Day Three of the GDC: The State of the Art

After a rather lackluster keynote by the president of Nintendo, the day picked up steam with a series of great events. Here’s a summary:

Dynamics: the State of the Art

Expanding on Chris Hecker‘s 2009 talk on how games convey meaning, Clint Hocking discusses his theory of expression in games and how it relates to established media such as film. He started his talk with a discussion of the “Kuleshov effect“, a psychological phenomenon named after the filmmaker who experimented most famously with it. As a result of the Kuleshov effect, Clint argued, filmmakers realized that they could tell more powerful stories through editing techniques that capitalized on the audience’s tendency to read their own emotions onto the characters on the screen. If films had not discovered this effect, editing and meaning in film would seem irreconcilable, and films would degenerate into stage plays, leaving behind the most important expressive tools that filmmakers have. This was clearly meant to be an allegory to games; and Clint’s argument is that, as films convey meaning by their editing, games convey meaning by their dynamics. Dynamics are distinct from mechanics (the rules of the game) and aesthetics (how the game “feels” when you play it)–dynamics are the emergent behavior of the game. Although the developer has a lot of control over the dynamics of the game, ultimately the player retains at least some amount of authorship. In the big picture, this is really not all that different from in other media, where the audience’s active participation is required for a story to have its full intended effect–consider Kuleshov’s film, or the famous six-word story “For Sale: Baby shoes, Never used.” The meaning of a game can also be drastically altered by context–for instance, a simple narrative skin on top of the classic game of Tetris could have a huge impact on the dynamics of play, and hence the meaning of the game. Adding another player also changes the context, and creates a situation where meaning is authored by *all* the players, either collaboratively or competitively. That’s right, meaning can be determined through competition!

On the whole, I found his talk engaging and insightful, but I was left with a couple of questions. First, I wondered why more games hadn’t capitalized on dynamics to convey meaning, and why it seems so difficult for games to be expressive even through their dynamics. Second, and more importantly, I wondered if perhaps “meaning” might not even be that important. In other art forms, “meaning” is often absent from uncontroversially artistic works. What is the “meaning”, for instance, of Mozart’s 40th symphony, or of the film Un Chien Andalou? The latter, in fact, deliberately thwarts any coherent “meaning”. Why is it that no one has tried to make an art game that has no meaning at all?

GDC Microtalks 2011: “Say How You Play”

An hour-long session of many different developers giving very short talks, Microtalks was, like the rapid-fire indies session yesterday, a fantastic collection of great stuff by some very talented and intelligent people. Asi Burak talked about why he likes text-based games and why he doesn’t like the “gamer”–or, for that matter, the “games”–label. Jason Rohrer talked about what it is that makes games engaging, and the need to reconcile wanting to express oneself creatively with the need to engage your audience. Even avant-garde films, he argued, have recognized the need for plot to engage the audience–should avant-garde games recognize that challenge is necessary to engage the player? (My response: perhaps, but what does it mean for something to be “challenging”? Instead of making games challenging or fun, could we make them beautiful? What would that look like?) Brenda Brathwaite gave a very interesting talk about how being a developer encourages you to “see the system in everything” and discover hidden aspects of your day-to-day life. Some pretty inspirational stuff. I’ve been thinking for a while of some sort of connection between games, spaces, and exploration, and Brenda’s talk definitely hinted at such a connection.

Life and Death and Middle Pair: Go, Poker and the Sublime

In this talk, Frank Lantz presented a case study of the ways in which two vastly different games, go and poker, both serve as routes to the sublime. There were some interesting moments, but overall it felt rather vague–it never really felt like the presentation had a coherent direction.

Seven Ways a Video Game Can Be Moral

A follow-up to Richard Rouse III‘s talk last year, Five Ways Video Games Can Make You Cry, this year’s talk focused on how video games can be used to address topics of morality in their narratives. He addressed seven different strategies for dealing with morality in a game and illustrated each with examples from games and other media. These strategies are: clarity of intention (having the narrator or a chorus introduce and illustrate ethical concerns); multiple points of view (having different characters do the same); redemption (allowing for a character’s morality to change); complexity (introducing or encouraging shades of gray in moral situations); the quandary (a moral dilemma with no real answer); thoughtfulness and respect (being respectful of moral issues without addressing them directly); and medium genre and message (understanding how your message changes depending on the genre or medium you use to express it). He closed the talk by likening games to science fiction and saying that we are still waiting for our Ray Bradbury to come along and put morality and complex issues into a medium that people think can never have it.

Creating an Emotional Rollercoaster in Heavy Rain

David Cage, head of the game development company Quantic Dream, presented on his most recent game Heavy Rain and the ways they tried to make it different from other games. Heavy Rain is an unorthodox, heavily cinematic but thoroughly interactive drama about a serial killer and a father trying to save his son. Whereas most video games are made for adolescents, are emotionally limited, and have been operating on the same basic paradigms for the past 30 years, David wanted to make a game that featured adult themes and tone, that said something meaningful, and that experimented with new paradigms. The approach he chose–making a narrative that was fully interactive–was intriguing, but I fear that this approach to making “interactive stories” inevitably runs into the problem of exponential content creation. Every action you allow the player to take is another branch in the story that you have to author by hand. Clearly, the results can be profound and meaningful, but the bar to entry is set very high, particularly when you have to not only write all the possible dialogue that might take place in the game, but also model and animate the characters and objects, record voice acting, model 3D assets, etc. Even when you restrict yourself to plain text, it rapidly becomes impossible to support every conceivable interaction for more than one or two actions. The greater flexibility you allow the player, the harder it becomes to keep up. Hence, most interactions in Heavy Rain are limited to pressing certain buttons at the right times to perform a huge variety of different tasks, rather than in traditional games where you have a very small set of possible interactions, but where any one of those actions can be performed at any time during play.

General Impressions:

The more I hear from other developers, the more I am convinced that the reason games are so difficult to make into art is that no one is quite sure what games are. As developers, we’re not sure what we want to say, because we’re not sure how to say it. Do we say it with words? With characters? With music and art? Do we say it with our mechanics? Our dynamics? Is it really any help to say that games’ meaning comes from their “dynamics”? After all, expression in any medium depends on an interaction between the author (who creates the mechanics) and the audience (who experiences the aesthetics)–that’s what “dynamics” are. If that’s true, saying that games get their meaning from their dynamics is as empty a statement as saying that books get their meaning from being read, or that paintings get their meaning from the way they look. I think the crucial question we need to be asking is, how do we make beautiful games? Not merely games whose content is beautiful–be it art, story, or music–and not just games that are “fun” or “cool” or “neat”, but games that are truly beautiful in and of themselves. When we can do that, then we will at last have created an art form.


Filed under Games

6 responses to “Day Three of the GDC: The State of the Art

  1. agj

    I think that there are beautiful games. I found Knytt to be beautiful; it’s one of the games that has influenced me the most. Well, I think that elegance factors greatly in what I consider beautiful; as anything, it’s down to the eye of the beholder. But yeah, there’s few games that have given me such an impression. It’s a worthy thing to pursue, at any rate.

    > Why is it that no one has tried to make an art game that has no meaning at all?

    Well, depending on what you count as ‘art game’, I may have (because I’m in love with surrealist principles). I also contest that games should necessarily have any sort of embedded meaning. It is, however, impossible to create a work that has no meaning whatsoever; rather, I suppose we’re both discussing the author’s ‘message’.

    • You’re right, I suppose that really is what I meant. As “art games”, I was mostly referring to works by Jason Rohrer, Jonathan Blow, Molleindustria, etc. that are built specifically with a message (that may be vague or ill-defined) in mind. Even when they aren’t however, there seems to be a tendency for people to look for one. I wonder if this trend in our culture may be starting to decline.

      • agj

        I think that’s a stereotype associated with the label ‘art game’, which seems to be fading, or at least I’ve come across those notions much more rarely lately. Luckily.

  2. “””Second, and more importantly, I wondered if perhaps “meaning” might not even be that important. In other art forms, “meaning” is often absent from uncontroversially artistic works. What is the “meaning”, for instance, of Mozart’s 40th symphony, or of the film Un Chien Andalou?”””

    A wonderful thing to say!

    You know, I know everyone seems to see Tetris as something pedestrian or something, but it does the same thing for me as a great musical work, regardless of what any original intention may have been. The subjective experience of playing Tetris is similar in many ways to the subjective experience of hearing some of Bach’s pieces. But it is not just the same as some other medium. It is a powerful subjective experience but also a unique one.

    Possibly I am the only one in the world who thinks Tetris counts as a great work of art. But if I am not, then maybe to an extent video games have already found themselves as art but people haven’t recognized it due to preexisting prejudices?

    • Part of the problem is that art is subjective–more subjective even then we often realize. Part of the problem, I think, is that we tend to confuse art with object: one person may be deeply moved by a work that does not affect another at all–one considers the work Art, the other trash. How can they both be right? Because they are confusing object with experience: an object is art if it inspires, as Brian Moriarty put it, that “still evocation of the inexpressible”, and the same object may or may not do this depending on the viewer. Tetris, sadly, doen not seem to be a work that does this for most people.

  3. TJ

    If Tetris becomes a classic, that is, recognized, over time, as a “placeholder” in gaming, will it be recognized as art?…

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