When you visit Viemo, YouTube, or TMUnderground to watch a much-talked-about machinima piece, what is your primary motivation? What is it that you're seeking?
In Emotion and the Structure of Narrative Film: Film as an Emotion Machine, Ed S. Tan (1996) discusses two primary motives for watching a film: 1) the experience of fiction and 2) the appreciation of artifacts. The first is about being transformed to the world pertaining to the narrative. (e.g., being engrossed in the events unfolding, being scared as you watch the character ventures out to the dark). The second is about appreciating the style and formal characteristics of the medium (e.g., appreciating the camera work, acknowledging the way the monster suddenly flashes right in front of the camera after the long and slow building up of a nervous anticipation, or marveling at the way Memento tells its story).
This dichotomy seems particularly interesting in the context of machinima. It is my opinion that the appreciation of artifacts has a much higher priority in machinima watching than in film watching. It would be fair to say we often watch machinima mainly to see what people can do (and have done) with various machinima engines, and to be impressed and inspired by their ingenuity. At least, we do so much more frequently than we approach films with the same motivation.
The heightened status of the artifact appreciation in machinima watching is not surprising since machinima started (by and large) as the showcase of what an impressive artifact you can create out of the game you play. The machinima tools geared for story-telling are still in their infancy, and both the developers and users of these tools are in the process of discovering what can be achieved and how. In the mean time, a drastically high proportion of machinima watchers remain to be what we might call peer viewers (viewers who are involved in the craft and the community around it themselves), and for these people, the technique and style naturally are of particular importance and interest.
The problem is that this seems to brew the culture of 5-minute tech-demos in which the highest esteem and popularity are reserved for brief movies with minimal stories that are primarily to demonstrate the maker’s cinematic techniques or the potential of particular tools. In this environment, I find myself left wondering whether there is a place for story-driven machinima.
Should a story matter? I will not dwell on the point that style without substance is empty. Neither will I spend the virtual ink on my personal motivations for making those little movies. Instead, I would raise the point that machinima’s value as an artifact is bound to greatly depreciate outside the small odd community of the machiniphiles. None of the most superior camera works, lighting works, or cinematic techniques created in a personal computer will sufficiently impress non-game-players and non-machinima-makers. It is only through the story, and its universal appeal, that the people at large can be intrigued. It is through the story that machinima would be able to gain the legitimacy and respect it deserves in the real world.