Tuesday, December 6, 2011

A Potential Ambassador

A while back, Jorge shared some thoughts on potential cultural ambassadors that could bridge the divide between video games and other media. When it comes to this topic, I'm usually of the mind that video games should send their stars outward instead of recruiting flag bearers from the outside. Having Martin Scorsese direct a video game might attract a few newcomers, but I think having Will Wright do the talk show circuit would raise more awareness for the medium in general. However, a recent podcast has me rethinking this opinion, at least as it pertains to one person: Guillermo del Toro.

I don't know much about del Toro's game, Insane (no one does yet). But after listening to the last two episodes of the Irrational Games podcast, I want to believe that del Toro is the real deal. Although he's best known for his directing and writing accomplishments, it at least sounds like he's taking the right approach to directing his first video game. Here are a few of the reasons why:

He Actually Plays Games

What a concept right? Actually, it seems like many film directors, including the ones who make movies based on games, don't have a huge amount of experience playing games. Del Toro is able to keep up with Ken Levine and Julian Murdoch, two sharp minds when it comes to games. He readily cites examples of his favorite moments in games and makes it clear that he's followed the medium for some time. This gives me confidence that he's aware of design trends and how players interact with game systems.

He Can Think Like a Designer

On a related note, one of my favorite bits from he conversation was del Toro's description of what he and his team do after designing a sequence in Insane. After constructing a sequence meant to convey certain themes and create a specfic experience, he asks "What would the asshole do?" Del Toro repeatedly acknowledges the unpredictable dynamics of player agency, which suggests he is thinking about story telling as a series of actions and reactions instead of a linear narration. No matter how hard you work to create an illusion in a game or funnel the player through a tightly controlled sequence, there will always be people looking to tweak the system. Every developer tackles this challenge in a different way, but it's reassuring to hear del Toro openly embracing it.

He's Enthusiastic

It's difficult not to become infected by del Toro's gusto. He's candid and outspoken about his successes and failures. It's easy for him to say that he's not simply stamping his name on Insane, but his past works and overall view of video games suggest that he wouldn't be doing this if he didn't truly care about it. Films like Pan's Labyrinth and Hellboy were clearly labors of love, and much of his excitement regarding video games stems from the potential of the medium itself rather than his specific game.

In this regard, he sounds very similar to people like Ken Levine or Peter Molyneux, people deeply committed to their own games, but also to the craft of storytelling. Regardless of how successful Insane ultimately is, del Toro's philosophy gives me hope that it will at least be a very interesting game.

Del Toro isn't the most mainstream Hollywood figure, but after listening to his passion for video games, I have high hopes for his ability as a cultural ambassador. Judging by the sound of it, he's working hard to make sure anyone he introduces to video games for the first time has a valuable experience.


  1. I am of course interested to see how this pans out, though I think the history gives us plenty of reasons to be skeptical. As enthusiastic as he might be, Del Toro is not a game designer, and he is working with developers that (IMO) haven't made a really interesting game since 1999, and a publisher which is primarily known for publishing mainstream action games and licensed titles.

    In addition, we've seen this sort of big-name involvement before. LucasArt's The Dig had several big names attached to it and is now seen as a flop, especially compared to other LucasArts adventures of the time. I remember when Peter Jackson claimed that he had handpicked Michael Ancel to direct the King Kong video game, though I doubt anybody else remembers that or even remembers that video game. Those are the first two examples to come to mind.

    Granted, those situations are not directly comparable, and since we haven't seen anything concrete yet there's no good reason to be cynical unless one simply doesn't like Del Toro's work. Still, I'm erring on the side of caution with this one. I'd love to be surprised by something great, but I think the reality is that would actually be a surprise.

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  3. @Grayson Davis I do remember reading King Kong was one of the better film to video game adaptations.

  4. Del Toro does have the right qualities to be a "cultural ambassador," but I still don't think he has quite the notoriety in popular culture to really make any meaningful changes in the public perception of games.

    I sort of view Del Toro as how I view Atlus's (the developer) place in the gaming industry. Both Del Toro and Atlus craft deep and meaningful experiences that are financially and critically successful but never quite break out of their respective "spheres" in terms of influence or general public penetration.