My Fair Lady

The other night I watched My Fair Lady, the classic musical/romantic comedy starring Audrey Hepburn. I'm not a fan of musicals at all, but it's a classic and Rachel is fond of it from childhood.

I'd never realized why I disliked musicals so much. My Fair Lady helped me understand. It's not the acting or the story, the songs themselves or even the spontaneous song outbreak phenomenon that musicals are most often lambasted for. I ended up being frustrated by the heavyhanded delivery and stuttering pacing of the plot.

Musicals were developed for the stage, and film musicals were adapted from these stage productions. Early musicals played to the limitations of the stage, especially the lack of amplification. Subtelty was not an option, which dictated the plot points and their delivery. Everyone in the audience needed to understand what was going on, which meant every line had to be shouted, and the really important plot points and characterization needed to be repeated a dozen times in a catchy song, so people would remember what was going on. As the life of film went on, directors learned to exploit the elements unique to film; Brando's mumbling naturalism could be captured with well-tuned booms; the camera itself and the editing of the film could be used to convey two characters' feelings towards one another with the shift of an eyebrow and turn of the head, as opposed to a 5-minute song. My Fair Lady is fixed solidly in the 19th century mode of the stageplay, and all that entails.

What this translates to is a very long and hammy production, which plays to none of the strengths of the medium. This is where I started to think about video games.

For one thing, the bipolar nature of My Fair Lady reminded me very much of the schizm today between gameplay and story in video games; that they are two completely separate types of entertainment that are expressed in opposing ways (passive versus interactive, watching versus directing, etc.) yet attempt to coexist in the same production, though most often 'take turns' as opposed to really sharing the same space at the same time. Just the same with this classic musical; a coreographed song and dance number is something completely apart from a human drama expressed through dialogue and character interaction; one interrupts the other; the entire mode of the production changes gears briefly, then reverts. You don't need to sing a song to tell a story. You don't need to play a video game to tell one either. Music is to film a valid but wholly separate form of entertainment, as film is to video games.

The logical analogue here then is that as a film musical is to the modern video game, the music is to gameplay as the story in one is to the story in the other. But that's not the gut feeling I got from the experience of watching My Fair Lady. While watching the movie, whenever a song came up, I wanted the film to get back to what it was good at-- characterization, dialogue, human interaction, not this broad song and dance. The songs got more tedious as the film went along and I just wished I could skip to the next segment where the film got to be a film instead of a stage production. And in a game, you want to skip the cutscenes, not the gameplay.

In other words, I don't think the analogy here is about the type of enjoyment derived from each element of the production (I'd say the "pure" enjoyment derived from the mechanics of well-designed gameplay riffs off a lot of the same input that makes a song with an enjoyable melody and catchy lyrics pleasurable.) I think the analogy between film musicals and narrative video games lies in both forms trying to be something they're not. My Fair Lady is emulating the stage, in a medium totally unfit for it; when video games try to be movies, they suffer for the same reasons. Gamers want to play, not watch; games aren't as good at being movies as movies are. These are games' growing pains; they will find a way to be more expressive through the gameplay itself than any static cutscene could be. I'd never realized so clearly that film went through much the same stage in the age of the gilded musical.



Cop Stars

After hearing some positive buzz, I downloaded the Saints Row demo from Xbox Live Marketplace. I played it for an hour or two last night. It's just what I expected-- a fairly ugly (graphically) next-gen (there's ragdolls!) clone of Grand Theft Auto 3. It copies every feature of the game, but tweaks some of the already unrealistic mechanics to make them even less convincing. For instance, where in GTA3 there was the Pay 'n' Spray, which erased your notoriety by repainting your car, Saints Row features a drivethrough "confessional," which instantly erases your notoriety without touching your car or providing any kind of rationale for why the cops no longer care that you killed a dozen of their fellow officers. Likewise, in GTA, when you are busted or sent to hospital, you lose all your weapons since, logically, they would be confiscated (though it's a big jump to believe you'd be out on the streets after your 20th consecutive arrest for mass homicide.) The mechanic is the same in Saints Row, but you get to keep your weapons. Sure it makes the game easier and more fun for players who don't like the annoyance of losing their AK when they die, but from a plausibility standpoint it just further breaks a gameworld that's already pretty far-fetched. The graphical style is completely style-less; everything looks like a bad CG render from 1998. As much of the story as I played is completely boilerplate and forgettable. "Grand Theft Auto: Worse" was the least witty but most appropriate phrase that went through my head while I was playing.

What it really made me think about was the disposability of notoriety in this type of game. You kill a few dozen people in broad daylight, you hide in an alley for 5 minutes, and it's like a global memory wipe. You get arrested, and you're back in Ammunation that afternoon buying a fresh sniper rifle. Nothing you do in the game, aside from pre-scripted missions, "matters" as far as the gameworld is concerned.

I would love to play a more low-key version of GTA. One where role-playing, as it were, impacts the experience, and matters to the gameworld. You are a criminal, maybe a hitman, but drawing attention to your crimes has a serious impact on your notoriety and the penalties you face when caught. Your goal would be to kill and steal, but to do so with cunning, so you're either not witnessed or cover up your deeds. Being arrested would be a serious penalty, and there would be separate notoriety for the police and criminal organizations; being "known" in one way could be a boon, while the other just meant you'd been sloppy.

I'd just like to play one of these games that hugged the earth a little more; blowing up a car in the middle of the financial district with a rocket launcher would make you infamous across the city, and you'd be hunted relentlessly by the police.. unless you had incredibly strong protection from the criminal underworld. I want to feel like I'm in this world, interacting with its populace, as opposed to an invincible little god of destruction who never sees any long-term repercussions to his actions. Being able to do whatever I want with no penalty acts to remove any kind of weight the gameplay itself could have. I want to have to be careful when I'm an unknown street thug, no mafia kingpins backing me up; I want to have to plan a hit and plant a bomb under my target's car, the satisfaction of getting away scot free, instead of simply lobbing grenades into a crowded street for kicks, then running for the cop star pickup to wipe my slate clean. I'm looking for Grand Theft Auto with gravity.