What are games, exactly? It’s a tired question in the videogames industry, but it’s tired mainly because nobody has been able to agree on an answer. Many game designers are fed up with the whole debate and find all the semantic squabbling rather pointless, yet I think it’s telling that the debate persists. No other medium causes such confusion–everybody knows, and can easily identify, a book or a film or a sculpture or a painting. Videogames, on the other hand, are more ambiguous. Take Feed the Head, for instance–is it a game? Is it a toy? Is it something else? This is not a deliberately experimental work meant to push the boundaries of definition, this is a relatively modest (though delightful and admittedly surreal) work of simple entertainment. What about David Cage’s Heavy Rain? Is it a game, or is it an “interactive film”? Is there a difference? What about SimCity? Its own creator, Will Wright, attests that SimCity is a “toy”, not a game. Does this make other simulation games toys as well? And what does that mean for the toys? Could a toy, typically associated with the frivolous play of children, ever be art? Could one use a toy to tell a story, or convey emotion?
Category Archives: Games
What are games?
For many years now, that question has driven me to learn everything I can about the medium, to travel and meet as many people as I could find who shared my passion, and to refine my own ideas so that I could express them more clearly. This has been my passion, my dream, ever since I was a kid: to see games mature and fulfill the tremendous potential that I could sense even in the early days, when I was still too afraid of losing to do anything but watch my friends play. Last year, I went to the GDC to try and find others who shared this vision–and, more importantly, to find others who shared my vision of what games could become, what the miraculous technology of computers could make them. I came away impressed and inspired, but also let down–what I saw was a commercial world where even those trying to break out of the mold were still thinking in limited terms. They saw games as systems, collections of rules to be built and exploited. They saw the advances of science and wondered how we could use them to make our games more popular, more engaging, more fun. They saw other media and wondered how we could incorporate them into ours in order to strengthen it, to make it more than itself. But few were asking the questions that I felt most deeply, and fewer still had any answers. None were to my satisfaction. True, there were some saying we shouldn’t emulate other media, that games’ strengths stand on their own. And there were some saying that games could tell stories, that they could be artistic, that they could be used as a tool to comment on important issues and enhance the way we live. But it didn’t seem to have occurred to anyone that maybe games were the art form we shouldn’t be emulating. No one was saying that maybe, perhaps, video games could be meaningful without telling stories, that they could be beautiful without being artistic, that they could be useful without being treated as mere tools.
This year, I saw much of that change. The industry, and those who work in it, are beginning to realize that games can be beautiful, useful, meaningful, and inspirational for their own sake, not in service to some other medium or purpose. We are coming into our own as a medium of expression and power, and we are doing it not by becoming better at incorporating other media into our own, but by becoming more confident in the knowledge that our medium can stand on its own, without help from any other. That is a marvelous thing, and if that was all I got to see in my lifetime I would be a very lucky man.
As it happens, however, that is not all. We, today, are witnessing the rise of not one, but two art forms. The first is a medium that has existed for millennia, that has shaped and sustained cultures the world over, that helps define who we are as living and learning creatures. This is the medium of games, and it is a wonderful medium, and it deserves to be recognized.
There is a second medium that is coming into its own, and this medium is so new and confusing it does not yet even have a name. This medium is strange and wonderful and huge–it is a medium with at once more power and more scope than the medium of games, capable of infinite expression. It is a medium so broad, in fact, that all others ultimately fall under its shadow–just as the seas flow into the ocean, just as all mountains are rooted in the earth. It is a medium conceived by the algorithm, birthed by computers, and now being raised by game designers. This is the medium that gives me shivers and permeates my dreams; this is my passion, this is what I wish to see. I don’t want to be a game designer, really–there are already thousands of wonderful games in the world, and millions of people making them, most of them far better than me. What draws me is the vast, uncharted places beyond games, the places that the computer has only recently made visible, has just barely made traversable. I want to design for this new medium, where there are no precedents and no expectations. After all, a poor path through the wilderness may nevertheless be remembered if it is the first–and this wilderness is so frighteningly vast, one almost cannot help but be the first simply by taking a few steps in.
So that’s where I’m going. With a handful of other brave explorers, I’m going to start making tracks into this wilderness, searching for secrets in the jungle. Care to join us?
Congratulations! You’ve completed level five of the GDC! Here are the secrets you discovered:
- You saw a game about making objects smaller and bigger
- You learned how Dan Benmergui created his award-winning game Storyteller
- You heard how the game GlitchHiker was made, and how it was eventually killed by its players
- You found renewed inspiration for the capabilities of games to be immersive experiences with Robin Arnott’s Deep Sea
- You discovered that game designers are not very good at cooperation
Today was the most fascinating and inspirational day yet! Unfortunaltely, I don’t have the time or the energy right now to cover everything I’d like. Instead, I’ll give you some bare-bones notes on what happened now, then come back and fill them in later.
Congratulations! You’ve completed level four of the GDC! Here are the secrets you discovered:
- You heard Will Wright and Cliff Bleszinski talk about their inspirations, and realized they’re not that different from yours
- You saw how the art in Dear Esther told a story through use of environment, and how realism can actually be detrimental to immersion
- You realized that all your favorite games share the common element of strong “atmosphere”, and that having this quality in a game ultimately boils down to nothing more than having a strong, unique, and cohesive identity
- GDC Microtalks 2012:
- You witnessed David Sirlin discuss how giving the player less time to think can actually lead to deeper strategy
- You felt the subtle yet powerful difference between competitive victory and cooperative victory during Mary Flanagan’s talk
- You learned six things Dan Pinchbeck thinks we need to stop discussing about games
- You learned several ways in which Pinchbeck told a story through the environment, music, and narrative of Dear Esther
- You noted several games, books, and movies speakers mentioned that you should check out for inspiration
You’ve unlocked the final level! Continue? (Y/N)
Congratulations! You’ve completed level three of the GDC! Here are the secrets you discovered:
- You discovered Jason Rohrer wants to fight inflation by destroying real money
- You learned what Eric Zimmerman thinks about games and the “ludic century”
- You compiled a list of games to play this year
Congratulations! You’ve completed level two of the GDC! Here are the secrets you discovered:
- You found a novel approach to modeling social situations in a computer
- You discovered that you are not the only one who thinks old-school video game soundtracks were actually really carefully composed and that some are absolutely f***ing brilliant, on par with compositions by Bach and Mozart
- You discovered that Phil Fish has really strange thoughts about games, too
- You rationalized a beggar
Congratulations! You’ve completed level one of the GDC! Here are the secrets you discovered:
- You saw a fascinating game design tool by Brian Moriarty
- You were remembered by one of your favorite game designers
- You realized the key to making a standout game (with some help from Paul Graham and Jeff Hawkins)
- Watching a movie, you found more inspiration for making games than you’ve felt since…well, since last GDC
So here I am in San Francisco again, getting ready for the first day of the 26th annual Game Developer’s Conference. Registration isn’t cheap, and neither were the plane tickets and hotel reservations. I don’t actually work for a game company, and the number of games I’ve made can be counted on a single finger. So why am I here?
The GDC represents all that I love and hate about the current state of video game design. It’s big, it’s loud, it’s crass, it’s commercial. It’s juvenile and gaudy and shallow. But there are moments of real beauty here, too: talks that inspire and uplift, people looking for a deeper meaning, developers striving to make games into something more than merely a form of entertainment. That’s why I’m here; to be reminded of the fact that there are other people in the world just as passionate about games as I am, and just as determined to see them become something greater than they are now. To make new friends, find new ideas, and become inspired to create something new and radical and marvelous. If you like, you can come along with me on my search for secrets, here in the heart of the video game industry. Let’s go exploring!
Independent games hold a very dear place in my heart. I love games, and the quirkier and more experimental they are, the better. Large corporations can’t make quirky, experimental games very easily because of the risk that experimentation entails—with some of the larger blockbuster games requiring teams of hundreds of people and budgets of tens of millions of dollars, it’s no wonder that big publishers tend to stick to established franchises and proven formulas. If left unchecked, this can lead to stagnation and decay, and the industry suffers as a result. This is where the independent developers come in. Since independent developers aren’t tied to big publishers, they have more freedom to make riskier games on smaller budgets.
IndieCade is a festival celebrating independent games and the people who make them, held every year in downtown Culver City, Los Angeles. It’s been called “the Sundance of video games,” and in addition to having many independent games set up for attendees to play, there are talks, panels, activities, and “big games” that attendees can participate in. This year, I went to see the sights and try to meet new people and find new inspirations, and that’s exactly what happened.
The most interesting new game I played at the festival was a bit unusual; it’s called Johann Sebastian Joust, and it’s a game played with up to six motion-sensing controllers (PS3 Move, specifically) and no graphics. Each player activates their controller (which lights up in a different color to quickly indicate which player is which) and faces each other as music begins to play in slow motion. If you move your controller too quickly, it will vibrate and flash red, indicating that you’re out of the game; the objective is to be the last player with an active controller. At random intervals the music will speed up, indicating that you can move a bit faster without losing, but you have to be careful to listen for when the music slows down again or you’ll be out of the game! The genius of this game is that, although it encourages very physical play with people trying to move their opponents’ controllers, the need to keep your own controller from moving too quickly keeps the game from getting out of control. The fact that people have to move in slow motion really does make it feel like jousting or fencing; it’s surprisingly elegant.
There were plenty of interesting graphics-based games too, of course. One of my favorites was Fez, a Metroid-style platforming/exploration game where the 2-dimensional protagonist gains the ability to rotate his flat world into the third dimension. Each level has four sides, and each side plays like a traditional Mario-style 2D platformer, but at any time you can rotate the world to show another side. It’s very clever, and the art style and music are gorgeous. Another game I liked, along similar lines, was a simple title called The Depths to Which I Sink. Played in full 3-D, it’s a game about depth perception where you control a simple bouncing dot in a three-dimensional box. Windows, hoops, and obstacles float through the box, and your objective is to fall/rise through the hoops and break the windows while avoiding the obstacles. It’s a lot of fun and surprisingly engaging. The Depths to Which I Sink was so popular, in fact, that it garnered enough of the attendee’s votes to win the Audience Choice award. Another game that intrigued me was a game for the iPad, which had come out a few months ago. It’s improbably named “Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery EP” and is an eccentric point-and-click adventure that consists almost entirely of exploring an expansive, lovingly detailed 2D world of beautiful pixels, humorous characters, and incredible music. It’s almost more of a meditative experience than a game, and I was sorry I was only able to play it for a few minutes. Other favorites included Antichamber, a philosophical first-person puzzle game involving the navigation of very strange, often non-Euclidean spaces, and At a Distance, a similarly mind-bending two-player cooperative game where the biggest hurdle to completion is figuring out the rules! There were a lot of other games there that seemed interesting, but I didn’t get a chance to play all of them—there was everything from a cooperative platformer where the two players have to invent their own gestural language (called Way, this game won the Developer’s Choice award), to a puzzle-platformer game where players manipulate gravity and navigate Escher-like “impossible” environments (the name of this one was The Bridge), to a magnetic “kiss controller” where couples actually use their tongues to control the game! Good stuff.
In addition to the games on display, there were also some interesting panels and sessions. I got to participate in one called “iron game designer”, in which three teams were chosen from the audience and had to come up with a game that they could play and test out then and there. Each game had to be based on a theme that the audience chose (the Amish), and had to incorporate a “secret ingredient” (which turned out to be bananas). Later on in the day, there was a talk I’m still recovering from by Adam Saltsman, maker of the Flash game development kit Flixel. He talked about such high-level philosophical concepts as death, infinity, and the true nature of the sublime, all in front of a 60-minute animation of a spaceship launch. The day after that, Phil Fish (the developer of Fez) gave an even more experimental “talk” in which he did not say a single word. Instead, he showed a slide show, accompanied by music, that began with the text “a thousand pictures are worth a million words.” Then he proceeded to click though, yes, one thousand collected images in time with the music. The presentation lasted ten minutes and could probably have been made into a bestselling music video.
The conference wrapped up with a party (and, of course, a game), followed by the presentation of the Audience Choice and Developer’s Choice awards. I had a lot of fun and am definitely looking forward to going back next year—who knows, maybe I’ll have a game on display myself!
Open your favorite music program right now, play some music, and turn on the visualizer. Look at it for a minute or two. Put it in the background while you read the rest of this essay.
Back yet? Good. Now, what you’ve been looking at is art. I don’t mean to say that it’s Art with a capital “A”, or even good but “low” art–that’s not what I want to talk about here. All I mean to say is that you’re looking at some form of creative expression, as distinct from the music you’re listening to as a film is from its soundtrack. If we agree that fractal art is a legitimate form of creative expression, it’s hard to say your visualizer isn’t. But…what kind of medium is it?
It’s a moving image, so it’s certainly nothing like prose or painting, and it doesn’t seem to be film, because you never see the same thing twice, and what you see is dependent on the music. It’s tempting to call it a game, but I think this is a mistake. It’s not like any game we’ve seen before: it has no objectives or goals, no notion of progress or completion, and very little interactivity. In fact, the little we can do to interact with it–change the music–results in the least interesting behavior. It looks much better if we just let the music play. The program is interacting with the music, not the player–you don’t “play” this game at all, you only watch it! It doesn’t even seem to have any rules except in a very abstract sense. You could, I suppose, argue that it still counts as a game, that the music is the “player” and the lines of code that govern the program’s behavior are the “rules”. But doesn’t that seem like cheating a little? If the categorization were that simple, we would still be calling films “photoplays”. Why don’t we? Because calling them photoplays is a disservice to the unique strengths and weaknesses of the medium. Can you imagine what film would be like if we still thought of them as “plays, only on a screen”? The film industry would be a joke! A film that was shot on location instead of on a set would be considered “experimental”, and “avant-garde” would be a film where the camera moves from place to place instead of remaining static. No one would have even thought to actually cut and edit the film! The same is happening now with video games: because we call them something they’re not, because we still think of them as “games, only on a computer”, we limit what they are capable of.
Look back at your visualizer. What you’re looking at is not a game: it is something new entirely. The fact is, games are not new. Games have been around longer than movies, longer than books, longer than writing. Kittens play games; they are probably older than language itself. Games are not new. Computers are. Computers have given birth to a medium of expression so new, so bizarre, so unexpected, that so far we can only identify it by what it is not. The video game industry–even those on the very edge of the avant-garde–still hold to the assumption that games are made to be played. But programs don’t have to be played. They don’t have to be interacted with. They don’t have to be “fun”. Like the best true art, they can be beautiful for their own sake.
I don’t mean to say that we should stop making games. Computers are a wonderful tool, and–like in many other media–they have allowed us to do things with the medium that weren’t possible before. I don’t even mean to say that games can’t be art, in the highest sense of the word–Brenda Brathwaite’s Train, a game made without a single silicon chip or digital display, is as unquestionably a work of Art as any painting or song I have ever experienced. What I am saying is that by fixating on games, we are ignoring the potential of this new, unnamed medium. What’s worse, by confusing this new medium with the medium of games, we’re putting severe limits on what we can do with it. Film gave us a new kind of stage play, it is true–any play, after all, can be easily translated into a film. Similarly, any game can be translated into a video game. But in both cases, the true potential of the medium lies in the things it can do differently than that which came before. Games can be wonderful–and like plays, they have strengths that their successor lacks–but these new programs, these “notgames“, have the potential be so much more.