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?
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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?
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.