Special effects in TV and Movies these days can sell just about anything, in the context of making it look real, and do it for less money than was dreamed possible only a few decades ago. But this morning, a couple of stray neurons in my brain happened to fire at the same time and a new thought wafted through my mind; I found myself considering whether or not this new-found facility with the art of illusion was killing Hollywood, and taking gaming along with it.
Don’t get me wrong: I love the believability. I love that I can watch a completely artificial creation acted out on set by a live-action person, and that every nuance of that live performance can be incorporated and tweaked until Gollum looks as real as Frodo – who is half Gandalf’s height, and LOOKS it. I love that CGI made a series like Babylon 5 financially viable – even if it took 3 (or was it 4?) television networks to see the whole thing through to completion. I love the otherworldlyness of “The Matrix” and bullet time, and the walking undead of Pirates Of The Carribbean (which look as real as I always wished the ride did).
When I was younger, I had to work much harder to suspend my disbelief and accept the implausible for the sake of story or character. Nevertheless, I was able to lose myself in Spiderman (the comic) and never once question that changes in musculature towards a more fit human would enable him to mimic, proportionately, the feats of this or that member of the arachnid family. My imagination was getting plenty of exercise, so I found it easy.
These days, I find it much harder. Just as seeing the seams in matting green-screen to CGI jar me momentarily out of immersion in the story and remind me that what I’m looking at is faked, so I find that I have a lower tolerance for implausibility in my gaming. If something happens, I need to be able to look at the underlying mechanics and be convinced that – given the right assumptions – it would be plausible. Those mechanics need to be present throughout the world in which these things take place in order to fully sell the realism.
Take magic for example. In the olden days, it was enough for the wizard to state “I cast Magic Missile at —” and my mind would conjure up an image of the character waving his hands and diamond-shaped streaks of light erupting from his fingertips to arrow unhesitatingly towards the target. These days, I have to convince myself of the plausibility of the underlying mechanics – the wizard focussing on the target, the power welling up inside him (from where?), being shaped by his hand motions and the patterns within his mind (how do they interact?), erupting from the fingertips, still linked to the Wizards thoughts as he sends them flying between obstacles and around corners as though they were cruise missiles being remotely piloted – all before I can describe the action taking place with any conviction. What’s more, this underlying metaphysics has to be consistant across the entire gamut of arcane spellcasting.
Just as Hollywood benefits from the increased plausibility of its special effects, able to integrate the real and unreal in an ever-more seamless blend, able to tell stories that would simply not have been possible to depict, so my campaign world benefits from all this looking below the surface. It becomes easier for others to suspend their disbelief and immerse themselves in the world when I – or someone else – has already done the heavy lifting for them, and the game environment itself becomes more realised and better-executed.
But this plausibility comes with a price tag. In Hollywood, it’s ever-increasing budgets, which demand ever-growing audiances with the motivation, the desire, and the disposable income to spend on a night’s entertainment – something that might be harder to come by in the modern economic reality. In the game, it’s more work for me as a GM, and has caused the gradual loss of players who find the effort involved becoming harder work and less entertaining. Ten or fifteen years ago, the gaming club where I play had weekly attendances of 40-60 players, week in and week out. Now there are about twelve of us – and two of those have been gaming for less than a decade.
Where are the new playes coming in to replace those who have moved aside, moved on, or moved away? They seem to be either busy playing CCGs like Yuh-gi-oh or computer-based games like World Of Warcraft – either sacrificing the entire need for suspension of disbelief in persuit of gameplay, or letting someone else do ALL the heavy lifting. Few from either group seem all that interested in tabletop RPGs.
And yet, there is hope – a light at the end of the tunnel. Even if the current economic climate does not force a retreat from big-budget blockbuster special-effects-driven movies on the part of Hollywood, even if the ever-mushrooming budgets do not force the entertainment industry to implode (something that has been predicted several times before without ever occurring), as the special effects become ever more seamless, audiances will stop being aware of them AS special effects and start focussing on the stories being told. The game-players will ultimately grow tired of shallow plots and start looking for depths and subtleties and a level of immersion that can’t be faked or glossed over with smoother 3D rendering. The WOW players will want to go beyond what the programmers have made possible, the card players will ultimately want something with a bit more depth than just another meaningless round.
One of my greatest dislikes about D&D 4th Ed is that it seems to be pandering to these non-gaming groups at the expense of the old school. But, by offering a conduit to the old school of gaming, it might just end up being the salvation of gaming in general. And that’s food for thought for the harshest critic of 4E, isn’t it?