The fantasy of little girls meets the fantasy of little boys. Sure, they are widely praised for their respective media, but both have seen their share of criticism for shoddy storytelling and excessive pandering to our base emotions (ie love and... the love for violence). From a classical academic perspective, one might scoff at such entertainment as a thing for fools and brigands. But are we the fools for underestimating their power?
Having completed GoW 3 recently, I finally took a look at the criticisms Extra Credits has of God of War 2 and 3, claiming they have no redeeming value. Seemed a bit harsh, and as I thought about it further it reminded me of the many scathing critiques of the Twilight series. Perhaps they are not so different as they appear.
So in the interest of furthering our narrative and designing skills, and to challenge conventional wisdom, let us delve further into the many ways our entertainment media push our buttons and pick our pockets.
Both series are works of fantasy in the purest sense of the word. They are all about telling a story through which the audience can vicariously experience an emotionally-charged adventure. In particular, they deal with the theme of giving in to temptation and primal urges, with stories structured around embracing and acting upon one's innermost desires.
Each story revolves around a central object of intense emotional weight. For Twilight, it is Edward, the ultimate object of attraction for Bella and the most perfect man she could imagine. She is drawn to him so much that she is willing to give up everything and do anything to be with him. For Kratos, it was his betrayers - first Ares, and later the rest of the Olypian Gods and even the Titans. As each one used him for their own ends, his rage only grew, to the point where he ended up all but destroying the world in the pursuit of his vengeance. While Twilight didn't get quite as epic in scope, the focus on a single, intense emotion was a cornerstone of both stories.
As powerful as this kind of story can be in stimulating audiences, often it ends up being a double edged sword. On one hand, it creates a story that lends itself to great theatrics and spectacle, as the protagonist displays extraordinary ambition driven by intense feelings. It satisfies a certain fundamental need of every person to be able to express their emotions freely, without having to hold back, without fear of judgement or consequences. At the same time, however, it also creates a sense of momentum to the work that can be to the detriment of more thoughtful moments of exposition.
The challenge, therefore, is in weighing the merits of committing to one technique of engagement, to create a perhaps small but enthusiastic following, or balance several in the hopes of attracting a larger audience.
Dimensions of Engagement
When it comes down to it, the real reason Twilight has so many haters is because it lacks intellectual depth. There just isn't a good enough reason given why a 100 year old vampire would fall for a plain, ordinary young girl. It is the same thing that makes people scoff at movies like Transformers, which feature amazing special effects but not such an amazing plot. These are cases of where the creators of these works have heavily committed, and perhaps over committed, to a specific dimension of engagement.
To really understand the strengths and pitfalls of different approaches to engagement, I have come up with three basic categories, or dimensions of engagement that roughly encompass different approaches to attracting audiences, both in interactive and non-interactive media.
The simplest and most basic form of engagement from which all others arise. It's the simple joy of watching explosions, pressing buttons, or popping bubblewrap. It is our innate reaction to intrinsically amusing things. In films and other visual media, this is typically what Plato referred to as Spectacle, or the audio-visual experience of the work.
This guy is not fooling anybody.
The equivalent in games is often the mechanics. Every game has mechanics, though the degree to which these mechanics take center stage varies from one title to the next. On one end of the spectrum you have games like Heavy Rain with only rudimentary mechanics, all the way to Farmville, where the experience is almost entirely about interacting with the mechanics, with no real narrative in the traditional sense.
At its heart, Reptilian engagement is about the simple manipulation of expectations. For noninteractive visual media this often came in the form of subversion of those expectations, or surprises. But interactive media, or even interactive experiences, hold their own intrinsic joys. Whether you are turning a key to turn on a car, or hitting a button to attack an enemy, the core enjoyment of the experience is the same.
Every game has Reptilian engagement at varying levels, some more than others. Those that leverage this dimension the most tend to be casual/facebook games and MMOs. People do not go to Cityville to be brought to tears, or to expand their mind, but to scratch an itch to see their dream city come to fruition. Likewise, plenty of MMO players all but ignore the narrative of their game to do quests and get increasingly better rewards. Both are motivated by very simple desires, to watch the call and response between themselves and the game, and to cherish each small magic purple cow reward they get.
Every junkie needs their fix.
Once patterns start becoming complex, we enter into the realm of Cranial engagement. While reptilian engagement is about observing cause and effect, Cranial engagement is about going under the hood and understanding the system that governs what we observe. Whether that means picking up on subtle hints and clues in a murder mystery, lateral thinking to solve a puzzle, or predicting an opponent's intentions and crafting a clever counter-strategy, it is all about analyzing and deconstructing patterns in our mind.
It is typically the dimension that most readily allows us to suspend disbelief and become immersed in a work of fiction. Once we understand the social, political, or perhaps even physical rules that help govern the world and circumstances of the plot, we are better able to make predictions about what might happen and what is possible. If characters act in a way that is contrary to these "rules" laid out at the outset, we are more likely to be pulled out of the experience and question it.
In terms of gameplay, Cranial engagement is about balancing predictability with probability. It should be predictable enough so one could confidently say "my Immortals will totally wreck his Mech army" in Starcraft 2, for instance, but with just enough unpredictability (such as the choices of another human being) as to not make the predicted outcome inevitable.
Likewise narrative is about balancing predictability with plausibility, carefully defining the rules of relationships, personalities, experiences, etc in such a way as to create a pattern, and then breaking that pattern in interesting ways that are unexpected, yet still make sense in the framework of the story.
While popping bubblewrap can be fun for an hour or two, you're unlikely to see someone write a sonnet about it. Once we move away from simple diversions into the realm of weighty, emotional experiences that leave a mark on our very souls, we enter the Visceral dimension.
Visceral engagement seeks to elicit strong emotional responses out of its audience in one of two main ways. The first is to assume that the audience has experienced something similar to the drama that unfolds before them. When done right, this has the advantage of making a story seem more personalized, as the viewer fills in the blanks with their imagination and is reminded of similar moments in their own life. This tends to be the main draw of romances, like Twilight.
The second is to present an entirely novel experience the viewer is unlikely to have experienced firsthand. Often times these start with the seed of a common ambition, or feeling people can relate to, then take the viewer on a journey to contextualize and lend weight to the experience. This is essentially God of War's approach, as while most have not been tricked into murdering their family, people generally understand the emotions associated with betrayal. While the first method tends to deal with more mature, complex emotional situations and feelings, this method tends to be less connected to reality, and thus has a lower barrier of entry.
Visceral engagement is typically employed either in the tone and feel of a work, or to punctuate important moments, thus making them more memorable. Dead Space is a great example of both of these put into practice. The audio and visual style of the game world were appropriately haunting, creating a constant sense of dread and empathy with the protagonist.
This feeling is accentuated by moments where a corpse might pop up from the ground to lunge at you, or when a giant tentacle bursts out of the wall, yanking you toward a nasty-looking maw. Those terrifying moments help to not only add to the dark atmosphere of the game, but make even calm moments feel tense in anticipation of the next big scare.
So having defined these dimensions, we can look at the whole issues with God of War and Twilight through a different light. They both reflect how often Cranial and Visceral dimensions are at odds with each other, where usually one is focused on at the expense of the other, while Reptilian doesn't tend to enter into the narrative arena outside of funky narrative gimmicks.
God of War - Stone Cold Badass, or Unhinged Sociopath?
Returning to Extra Credits' criticism of God of War, I can see where those guys are coming from. While God of War 1 had a pretty convincing narrative that explained Kratos's murderous behavior, his wanton rampages in the 2nd and 3rd installments just seemed to be mindless killfests. However, if you look at the disappointment Kratos is left with in the first game (to dance around spoilers a bit), you can kind of see a reason why he did start going nuts and killing people.
The problem is less the plot, and more the characterization of Kratos himself. In GoW 1, his demeanor and character was spot on for what he was going through. He was pissed off, but more or less level headed, as he was guided by a clear purpose and the promise of being freed from his pain. When that didn't work out so well, it would have made sense to transition his characterization from a cold-hearted badass, to more like a craven maniac, acting out of desperation and torment, rather than the hope that vengeance would set him free.
In terms of the dimensions of engagement, the problem basically boils down to the fact that the developers seemed to want to continue the magic of the character of Kratos, and through his characterization remain consistent to the Visceral feel of the first game. Likewise, his attitude and demeanor had a certain Reptilian charm that made a player feel awesome as they became this powerful warrior. While it would correct the disconnect between the events of the story and Kratos's attitude from the Cranial side of things, it seems they decided to err on the side of keeping the character true to what the fans love, rather than potentially alienating people by messing with it.
Twilight - Fantasy over Fidelity
Twilight's issue is not so easy to fix, as Bella's fixation on various vampire and wolf men beefcakes are pretty much indelibly linked to a rather immature fantasy of being loved for... really no good reason. For that reason there isn't a magic bullet answer to fixing its narrative, and having not read the books myself I am hardly someone to pick apart the minutiae of its plot for a way to fix it. I can, however, offer a contrast to its immature take on love with a film that handled love in a more nuanced way - Scenes from A Marriage.
When I first heard about the film years ago in a Film Appreciation class, it sounded like the most boring thing ever. In its made for TV version, it is a 3 part film, 6 hours in total, focusing on the marital troubles of its two main characters. There was very little in the way of action, and even fewer supporting characters. In spite of how it sounded on paper, it turned out to be quite surprisingly awesome.
Perhaps it is the skill of the actors to show emotion on the screen, or my own conflicted feelings about the nature of love, but I was genuinely moved by what I saw, far beyond my expectations. Dimension wise it was almost entirely Visceral - no complicated plot, no flashy explosions or even hot wimens to ogle. It was very focused and guided the audience's expectations well, and kept it all firmly in the realm of emotion.
What did you expect?
Did it ever bother you that you couldn't blow away Koopas with a Rocket Launcher in Super Mario? Or uncover the lurid mystery of the murder of Blinky, Pinky, Inky, and Clyde in Pac-Man? Or discover what horrible socioeconomic conditions drove the Angry Birds to hurling themselves into buildings to their deaths to save their children, and if it was all an allegory for terrorism and Western imperialism*?
*And here I thought I was so clever for coming up with this myself.
Each one of these games, like Scenes from a Marriage, was able to manage expectations in such a way as to make audiences satisfied with their entertainment, not demand something beyond what it offered. This is the real key to making a fulfilling experience, garnering fame and accolades, without all the haters.