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Saturday, October 06, 2007

Pong Versus Hanafuda

I made a quip over at SVGL that the problem with Western gaming narratives was that Western games are pinball, Japanese games are comics - and while I hold that the statement is partially true - the history isn't accurate. In actuality, we created Pong off an oscilloscope (though the game industry has roots in pinball) and Nintendo started life making card games. Not that it really matters.

If you drift through Wikipedia's excellent history of video games, you'll see everyone was trying different paradigms and some of them included narratives. Concepts of a protagonist, storylines and art were intermixed. Whether it be Mario's quest against a large gorilla or Dirk against the dragon ... stories were something people tried.

The real question, I think, is why did the Western narrative genres ultimately fail? Adventure begat Zork which begat Hitchikers' Guide To The Galaxy (the game, of course, I don't mean it inspired the novel) - which was one of the most immersive pieces of interactive fiction ever created (not to mention one of the more frustrating). The IF version of HGTTG is a story with real characters you feel in touch with - and yet the closest we get to this these days is Indigo Prophecy. Which, OK, wasn't a bad game all in all - but not a great story.

On the flip side of things, Japanese RPG's - with their cutscenes and characters - flourished. OK, sure, Dragon's Lair and all of its cousins had mechanics which barely surpassed rock, paper, scissors in terms of game dynamics and the interactive DVD market of the good old Sega days is something of an embarrassment.

Maybe Pong and Hanafuda references aren't so off. We created games in a lab while Nintendo was playing cards. Sitting across the table from someone shouting "koi koi" is a bit different than wiggling knobs around. Maybe the problem Westerners have with accepting games as art is that we never really designed them as such. Certainly plenty in the industry can see the distinction - but your average movie reviewer is still think in terms of knobs, flippers and buttons.

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