‘My Dinner with Andre’ is a really strange film. The first I’d heard of it was in an episode of Community which heavily referenced it. But it turns out that the film is a bit of a cult classic. I watched it. I liked it. And I still have no idea why. Andre was an insufferable character, and while his friend (played by Wallace Shawn) had the facial expressions of a man who almost couldn’t believe what he was hearing, in reality I’d like to think I would’ve stood up and given Andre a good beating. There was something there though, something sincere that captured the brilliance of human communication and the intricacies of how we relate to one another. Even though I had no direct agency in either character I was curious of the stories and views both characters were putting forward.
It is part of the human condition that we are inquisitive. The Doctor from the long running British sci-fi series ‘Doctor Who’ often says that the brilliance of the human race is that we are curious and determined to survive and explore. Whether it be learnings of economics, the arts, science, space exploration or even eaves dropping on the personal conversations of people on public transport, we are confronted every day with the opportunity to learn and grow. Conversations are a key part of this – a likely reason My Dinner With Andre is more classic than curio.
So while I sat there contemplating why the 1981 film was oddly compelling, I started to think about the role of conversations in a video game. After all if a film, entirely spectatorial, can be driven entirely by the course of an almost two hour conversation, why can’t video games? Conversations within the confines of video games are almost always devices to either drive the narrative forward or to point the player in the direction of their next mission or objective. What if conversation was the game and what if your character grew by watching and listening to people on the world, rather than by killing.
There are games that have tried it. L.A Noire tried to incorporate elements of body language to inform interrogations, but its simple representation of human emotion left a lot to be desired. Both Assassin’s Creed and Mass Effect have used eavesdropping as a direct tool for gaining information to complete or obtain new missions, but it was just the equivalent of an arrow to the next point of interest on the map. So it is true that developers are continuing to figure out ways to better incorporate the intricacies of human communication into game design. The problem is that this heightened sense of awareness about others (not the protagonist or antagonist) in videogames is being shoe-horned into worlds and game mechanics that are not built for it. So what we end up with is a one-way street.
It is the natural evolution of video game that the way that characters interact within the confines of video games will advance and improve. It will, like it has consistently since video games came to be, help to give the player a greater sense of agency and interest in the world. And with that it will make for better games. Whether we will ever see human communication or our inquisitive nature explored and represented in a video game remains to be seen. I challenge developers to make the video game equivalent of My Dinner With Andre, because it could very well be the best game ever made.