Why We Need More Video Game Commentaries

I once read that writers at Valve had to rework whole sections of GLaDOS’ dialogue in Portal 2 because play testers thought she was too mean.

This is an interesting tidbit I love to throw into casual conversation with gamer friends, but I eventually started to question if I was remembering it correctly. After some digging, I discovered the info was actually buried in the developers’ commentary for Portal 2. While I intended to listen to the commentary to find that one fact, I found myself sitting through all 40 minutes of behind-the-scenes stories and secrets.

As someone who is fascinated by all aspects of game development, I was hooked. When you play through Portal 2 with the commentary on, you get to hear from developers on all sides of the process: programming, design, narrative, gameplay, and more. The directors, producers, and cast members contribute, but it is especially enlightening to hear from developers describing every little detail.

There are also some sections of the commentary that interact with the game world, like when the camera moves outside of boundaries or shows the geometry that informed design decisions. Actually demonstrating how they built the digital world is incredibly powerful; after all, interactivity is what makes games unique as a medium. They invite us not simply to observe a fictional world, but to be a part of it. A dynamic, integrated commentary could enhance that immensely.

For such a rewarding gaming experience, I couldn’t find many other examples.After scouring various forums, pages, and articles, I discovered a piecemeal list. Commentaries for film and television are great ways for viewers to hear from cast and creators and get a glimpse into the production and development process, so why shouldn’t we have them for games too?

In 2007, the gaming industry was valued at $41.9 billion; then it jumped to $68.4 billion in 2012, and to an estimated $99.6 billion in 2016. By 2015 it was already pulling more revenue than both the movie and the music industries. But there is an ingrained familiarity with the latter: we watch movies about how movies are made all the time. So why not apply this idea to another huge, growing industry? Games are growing at such a rapid pace, the audience for these kinds of features would be substantial, and there are endless possibilities for how developer’s could use commentaries to show players all kinds of behind-the-scenes features. It’s a no-brainer.

So far, we have seen a handful of pretty cool commentaries for games, even if they are closer to what we traditionally see with film. In Bioshock‘s 10th anniversary remastered collection, the player could collect golden film reels around the various levels, which would then unlock interviews about the game’s development with creative director Ken Levine and animation director Shawn Robertson. For the remaster of The Last of Us, director Neil Druckmann and actors Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson sat down to discuss the game during its cutscenes. Their commentary soundtracked these scenes as they happened, much like for a film or TV show.

Those commentaries are a great start, but we need more like Portal’s: discussions that take us outside of the boundaries, digitally and metaphorically, of how we think about games. We need interaction that takes us under the hood and pushes boundaries like the games do.

In addition to hearing from directors and cast, I also want to learn more from the artists, programmers, level designers, and sound designers. Maybe we could get a breakdown of the enemy paths from an AI programmer, or have an animator talk us through idle animations in a slow moment. They have so much to do with making a game what it is on the day-to-day, it would be worthwhile to hear how each little piece they contribute adds to the whole. Maybe these features could have special collectors editions, or function as DLC for the hardcore fans. Movies and shows get all of those cool behind-the-scenes segments all the time.

Every year, the gaming industry gets bigger, and more people are playing all the time. Games are a fundamentally different medium than TV or film, but I think the industry should embrace that with in-depth commentaries. A lot of people out there are always craving more about what goes into their development. All I know is, I would eat that stuff up.

Images: Valve

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