It’s a bit of a cop-out to have delivered no new content for months, then arrive with an ‘update’ post. It’s the writing equivalent of a TV series midseason highlight clip episode.
That won’t stop me doing it though.
Initially I had written a long post explaining the last few months and detailing excuses for the lack of content; but to keep it short, I had to prioritise other things. Let’s get back to it, these updates are not a personal diary. Starting with the concept of a metaverse and then to some recent thoughts on gaming/VR as an art form.
Major media companies, I think ‘studios’ is too simplistic a name for them, are turning popular IP into what’s being called ‘metaverses’. In the broadest sense of the word, and how it’s used here, this just means that major franchises that previously existed in one medium (like TV or Film) are expanding into other mediums (like Videogames). However, there’s a formal homogeneity that betrays the IP’s original medium, relegates these new elements to the role of promotional ancillary products designed to funnel consumers back to the original media, and does a disservice to the potential of a true metaverse.
Let’s look at Disney and their use of Marvel. The IP is undeniably massive, well loved and well crafted. That’s meant honestly and at the time of writing Avengers: Endgame is the highest grossing movie of all time (not adjusted for inflation (5th if so)), so it’s an obvious commercial and critical success, still talked about amongst even the loosest of Marvel fans.
A long run of films preceded Endgame. A well named film referencing both its position as the capstone of the franchise’s strategy and the narrative’s climax. These films served as money-making-marketing for the franchise as a whole, whilst also introducing the characters and telling stories within the larger Thanos-tapestry. If you didn’t like Captain America, don’t worry, there’s always new Iron Man, or Spiderman, or Doctor Strange, and they all point towards Avengers: Endgame. So consumers were incentivized to watch all the films to then be able to zoom out and see the whole jigsaw puzzle as the final piece is placed.
This isn’t a metaverse, it’s a movie franchise, but it does set the stage for one.
Now we come to Film’s little brother, TV. There’s a whole thought piece worth of conversation relating to the changes in the industry and their impact on content, but I’ll leave that to others. Sticking with the Disney/Marvel example (or swap it for Disney/Star Wars if you’d rather), we come to titles like WandaVision (or The Mandalorian). WV is a 9 episode mini-series with around 30-45 minute length eps. It’s an enjoyable series that could have easily been made into a film, and serves as a neat post-Endgame wrap up of two (relatively minor) characters in the films (neither had their own film). I expect Falcon and the Winter Soldier to be much the same: a film elongated into enjoyable-enough-episodes.
So what’s my point? Well the show (WandaVision) feels like a series made by a film studio, i.e. a film made into a TV series. Not necessarily a negative, it was a fun watch, but I’m building to a point here. Consumer expectations don’t differ much between Film and TV. Of course, the two are different, but they’re close siblings when compared to other mediums like Videogames, Music or even Books. So you can get away with, even praised for, movie-like TV shows. But the same is not true for movie-like Videogames.
There’s plenty of criticism that exists for my chosen example, and this post isn’t intended to add to that chorus, frankly it’s not the game as such, but what the game represents: a failure to adapt to the IP to the medium, and instead forcing the medium to adopt the style of the IP’s original form.
The Marvel’s Avengers Videogame, published by Square Enix, is the most egregious example of a game made by a film studio with little regard for how the difference in medium changes the requirements of the content. It plays like a game version of a film, rather than a game using Film IP.
To talk specifics; I’ll go over 4 key areas that betrays its roots as a film franchise, highlighting where there was a failure to adapt to a new medium. Each of these is fairly innocuous in isolation, but in combination make for a very bad experience:
- The game begins with an inoffensive cut scene introducing a new character. This removes player agency whilst simultaneously hindering identification with the player’s in world representative, the avatar through which they’ll experience the game.
- The first ‘mission’ you have is to semi-run around looking for clues. Not a bad idea but its execution is weak as you play as the child-hero following icons on your map, endure a cut scene, and repeat. I can’t imagine a slower more underwhelming start to a game promising god-like level power… which gets me to point 3.
- The hero’s are actually seriously underpowered. When the narrative clumsily arrives at some action, the player is granted control of a variety of Avengers characters. Players will be familiar with the feats of incredible strength Thor, Hulk, Iron Man and co. have displayed through the films, maybe even in the comics. It’s underwhelming then, to be faced with the lower level ‘grunt’ enemies, who take a few hits each to dispatch. (It’s two or three hits from Mjolnir to kill a guy with a riot shield. The heroes are, and therefore the player feels, weak. (I shan’t even mention the volume of QTEs).
- You’re then returned to playing as the still unknown character. The player then goes through an unpolished platformer style running/jumping series of levels (traversing roof tops/canyons/abandoned bases etc.) as an unknown character, with little known abilities. It’s not what I signed up for, I wanted to play, straight out of the gate, as the all powerful avengers as we know them from the largest movie of all time.
Starting with an unknown character and being forced through a boring mission, followed by an underpowered QTE driven scene controlling the superheroes, and returning then to unknown character, is a very poor start to any game.
There are counter points to all of the above. No doubt it’s obvious I didn’t finish the game, in fact I stopped playing when fighting alongside the Hulk and an awkward cut scene had me KO’d despite not taking any damage in game. But the point is not the failings of the game itself, but how they’re representative of a companies efforts to produce multi-platform content without adapting said content to the needs of the medium and the expectations of the audience/consumer. At best it can be described as promotional content for the upcoming Ms. Marvel film, a bait and switch which is apparent by the game’s cover art, blink and you’ll miss the new (central) character, but would it really have been that difficult to make the game good?
As an aside: I have massive issues with unskippable cut-scenes, QTEs, interruptive tutorials and HUD intrusions. Not to keep bashing Square Enix, but their Final Fantasy Vii Remake (free on PSN this month) has a controller breakingly frustrating first level, where after nearly every button press you’re presented with another scene-pausing tutorial explanation; let me slash the big sword dammit. It’s supposed to be a lean forward medium.
To summarise then, a metaverse isn’t:
- Taking what works from one medium and forcing it into another.
- Relying on the popularity of another medium’s IP to make your multi-platform successful.
(Nor is it adding your character to an already popular franchise (Thanos in Fortnite). Nor is it acting as a platform to host multi-media experiences not usually considered part of the platform’s traditional media (Fortnite concerts).
“That last one surely comes close though?” I hear you ask. Well not if the medium doesn’t enhance the content itself. I’ll explain what I mean by an example that does that well:
The Path of Neo by Shiny Entertainment (now Amazon Game Studios via various m&a) has the single greatest introduction to a game based on an already popular film I’ve had the good fortune to play. The game was aware of its medium and the audience’s expectations of it and actually used these things to enhance the overall experience, elevating it beyond a simple adaptation.
It starts with a mercifully short cut scene during which the player makes the famous redpill-bluepill choice from the film. This moment grants both character and player agency, they become one. You’re in control now. Much like Neo’s own experiences in the film, action is then immediate and extreme. The character/player is dropped into the famous lobby from the film’s climax and left to face enemy waves. Without explanation, you teach yourself the basics, discover your combat combinations and special abilities, as enemies increase in power. Again, this is much like Neo in his early experiences of training in the training programmes onboard Morpheus’ ship. The player really is on the ‘Path of Neo’, expressed via the game’s mechanics and narrative together. Other than an unobtrusive tip on using weapons, button suggestions are relegated to the bottom left of the HUD to be ignored if so desired.
Obliterating the barrier between player and character within seconds wasn’t enough for this game. The number of waves you manage to fight through then sets the difficulty level for the rest of the game. It seems simple; but to have the player plunged into action and then craft an appropriate experience from their performance is the pinnacle of utilizing the medium to elevate the IP. Shout out to the game Enter the Matrix, it tells the films’ stories from the perspective of other characters, giving richness to the overall Matrix universe, and is a very solid game in itself, but doesn’t make use of the medium to the full extent Path of Neo does (Enter the Matrix could work as a film series easily enough).
It probably shouldn’t be a surprise that this is the franchise to really nail a Videogame adaptation. The Wachowski’s themselves are avid gamers who then created a film concerned with questions of ontology. Leveraging player/character agency dynamics is right in their wheelhouse. The Wachowski’s self awareness comes in at the end in force when they appear on screen (through digital avatars) to explain that Neo’s martyrdom in the films isn’t a fun end to a Videogame, and instead let you fight a big megazord-style Mr. Smith.
So Marvel forms the base of my pyramid, it’s a level 1 metaverse. It creates successful IP within a single medium (Film/TV are the same now, don’t @ me). The Matrix adds a second medium to its successful IP. Successful is recognising how the medium and its audience differentiate from Film and adapting the content as such (either overtly as in their big-boss ending, or subtly as in their tutorial level mechanics).
There’s still a third level….
For this I’d like to use Daft Punk’s Discovery and its associated film: Interstella 5555: The 5tory of the 5ecret 5tar 5ystem as my examples. The album and the film can stand on their own and be enjoyed separately. The album is an enjoyable series of sci-fi inspired EDM songs, whilst the film is an ode to 70s and 80s anime, with the usual heroic/damsel narrative and a message of artistic commodification to boot. Take either away from the other and they still work.
Though not quite as well as they do when together. After watching the film, the album has greater depth and meaning, the album reciprocates by giving the film a stellar soundtrack that originates from within the movie itself as it’s played by the protagonists (they’re a band in the story). They elevate each other, whilst remaining true to their respective mediums.
Part of the success is in artists recognising their limitations, or rather, experience within a few mediums, and onboarding others if they’re venturing into other media (as DP did for 5555). Mike Oldfield’s Songs of Distant Earth is a good example of how a metaverse can work without the creators even needing to acknowledge each other.
That is level 3; the use of different mediums to contribute to a shared self-referencing IP universe; so that the collective works are greater than the sum of their parts, and no single element is relied upon to carry the rest. Rather, each piece enhances the total in turn.
A good metaverse is like a good wine pairing. The food and wine can be enjoyed separately, but they’re best enjoyed together when the experience of one enhances the other. In this analogy the overall media IP is the meal.
So the metaverse levels are:
- Multiple pieces of successful content that share a universe. E.g. Marvel.
- Multiple pieces of successful content across different mediums that share a universe. E.g. The Matrix & The Path of Neo
- Multiple pieces of successful inter-referential content across different mediums that share a universe and elevate the experience of the whole. E.g. Daft Punk & Interstella 5555.
Perhaps my Matrix example can fit into 3 but whilst I enjoy the game it doesn’t change my appreciation of the films, or vice-versa, I don’t feel like they add anything to the metaverse that the film doesn’t do already.
Some other time I may dive into what in-universe media can do to enhance the whole, as a multi-verse of universes sort of thing, but not now. That summarises my thoughts on metaverses, what follows is a look into the medium of Videogames and its relationship with Virtual Reality.
VR & Video Games
I had written in my notes that as TV becomes more gamified through railroaded choice selection (e.g. Bandersnatch) and games become more TV-ified (cinematic cutscenes with quick time events), that they’ll eventually merge to produce a single interactive storytelling medium. But on reflection, neither TV interactivity or Videogame QTEs enhance their respective mediums. In fact I’d say they hinder them.
What I’m interested in, as the lines of Film/TV/Games blur is what we’ll end up with as a result, or put another way, what is the next major medium? Well if anybody has had the misfortune to read through Black Swan, you’ll know that trying to predict the next game changer is unreasonable.
That won’t stop me doing it though.
Virtual Reality. Can VR realistically be the next thing to warrant description as a medium of its own right? If you’re an avid follower of my ramblings, both fiction and non-fiction, you’ll know it’s an area I’m interested in. Right now, because of tech limitations (like the early days of films & TV, even books way-back-when) it’s a fringe medium. But it’s just a matter of time before it’s in every home. But is it a medium of its own, is it not just a development of Videogames?
If VR can offer something different, and not simply an enhancement of what we have already, then it earns its status as an independent medium. But then, questions are raised about how we differentiate the mediums:
- What separates Film from TV? This question used to have an easy answer: “You watch a film in one go, a TV show is multiple parts”, but SVOD binging means that this distinction doesn’t exist anymore. Answerers will look to the content itself then, rather than the form of its consumption, and arrive at blurred lines. Cut WandaVision together, remove the filler, credits, titles, expositional recap and you have a 4 hour film or so. Frankly I think it’s time we found a new name for this era of video and do away with the distinction between TV and Film.
As an aside: I’m going to skip over social video (YouTube/Streaming and the like, it’s pretty much the same as point one.)
- What separates a Videogame from a TV show? This question used to have an easy answer too: “You interact with a Videogame, you don’t interact with a TV show”. Does a Videogame with a lot of QTE cutscenes make it a Film/TV show, or does a TV show with viewer interactivity (Bandersnatch, or text in voter polls) make it a Videogame? To be honest I think the answer to both is no. The answer lies in the degree and frequency of these features. If it’s once or twice in an otherwise entirely passive/active experience than they’re TV/Videogames respectively, but we’ll need to move the goal posts to suit the definitions as more of each appear in both over time.
I think VR has the chance to provide us with media experiences that are neither TV or Videogames, once the medium itself becomes the focus of the experience (calm down McLuhan). VR has yet to identify what it offers beyond an enhancement of the experiences already present in Movies/TV and Videogames. (e.g. awe of exploration can be found in world class 4k documentaries, jump scares in most horror films, detailed investigation in detective novels etc.)
So the real question is, what experiences can VR deliver exclusively?
Perhaps the answer is none. I’ll admit my creativity is so intrinsically linked to a lifetime of consuming videogames and movies/TV that it’s hard to come up with an answer. Frankly I think even Videogames have yet to fully embrace differentiation from Film, and instead rely heavily (but not solely) on Film’s narrative and visual conventions.
As an aside: Videogames don’t need to tell stories. Obviously they can tell phenomenal stories, but the true differentiation of the medium from TV/Film comes from games like Cities Skylines or Minecraft etc. They allow for experiences that can’t be translated into other mediums at all. These are Videogames ‘proper’ as I see them. Some nostalgia driven reactions might call out games like Street Fighter or Tetris, but I’d ask what experiences they deliver that live MMA or a jigsaw puzzle can’t? It’s reductive and obviously there’s nuance, but you see my point. Next time you’re playing a game, ask yourself ‘Could this have been a film?’. I bet the answer is yes, even if it’s multiplayer. Even Cities Skylines could be a (complicated) board game; perhaps that’s why Minecraft is the best selling game of all time, it’s impossible to be in any other medium.
Most consumer experiences with VR are Videogames, interactivity within a 3D ‘screen’, not as a medium itself. VR is marketed as the medium of freedom, of new worlds and realities, of immersion and exploration. These promises remind me of tabletop RGPs, and their poster boy Dungeons & Dragons. That too is immersive, otherworldly and support limitless exploration (at the GM’s discretion). Whilst nothing matches the production potential of one’s own imagination, VR could find a home here, one that enables it to differentiate from Videogames. Allow me to pitch:
Imagine a shared sandbox world entered via VR. Players and GM have control over their respective roles; the players of the characters, design & actions, the GM over the world and its content. From an archive of assets, the GM can build the world in real time, piece by piece or via tweaking pre-made worlds. Stories play out narrated by the GM as usual, with triggers and cues activating in game assets that respond as prescribed, directly interacting with the players characters as they swing swords and cast spells, seeing their blades clash and fireballs fly in real time.
The reification of the Gm’s world in VR, with all the functionality of a Videogame, creativity of development platforms (e.g. Dreams) and social interaction of things like ‘VR Chat’, would allow for an experience that puts imagination at the fore rather than on the backseat. Obviously such an experience (do I say ‘game’?) would have limitations and the craziest moments are unlikely to have pre-determined responses (“I seduce the dragon” memes might be difficult.) but an exact replica of 5e isn’t what we’re going for here, rather a hybrid system to facilitate TTRPG freedom through VR.
Still, even that feels closer to a Videogame than to something new. There’s potential for VR to be more than a delivery method, and to be part of the message itself, I’m just not sure what/how yet.