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GDC 2012 – The Rise of Games, the Birth of a Universe

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?

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Day Five of the GDC, Part Two: An Apology for Roger Ebert

Professor Brian Moriarty‘s talk was not, he explained, an apology in the sense of an expression of regret, but rather in the sense of a defense. Many months ago, film critic and author Roger Ebert sparked a firestorm of controversy when he commented in a blog post that he was not, and would never be, interested in playing video games. The debate reached its peak when, in a follow-up post, Ebert (rather rashly) claimed that “video games can never be art”. Needless to say, many in the gaming community were incensed at this claim. Ebert’s comment produced such an explosion of criticism, in fact, that he ultimately retracted his position and said he wished he’d never brought it up. Though he still says he will never play a video game himself, he no longer maintains that they can never be art.

So what’s to defend? Moriarty’s defense is not of this retracted claim, but of one made in support of it: the fact that no one has been able to cite a single game “worthy of comparison” to the great works of composers, filmmakers, novelists, and painters. And it’s true–I’ve played and loved games most of my life, and even I have trouble thinking of such a game. Why is this? Why have games failed to produce what Moriarty refers to as “sublime art”? There are several reasons, he thinks, but there is one excuse we cannot use, and that is the excuse that games are a new art form. Games, in fact, have been around for millennia; they are almost certainly older than all other art forms, and quite probably older than language itself–even rats play games. Computers are new; games are very, very old. What’s more, the idea of great art is actually relatively recent–art used to be considered on purely practical terms. Now that the concept has become part of our culture, however, we need to distinguish it somehow from so-called “low” art. Moriarty uses the term “kitsch” to describe this kind of art. What distinguishes kitsch, he says, is that it is unambiguous, conventional, and never challenging. With kitsch, you are never in any doubt as to what you’re supposed to feel. Kitsch is all surface, “pop” art. Unfortunately, he argues, kitsch is so pervasive in our culture that an enormous number of people never experience any other kind! Why is this? Simply put, it’s because “entertainment”, and games in particular, are an industry. Industries are profit-driven and hence risk-averse. Kitsch, for these companies, is a risk reduction strategy. Kitsch, unlike sublime art, is durable–blockbuster films like Avatar won’t suffer if the dialogue is awkward in a scene or two, but painstaking attention to detail is crucial for sublime art. Even independent game developers, who unlike public companies are not legally obligated to make a profit, are ultimately subject to the same commercial pressures. They have slightly more room for innovation and experimentation, but in the end, if no one buys their games they will go out of business and have to do something else. Hence, most games tend to be shallow and escapist. “True art”, Moriarty points out, “is not an escape from life, it’s a way to deal with life as it is”.

All that said, is there reason to think that games might someday become an art form? Moriarty isn’t so sure. As a Romantic, he cites Schopenhauer’s art theory and contrasts it with games. Schopenhauer claimed that misery, pain and struggle are born from the “will to live” that drives all living things, and that the only way to escape this misery is by subverting the will through the contemplation of sublime art. Games, however, are about choices, and choice is a fundamental expression of will–how can will be used to transcend will? Art, Moriarty says, has no goal, no purpose, no winning condition. Games, in his opinion, are anathema to sublime art, which he elegantly describes as “the still evocation of the inexpressible”.

What do I think of all this? On the whole, I agree with Moriarty; I think he makes excellent points. However, I think it is a mistake to assume that games must fundamentally be about an exercise of will on the part of the player. Many of the best, most expressive games actually put severe and deliberate restrictions on the player’s choices: games like Silent Hill 2 and Shadow of the Colossus move us because we feel complicit, not because we feel powerful or free. Moreover, games do not necessarily need to have a goal, a purpose, or a winning condition. It is possible, I think, to create games that are beautiful strictly for their own sake. Industry, of course, is always a difficult barrier to overcome–and as Moriarty points out, even those who set out to make art games entirely in disregard of industry run the risk of making “arty” games instead, which are simply traditional games disguised with quirky graphics and pretentious narratives. However, I think the bigger issue is one he didn’t address at all–the fact that we are still unsure what games really are.


If I had to sum up the most important takeaway from this entire conference in one sentence, it would be this: what are video games? Nearly every speaker I heard that addressed the topic of artistic expression in games touched on this point, directly or indirectly, at some point during their talk. Not only is it an open question, most developers don’t even seem to be aware that there’s a problem–Frank Lantz, in his talk on day three, was the only developer I saw speak who addressed the question directly, and he only touched on it. Does a game need goals? Competition? Rules? Interaction? All of the above? None of the above? This confusion makes trying to be expressive in games very difficult, because you have no pre-established conventions upon which you can rely; you have no idea what works or why, so you basically have to shoot in the dark and hope you hit something. The issue is further confused by the fact that video games may not necessarily be games–for instance, traditional games are abstract, defined by their rules alone, whereas video games are aesthetically rich, and their rules tend to be implicit. As far as I’m concerned, the question of what games are is the most important in the field. If we can answer that question, then the question of how to use games as a tool for creative expression will be almost easy.


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Day Five of the GDC: What’s Next?

There were a couple of really exceptional talks today; a perfect end to an amazing week. Here’s a brief overview of the sessions I attended:

The Story of Cave Story

Daisuke “Pixel” Amaya, the one-man team behind the retro cult hit Cave Story, is really adorable in person. In his talk he presented a retrospective of the process of creating Cave Story, and his philosophy of design. It all seemed very interesting. Unfortunately, Pixel doesn’t speak English, and I somehow missed the fact that there were handheld translators available, so I had to sit through the entire lecture listening to it in Japanese. My Japanese is just good enough that I could sometimes tell when he was talking about one of the items on his slides (which were in English). Oops.

The Game Design Challenge: Bigger Than Jesus

The Game Design Challenge is an annual competition between a few leading designers in the industry; this year’s combatants were returning champion Jenova Chen, industry legend John Romero, and independent upstart Jason Rohrer. This year’s design challenge was to design a game that was in some way also a religion, or a religion that was in some way also a game. Jason, the first contestant, presented a really interesting idea called “Chain World.” Chain World is a Minecraft mod; there is only one copy of Chain World on Earth. The rules are basic Minecraft, with a couple of additions. The first additional rule is that you can only play once–if you die even once while playing, that’s it, you’re done for life. The second rule is that the game ends when you die–for this reason, suicide is allowed if you decide to finish playing at a certain point. Third, signs with text on them are not allowed, nor are you allowed to talk with others about what you’ve done. Finally, once you have played Chain World, you must pass it on to someone else who wants to play it. In this game, Jason was trying to communicate the sacred feeling of being a small, anonymous part of a long chain of history. He related a story to the audience of his first (and only) playthrough of the game with his daughter; the two of them were both excited, hoping to build many things that later players would be able to come across and explore. However, early on he encountered an unexpected dangerous situation (in accordance with the no-discussion rule, he didn’t say what) and was killed. It was, he said, the most poignant death he has ever experienced. His daughter burst into tears, and was so frustrated that she wanted to smash the flash drive containing the game. After his talk, Jason gave the flash drive to a member of the audience, so that they could be the second person to play it. Next was John Romero, who engaged the audience in a Twitter game. The first twelve people to follow the messiah (@messiah6502, the son of @god6502) became his apostles. Each apostle was then given a stack of sticky notes and encouraged to try to convert members of the audience by giving them the notes; they had only two minutes in which to do this. Once the two minutes were up, converts were asked to look at their notes to see if they had stars (representing miracles) on them. The apostle who had given out the most miracles was the winner. Last came Jenova Chen, who outlined his proposal for making TED into a game/idea-propagating religion. Essentially, this meant redesigning the TED website so that popular ideas (that is, ideas that have influenced the most people) are easily visible and more heavily promoted, so that speakers have their own pages and can list other speakers who have influenced them, and adding feedback loops so that the more influential your ideas are, the easier it becomes to spread them. At the end of the session, by audience vote, Jason Rohrer won a decisive victory.

An Apology for Roger Ebert

Professor Brian Moriarty (yes, his name really is “professor Moriarty”) gave what was probably my favorite talk of the entire week. I liked it so much, in fact, that I’m not going to talk about it here, as I’m too tired and it would take too long to give it the treatment it deserves. Instead, I will write my summary and reactions tomorrow and post them separately.

Classic Game Postmortem: Raid on Bungeling Bay

Will Wright is one of the most famous and influential designers in the game industry today. His contributions to the game development community include such landmark titles as Spore, The Sims, and Sim City. To date, The Sims is the best-selling computer game franchise of all time. Raid on Bungeling Bay, released in 1984, was one of the first games that Wright created, and the editor for the game went on to evolve into the original Sim City. The structure of the presentation was a fairly typical coverage of the game’s genesis, design, and production, though presented with Wright’s particularly clear and humorous style. There was an interlude in the middle of the talk, where he spent some time talking about the Soviet space program, which was a bit of a non sequitur although plenty interesting. Not a whole lot to say here; look up RoBB if you care to know more about it. One thing did interest me about his talk, however, and that was when he mentioned that one of his goals in making the game was to create a (relatively) large, “clocklike” toy world for the player to explore. That was something that really appealed to him in earlier games, he said, and he wanted to expand that idea and make a game “with a world big enough to get lost in”. This comment, though only mentioned in passing, really resonated with me because my favorite moments in games tend to involve that sense of place, of being lost in a self-contained world. During Q&A I asked him if he had ever thought of making a game that consisted solely of a world to explore–no objectives, score, or rules–and he replied that there are some games that already do this to a large degree. Myst, for instance, has puzzles and a plot, but it is not exaggeration to say that they exist almost as an excuse to give the player this world to explore. Some of the other games made by the Miller brothers go even further in this direction–one of Wright’s favorite moments in gaming, he said, was in just such a game, where he was standing outside at night, listening to the chirping of crickets. I wonder why we don’t see more of these kinds of experiences in games, given the profound impact they can have on a player.

General Impressions:

Overall, an outstanding end to a spectacular week. I’ve heard a lot of talks by some brilliant people and they’ve given me a lot to think about. Tomorrow I’ll finish off the week with a description of professor Moriarty’s talk and a summary of all I’ve learned so far.

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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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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.


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Day Two of the GDC: What Does It Mean to Be “Indie”?

The theme of industry continues in full force, even within the “indie” crowd. Here were some of the talks I saw today:

Indie Fund: Lessons from the First Year

Kellee Santiago, Nathan Vella, Ron Carmel (funders); Andy Schatz, Steve Swink, Daniel Da Rocha (developers)

Overview: The funders and developers from the first year of Indie Fund talk about what worked and what didn’t. Funded projects (Andy Schatz’s Monaco, Steve Swink and Scott Anderson’s Shadow Physics, and Daniel Da Rocha’s Q.U.B.E.) were announced.

Impressions: Indie Fund is an attempt to allow independent developers to fund their games outside of the traditional monolithic publishers. Their goal is to help make indies self-sustaining, so that after getting funding for one project they will be able to pay back what they owe to Indie Fund and use the rest to fund their next game. Although they spent most of their time discussing technical issues (problems with the system they started with and modifications they made to try to address those problems), the real interest of the talk was in the projects that had received funding. Andy Schatz and his game (a cooperative multiplayer heist simulator) are already fairly well-known, but Q.U.B.E. and Shadow Physics are newcomers. Q.U.B.E. appears to be a first-person puzzle game about moving blocks around. Both the visual style and concept seem heavily influenced by Portal. Shadow Physics is a platforming game where your character is a shadow on the wall, and you can not only stand on the various platforms throughout the level, you can also stand on the shadows that they cast. When the camera–or lights!–move, the level changes. These guys seemed like very smart and talented people, and I’m looking forward to seeing more from them.

The Next Steps of Indie: Four Perspectives

Luke Schneider, Jeff Hull, Brian Provinciano, Dajana Dimovska

Overview: Four indie developers give their take on the future of “indie”. Luke spoke about the strategy he employed of making a game every month and distributing it via online distribution channels. Focus was mainly on ways to maximize sales while minimizing hassle and frustration. Jeff Hull talked about his company, Games of Nonchalance, which makes games designed to be played in real-life San Francisco; scattered clues and hidden messages lead the players on a treasure hunt across the city. He called himself a “situational designer” and believes that his approach is the “future of entertainment”. Fascinating stuff. Brain, the developer of Retro City Rampage, didn’t talk about the future of the indie scene so much as the development process of his game–what he did right, what he did wrong, why he did it, etc. It was interesting stuff, but seemed a little out of context for the talk. Dajana Dimovska talked about the Copenhagen Game Collective and their latest efforts such as B.U.T.T.O.N., which might best be called a “computer-facilitated” party game due to the fact that the game does not enforce all the rules–other players do. As you might imagine, this can lead to some pretty zany gameplay.

Impressions: Although Luke and Brian’s talks were interesting, Jeff and Dajana seemed to be the ones really trying to experiment with the “future of indie”. Their ideas are mechanically very interesting, but I wondered if they had considered how they might use such mechanics to tell meaningful stories. I asked them during the Q&A section if they had any thoughts on how to integrate narrative and gameplay. Dajana responded that they didn’t really have anyone on their team that was interested in narrative, so that was something they hadn’t explored. What Jeff said was that his games did have embedded narratives, and that some players really got into those narratives while others basically ignored them. What was really interesting, however, was that players who got really involved in the narrative would often start creating their own! It seems to me that such “player-mediated” narrative could do for RPGs what B.U.T.T.O.N. did for party games. Imagine, for instance, a game like World of Warcraft where, instead of the focus being on endless quests and grind, the focus is on interaction with other players, and the collaborative creation of a coherent narrative. The computer would then become less of a dictator and more of a facilitator. How might such a game play?

How to Win the IGF in 15 Weeks or Less

Andy Schatz

Overview: Andy’s talk was not actually about how to win the Independent Games Festival. Instead, he talked about the design and development process of his latest game, Monaco: a multiplayer cooperative action-stealth game about robbing people, which he describes as “a cross between Pac-Man and Hitman”. As with Brian’s bit in the previous talk, it was simply a general overview of his processes in designing, developing, and polishing the game. The talk ended with a live demo, which looked like fun.

Impressions: Not much of interest for me here; Andy himself admits that Monaco is “a popcorn flick, bubble-gum pop” sort of game. Fine by me, I like popcorn as much as the next guy. There were a couple of points I think are worth mentioning, though. For one, he speculated that trying to make games for money (as an indie developer) is actually riskier than just making the games you want to make; his rationale was that if you make a game for money, you either succeed (big $$$) or fail (no $$$, you’re out of business). If you just focus on making good games that you and others will like, however, then if you succeed you may get just as much money, and if you fail you will at least get some prestige from making such a great game. If you have prestige, you have some leverage in making and promoting another game, and eventually one of the games you make is bound to sell and make you lots of money. The other thing I found interesting was a very brief discussion of the two (seemingly conflicting) elements of game design: “mechanics” (the abstract rules of the game and their implementation on the computer) and “experience” (sound, graphics, story, animation, etc.; perhaps better described as “aesthetics”). Games like World of Goo and Braid, he claimed, succeed because they marry these two elements so seamlessly. I would agree that those games are great examples of games that marry mechanics with aesthetics well, but I can’t help but wonder if maybe we’re missing the point. Is it possible that mechanics and aesthetics might not be so different? Would it be possible to make a game where they were one and the same? What would that even mean?

Rapid-Fire Indies

Chris Hecker, Petri Purho, Eddy Boxerman, David Hellman, Kyle Pulver, Chris DeLeon, Andre Clark, Markus Persson, Scott Anderson, Anna Anthropy

Overview: Ten indies presented ten rapid-fire talks in under an hour, on various topics. Chris Hecker gave a presentation on what he called “AAA indie titles”, meaning games like World of Goo, Limbo, and Braid that are independent but have a very high level of polish and are highly anticipated; he outlined some theories/strategies for why/how these games gain such popularity. Petri Purho talked briefly about what he thinks it means to be indie, saying that “indies are game developers who create art instead of making products”. He then played a song for us that was about being a misunderstood artist. Wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. Eddy Boxerman talked about turning forty, and the fact that there aren’t many older people in game design, even though the medium is starting to age a little. His talk addressed some possible reasons for this trend, as well as some possible parallels with the music industry. David Hellman didn’t talk at all, but rather presented a series of images depicting a conference attendee who gets into some trouble. The ending was kind of abrupt, and I’m not really sure if he was trying to say something or just being funny. Very strange presentation. Kyle Pulver talked about game jams and how they’re great, and Chris DeLeon talked about how staying in the spirit of a game jam even when you’re working on your own can be hugely beneficial. He also extensively misquoted Henry David Thoreau. Andre Clark talked about his team’s game pOnd, which is simultaneously a parody of and homage to the recent trend of “zen” art games. Markus Persson talked about piracy and copyright–a subject I already know a fair bit about–trying to clear up some of the misinformation surrounding the subject. Scott Anderson, the second half of the team behind Shadow Physics, gave a talk on the relationship between technology and creativity that was very interesting. Finally, Anna Anthropy talked about her frustrations with the term “indie” and encouraged people to stop using it, because it is a term that limits the kinds of people who can make games, when really we should be encouraging everybody to make games.

Impressions: By far the best talk yet. Not all who presented were great, but most were, and the good presentations had as much real content as some of the hour-long talks. I particularly liked Anna’s talk, because she addressed the idea that the power of game creation tools like Game Maker is that they allow anyone to make games, not just programmers or those already in the indie “scene”. I think this is an important idea: there are a lot of conventions that have stuck around for a long time in games because they are made by programmers, and I think a lot of those conventions are holding the medium back unnecessarily.

General Impressions:

What is it that makes gaming so susceptible to the “industry” mentality? Even the indie scene has internalized that the ultimate criteria for success is how many people are willing to buy your game. I don’t have any answers to this question right now, and it’s late and I’ve got too much text already, so I’ll just end it here. Tomorrow I take a look at some of the actual games of the IGF, and attend talks on some topics that will hopefully be more relevant to the question of game art.


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Day One of the GDC: Meat, Money, and (Maybe) Meaning

Here’s a rundown of the talks I saw today:

Team Meat Presents: SUPER MEAT BOY, A Team Meat Meatmortem

Description: Team Meat (aka Tommy Refenes and Edmund McMillen) present a postmortem of their wildly successful game Super Meat Boy.

Takeaway: Tommy and Edmund are a somewhat disorganized but otherwise dedicated pair who worked themselves nearly to death making Super Meat Boy. They are both extremely talented people who epitomize the indie spirit of making fun, unique and polished games in a small team and with little or no budget.

Impressions: Focus was mostly on the business and workaday aspects of the project, with little time spent on describing the creative process or artistic concerns of any kind. Although part of this reflects the nature of any postmortem analysis, I think they also placed heavy emphasis during production on making a game that would be fun to play, and that would therefore sell well. Such an ambition is so ubiquitous in game design that it seems redundant to state it explicitly, but I think it’s an ambition that could stand to be questioned.

Leave Enough Room: Design that Supports Player Expression

Description: Randy Smith of Tiger Style games presents a game design philosophy that allows an element of creative expression on the part of the player.

Takeaway: Any time the player makes a choice that influences gameplay, that is a chance for player expression. Any time the developer restricts the player’s actions, opportunity for player expression is diminished. Allowing for player expression is a particularly appropriate design philosophy for indie developers, and can be facilitated by following the mantra of “leave enough room”: don’t tell the player what to do, empower the player to generate content, and encourage them to generate content by having the game respond to it.

Impressions: Again, although Randy touched on some interesting ideas concerning the expressive potential for games, his talk addressed these ideas within the context of industry optimization (i.e., making a game that sells). At one point, he began talking about how even very basic game mechanics such as goals and scores can implicitly restrict player expression by telling the player what to do (he used Scrabble as an example of a game whose expressive potential is limited by the requirement to maximize your score). However, instead of going on to ask how games might be made without explicit goals or scoring mechanisms, he asked how we can have goal-oriented gameplay and still allow for player expression. This seemed to me to be begging the question of whether goal-oriented gameplay is a good idea in the first place.

Turning Depression into Inspiration

Description: Michael Todd discusses the drawbacks of depression when working as a game developer, some strategies in mitigating those drawbacks, and some possible ways to turn depression to your advantage during the development cycle.

Takeaway: Michael outlined five basic strategies for staying productive despite depression: first, work on personally rewarding projects; second, let go of excessive perfectionism; third, work on shorter projects; fourth, measure your productivity; and fifth, design the game to suit your strengths, preferences, and resources.

Impressions: Though the majority of the talk was a rather cut-and-dried list of ways to stay productive and engaged in a project even during bouts of depression, Michael touched on some very interesting points. What I found most interesting was something he only mentioned towards the very end of the presentation; I would have been happy to hear a whole talk on the subject. What he said was that art comes from the “experience of the artist”, not from the medium itself. In the context of his talk, this meant that games made during a short timeframe tend to reflect the mood of the developer (e.g., depression) while they were making it, and that experience can be communicated to the player. Games *teach* through play, and a game made while depressed can teach the player a good deal about what it means to feel depressed. Of all the talks I saw, this one addressed the creative process most directly, but didn’t seem to say much that could not be applied equally to other media.

From AAA to Indie: Three Start-Up Stories

Desciption: Daniel Cook (Spry Fox, lostgarden.com), Ichiro Lambe (Dejobaan games), and Jake Kazdal (Space Channel 5, Rez) talk about how they made the transition from mainstream industry and AAA titles to independent development of smaller titles.

Takeaway: The focus of the talks was generally on the pitfalls and advantages offered by independent development, and how to navigate them in order to create a successful business. Jake’s talk was more autobiographical, and Ichiro’s a little more general, but all of them focused on the process behind the successful creation and maintenance of a start-up game development company.

Impressions: Again, very business-oriented. That’s to be expected, I suppose, in a talk with the word “start-up” in its title.

General Impressions:

I was expecting the GDC to be heavily focused on industry, but being here and listening to the talks has driven the point home. Even the talks that did address the artistic or aesthetic elements of game design did so from an industry standpoint, talking about how to use practices of good design to make games that were engaging and fun–in other words, games that sold. Though no one ever said explicitly that “fun” is what makes a good game, the assumption was implicit in all the talks I attended. It’s tempting to think I might encounter a different culture if I went to a different convention, and I think to some extent that’s true, but I also suspect that no matter where I go games will be considered, implicitly or explicitly, as an industry. Even the independent developers whose talks I attended today were tossing around buzzwords like “monetize” and “portfolio”. The ultimate goal, even for indies, seems to be the founding of a business on which they can make a living. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course–I’m not blaming anybody for wanting to feed their families and pay their mortgages–but on balance, I think industry is incompatible with art. If we want to create artistic games we will need to build a different culture to foster them. Consider, for contrast, the independent film scene–can you picture those folks talking about trying to “monetize” their films? There seem to be very few starving video game artists–just a lot of unsuccessful video game developers who either persist and “make it big” or give up and go on to do something else, never bothering to question whether “making it big” is really what they should be doing. Even the quintessential starving video game artist, Jason Rohrer, is now making (and selling) games that are less about creative expression and more about cool gameplay mechanics. I think that if we are to create a culture of artistic expression surrounding games, it ought to have an element of the bohemian. To be strong, such a culture needs at least a few people who don’t care if anyone likes their games–or rather, who don’t care if anyone *buys* them.

Randy Smith touched on this topic, somewhat unintentionally, by pointing out that trying to maximize “score” in a game limits the player’s expressive capabilities–that’s just as true of the developers as it is of the players. If you judge your game’s success by the amount of revenue it generates, or by the number of downloads it racks up, you limit yourself to a select set of “best industry practices” which can choke creative expression and limit experimentation and spontaneity in a design. Only developers who aren’t out to win themselves fame and fortune, or even a living, will be free to experiment with the medium and discover new ways of telling stories.

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GDC 2011: Can Games Be Art?

What are games?  Are they art or merely entertainment?  Could they be both art and entertainment?  If we want games to be art, how should we make them?  Are there already artistic games, and if so, what are their successes–and perhaps more importantly, where do they fall short?  Why are games still considered a “niche” medium, despite their recent (and continuing) explosion in popularity?

For the next five days, I will attempt to answer some of these questions at the 25th annual Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, California.  The GDC is an international expo of some of the leading designers, developers, and programmers in the business, all talking about how they make games, and how they think games should be made.  In recent years, the conference has introduced a number of “summits” focusing on a particular aspect of the game design industry.  The summit I will be focusing on is the Independent Games summit, and the topic I will be addressing is the simple question “Can games be art?”  By attending talks, roundtables, and exhibitions that address this question, I hope to learn something about the current industry attitudes and approaches towards the “games as art” idea.

At the end of each day, I’ll speak here about what I saw and what I think of it.  Hopefully you’ll find my notes helpful, enlightening, and perhaps even inspiring.

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