Of Montage and Games 04/21/2010
Over the last week or so, I've been writing an essay for an Arts History subject on Eisenstein's theory of montage and the conflict between Eisenstein and Vertov regarding their films. In recap: Eisenstein's montage is defined as a "collision of two given factors (from which) arises a concept". Importantly, in order to be montage, the collision must be designed to create this concept (so real-life conflict cannot be classed as montage). Both film-makers did this, but while Eisenstein's concepts (or syntheses) were clear and directed, Vertov constructed a number of concepts accessible from each collision, each of which asked questions of the audience rather than directing them to think in a certain way. From these differences came much conflict between the two men.
Personally, I prefer Vertov's approach (I'll take a movie that makes me ask difficult questions about the world rather than one which tells me what to think any day), but this doesn't mean that Eisenstein's approach doesn't have any merit. I'm also interested to see how computer games stack up to this idea of montage (which Eisenstein demonstrates to be found within other mediums such as artwork, poetry and literature).
So I'm going to take a representative sample of some games that I've played/know enough about to discuss. I'm certain that other games exist that would be interesting to place here (people keep bringing up Mass Effect), please feel free to suggest some or analyse them in comments.
Please note that in saying that a game does not utilise montage, it doesn't mean I don't think it's worthy of praise or is a good piece. It's simply a different way of looking at the way we create games and their creative content.
I'm going to avoid the word 'art', because like 'religion' and 'politics', it seems to foster discussion which is less constructive than I'd like.
This is a simple case, but a very important one. The Sims (and its sequels) has been cited as being one of the most important games in terms of allowing players to create their own stories (The Movies also falls under this category, as well as a dozen other games). While this is an important property of games in its own right that I find fascinating, it falls into the same pitfall as real life, as the conflict encountered in these self-made was not designed by the game's creators. There are, however, two avenues for montage to exist within these games.
Firstly, the games can become tools for players to create their own montages. This is especially true in The Movies, where a player can create a movie and show it to their peers.
Secondly, through mechanics. It can be argued, for instance, that the multi-faceted nature of the needs of the Sims is a collision between the player's objectives and the game's rules that demonstrates the complex and multi-faceted nature of, well, nature (I refuse to believe that the simultaneous need to eat and go to the toilet shows anything about human nature, and feel that the emphasised importance of these primal needs dilutes the meaning that having the balance your sim's social life and work life can provide). But I must also protest calling this montage, as it really is a mechanic which has been created to add fun rather than meaning to the game (and thus the synthesis is not designed). It's be like saying that Starcraft's use of limited resources is a message about the dwindling resources on the planet Earth.
The Sims also has a fairly 'complex' spectrum of emotional states and interactions between its inhabitants. I say 'complex' in inverted commas, because compared to reality this spectrum is grayscale, and pretty badly pixellated. This possible collision between the game's possible states and reality's is a direct result of technology limits: if it had been designed purposefully to examine whether our so-called emotional complexity is really fairly simple, it could be an interesting point, but all indications are that if technology was better, the simulations would be more complex.
GTA 3: Vice City
GTA is an interesting sub-case of Sims-like games. Like the Sims, it is a very open game, allowing players to really create their own individual stories. However, GTA has always retained a sense of self-parody, with senseless violence which is often ignored in games being openly rewarded. Specifically in Vice City, the gratuitous violence that the player commits conflicts with the radio talk about violence in video games and the knowledge that everyone in the city is guilty of something, leading to an awareness in the player of the state of violence in the gaming industry. It's not my favourite way of dealing with violence in games (I much prefer games that find ways to be fun without the need for killing, or those that actually deal with the consequences in a meaningful way), but it's definitely an interesting study.
Max Payne 1 and 2
Okay, so these are games that I actually want to look at again to see if what I remember is correct.
From what I remember, they feature a very rich usage of montage in a cinematic sense, combining cutscenes, comic-book scenes and voice-overs to create some interesting ideas (I'll expound on what these are when I actually play it again). In terms of gameplay, I feel that montage is not used effectively: the most prolific gameplay attribute is bullet-time, but this is never really utilised in a conflict to create any sort of synthesis. The drug sequences, where Max relives his wife and son's murder, are an interesting exception, but again I'd want to play it again before I look at what ideas it invokes.
Half-life 2 and it's progeny
I'd argue that these games, like Max Payne, excel at utilising montage at a visual and stylistic level to tell story, but fail to integrate gameplay in the montage. You just need to look at the conflict between Breen saying "it's safer here" and the metro-cops and their billy-clubs to see an emerging concept of oppression, and I feel that this is one of the really strong aspects of the series. What makes this especially strong is that the story is told in a very natural way, without taking the player out of the moment of the scene by cutting away. Thus, we are free to notice these strong cinematic aspects of the game.
The epitome of this stylistic brilliance can be seen at the start of Half-Life 2, where you don't have any weapons, yet feel compelled to run away from metrocops when you really don't need to be so rushed at a gameplay level. This ability to create fear without resorting to creepy girls and lots of blood is really quite an achievement.
This game interests me in its ability to create moments like these, and it comes very close to the gaming experiences that I'm interested in, but doesn't quite make it. I feel this is for two reasons: firstly, the game doesn't utilise its gameplay in creating montage and thus doesn't involve it in the process of creating ideas; secondly, the game has these wonderful moments of stylistic montage at the start of the game, but these quickly devolve into style and typical fps gameplay which do not contribute to the ideas of the piece in this way.
Note about that last paragraph: yes, my standards here are high - I talk in terms of my aims in creating games, rather than whether I enjoy them. I really enjoy fps gameplay, and Half-life 2 is an exemplary example of this. But this gameplay is rarely, if ever used to tell us something interesting or to create story, and I'm rather sick of the 'killing ridiculous numbers of people' paradigm that permeates AAA games. So I want to evoke some discussion on how we can use gameplay to tell story and create montage: from here, we might start finding new forms of gameplay that can do this, which don't rely on large amounts of virtual death.Bioshock
This was a game, which to me, had a single moment of brilliance within an otherwise solid game and narrative experience. I speak, of course, of the 'Holy Shit' moment in the middle of the game, where the automatic, linear mode of gameplay that we are all used to becomes a vital plot point. This sudden awareness of the way we play games is a conflict between our expectations of games and the reality that asks us whether we should really be following the instructions of games so blindly. The rest of the game is full of stylistic montage that I described above, but again I found the effects of this was severely diluted by killing people gameplay or a lack of consequences (in the case of the good/evil conundrum).
Portal has a special place in my heart. It's gameplay is simple, yet brilliant, and the game did a wonderful job of making the story mirror the gameplay mode (training is conducted through the main body of the game, during which the story is about GlaDOS (I don't pretend to remember exactly which letters are capitalised) teaching the player how to utilise portals, and the more panicked utilisation of these skills begins once GlaDOS leaves the player to become their opponent). In terms of montage, the game leverages heavily on conflicting textures to intensify the differences between the two modes of gameplay and modes of GlaDOS' persona, as well as building tension in the earlier segments. I could also discuss 'The cake is a lie', the player's love and subsequent destruction of the companion cube and the hilariously contrary statements of the turrets as examples of montage: in particular, the companion cube is an amazing usage of gameplay to drive story and illustrate GlaDOS' insanity.
This is a really great example of a game that utilises gameplay to create story in a decidedly non-meta fashion (in that it doesn't examine the nature of the underlying game mechanics, but utilises them to layer ideas over the top). I think the condensed nature of the game is instrumental in making this game the powerhouse that it is: in a typical game, these ideas would be drawn out over a much larger gameplay time, where they would lose much of their impact.
I am personally very interested in meta-gameplay ideas, which utilise the underlying idea of a gameplay element in story (for instance, the idea of instantaneous travel, or a transfer of momentum, or any other number of consequences of portals, are only explored in a gameplay environment, and a story treatment to mirror these could be fascinating), but the lack of this really doesn't take anything away from the game. If Portal 2 is to match the original in terms of its narrative brilliance, however, I believe that this is one way for it to do so.
A wider analysis of Portal would surely reveal more (I wrote an essay about it a while back and may post it here with some changes, or just write something new about it).
This game does a great job of utilising gameplay to reveal plot. The game uses time manipulation (which has been introduced throughout the game) to invert story from that which is expected based on the gameplay provided sans time manipulation (ie. mario platformer). The game relies around puzzles with pieces, and throughout gives you pieces of the story you need to assemble yourself. On smaller scales, the game doesn't appear to give us much more than gameplay-driven puzzles, but I haven't really closely looked at things like the level titles and the main story text (which is rather verbose but seems fairly innocuous so far). There are a few nice conflicts with our expectations from mario-like platformers that create a sense of parody (rabid rabbits, anyone?), and stylistic montage definitely exists, but I'm not seeing any gameplay-based montage on the smaller scales.
I haven't completely completed the game - there are things (I won't spoil exactly what) I still need to collect to be privy to the entire story.
But this in itself is an interesting choice: that the story should be less rich for people who do not have the time or inclination to finish it. I don't begrudge the choice - I feel that those that take the effort to complete a game should be rewarded. But I wonder at the wisdom of not allowing all users experience what I'm guessing are story elements which will fundamentally change and possibly enrich the experience of the game. Now I can (and possibly will - I'm not the most patient puzzle gamer) use a walkthrough to achieve the same result, but by doing so I'm getting taken out of the flow of the game (which is exquisite).
I'm well aware that the joy of figuring these elements out is important, but I do feel that there's a limit. If the game had been a bit more explicit of what it was that I need to collect the second time round (I did look at a walkthrough to work that out), but not how or where they were, this might create a better method for this game. I've also gathered that one of the things can only be collected the first time you enter the level, meaning I might need to start the game from scratch to get the whole story. This, in my opinion, would be a bad design decision.
So games have gotten pretty good at montage using stylistic aspects (ie. any techniques that can also work in cinema), but are just starting to utilise gameplay in the same fashion. That makes the next decade a fascinating time for the way that games are made.