-[The Aberrant Gamer is a weekly, sometimes NSFW column by Leigh Alexander, dedicated to the kinks and quirks we gamers tend to keep under our hats – those predilections and peccadilloes less commonly discussed in conventional media.]

I never had any designs on becoming a game journalist. Actually, I went to a two-year acting conservatory, and got a very good education, too. These days, I imagine my parents peek some of my articles – a defense of breast physics or a discussion of incest sex games – and wonder why they bothered sending me there.

But given the wary dance games and films have done about one another over the years, maybe I can yet use what I’ve learned. Now, it’s a rare film knockoff video game that’s worth playing. On the contrary, actually, film and games seem to be converging by moving further apart. Games that try to sell us that drawn-out, cutscene-heavy, empty-action experience that has been called “cinematic” (though to so call them seems to insult cinema) are a dying breed. Developers are learning that what makes a good movie doesn’t make a good game, and so we can hope that the film studios aren’t too far behind when they’re at the table to talk licensing.

Acting school was very much about the emotional experience. If you haven’t any experience with actors – no, not high school “Drama Kids,” but trained actors – I can tell you that the whole thing was very much as you might imagine. Lots of skinny folk in black, odd teachers who stood on chairs to shout at you, lots of open weeping. People got naked. But somewhere amid all that, we learned about what it takes to deliver honest, emotionally-grounded entertainment.

Perhaps one way to elevate games – both in terms of how they affect their audience and in terms of how they’re treated by our culture – is to take a page not necessarily from the final product of films, but from their creation process.

Pageant Kids

When I moved to New York to go to conservatory, I met a small class of others from around the world who were here to do the same thing – all of us fresh-faced and nervous, with big dreams of Broadway lights and Hollywood screens. Each of us was the best singer in our High School musical, the star of our local community theatre, the president of our hometown Drama Club, and willing to try as hard as it took to be the best, most famous and most beloved actors we could be.

The first day of class saw us in pageant pose, with frozen grins and too-bright eyes, hoping to impress our teachers, outclass a room full of strangers. We produced fake accents and fat crocodile tears with ease; when we were assigned our very first scene work, many of us pulled out our best and heaviest-wrought impressions of the professionals we admired, wringing our hands and sighing our heavy little hearts out in front of the class.

Our teacher told each and every one of us, to the last, that we were awful.

-She really said that, and yelled at us. As I said, it was very much like the Saturday Night Live satires you’ve seen – but she was right. We did learn that we were trying too hard, and that connecting with the audience wasn’t something we should force ourselves to do. We were just trying to be good actors – but we needed to stop trying. Those first weeks of our education in acting were spent not acting at all; to the incomprehension of many of us, we were simply taught to quit holding tension, to breathe “correctly,” to relax when under the gun, and to let impulses come through us naturally while we just sat still and read a script in our own voice. No passionate faces, no crocodile tears, no aggrandized stances. For my part, the idea that the subtlety that happens in a human face in response to a buried feeling is more stirring than anything you can conjure through artifice was something I didn’t really internalize until a bit after my graduation. Maybe that’s why I turned out a writer.

Crocodile Tears

What does this have to do with games? Well, how often have you played a game that you know is aiming to manipulate you? You’re in the midst of a contrived character death, poignant orchestral music is playing, and you’ve put the controller down in your lap to watch beautifully-rendered tears well in the corner of a hi-def character’s hi-def eye.

Oh, please, my teacher would interrupt, if she were directing the game. She’d stand up and yell; she’d tell the designers who crafted the scene to get the hell out. Maybe she’d even say, are you sure you’re in the right career? You’re much better at writing…

Ahem. Anyway, maybe some of those emotionally manipulative games even succeed at affecting you. The measure of a great game used to be whether you wept at the ending, right? But does that necessarily mean that you gained something from the experience? Moreover – does that mean it was a good game?

The characters and events in games are obviously not real; those poor characters can’t take the blame for their bad acting. Instead, a team of game designers obviously collaborated on the project; you can imagine that they sat around a table and discussed what they wanted their end result to look like. “Gamers today want affecting experiences,” someone must have said, “We want this project to have an emotional impact. So what can we do?”

That innocent act of goal-setting – wanting a design in which they’ve deeply invested (in every sense of the word) to have an effect on the player – might actually be the game designer’s first mistake, just like wanting to make our audience weep at our sincerity was our first mistake on that beginning day of acting school.

-An Honest Performance

Am I proposing that, before setting design goals, game developers sit around and do some deep breathing?

Well, maybe I am. Game design is not all that far off from a film or a stage play in its fundamental parts – there are a number of different elements that must work in concert to convey, essentially, a single thread from beginning to end, from different scenes and settings to visual aesthetics and sound. It’s one thing for our acting teacher to have told us to “just relax and be organic,” but films, plays and video games are actually meticulously crafted, very deliberate and complex affairs.

The key to a good theatre performance is for the actors to be genuine; in other words, we had to learn to have honest, natural desires that corresponded in some way to those of the characters we were portraying; their objective must become our objective. We mustn’t tear at our hair or stride across the stage because we think it’d look stirring, or because we think it’d be affecting to watch; we do those things on natural impulses. The actor’s goal is, in other words, to develop the character into a reflection of our inner self, and an expression of our natural goals and desires.

There’s no science to it; as I and many others in my class learned, it’s damn hard to stop scrutinizing oneself, to stop worrying about how a performance will be received by the audience. It’s hard to stop thinking and to stop trying. But one thing’s clear: Most of the games that critics and fans have found most affecting and refreshing in the last few years are the ones that were not trying.

And when the developers of those titles – most of them independent – were asked what their secret is, most of them said that they simply made the game that they wanted to make, that the games they created were an expression of themselves or their enjoyment of the design process.

Perhaps that’s why some games feel honest and others don’t; some game experiences capture us on a personal level, and others are cheap entertainment, a performance with a lot of explosions placed at the exact moments the directors thought would most excite the audience. They contain a ready cultural lexicon proven to cause reaction for its own sake. There’s little room for personal interpretation.

My teachers had favorites, and they would have absolutely adored Jonathans Mak and Blow, for example. And I wish I could send those teachers into some of the big-budget studios to play preview builds, and have them march in their long scarves and tweed jackets on the board room tables and shout and wave their arms. I’m aware the investors are the ones that might need the most yelling at, as would, ironically, the Hollywood studios who want games based on their films. But it might work.

Or maybe a whole bunch of game developers would quit and go become journalists.

[Leigh Alexander is not a doctor, and neither are the guys in the prescription drug ads. She is editor of Worlds in Motion and writes for Gamasutra, freelances and reviews often for a variety of outlets, and maintains her gaming blog, Sexy Videogameland. She can be reached at leigh_alexander1 AT yahoo DOT com.]