Day Four of the GDC: Old and New

Best talks yet today! Here’s a rundown:

Classic Game Postmortem: Out of This World

Out of This World is a 1991 action-adventure game made by developer Eric Chahi, known for its cinematic style and dreamy, contemplative mood. In this talk, Chahi discussed the process behind the creation of the game, some of the obstacles he faced, and what he considers to be some of its successes and failures. Some good anecdotes in this talk, too, for example: sending his publisher an infinite fax (consisting of a single long sheet of paper taped to itself) to try to get them to keep the original title sequence music (they did).

In Days of Yore

Chris Crawford is a living legend in the video game industry and the founder of the GDC. His talk covered the evolution and history of the medium, from its humble origins on punchcard computers to the whizz-bang cinematic extravaganzas of today. A lot of things have changed between then and now, he noted: computers have gotten vastly more powerful, developers have become more specialized, and the market has become much less diverse. For all that’s different, however, the basic underlying structures of our games–shooter, platformer, puzzler, dungeon-crawler, etc.–have hardly changed at all in 30 years. Games, Crawford argued, will never be taken seriously as a medium as long as they insist on being about things rather than people. I asked him what he thought of the idea that games might be beautiful for their own sake (much in the way that a painting or poem can be beautiful without being about people), and he replied that although he believed it is possible, he thinks it’s a harder problem because no one has even come close to figuring out how to do this yet. On the other hand, developers are coming closer to solving the problem of simulating interpersonal interaction every day. While I agree that no one has really figured out yet what it might mean for a game to be beautiful in and of itself, I don’t think that necessarily makes it a harder problem–it just makes it a more uncertain problem, because no one’s sure where to start. But the arts and sciences are filled with examples of problems that seemed like they would persist indefinitely, only to suddenly be solved once someone hits upon the right solution at last. The problem, as he put it, is that no one really knows what the “essence” of games is–he suggested that whatever it is, it will feel sort of like a conversation when we find it, and I completely agree. No one will deny that interactivity is the defining characteristic of games, and interaction seems to imply a sort of conversation, but no one is sure what that conversation should look like. Conversations don’t have to be with people only…what might it mean to have a conversation with something other than a person?

Experimental Gameplay Sessions

The ninth annual Experimental Gameplay Workshop presented eight different experimental games through a combination of lecture and demo. The first game was Hanford Lemoore‘s Maquette, a recursive first-person puzzle game. The only mechanic the player has is the ability to pick up objects and move them around. However, in one section of the level that was demoed, there was a miniature version of the level, and manipulating the objects in the miniature moved them around in the larger world as well. So, an obstacle that was too big to move in the normal level could be moved with ease in the miniature, thereby opening a path to the next section of the level. What’s more, objects can be moved in and out of the miniature to make them smaller or bigger–so, for example, you might use a key to open a locked door, then place the key in the miniature in order to create a bridge to the next section. The second game was Michael Brough‘s The Sense of Connectedness–a game where you explore an abstract representation of the human brain and try to determine the rules by which it functions–followed by Nicolai Troshinsky‘s Loop Raccord, which was a finalist for the Nuovo Award at this year’s Independent Games Festival. In Loop Raccord, your objective is to manipulate a series of short film clips playing on loop to create a sense of fluid motion between them, as if the clips were passing an invisible ball around. Next up was Stephen Lavelle‘s fascinating Opera Omnia. In this game, your job is to revise history to satisfy certain conditions, but keeping the present the same. The game consists of several cities on a screen, each with its own population. At the bottom of the screen is a slider that allows you to move back and forward in time–your goal is to change the past (say, make it so that city A had more people living in it than city B when the opposite used to be true) without affecting the future. It’s a difficult game to explain without seeing in action, so I suggest you go play it. After Opera Omnia came Jason Rohrer‘s Inside a Star-FIlled Sky, which is a recursive, procedurally generated shooter. Everything you see in the game is unique because it was created algorithmically, and every object in the game can be recursed upon. So, for instance, if you are critically injured you recurse inside your own body, which then becomes the level. The goal is to reach points in the level which allow you to go to a higher “zoom level”, and there is no final level so you can do this as long as you like. What’s more, at any time you can recurse within any of the enemies or power-ups on the screen in order to change them, and you can collect power-ups to change your “next-up” incarnation. Rohrer said that the goal of his game was to recreate that sense of disorientation that comes from forgetting why you’re doing something–getting yourself so deep into the chain of cause and effect, of recursive diving-down, that you lose sight of the original goal. (For you programmers out there, playing the game feels very much like working with a stack, except you have to keep track of all the contents yourself. If you’ve programmed at all seriously, this should be a familiar sensation.) After Rohrer’s presentation came Mantra, a game about meditation by Argentinian designer Augustin Perez Fernendez. The player moves a line in a circle, trying to match the rhythm of a rotating spiral, while a mantra is chanted in the background and the graphics slowly shift and change. The Longer you can go without hitting the spiral, the more the graphics change and disappear, encouraging you to keep rhythm without the visual feedback. Very cool stuff. Finally, Andy Schatz presented three online games that incorporate user-generated content: The Abrupt Goodbye, which is basically a collaborative conversation tree; Playpen, which is sort of the video game equivalent of Wikipedia in that it allows anyone to edit anything; and Infinite Blank, which is similar to Playpen except that each player is given their own section of the world to build upon, rather than being given free reign over everything. All neat stuff, but Maquette, Mantra, and Opera Omnia looked the most interesting.

One Falls for Each of Us: The Prototyping of Tragedy

As for this talk, WOW. Brenda Brathwaite is quite possibly the most inspirational game designer alive. Her non-digital (i.e., board) game One Falls for Each of Us is the latest in a series called “The Mechanic Is the Message”. Earlier games in the series included games about the slave trade and the Cromwellian massacre in Ireland. Her most well-known game, Train, is a game where several players take turns moving model train cars filled with small wooden pawns. When one of them reaches the end of the line, they pick up and turn over a card that says something like “Auschwitz” or “Dachau”. One Falls for Each of Us is about the Indian Removal Act of 1830 and the resultant Trail of Tears. Four players acting as the white men enforcing the new legislation take turns relocating five indian tribes. There is one pawn for each indian, all hand-painted, and once the game is complete there will be 50,000 of them. During the talk, she showed us some pictures of the pawns sitting on newspaper on her kitchen floor while the dye dries. Each picture contained only about 1,000 pawns, but looking at even that many took my breath away. This is not meant to be an easy game to play.

After talking about her design process and the other games in the series (two of which are still in the design phases), Brathwaite’s talk took a personal turn. In fall 2006, she was attacked in a horrific way. For a long time, she laid in bed, unable to function. She thought about making a level in a game about the experience, trying to make the pain she felt into a system that could be communicated to others. She made the game in her head, trying to explore it. Then she played The Path; a horror game based on older versions of the Red Riding Hood fable. It was in the moment that she met the Wolf–represented in the game as a young man–that she felt a major catharsis, because it was an experience that spoke to her directly. That was the moment when she realized that “games can do anything, they are a magic medium.” She teared up at this point, and–quite frankly–so did I.

General Impressions:

It’s a damn shame that Crawford and Brathwaite’s talks weren’t better attended. They should have packed the house; instead, they were the least crowded of any talk I’ve yet seen. Yet they were also the most worthwhile–Crawford’s because his understanding of the medium is so expansive and solid, and Brathwaite because her artistic passion–her drive to express herself through games–is unparalleled. Brathwaite, I think, understands on some intuitive level what games are really about, and that gives her a creative edge and a drive that many other developers are missing. In her talk, she discussed finding “the system of tragedy” in order to distill that system into a game. This, I think, strikes at the heart of the issue of what games are about. Games, fundamentally, are systems, and the act of playing a game is an act of exploration, of finding out what exists in that system and how it functions. What Brathwaite understands is that emotions–like tragedy and pain–are systems, too, and that you can therefore express them using games. That notion of exploration also supports, I think, Crawford’s intuition that games are about conversations. What is exploration but the process of having a conversation with a system? Even physical exploration is a sort of conversation with a concrete system. Brathwaite has shown us how to create art using abstract systems–the “mechanic” of her message–could we create art using concrete systems as well? What might those be like?

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