Last week famous(ish) video game academic Ian Bogost set the Gaming Discourse world on fire with his provocative Atlantic piece “Video Games Are Better Without Stories.” That title pretty much sums up Bogost’s whole argument against narrative in video games. Meanwhile, although it was announced several weeks ago if you had told me the inaugural Tribeca Games Festival this past weekend was ginned up solely to counter this article, I would have believed you.
A gaming spin-off of the celebrated Tribeca Film Festival, the Tribeca Games Festival highlighted gaming’s potential as a medium for storytelling. However, looking back at my time at the event (which I attended alongside fellow Geek gaming writer Tony Polanco), I can’t shake the feeling that when it comes to artistic merit, even gaming itself still thinks cinema reigns supreme.
The two-day event kicked off Friday night as attendees descended upon the Lower Manhattan neighborhood. The first thing that struck me was just how different the crowd seemed compared to other gaming events I’ve attended. It wasn’t the fandom of PAX or the industry types of E3 (until now) or the students of NYU showcases or the hipsters of indie events.
Instead, these were the types of people, cinephiles, who I imagined were attending the larger Tribeca Film Festival and decided to check out this video game thing on the side to briefly mix things up. Tellingly, the games festival was a simply small part of the much longer film festival. This wasn’t a bad vibe necessarily, just a different one, although it was strange I felt self-conscious pulling out my Nintendo Switch at what was ostensibly a video game event.
The first panel was a crowd play of the first episode from Telltale’s recent Guardians of the Galaxy adventure game. Crowd play allows dozens of audiences members to vote on dialogue choices and it’s a great feature. Folks were split between siding with Gamora or Rocket, but everyone could agree that calling Thanos a jackass was the only proper way forward.
However, after the episode ended, all I could think about was how much of a retread of the first movie this game was just with minor details changed. There’s a different Kree accuser after a different ancient alien artifact as Star-Lord grapples with his mom’s death in a different way while listening to different classic rock. And although timing the game with the release of the sequel is great marketing, it creates the impression that movies are where stories get pushed forward while games play catch-up, a foreboding omen for the rest of the show.
Fortunately, there were booths where folks could play great recent games that do push things forward like Zelda and Nier and Prey. VR got a lot of love, too, even if I would have preferred to see Rick and Morty VR instead of its Job Simulator predecessor. On the main stage British DJ Mura Masa played electronic tunes gaming enthusiasts tend to enjoy synced to seizure-inducing light shows and girls danced on chairs dangerously close to open bars. Punished Metal Gear mastermind Hideo Kojima also stealthily showed up before his keynote talk the following day.
The party was nice, but the real point of Tribeca Games Festival was the lineup of heady panels conducted all throughout Saturday that paired cinema and video game storytelling luminaries discussing their respective crafts. Before the event, I played through What Remains of Edith Finch, a recent uncanny anthology of interactive sad short stories about a cursed family that plays like a cross between Gone Home, That Dragon Cancer, and A Series of Unfortunate Events. Bogost’s piece even mentioned the game as an admittedly good example of the types of games he was decrying. With the game fresh on my mind, I attended the first-morning panel featuring the directors of sci-fi horror romance Spring along with Ian Dallas, creative director of Edith Finch developer Giant Sparrow.
After the panel, I got a chance to talk with Dallas about Edith Finch, the festival, and gaming storytelling overall.
“With Edith Finch we wanted to give players an easy access to the game world, to step into this bizarre fever dream,” said Dallas, explaining the player’s role as estranged young woman Edith Finch. Although the game relies on mystery and exploration, the team wanted to avoid the frustration some players felt with their previous game, The Unfinished Swan, which many thought was just a puzzle game. From its trailer, Edith Finch is more upfront about its storytelling aspirations. “Because the game is about these surreal, abstract ideas like how families cope with death we wanted to ground it in something familiar and concrete.”
Dallas also feels that for the most part the audience for video games has now expanded and matured to the point where games like Edith Finch can exist, where “two-hour walking simulator” as an insult indicts the speaker rather than the target. “Previously there was an element of anger. Players were angry that you had tricked them or made this thing that shouldn’t be. But now people are more tolerant and just accept that there are games they’re not going to like.”
As for the gaming-movie dichotomy, an event like Tribeca puts in stark relief, Dallas believes, “The movie people probably have no idea what the games are even about, but it’s nice to see these early attempts to integrate what we’re doing in games with what’s going on in film.I don’t know how you go about doing that, but I’m curious how this looks in ten years.”
Dallas also picked up on the differences between Tribeca and other games conventions. “PAX is an interesting contrast to how a film festival is organized. I don’t know what it is about games, but they’re louder and more in your face,” said Dallas. “There’s a broader range of human emotion at a film festival. You can find different kinds of games, but they’ll be tucked away in a corner, and they usually won’t get into a human relationship you had never explored before. Most movies at a film festival are about the human experience, but it’s tough for games to be about humans when they’re so hard to draw.”
It was especially appropriate for What Remains of Edith Finch to be highlighted at a games/film festival since it’s the first release from film company Annapurna’s new indie games publishing label. Dallas says the experience has been great and seamless so far. Most of the folks Giant Sparrow worked with at Sony moved to Annapurna. Everyone involved still puts a premium on putting out new and unusual kinds of games, regardless of how commercial they are or aren’t. It’s a corporate artistic ethos familiar to fans of Annapurna’s films, but it especially stands out in the increasingly safe world of AAA games publishers. But this, like Adult Swim’s great gaming efforts, may be an outlier rather than a trend.
“I can see a lot of film studios being interested in publishing games. It’s this whole other thing that uses a lot of the same skills, especially if you have a lot of 3D animators lying around,” said Dallas. “But I see a lot of studios getting upset once a games takes longer than expected and isn’t originally what they thought it was. The process is so different. I wish more film studios were pushing games to be something a little more embracing of the diversity of human experience, less about sequels.”
Most games like Edith Finch limit their mechanics to walking and reading diary pages or listening to audio logs so the story, the point of the experience, can take center stage. Edith Finch does do that, but it also has a surprising variety of gameplay styles to turn each family member’s death into a melancholic minigame. I asked Dallas about the process of pairing narrative and gameplay like this.
“We started with a feeling. In the case of Molly Finch’s story, the first story, there was an image of a shark thirty feet up in the air that came to me when driving to a doctor’s appointment,” said Dallas. “That’s really odd, something about this apex predator helpless in an awful situation. From there that developed into a little girl dreaming that she was hungry, as well as a desire to create a little girl character who embodied the terrifying amorality of adorable children.”
Imaginative contrasts like that, things that are both beautiful or innocent but also overwhelming or unsettling, form the thematic crux of Edith Finch and can be seen throughout most of its story/gameplay vignettes as players explore the open house. The order of the stories and time period-specific details weren’t decided until later in the process.
“Like all the stories it wasn’t very well planned. It was just beginning with this interesting, confusing element we wanted to explore,” said Dallas. “In that way, it’s been enjoyable to see that the process of making our games is similar to the process of experiencing them. They’re explorations of the unknown. We don’t really know what we’re getting into. We try a bunch of things and are surprised by where we end up. I think, I hope some of that translates to the players and their discoveries.”
Off the record Dallas and I talked about some other things, too, like speedruns, character backstories, drawing from The Royal Tenenbaums for sketching out family generations, why a brief and specific swing-set sequence is Dallas’s favorite moment/mechanic in the game, testers immediately breaking the game, licensing iconic music cues, and why every game doesn’t need to be chess. But I wouldn’t want to spoil anything.
The themes of that chat stuck with me throughout the day as I attended more panels, mostly moderated by fellow games journalists. I saw a 25th-anniversary celebration of the forward-thinking virtual reality horror film The Lawnmower Man featuring director Brett Leonard and Google VR filmmaker Jessica Brillhart. Given what we’ve learned about certain awful VR figureheads, Leonard reminding us about the dystopian end of his heavily reimagined Stephen King adaptation hit extra close to home.
Other panels included discussions on Watch Dogs 2 and Firewatch, the importance of character backstories in a multiplayer game like Overwatch, Master Chief’s rediscovered humanity in Halo 5, Davey Wreden of The Beginner’s Guide opening up on why people self-destruct, and even more VR talk from Journey developer Robin Hunicke. In between panels were short, Tic Tac-sponsored promos for other upcoming, narrative-heavy games including a game I myself worked on, fever dream Americana folk tale collection Where the Water Tastes Like Wine.
Kudos to Tribeca for landing exactly the kinds of video game industry folks you’d want for an event about video game storytelling. The talks were mostly fascinating, and you should watch the archived streams below. But for me, the recurring undercurrent of the event was that even as games grow as an artistic medium, they’re still insecure and in the shadow of self-assured movies.
Other attendees I talked to noticed this as well. I don’t want to single anyone out, but it was little things like how film directors seemed way more confident and relaxed on stage compared to their gaming counterparts. It was offhand mentions of writers graduating from film school and taking game jobs for cash while they worked on the TV and movie scripts they really cared about.
Some genuinely equal cross-medium discussion did occur, especially during the final keynote talks. The Spring directors Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead talked about looking at video games like Shadow of the Colossus for alternative story structures. Divergent director Neil Burger remembered studying the dynamic camera angles of Uncharted, angles you’d never see in movies, back when he tried to adapt that franchise. His counterpart, Max Payne himself Sam Lake, mentioned how movies don’t have the problem of having to test physics systems to make sure the world didn’t break. Also remember Lake’s last game Quantum Break featured hours of straight-up original television episodes.
Think what you want of their work or personalities, but director Doug Liman and Bioshock developer Ken Levine were also about on equal footing, at least during their talk. They both discussed how they like to use a little confusion to give audience members who pay attention the satisfaction of figuring something out and feeling smart, using techniques like unreliable narrators and faster pacing that requires high-level modern media literacy. Legion got a shout-out. They both also try to maintain some amount of personal vision in the corporate gamble that is big-budget corporate movie/game-making. Their movies and games both have used style to make what could be horrific violence more acceptable.
But while Levine is trying to rely less on film-like cutscenes on his work, including whatever (probably not VR) game he’s been making for the past three years, if anything Liman’s films have become more like video games. He originally wanted Jason Bourne to have a HUD in The Bourne Identity. Tom Cruise improving through constant dying in Edge of Tomorrow is absolutely a video game arc. And the only thing stopping Liman from being more involved in games based on his films is just how bad those cash-ins tend to be.
Of course, the biggest talk was the chat between gaming’s best bromance: Geoff Keighley and legendary developer Hideo Kojima. We didn’t learn much about Kojima’s mysterious, oily baby-holding simulator Death Stranding other than it has a plot, Kojima was incessant that the first players see is naked Norman Reedus, and that the team is currently, metaphorically picking out the menu for the restaurant that is the game.
However, we did hear some interesting tidbits about Kojima as a fan “70 percent made of movies”, starting from his days watching Rollerball, 2001, and Taxi Driver. Kojima would see the same movie in different seats to watch from different angles. It seemed like Metal Gear Solid conversations were implicitly avoided considering how the Kojima-Konami relationship soured, but we did learn that Snake’s bandana was inspired by The Deer Hunter. While playing Super Mario Bros. Kojima wanted to know the character motivations for Mario and Peach and Bowser, inspiring his own character-centric game-making philosophy.
These days Kojima prefers to use film actors like Kiefer Sutherland and Mads Mikkelsen because of the more realistic performances they provide. He’s too busy making games to make a movie, though. He admits he probably couldn’t even finish a film because of non-stop tweaking. Movies and games have digitally converged so much, anyway. However, if he had the chance, Kojima would either like to direct a big King Kong blockbuster or an “indie movie about two characters talking in a room.” VR is also appealing to him since it offers experiences not limited to frames.
After the festival, Kojima even got to meet his hero Robert De Niro, not just a legendary actor but a co-founder of Tribeca Film Festival.
Finally got to meet my hero, De Niro! I shaked hands w/ Al Pacino, James Caan & Robert Duvall! I can die now but I won’t! What a lovely day! pic.twitter.com/cyNceFEsTw
— HIDEO_KOJIMA (@HIDEO_KOJIMA_EN) April 30, 2017
I hope this was just the first of many Tribeca Games Festivals. The only way for the event to shake off its atmosphere of outsider condescending curiosity is to fully embrace the medium instead of dipping one toe in it for two days out of a two-week film festival. And although Kill Screen was probably indispensable in providing games knowledge and connections to Tribeca organizers, it was odd seeing the publication’s name plastered on the wall next to one as celebrated as Tribeca knowing what I do about the site’s alleged problems paying writers on time and preserving work.
But even though I would like to go to future Tribeca Games Festivals, for now, I still think looking at games and movies as art forms side by side only hurts games. Discussions of video game storytelling flourish when we talk about the medium on its own terms, once we steer away from how it does or doesn’t stack up to paintings or poetry. Games should absolutely look elsewhere for artistic inspiration, and increased competition combined with democratized creative tools means film doesn’t have the same monopoly on culture it once did like novels before them. However, direct comparisons between games and film at a film festival only unflatteringly remind us who still has the real power.