actual studios of the source material they parody. I just wish Ubisoft’s trailer teams were allowed to turn their talents away from lying about videogames, to making movies on a YouTube channel or something.
Next: How Hollywood ruined Starcraft’s single-player and what that has to do with the Warcraft movie our great leader of this blog is clearly going to have to suffer through