Wednesday, December 27, 2006

But Can a *CASUAL* Game Make You Cry?

Sure, this post's title is a play on the oft-repeated "can a game make you cry?" question, which IIRC, originally came from the early EA "We See Farther" ad. (BTW, does anyone have a high-res scan of that original ad? I sure would love to read the text of it again...)

The original question (it's rhetorical, those asking beleive the answer is 'yes', and the question's just supposed to make you think about what it might take for a game to illicit any kind of strong emotional response from you.

Today when that question is thrown about at conference keynotes and such (See my MIGS'05 anecdote on this), it's usually made in reference to the 'cutting edge' game development: 'Next-gen', big budget titles, with graphics and animation to suspend disbeleif and rich story and theme to wrap yourself up in. Because if anyone is going to do it, it will be those titles, right?

Maybe not.

A couple nights I rented & watched Wordplay, the documentary about Will Shortz, the New York Times crossword puzzle editor.

Arguably it just uses him as a focal point and is really more about the NYT Crossword 'scene', which includes him, his predecessor, frequently-contributing puzzle designers, and the leading competitive players that meet at the annual championship.

This documentary of course is very similar to Word Wars, the documentary about the players on the competitive Scrabble circuit. (I blogged about this one a while back). While Wordplay leads you to beleive it will be more of a character movie than Word Wars, it falls short in this respect. In covering so much, and talking to SO many people in doing so, and in focusing on getting 'the big names', means it stays pretty high level and doesn't dive deep on any one person. Word Wars is a better character flick, IMHO.

On the other hand, Word Play does a GREAT job of describing the game itself, the process some of the designers use in coming up with puzzles, and -most interesting to anyone in the electronic games business - the interesting relationship between game designer and player. The more 'hardcore' of the players in the movie are often heard saying "Ah, this is a [designer name] puzzle, so you can expect it to have some of [name of unique signature trait here]."

I found that to be very interesting. I'm not sure that same relationship exists anywhere in the electronic game world. Perhaps to some degree. Fans of Lucasarts (old school) adventure games, Bioware titles, and a few others come to mind. But I'm not sure it's at that intimate level. At no point during Gears of War did I get surprised by an ambush of baddies and say, "Ah, Cliffy, I should have known you'd put some of those guys there!".

Anyhow, that was one observation that I came away with in relation to our industry.

The bigger eye-opener was in seeing one of the DVD extras entitled 'Five Unforgettable Puzzles' which gave a detailed look at the story behind five famous crosswords, among them "Wardrobe Malfunction", which definitely showed that a Crossword can make you laugh, and "Drawing Power" a crossword done as a tribute to illustrator Al Hirschfeld, which judging by the mail they got from the latter, proved that at least a *crossword game* can make someone cry.

Anyhow, the movie is worth renting just for that extra alone.

The epiphany for me was that if a crossword puzzle can make someone cry, as can a pop song (vs an opera) or a short poem (vs a novel), then I think there's no reason that a casual game can't do the same.

Food for thought.

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