Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Rules of Entertainment

If you are an entertainer, there are 3 things that are REQUIRED in whatever you are giving to an audience for it to be entertaining:
  1. You must make the audience learn something
  2. You must make the audience feel something
  3. You must surprise the audience with something
Now I cannot claim credit for this list. I heard it during an interview with Penn Jillette. I am not sure if he originated this list either, but since it is such sound wisdom I would not be surprised if this was a list that Mr. Jillette in turn heard from some predecessor. 

Not to say that Mr. Jillette cannot have profound and wise things to say, but he is paid to be the loudmouth distraction so you do not notice what Teller is pulling out of his pocket.

It's like the Tank and Medic pairing in TF2, if the Medic was silent and the Tank made cameos on Fox News.

Think of every good movie, song, book, or game you have loved as an audience member. These 3 rules apply. That movie you've watched a hundred times and still love it? Ever discuss it with other people and mention how you see something new every time? How about a new movie? Did you like the Avengers? Then you learned, felt, and were surprised by something. Didn't like it? Well then you are so well-versed in the Marvel universe and so detached from your own emotions that I just can't help you, man. 

Though this IS how the movie showed a grown man who is in touch with his emotions.

What really surprises me that in my own 12+ year career in entertainment, how many people in the film, tv, and game industries haven't a clue that you need to provide these things to have a satisfied audience. And this is a raising bar, as our audience is being more sophisticated and informed over time. Making a group of people learn something or be surprised by the same formula is becoming a trickier task by the day.

When Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare came out, the FPS market was dominated by the Halo series. Then MW1 provided a photo-realistic world that put you in cinematic events (a.k.a surprise events to break up the run-and-gun), emotionally laden moments (you are killed as the main character in the first 5 minutes of the game), and realistic military phrases (anyone outside of the military know what "Oscar Mike" meant before COD?). 

Now we have seen several blockbuster sequels, but Infinity Ward has a serious problem. What will they teach and surprise us with next? We've seen just about every kind of slow motion vehicle explosion and Russian terrorist plot that could be jammed into a game. Black Ops 2 is going into a futuristic warfare of robots and computers. Does this mean the franchise has to go into the future to surprise us because it has outpaced itself past the present?

Because calling it "Post-Modern Warfare" would be a bit too self-aware to allow tanks with size 83 sneakers.

For a long time in the game industry, there was an open question to developers, "can a game make you cry?" Many fans of Final Fantasy pointed to the Aeris death scene in FF7 as one of the most poignant moments in games, because it surprised the audience and brought them on the verge of tears.

Time to get the Kleenex.

For myself, I didn't own a PS1 so I never experienced this moment (though I heard about it quite a bit to know most of the details). I would use another example that may not be as popular, but really does capture a full entertaining experience for myself as an audience member: Shadows of the Colossus.

The player is the one on the left.

If you have never played this game, you should play it as soon as you possibly can. The opening sequence takes its time setting a basic adventure story, but makes sure that you are emotionally invested. This is not about saving a princess in another castle. At the start, your character brings the love interest to a temple. She is in coma and you, the plucky young adventurer, has traveled with your body across far lands to find a cure. The temple sends you on a quest to kill 16 colossi, each one a different living puzzle.

The space is artistic and vast. The colossi are damn near the biggest things I have ever seen in a video game space. Each one is almost passive when you first approach, and any violent actions could almost be seen as them defending their own person or territory. There deaths come with a mixed sense of victory and sympathy, similar with the choice to farm Little Sisters in Bioshock rather than save them.

Sorry little girl. Your corpse means more bonus points. Good ending be damned.

As we wrap up the tail-end of the current console generation, I doubt we will see investment into these level of details as they are not always seen as a good investment in games. Studios have been rocked in the last few years; previously riding a high of thinking we were recession-proof, to feeling the low of record numbers of studio closures. They know the audience for consoles are dropping off and they are being more selective about what games they are playing. Now game studios can only invest in games that will make their money back. That does not leave much room for surprise, learning, and emotion, especially when those elements are never a guarantee that every person will feel those things. Even in the best pieces of entertainment, there are just those completely competent individuals that just "don't get it".

Mr. Ebert, I'm looking at you.

But I feel it is a requirement of all entertainers to strive to be one step ahead of your audience or else you are no longer entertaining. Very much in the spirit of Lee Iaccoca where you need to "lead, follow, or get out of the way", as entertainers we need to make the audience feel something, or get in the seats with them.

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