Environmental Storytelling and Gone Home

Posted in Article, Level Design on September 24, 2015 by mclogenog

In Gone Home the player is Kaitlin Greenbriar, a young woman who has returned to the United States after a year in Europe. While she was away, her family moved to a new house, and the game starts with the player at the front door, facing a note from Kaitlin’s younger sister, Samantha. No one is home, and the game leaves the player to explore the house and piece together clues from the environment to discover what has happened during Kaitlin’s year away.

Gone Home reveals its story through audio diaries and the environment itself. The former, which come from Sam’s journal, are able to describe what the environment cannot: events that leave no evidence, or events outside the house. The audio diaries also require little interpretation from the player, since they are already Sam’s interpretation of events and details. Instead, they function as a supportive structure for what the player observes in the environment. Some details, like letters or notes passed in class, are as revealing as the audio diaries. Others, like a letter Kaitlin’s dad conveniently saved from twenty years before the story’s events, allow for exposition. These may be necessary to present the player with a coherent story, and they are mostly believable, but the moments where Gone Home’s environmental storytelling works best are more subtle.

There is a long history to environmental storytelling in games, but Gone Home is one of the first to dedicate so much attention to it. In older games, most of the objects in an environment were those that served some function. With limits on computer power, rendering and calculating the physics for many useless objects was cost prohibitive. Because most of these games were first person shooters, this limited environmental storytelling to dead bodies, weapons, and ammo. In some games, like Thief and System Shock 2, there might be evidence of a tripped trap, a note beside the body, or bullet holes in the wall to help the player piece together what happened in the moments before death. The number of unique objects in Gone Home wasn’t feasible until recently, and this is why most environmental storytelling has only been about dead bodies.

Sprung TrapA dead adventurer, some loot, and a trap panel (From Thief 1)

The best definition I’ve found for environmental storytelling comes from the talk, “What Happened Here?” that Matthias Worch and Harvey Smith gave at the 2010 Game Developers Conference. (I recommend listening to the recording and reading the slides if you haven’t already.) Worch and Smith define environmental storytelling as “Staging player-space with environmental properties that can be interpreted as a meaningful whole, furthering the narrative of the game.” This definition fits the examples Worch and Smith give in their talk, and it also fits with most of Gone Home, but their emphasis in the talk—especially their practical tips for environmental storytelling—is on creating chains of events where the player is trying to solve the puzzle of what happened. This is the forensic approach, which has its uses, but it doesn’t explain how some of the stronger moments in Gone Home work.

Terrence OfficeTerrence’s Office (Note the whiskey on the bookshelf)

For example, one of the first rooms the player enters in Gone Home is an office where Kaitlin’s dad, Terrence works. Instead of depicting a single sequence of events like a puzzle to solve, the objects in the room reflect a range of actions. The chair is pushed away from the desk, and a book is on the seat, suggesting that Terrence read the book at his desk and then left it on the seat instead of returning it to the shelf when he was finished. There is also a bottle of cheap whiskey hidden above the book shelf. Crumpled pages in a waste basket show attempts at the opening paragraph of a novel, and each page has more typos than the page before it. A cork board is covered with sticky notes outlining ideas for the novel. There is also an incomplete product review of a CD player in the typewriter. More than an exposition-heavy letter or an audio diary, these details tell the player who Terrence is.

It also doesn’t matter if the crumpled pages in the waste basket are from the same night that Terrence read the book at his desk or started writing the product review. The mess of notes on the cork board suggest even longer periods spent working in this room. The combination of details in the office tells us about Terrence’s ambitions and frustrations. Instead of having the environment tell a story, the environment depicts the patterns of behavior that let us imagine the character living in the space. We can see Terrence going for the whiskey to relieve his writer’s block on not just one night, but many; we can see more than the few crumpled pages in the waste basket, but the reams he has thrown away. Instead of “What happened here?” the questions become “Who lives here?” and “What kind of person are they?” It becomes about the living present instead of a dead past.

Sam RoomSam’s Room

This is also visible in Sam’s room. Where Terrence’s office reflects a certain focus on his occupation and interests, Sam’s room lacks this; it is a teenager’s room. It has an eclecticism from so many interests and ideas built up over years of her life. there is a dinosaur stuffed animal on the bed, a small basketball hoop on the back of a door, and some SNES game cartridges. Sam’s bookshelf has the collection of the kind of classic literature that a teenager reads. Magazines beside the bed and a collage on a locker show Sam’s interests in pop culture. In the closet, there’s the collar of their old cat, Mittens, and a colorful Lisa Frank esque binder from Sam’s elementary school years.

There is a greater sense of sequence here than in Terrence’s office, but it is not the sequence of a single event. The variety of objects show years of Sam’s life building on each other, and the room hints at the process by which Sam has discovered who she is and what she cares about. A discernible chain of events doesn’t really matter here.

Sam DeskSam’s Desk

Showing who a person is and not just how they appear is a struggle in games. A model may capture a person’s appearance and it may show their mood, but the appearance alone doesn’t show who that person is. Early Buddhist artists faced a similar problem with depicting Buddha. Instead of making a sculpture of the man, they created footprints, empty sandals, and empty chairs. They implied his presence without showing him, and this gave the emptiness a sense of space and life that statues depicting Buddha lack. The strongest environments in Gone Home achieve the same effect. When we walk through these rooms, and see the how their occupants have shaped them, they come to life, not as single events, but as months and years played out at once.

On Thief’s Level Design: Maps and Territories

Posted in Article, Level Design on September 11, 2015 by mclogenog

There is a short story by Jorge Luis Borge’s called “On Exactitude in Science” where he describes an impossible map:

“In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.”

These same ideas—maps and territories, degrees of abstraction—are at the heart of the Thief series. They are what give life to its level design, and distinguish the series from all of the stealth games that have followed.

Each Thief game presents a series of missions where the player usually has to break into buildings, avoid detection, and steal valuables. In setting, the games are a kind of steampunk medieval city, and the protagonist, Garrett, is a kind of film noir hero fit to face the city’s darkness. It’s weird, but kind of works in a pulp fiction way.

The levels themselves are big and spatially nonlinear, requiring the player to explore and gather information before completing the objective. Combined with the tension of hiding from guards—or sprinting through mazes of rooms to avoid capture—and the hours it can take to complete one mission, it is easy to become lost. Because of this, where other stealth games are about gadgets or waiting for gaps to phase in to guards’ patrols, the Thief series is about its level design. Each mission gives the player a hand drawn map of the level they are exploring, but the detail and accuracy of the map varies between missions.

The map has also changed between the games. With Thief 1, the map highlighted the player’s current room. In Thief 2, the map also marked the rooms the player had visited and let the player write notes on the map. Thief 3 stepped back, made its maps less detailed and no longer highlighted the player’s progression through the level. It’s an improvement Thief 3 made on the series that almost makes up for the removal of rope arrows.

In Thief 1’s third mission, a tomb named “Bonehoard,” the map doesn’t reflect the labyrinthine tunnels monsters have burrowed. If the player checks the map, instead of highlighting a room, the highlight appears over the text “Where am I?” Instead of relying on the map, the player must follow the notes left by the dead adventurers who came before and hope the markings they left are reliable. The limits of the map become part of the level’s history and the player’s story.

constantine mapConstantine’s Mansion (from Thief 1)

In the seventh mission in the gold edition of Thief (the sixth mission in the original version), the player is tasked with sneaking into an eccentric’s mansion to steal his magical sword, and here the map only shows the exterior of the mansion, and the first few rooms beyond, which is about as much information as the player can gather in 5 minutes of wandering. Where a more detailed map allows the player to plan a course of action and then quickly execute it, as in Rainbow Six where a player can spend more time on the map screen than in the mission, an incomplete map forces the player to slow down, pay attention, and create a mental map in lieu of a drawn one. “Constantine’s Sword” pushes further in this direction by including traps, secrets, and disorienting architecture. The player who treats this mission the way they treated the less complicated manor missions won’t make it far.

When the player checks their map at the start of Thief 2’s third mission, a police station where the player must frame a lieutenant, they will find 5 detailed pages. The map’s rooms are labeled, and important areas are annotated. Instead of aiding the player, the map overwhelms and disorients. However, through the process of playing the level and checking the progress on the map, the map’s abstraction and the level merge, and the player leaves the level with a feeling of mastery.

police stationOne of the five pages of the police station map (from Thief 2)

Because Thief 3 doesn’t mark the player’s position or progress, and because the maps are less detailed than those in the previous games, the player has to rely on the way the rooms on the map are labeled and the way the rooms in the level are decorated. If the player is hiding in a room with few furnishings except paintings and statues, then this may be a gallery, and by checking the map and notes for mention of a gallery, the player can reorient.

Even the details in Thief’s levels are overloaded with meanings like this. In other games, a texture may be a designer or artist’s arbitrary choice, but here the floor material tells the player how slowly they must move to remain silent, how far away they will hear a guard’s approach, and how visible they will be. It also tells the player about the room, whether it is public or private, how many guards and servants they should expect, and where the room lies on the map. All of these details matter as the player determines whether this route is safe. And that’s merely the information expressed by the floor material.

overlook mansionOverlook Mansion is bigger and more complicated than this map suggests (from Thief 3)

With all of this information to process, a map is useful as an abstraction. It culls the trivial or redundant and preserves the essence. It gives us a literal big picture. Instead of marking the furnishings of a room and requiring the player to infer the room’s function, a map labels the room at a loss of detail: bedroom, study, library, atrium. A detailed map requires the player to infer upward (if the room is furnished with a bed, it is a bedroom), but an abstract map requires the player to infer downward (will there be valuable loot or information in the bedroom? Maybe the key you need? What about guards?). What we call the levels in the Thief series exist somewhere between the physical obstacles and its abstracted representation; they come to live in the mind.

This matter of map versus territory invites other questions. What makes a building a house instead of an office or a factory? What makes a room a library, or a study, or a bedroom, if they all have bookshelves? Do these labels describe or prescribe the behavior within them? How is privacy encoded into these spaces (why does sneaking through a bedroom feel like more of a violation than sneaking through the main hall)? Thievery becomes not just a matter of mastering the physical obstacles, but understanding the social values that are attached to architecture: class, power, secrecy, the divisions between public and private spaces. Of course, this deeper exploration of a level is only true in recognizable structures, like houses, cities, factories, and cathedrals. The more unusual levels—tombs, caves, labyrinths, and ruins—are often too alien, forcing Thief back on its fundamentals as a stealth game.

constantine mansionA corridor from Constantine’s Mansion (from Thief 1)

Of course, many other games have maps, but these are often perfect replicas or pulled directly from the game’s level editor. The map in Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory, like Rainbow Six before it, is basically a wireframe view of the level’s geometry, even when the fiction shouldn’t allow for such detailed information. Because these maps lack bias, error, and are often too complete, they offer none of the mystery and delight of exploring a level in the Thief games. It is through the discrepancies of map and territory that we learn about the person or people who created the map, what they valued, and what they chose to ignore.

Thanks for reading

Neon Struct and Expressionist Level Design

Posted in Article on August 26, 2015 by mclogenog

In one of the levels from Neon Struct, a lightweight stealth game by David Pittman in the style of Thief and Deus Ex, the player is tasked with breaking into a vault in their character’s mind. This level, “The Mind of Jillian Cleary” is an expressionistic design similar to parts of Psychonauts, Curtain, Barista 2, Radiator 1-2, Souvenir, and even more mainstream things like the dream sequences in Mass Effect 3.¹ This expressionistic approach to environmental storytelling is my favorite kind of level design, and I was glad to see Neon Struct explore it as well. Before I talk about the specifics of “The Mind of Jillian Cleary,” though, let me clarify what I mean by this approach to level design. The examples I listed above fall roughly into two categories.

In the first, there are games with developed characters that use subjective sequences, often framed as dreams, to give the player more information, or to help deepen the player’s empathy. These levels are exceptions from the rest of the game, and they rely on context from outside of the subjective sequences.

This is how the dream sequences in Mass Effect 3 work. Shepard wanders a dead forest, sees ghost-like shadows, and hears the voices of dead characters while following a child she saw on Earth. The dreams are humanizing moments that strip Shepard of her career-military, savior-of-the-galaxy, video-game-badass invulnerability. It makes galactic doom feel personal, and the return to Earth feel like a sacrifice. These recurring dreams lend their tone to the rest of the much-less-subjective game that contains them, and they give the player new ways to think about their character and their actions.

This is also how expressionistic design works in Psychonauts. Each level takes place inside the mind of a different character around a summer camp hub world, and once the player understands this structure, the player can usually guess in advance what a character’s mind will look like. The combat-fatigues-wearing Coach has a battlefield for a mind. The German secret agent, Sasha Nein has an organized cube for a mind. As the player proceeds through the levels, they learn about how the characters perceive themselves, and how that constructed identity differs from reality. Milla Vodello’s level is a dance party where the player learns how to levitate, but a room to the side hides demons and memories of an orphanage burning down. In another level, the player enters the mind of a mutated monstrous lungfish, to discover that it also sees itself as a monster. Some of these levels are more serious than others, but they all give the player a way to understand characters in ways that the player couldn’t by interacting with them in the hub world.

The second category are games that exist entirely within their subjectivity. At the start of these games, the player has to quickly determine who they are, where they are, and what the game expects of them, which can be overwhelming.

From “Handle with Care”

Robert Yang’s Radiator 1-2: “Handle With Care” solves this by opening with a first person cutscene where a marriage counselor addresses you as James, and then asks a man sitting beside you, Dylan, how he feels. From this, the game fades to white into a small room captioned “Internal Repression Service (IRS).” The room’s architecture and an insignia on the floor make the space feel like the lobby to a government building. Waiting room magazines to the side expose the character’s id (one of the magazines is literally titled “Id.”). After these observations, the walls descend, exposing a room with shelves filled with fragile crates along the walls. On the monitors attached to one wall, the marriage counselor addresses you, then turns to your husband in the screen’s periphery to address him, in a dialogue loop. All of these details establish the context for the subjective world, and once the player has had time to understand what they’re seeing, memories emerge from a chute, allowing the player to shelve them (locking them away forever), or break them (causing the player to briefly relive memories that may be real or imagined). This expressionistic level design lets the player delve within their character’s motivations in a way that is usually off limit to games. It is very cool stuff.

Part of the difference between these two categories of expressionistic level design is how their games handle the distinction between player and avatar. Whether the player fills an authored role, crafts the role they want, or exists as their self in the game, each has its own challenges.

(On a side note, Bioware RPGs work as well as they do because their distinction between player and avatar is a combination of the first and second approach. In their best moments, Bioware games become negotiations between the player and their character, such that the player leaves the game feeling like they know more about who they are while also feeling like their character is believable and compelling. I don’t play as Shepard, and Shepard isn’t me; her character exists in between, somehow.)

So how well does Neon Struct’s level, “The Mind of Jillian Cleary,” fit within all of this?

A sloppy playthrough of “The Mind of Jillian Cleary”

The level presents a vault to break into by playing a series of notes on an oversized keyboard. This requires the player to activate a generator to power the keyboard and discover the correct sequence of notes (“FACADE”, it turns out) to open the vault. The building in the center of the level is a U shape, with the vault in the center and the preliminary goals in each wing. The entrance through the roof (the only alternative to the guarded front door), places the player above the vault, so the player moves through the level by exploring each wing, and then returning to the vault area. The building’s walls are mostly transparent, which would normally allow the player to plan a route in advance, but since two of the objectives (the vault and the generator) are recessed into the floor and the third is a small note on a table, the player instead has to improvise along the way.

The generator room has nice wet-floor footstep sounds, giving the room a kind of dark dampness that may place it as a sort of subconscious power source for conscious parts of the mind (or this may have been an arbitrary choice). In place of the prior levels’ police and guards, “The Mind of Jillian Cleary” is patrolled by demon-headed women with names like “Resentment” and “Anxiety.”

The center puzzle involving a keyboard is also interesting. In the level before this, the player stopped by some old friends’ apartments to hide from the Agency. While waiting for dinner, the player has the opportunity to interact with a (normal-sized) piano in the apartment. The series of notes Jillian performs when the player continues to interact are in key, which may say something about Jillian’s character. In Dishonored, as a counter example, if Corvo interacts with the piano in the Boyle estate, the series of notes clash, implying that Corvo can’t play piano. So the return of the piano and the music puzzle at the central of Jillian’s mind may hint at a life before her work as a spy.

But that’s as far as the level (and the game) goes in exploring Jillian’s character. We know she is a spy on the run, and we might infer that she’d once had piano lessons. It doesn’t feel like the design went far enough. There is no context for Jillian’s inner demons, and they also don’t feel like a response to the player’s prior actions. If this was Dishonored or Deus Ex, we could imagine “The Mind of Corvo Attano” or “The Mind of J.C. Denton” reflecting the player’s approach to earlier levels, the choices they made, how violent they were. But because Neon Struct focuses on stealth there isn’t much in the player’s actions other than the degree of mastery for “the Mind of Jillian Cleary” to reflect.

In this way, “The Mind of Jillian Cleary” feels a little like Inception. It is entertaining and well crafted, but a little too clean to effectively represent dreams or the subconscious.

Later in the game, the player enters the “struct,” a tool for visualizing databases as a 3D space. Visually and structurally, it is similar to Mass Effect 3’s Geth server level, or the confrontation with SHODAN at the end of System Shock 2. Through the struct level, paths open and close when the player isn’t looking, and walking around a corner sometimes has the same effect as climbing a staircase, somehow. This impossible architecture and dreamlike incongruity is something that “In the Mind of Jillian Cleary” could have used more of, even if that meant removing all of the NPCs and making it a wholly atmospheric level.

Now, despite completing all of the missions in Neon Struct, I have a hunch there is another layer I’m missing, or that there are at least more secrets to find. The “stranger” characters were never explained in my playthrough, the visual similarity between the game’s “reality” and the world presented by the Struct might mean something, and Vinod’s story had no resolution. (And why do some of the doors grumble when you use them? This isn’t just me, right?)

The following probably says more about me than it does about Neon Struct, its level design, or any of the games I’ve mentioned, but I would like to see expressionistic level design pushed to its limits. I want these worlds collapsing under their own weight. In film, there are works like David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive and Lost Highway, or Kubrick’s 2001, or (nerd alert) like the end of Neon Genesis Evangelion, or even what Christopher Nolan tried to do with Inception. On its surface these are about boring old solipsism, but when handled successfully they are about facing the boundaries of understanding: the limits on our ability to understand ourselves and on our ability to understand each other. One of the possible endings in Radiator 1-2 gets damned close to this, and the end of Mass Effect 3 is up there too (if you ignore the stargazer sequence), but most of my other examples resolve too neatly. This is an area I would like to see level designers keep pushing.

It’s rare to see games approach this style of level design at all, though, and these two levels in Neon Struct were high points in my playthrough. If you like this kind of design too, then you’d probably enjoy checking the game out.

It also sounds like an expansion pack is in the works, and if the expansion for Eldritch (David Pittman’s previous game) is any indication of what to expect, this could be very cool.

Thanks for reading.

Footnotes:
¹ By expressionistic design, I mean that the level is trying to replicate a character’s subjective inner world instead of replicating the objective outer world we live in. I’m borrowing the term from German expressionism, which borrowed the term from the expressionist painters (a splinter from impressionism in late19th century painting). Expressionism isn’t boolean, however, and a work can signal this intent in many ways; film noir, for example, drew a lot of its style from German expressionism (Fritz Lang directed films in both styles), but its techniques are more about making the audience feel a certain mood or atmosphere than making the audience question the truth of what they are seeing. Some of these techniques, like dream sequences, are now fairly common in film. If you are still reading this footnote with interest, David Foster Wallace wrote an essay on David Lynch where he interprets Lynch as a modern expressionist, and unpacks a lot of what expressionism means now.

New Game: “Cut from the Classifieds, My Head the Money Machine”

Posted in Uncategorized on January 12, 2015 by mclogenog

shake your head / have ideas / get rich

what is this:
a random phrase generator
a self-portrait from unemployment
an art toy
a digital joke

To try it out, proceed to itch.io.

A Rant Concerning the Function of Art: Answers or/and Questions

Posted in Uncategorized on September 13, 2014 by mclogenog

We’ve all heard someone say “Art asks more questions than it answers.” This statement suggests a categorization of art into either High Art or low art. Although there are many reductive ways to categorize art, I find it useful to categorize according to the function of either questioning or answering, but this use is not about dismissal. To clarify, I’m using “answers” to mean reinforcement of established values and “questions” to mean rejection or examination.

Some Super-Generalized Art History

Despite the common view that art is about asking question and not giving answers, art as “question” is a recent idea. Even in the late 19th century, art was about providing answers. Representation of people, places, or stories (religious, mythic, or historical) was about meaning, as if to remind the audience. “Life is meaningful,” these works suggested, “because of [religion, or nationalism, or ethnocentrism, or natural beauty, or people].”

Art as a statement of meaning is most apparent in religious works. Whether it’s Christ’s deposition from the cross or the virgin and child, these works remind their audience that Christianity, not the things of the secular world, is the route to heaven. It may ask the audience to reevaluate their lives, but the work supplies the answer to its own question.

The purpose of art changed gradually. The romantics explored new subject matter, introducing doubt to basic assumptions. Their historical works focused on the ugly, irrational, yet passionate moments. Irrational passion became a new answer in some romantic works. But other, less certain works of this movement turned the answer into a question. “Why,” some of these works ask, “do humans act this way?”

Several decades later, impressionists changed the method by which they gave answers in their works, creating new techniques a style. The expressionists, who followed, turned to the inner, emotional world for their subjects, making the “answers” personal. Their works are harder to generalize. An expressionist work may say “I feel [x]” instead of “life is important because [x]” and many continue to imply “why?”

After expressionism, art explodes. Art starts questioning assumptions about race, politics, religion, economics. Art starts questioning assumptions about art! It is all very complicated and impossible to generalize in the way I generalized art prior to the 20th century. The greater trend still holds, however. It is from the gradual acceptance of early 20th century art that many of us now say “art asks more questions than it answers.”

The Problem with Answers

There are some good reasons for rejecting answers. Mainstream art is about answering, whether the creator knows it or not. The unaware creator unwittingly imbeds cultural values (good and bad) into their work. When the creator is aware of imbedding these values in the answers their work provides, they are creating propaganda. Even when a creator means well and is aware of their assumptions, answers often come across condescending, pedantic, and moralizing. Answers, at their worst, are Thomas Kinkade paintings.

Consider recent films as an example: Michael Bay does not have a political agenda with Transformers any more than Christopher Nolan does with Batman, yet their films are still works of art that answer instead of questioning. Their audience leaves the theater with their values reaffirmed. Again, the directors don’t intend to participate in any negotiation of cultural values; their intent is (at best) to make an exciting film or (at worst) to make money. Works that question are usually difficult.

(Side note: most pop-intellectual films such as Inception, A Beautiful Mind, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind are still about answers and not questions. They either resolve their challenge—thus resolving the tension the audience feels—by the end of the film, or the challenge was never that complicated to begin with.)

But art is a product of the times. Romanticism followed the French Revolution and the failure of the enlightenment. Impressionism and expressionism followed the industrial revolution and urbanization. The many branches of modernism followed World War I. Since then there were the 50s and 60s and 70s. Answers seem empty in that world of the Vietnam war, the Kennedy assassinations, Watergate, the Cold War, etc. So instead of answering, art questioned, and through these questions, art exposed hypocrisy.

(Disclaimer: of course, as with the works of realists and naturalists in the 19th century, the mainstream art of the 20th and 21st century still fulfills the role of answering instead of questioning. It is incorrect to view this story of art as its only story. History is and always has been complicated.)

The Problem with Questions

The problem with questions is that, although they are effective at dismantling, they are not effective at replacing. Questions, when effective, create a void by displacing answers. Without a replacement, this void spells nihilism and cynicism. This may be clearer by analogy. Sometimes when walking up a staircase I become conscious of the act of walking up the staircase. The act that was automatic becomes manual and clumsy. If I cannot return to the automatic mode, then I might even stumble. Art that questions has a similar effect on assumptions. If I cannot find a substitute answer after displacing the first, then I feel uncomfortable.

So, if art that answers leads to propaganda, and art that questions leads to nihilism, what do we, who are attempting to make art, do?

Two Options

One option is to not worry about it. So long as there is some balance of works of art that question and others that answer, then we can avoid the negative effect of both. The problem with this option is that audiences will form that only engage with works of one type. This also encourages a cultural divide, which we see in the original assumption about art, and the implied division between “high” and “low.”

The option I prefer is to question and answer within the same work. In order for this route to succeed, the answer must be specific to its question and its context. If the answer is too big or too small for the question, then the work faces the same problems. For example, It’s A Wonderful Life poses a question about capitalism, but then answers it with “the love of family and friends (plus the help of god) conquers all!” By the end, the film does more to reaffirm mainstream American values than it does to examine them. Kurosawa’s Ikiru is more successful, although still somewhat saccharine. The protagonist, who is facing death, tries to find meaning in his remaining days, attempting one answer after another. For him, family and friends are inadequate answers, as is the pursuit of pleasure. The film’s answer is specific to that protagonist and his context. Bergman’s Wild Strawberries is even more successful with this question because its answer is grounded in the context of the film. The film’s answer to the question belongs to its protagonist; it is not a universal answer.

(Edit: A third option is for a work to pose multiple answers to the questions it asks. The purpose of the work is then to evaluate the merit of each answer. Bergman’s The Seventh Seal does this with each character representing a different philosophy, and each handling their mortality in different ways. Blow’s Braid also does this, by moving between subjective and objective, artistic and scientific meaning. By exploring multiple answers, works avoid the annoying, moralizing, condescending tone of a single, simple answer.)

So, what about games?

Games

I’m not sure, but I think the ability to apply this thinking to games depends on the genre. The more the game relies on systems, the harder it is for an author to pose simple answers. (Side note: I know people have mocked the way we categorize games according to mechanics instead of subject—rts and fps instead of rom-com and action—but I think it’s more valuable to think of each game “genre” as its own medium. All of the genres of books and movies can exist within each game “genre.”)

Games that focus on systems or simulation inherently allow the player to ask “what if” questions and see how the game answers. These systems are authored, so it is possible for these answers to be incorrect models of reality, intentionally or not. Systems and simulation can be ironic, so long as they are internally consistent. Prison Architect, Theme Hospital, and Sim City all provide answers to their player’s “what if” questions, but what questions they encourage depends on the game, and also on the player. “Objectivity” and “neutrality” are genre conventions of simulations, but as with mainstream film, choosing not to negotiate cultural values is still a form of participation.

At first it seems that interactivity would prevent the author from posing simple answers. Then again, gameplay is capable of saying “love conquers all” or other oversimplified statements. And games are more than gameplay. The non-interactive and the interactive are intermingled. The player may be able to blow up the red barrel, but it is (was) still a red barrel. The player may be able to subvert Grand Theft Auto by obeying traffic laws, but the player is still incapable of starting a punk rock band and posting fliers on telephone poles around town.

That’s all for this rant. If you have any thoughts, agree or disagree, let me know in the comments, or feel free to send me an email. Thanks for reading.

New Game: “Stars Beneath the Sea”

Posted in Digital Games on April 27, 2014 by mclogenog

Download: Windows, .love

Lost Levels Talk Notes

Posted in Article on March 21, 2014 by mclogenog

At Lost Levels I gave a five minute talk titled “What Poetry Can Teach Us About Making & Reading Games.” Below are my notes, including points that I accidentally skipped during the talk. There are also some minor revisions for clarity’s sake. Enjoy!

1. In games we have content and rules. Think of this as a reduction of Mechanics, Dynamics, Aesthetics theory (MDA). That is, there are rules governing what the player can and cannot do, and there is content that fills variables.

2. Poetry has a similar divide between form (what the poet can and cannot do) and content (what fills the constrained variables defined by the form). For example, the form may govern that the poet needs an iamb that rhymes with water. Many words work as content for the rules of the form.

3. Dylan Thomas’s poem Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night” is a good demonstration for how form affects theme. The repetition of the title line and “Rage, rage against the dying of the light” create a circularity that is very different from narrative poetry. It is hard to tell a story with a villanelle. Filling in the form with different content would still have this circular quality.

4. This is not the case of most poems. Sonnets and sestinas, which are really strict forms, can be about a ton of things. The form’s thematic constraint has more impact on how it forces the poet to approach the theme.

5. I think of this as a spectrum where on one side we have “no form” (free verse), on the other we have “strict form,” and in the middle we have “invented form.” At both ends, the rules that govern the poet’s choice of content allow for a huge range of thematic expression. In the middle, theme is limited much more by the form. (The villanelle is somewhere between the middle and strict form.)

6. One example of this middle, invented space is T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Try using the form of this poem (yes it has internal logic and constraining rules) to talk about any theme other than what Eliot’s poem talks about. It’s like telling a story with a villanelle: really hard!

7. This spectrum also exists, roughly, in games, stretching from “no rules” (“not-games”) to “strict rules” (“game-games”), and a middle of subjective or biased rules (“art-games”). That is to say, on one hand we have “Press X to Win!” On the other we have “Press X” (if even that). And in the middle we have “Press X to win? What does it mean to ‘win’?”

8. As with poetry, this middle space is hard! The extremes of “not-games” and “game-games” are much more open to variation just by varying content. There is a reason why there were and are so many Doom clones. (Their content has changed a lot while their rules have only changed a little, with each new clone deriving from previous clones, leading to the current “diverse” rule sets of modern shooters.)  On the other hand, imagine replacing the trees in Proteus with burning buildings and turning the color palette grey and red. The rules could remain the same, but the content change dramatically affects the themes.

9. But if you’re in the middle, at this intersection of content and rules, the designers have to reinvent the wheel each time. For example, it’s tempting to make a Papers, Please-like (especially after all of the awards it received), or a Braid-like. We know that combination of rules and content are successful. But without stripping their rules down, there is a limited space for thematic expression. A content swap doesn’t work so well here! Without reduction, the rules of Papers, Please are inescapably about bureaucracy. It’s hard to even imagine a content alternative.

10. Conclusion: I don’t have any problem with “not-games” and I have no problems–in theory–with “game-games.” I just want us to be aware of the difficulties we face when we say “I’d like to make something kind of like Luxuria Superbia” (as one example). If that’s what you’re trying for, you’ll have a hard time escaping the original source. Anyway, I hope that next time you sit down to ask yourself “What kind of game should I make?” this talk helps you realize the spaces we can explore and the special difficulties of the middle.

(My fallback plan was to read Jack Gilbert’s “The Rooster.” I recommend that you look the poem up if you get a chance.)