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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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