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09 Apr 17:50

A Letter to Leigh

by Raph

I knew there was a reason I still followed Raph Koster. This is an incredibly thoughtful post on narrative and mechanics in games.

Game talk

when people say games need objectives in order to be ‘games’, i wonder why ‘better understanding another human’ isn’t a valid ‘objective’

games need ‘challenges’ and ‘rules’, isn’t ‘empathy’ a challenge, aren’t preconceptions of normativity a ‘rule’

Leigh Alexander writing on Twitter

Dear Leigh,

I have such a complicated emotional response to this. And I think you like getting letters, based on what I see on the Internet.

I would rate better understanding of another human and the challenge of empathy as bare minimum requirements for something reaching for art.

The assumptions underlying this question are the interesting thing. A game of bridge demands great understanding of another human, and great synchrony of thought. A huge number of the games of childhood are designed to teach empathy. We play games all the time in order to get to know people.

But that’s not what you really mean, is it. What you are really talking about is something else entirely.

The debates over “what is a game” have been going on for a long time now. They have an uncomfortably personal edge lately. We are seeing powerful works of art created in the digital medium. Further, they are deeply personal statements. And even further, many of these works are coming from groups that have been marginalized, oppressed, discriminated against.

Many of these works are brilliant.

The assumption implicit in what you’re saying is that a work’s formal structure isn’t as relevant as what it accomplishes. This is a completely valid point of view, but not, I think, all that useful for sorting something into a genre. But I accept that many simply don’t care about sorting that way.

But it also sort of implies that games with objectives and rules haven’t been reaching for these goals too. And that’s not only not true, but unjust to games’ expressive power.

What is reveals is a preference for the kinds of understanding you want, towards specific modes of conveying that understanding.

An aesthetic of unplayability

I have been fascinated lately by the fact that many art games accomplish their power and effect by subverting “gameness.” And what I mean by that is denying the player agency.

When we think about what makes a game, we almost always come back to some degree to interactivity. I’ve argued in the past that interactivity is hardly unique to games, and therefore can’t be used as the sole yardstick. But I sure wouldn’t try to classify something as a game that is non-interactive.

Historically, many signature emotional moments in game have been accomplished by using non-interactivity. When Floyd dies in Planetfall, we do not have control. People still rhapsodize over the death of Aeris in Final Fantasy VII. We did not have control.

More recently, I have seen the following currents develop:

  • The game which uses the fact of engaging with it at all to accomplish its effect. These games have complicity as their means of making a point. Brenda Romero’s Train is one such: a game whose only moral move is not to play, but of course stating the mechanic baldly reminds one of the line from the film Wargames. September 12th is another.

I think all of these games are awesome, and am humbled by them. But I also wonder about the overall aesthetic. I would pose the following questions to their creators:

  • Does choosing non-interactivity as the central defining characteristic effectively put you in a broadcasting position, and therefore turn the games into monologue rather than dialogue?
  • What does that mean for creators who outright state they are seeking to create empathy? Is dialogue not actually the best way to create empathy? If so, what are its weaknesses? Or is it that we cannot truly yet accomplish dialogue yet through our medium?
  • Does choosing to deny players agency mean that you are in effect giving up on whether game rules can accomplish your goals?
  • In effect, are all of these games subverting games themselves? Is it conscious? To what degree is the insistence that these are in fact games reflective of an ambivalent relationship to games?

I end up with these questions because these by and large feel like narrative moves, not game-like moves. Or perhaps, they feel game-like in the sense that I the player feel like I am being played, in the “are you playing games with me?” sense. They feel, in the end, like the twist ending, the O Henry moment, like it was all a dream. Like the ending of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, or John Cage’s 4’33”, something that should probably only be done once, marveled at, and then moved past.

The impositional narrative

Don’t get me wrong – something like the power of daily ritual, as displayed in Howling Dogs or Cart Life, is something that only this medium could do. The moment when you are a Tetris piece that does not fit, in Dys4ia, is something only our medium could do. I am not making an aesthetic judgement here about these tools; I am posing a craft question. I want to believe that despite the political layers that adhere to the discussion of this topic, that we are all craftspeople who care about the carpentry of what we do. We all need to reach our own accommodations and understand our own aesthetics.

Games have had an element of futility for a long time. Single-player games especially. The robots always won, in Robotron. The Space Invaders always conquered the earth. But at least we were able to make a go of it. The games themselves have different messages, but the aesthetic here says that we can’t make a go of it. It’s a rigged world. You can’t do better at Train. You can only do worse. The message of September 12 is “don’t play me.”

It’s probably me seeing things, but I can’t help but wonder to what degree the overall aesthetic in the art game community is a descendant of (bear with me) Super Mario. If there’s one overriding factor in the aesthetic of a Nintendo game, it’s control. Miyamoto is said to plan absolutely everything. Every outcome. Every permutation. Every possibility.

In this, the underlying fundamental kinship of the big AAA game and the arthouse darling Twine game is apparent. They are both more about the author than the player.

Are they games?

Can we, should we, do I, exclude these things from the realm of games? Not only do I not exclude them, I welcome and evangelize them and have been doing so for over a decade (despite what some say about me). But I actually think it’s the wrong question on many levels.

I wonder instead whether the work is trying to exclude itself from “gameyness.” By and large, these are games about people who lack power and lack control. The message gets across because games have always been about agency; gamers are used to having power and control, and to have the game itself deny it is a wake up slap across the face.

Effectively, these are games as rhetoric not games as dialectic, moving against the fundamental current of gameness. And the rhetorical move is “destroy everything,” as Porpentine put it in her GDC13 session with Terry Cavanaugh on indie games.

Overall, to me it feels like it speaks to a conflicted relationship with games. The creators of these works do not want to be excluded: it is their medium. At the same time, the aesthetic argues for un-gaming things.

Nor do I mean to pick on indies here; Warren Spector made a statement in his session about how “story is finally getting taken seriously” that was a moment of great cognitive dissonance for me. To me, it feels like story is all that gets taken seriously in AAA, certainly, and to a large degree in the art game and indie movements. And in AAA we have seen some moves lately that speak to a conflicted relationship there as well: No Russians using exactly the same rhetorical devices as the art games, Spec Ops: The Line, the arguably failed narrative line in Far Cry 3, even the discussions over violence in Bioshock Infinite.

Games are uncomfortable with themselves, and not just on the level of “what are our narratives.” But actually on the level of “what are games for?” We see our tools taken up by crass moves into marketing and monetization, we see the craft we developed being used for manipulation, and we start asking ourselves whether everything we do is manipulation, whether we are fundamentally crass.

I find myself cheering on the punk neon fringe. But I also find myself saying “please don’t destroy everything” because some people live in there, and it is always worth getting to know people, especially the ones not like you.

Ranting is not conversation

I was hesitant to write a lot of this down, because while many found this year’s GDC to be the most inclusive ever, I also was struck by the degree to which GDC time was spent not with “the good guys winning” but rather with good guys fighting good guys. I found myself cast as an excluder because I am interested in definitions, and I am sure this article will land me there again. (In fact, the height of cognitive dissonance was having a lovely conversation about design with Cara Ellison at a late night party – about many of these same topics, in fact; and finding myself sort-of-namechecked the next day when Anna Anthropy read a modified version of Cara’s poem “Romero’s Wives” aloud — a version filled with righteous anger that is impossible to quarrel with). I literally had one indie developer whose work I admire run away from me in the street.

On the political level, every word is charged. On the theoretical level, the pomo stream of thought says there are no boundaries. But in both cases, we see these tools turned again and again towards reinforcing labels, asserting identities. A monologue is implicitly reinforcing boundaries, just like defining a term is. None of what I have written in this little essay is about the messages in the works or about the games’ creators. But I fear it will be taken that way anyhow, just as my earlier writings on narrative and mechanics were taken. I find myself wanting to say sorry sorry sorry for — having an academic debate about minutiae of the structure of interaction?

But then we get something like the Experimental Gameplay Workshop, where everything we saw was actually about mechanics. Including mechanics that work to create empathy in profoundly non-narrative ways: Spaceteam, Searchlight, Ninja Shadow Warrior. I found it deeply inspiring in a way that the prevailing narrative of the conference was not quite. But I also recognize that I took away little understanding of people and a lot of understanding of math from most of the games presented, being as they were “about geometry” rather than “about empathy.”

All in all, I wonder whether fundamentally we as a community are doing a bit too much ranting. In the games and in the aesthetic and yes, from stage at GDC. Oh, I don’t mean in the literal sense of strident complaint. I mean in the metaphorical sense of holding forth. Games have had nothing to say for so long that I worry that we have collectively concluded that “saying something personal” is what makes them worthwhile art.

Ranting is a rhetorical device. It’s unidirectional. Yes, it’s all part of a larger conversation, of course. And sometimes we need to speak loudly to be heard, especially if we are from a marginalized group. But fundamentally it is hard to listen when everyone is loud, and the aesthetic of control is all about the player listening, and not getting to speak. Fundamentally, these design moves are about impositional narrative, not about the narrative the player constructs. Imposing a narrative, a norming, a worldview – I thought that is what we were ranting against. Running away from attempted engagement – I thought that is what we were ranting against.

The unique power of games, to me, lies in the conversation between player and designer. That happens to be my aesthetic. I often despair of whether games even have this power, because I have seen the way in which we end up having to retreat back to the comforts of other media. But to me, it still feels like a lodestone. I chase formalism in order to better understand the tools it affords because I already know how to write, I already know how to make music, I already know how to draw. I already know how to get a message across – except perhaps in this rambling mess of a post. ;)

So yes, Leigh, understanding other people is a challenge. Empathy is a goal. I’ve argued for them for a long time now myself. It is fantastic that we have the disparate points of view, the fresh voices, the outsider art, and all the rest of it.

But I also find myself looking to the future, where I hope the games have empathy for the player, rather than the other way around, because it is a far harder artistic, and empathic, challenge to understand an opposing point of view than it is to present one’s own. I’ll be entertained by a rant I agree with, and angered by a rant I don’t, but a debate is far more likely to change my mind. To me, this is why Cart Life deserved its win, the way it argues with itself.

So I guess my reply to those tweets is, “yeah, but I’d rather argue with a game than be told what to feel.” Because games are the only medium you can argue with – and maybe change the game’s mind.

Anyway, Leigh, this is the convo we didn’t get to have at GDC, and that didn’t fit in a tweet by about 2400 words. I think all of this – my craft questions, the general anger I see, all of it – is probably something that we as a craft and a community grow through. We just can’t quite tell how, just as a teenager can’t quite know the adult they will be. We’ll probably muddle through, and the debates — and even the anger — will be our tools for doing so.

I don’t claim to have answers on all this. Just a lot of questions. And the desire to express how conflicted I feel about it all.

See you at the next conference.


04 Apr 17:59

Disney Closes LucasArts

by Soulskill

I guess I should go home and play TIE Fighter in eulogy.

An anonymous reader sends news that Disney is closing LucasArts. The game studio has been around since 1982, and brought us classics such as Labyrinth, The Secret of Monkey Island, X-Wing, TIE Fighter, and Star Wars: Battlefront. They also published Star Wars: Galaxies, Knights of the Old Republic, and Star Wars: The Old Republic. The company held a meeting today informing employees of the layoffs. "In some ways, the news is not a surprise. LucasArts had seemed directionless in recent years. The company's core business of games based on the Star Wars license have been largely disappointing in both quality and sales. While the company had some success with games like Star Wars: The Force Unleashed and the Battlefront series, both of those franchises seemed to have died on the vine. The cancellation of Star Wars Battlefront III was particularly ugly, which led to nasty public fingerpointing between LucasArts and developer Free Radical. ... LucasArt's other big franchise, Indiana Jones, has failed to make much of a dent in games in recent years, with the exception of Traveller's Tales LEGO Indiana Jones series that, once again, was not developed by LucasArts. Meanwhile, series like Uncharted and Tomb Raider, which are both heavily influenced by the Indiana Jones films, have thrived." If only they hadn't abandoned the X-Wing series of games. I would have bought a new one of those in a heartbeat. Update: 04/04 18:09 GMT by T :'s news service ( is the corporate parent of Slashdot) mentions one small silver lining for those employees who stuck it out to the end: the best kind of parting gift. "Soon after the acquisition, a number of people departed LucasArts, deciding the time was right to head out in search of a new job. Many others remained, encouraged to hang on as long as they could by talk of generous severance packages. Sources among those laid off say the packages were, indeed, generous."

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