…some say that Happiness is not Good for Mortals & they ought to be answerd that Sorrow is not fit for Immortals & is utterly useless to any one a blight never does good to a tree & if a blight kill not a tree but it still bear fruit let none say that the fruit was in consequence of the blight.
– William Blake
This is a respone to the presentation “Over Games” by Tale of Tales. I came across it via a twitter post by Gregory Weir. The title of the response refers both to its nature and to one its major inspirations, William Blake’s delightful annotations to other authors’ works. (The annotations alone are worth getting a Complete Works for.)
Before we begin, you may want to read the original text. I will quote it extensively, and my meaning will hopefully always be clear, but if I sound cryptic, you may want to refer to it. If that doesn’t help, I’m probably being cryptic on purpose.
We are not rebels. What we make is perfectly logical to us. We are not reacting against games.
It is certainly better to act for something than simply to react – to have a purpose to move towards, rather than something to avoid. (Though if there were no fun in reaction, the world would not exist, and neither would these annotations.) Let us keep this assertion in mind.
We just don’t find them entertaining enough, not beautiful enough, not interesting enough, not immersive enough. We realize that this is a matter of taste. But we believe that many people share our taste. So we make games for them.
Those who know me well have heard me complain about games many, many times. “Games aren’t immersive enough! Games aren’t beautiful enough! Games aren’t entertaining enough!” I have said these things many times. Probably too many.
But there are exceptions. And I’m not just talking about small indie games. I didn’t say this about Fallout 2, or Borderlands, or Soulbringer, or Quest for Glory. I didn’t say it about Blade Runner or X-Com: Apocalypse or Shadows over Riva. I didn’t say it because it wasn’t true – because I was too busy being swept up into these worlds, these stories, into experiences that I talk about to this day.
Which makes me wonder to which degree this is just strossing. Before you say that games, generally speaking, aren’t good enough – what have you actually played?
8 (2002 – 2005)
This is our unfinished epic first game. It was instrumental in helping us figure out what we didn’t like about games. And so we left all of that stuff out.
So you figured out what you didn’t want. That’s a start. But how about figuring out what you did want? You are not reacting against games, are you?
Then there is a list of what they left out:
Not all games have competition. Far from it.
Thinking in genres is catastrophic to all art. (But are you really not thinking in terms of genre? We’ll see.)
Not all games have guns. A lot do, but a lot is not all. Myst doesn’t have guns. Neither does Tetris.
no game over
That’s almost the same thing, and something a lot of games don’t have. (Myst, Monkey Island, etc.) Unless you mean that the game has no ending, which is rarer, but certainly exists.
What does that mean? Areas being continuous? A world that can be fully explored from the beginning? Not exactly innovations, now.
no boss rounds
Scores are widespread in games, but again not really something that all games share. Unless you mean the keeping track of statistics – but if you didn’t do that at all, how would you know the player’s X and Y coordinates, or what to render? Or anything? There is no essential difference between measuring a player’s progress through a room and measuring a player’s progress to the next level.
You know, there are plenty of old games that I wish had a save function. Unless you mean that there should only be a single state for the game, like a book where the pages burn up as you read it. That’s kind of rare, but I’m pretty sure it’s not really new, either.
no canned storylines
What an arrogant assumption, that “canned storylines” are an essential element of all other games! What an ignorance of the work that has been done this displays! No matter how we read these words – as “cliché storylines” or “linear stories that don’t use the potential of the medium” – they show a disgraceful lack of education. From the unpredictable complexity of Blade Runner to the philosophical/political ideas and questions of Bioshock, there is a wide variety of games (some of them also commercially successful) that have anything but canned storylines.
no bleak personalities
That’s OK with me. Too often do artists mistake artificially-induced grimness for artistic depth. The hardest thing is to make someone truly laugh.
Err… buttons are quite evil, yes.
I can understand the desire to create a stronger sense of immediacy in games. But then, you’re still hitting buttons on a big menu called a keyboard.
Buttons that have little icons on them that are graphical representations of certain vocalizations or numerical or grammatical concepts.
Words are something that you dislike about computer games? I mean, I can see deciding that they’re something you might want to leave out of one game for artistic reasons, but… somehow I can’t see words as an integral part of all other games that must now be removed.
no motion sickness
Since when do game designers control the bodily functions of their players? Because if we do, that opens up some fantastic possibilities.
There’s a lot of bad art out there that defends its lack of thought with “it’s realistic”. If that’s what’s meant here, yay. But what is realism, and what is pseudo-realism? Is any attempt as realism that does not faithfully replicate reality (rather than mirror it) automatically “pseudo-realism”?
What? What does “cartoon” mean? A drawing style? A humorous type of storytelling through drawn images? And since when are these so common in games? And if they are, what is essentially wrong with them?
no pre-rendered backgrounds
Again – as an artistic choice for one game, certainly. As an overall artistic rule… eh? Is it impossible to create good art with pre-rendered backgrounds?
no more superficial juvenile games
And so far, all games have been superficial and juvenile? Why?
What does “superficial” mean? Does it mean not engaging meaningful topics? Topics like the nature of sentience, justice and the creation of life (Blade Runner), the struggle to change the world for the better (Soulbringer) or the consequences of war (Fallout)? Or topics like immortality (Planescape: Torment), finding one’s place in the world (The Longest Journey) or the importance of friendship (Quest for Glory). Or, for that matter, the ancient human experience of exploration (Metroid)? Or is “superficial” simply another word for “fun”, because art cannot be enjoyable as well as deep?
And “juvenile” – what does that mean? As far as the dictionary is concerned, juvenile means that something is either appropriate for children and young people, or that it lacks maturity. But surely all these weighty topics do not lack maturity? Is Bioshock‘s treatement of the demented politics and philosophy of Ayn Rand something that is intended for a young audience? Or are we, perhaps, associating enjoyability with youth, suggesting that with old age and wisdom comes depression and fashionable nihilism?
no pre-chewed plots
See “no canned storylines”.
Wouldn’t you say that this is an awfully long list of noes for people who are not reacting against games? The point isn’t what a game is not, the point is what it is.
The Endless Forest (2005 – ∞)
Disappointed by not being able to make 8, this was our “anti-game”: a game of pure playfulness.
Because other games aren’t “playful”? That’s kind of hard to parse. What is “playfulness” supposed to mean, anyway? It’s a term postmodernists are inordinately fond of, but my dictionary tells me it means “full of fun and high spirits,” which a lot of games are. There was a game where you played a ninja who chopped off people’s heads. That was full of fun and high spirits. What’s the difference here?
The player makes up his own game.
So essentialy this is a framework for people to play in, like Second Life or Oblivion. A sandbox with fewer rules, or perhaps actually with more stringent rules. That makes sense, and I see the artistic value in it. But it’s not exactly revolutionary, either – it is, essentially, a multiplayer hangout with a particular theme.
The Graveyard (2008)
An experiment with how little interaction you had to have in a game. Just a character in an environment. We wanted to put the player inside an unusual body. And let them experience the world from her point of view.
To let players experience the world from a different point of view – that is perhaps one of the greatest strengths of the interactive medium. Even though this is essential to every artform, with computer games we can make the experience incredibly real, by making it interactive.
But what are the features of this game?
How can we then experience the world from her point of view? The dictionary defines experience as “the accumulation of knowledge or skill that results from direct participation in events or activities” or “the content of direct observation or participation in an event.” Note the word direct. Without interaction, the work cannot be direct – and thus cannot convey an experience. So the result is a short film that requires us to manually push it forward, forfeiting the strengths of both media in the name of “art”.
The Path (2006 – 2009)
Since this was to be a commercial game, we wondered if we could we meet gamers halfway.
So much for artistic principles, then. Principles aren’t much if you’re not willing to stick to them.
Can a game express life as well as it does death? A game about something rare: about girlness. Specifically, about a girl’s pain.
Well, Adam Cadre got there long before you did, and didn’t need a “genre” concept like “horror” to do it. Not that there’s anything wrong with horror; just pointing out that such topics were being explored with beauty and grace as long as twelve years ago. And the ultimate horror of Photopia – the horror of a life lost – still lingers with me a decade after playing the game.
The vanity of having this expensive status symbol that in our society is almost not even considered a luxury anymore. Much like the games people play.
If you think people don’t consider games to be a luxury, I guess you’ve never been in that all-too-familiar situation of really wanting a game but not being able to afford it – the root of most piracy. Most people have to work boring, unpleasant jobs that contribute little to the actual welfare of society. They know games are a luxury. They just don’t want to spend their time thinking about it, because they have to go to work in the morning.
GAMES ARE NOT ART
I have only one rule about what is art and what isn’t: always be suspicious of people who think they can define what is not art.
Art, on the other hand is not born out of a physical need or an animal instinct. Art is born out of a desire to touch the untouchable. To explore the unknown. Or pay tribute to it. Art is born out of a desire for transcendence. A desire for superhuman understanding. But above all, art is a journey made by a person. For both the creator and the spectator, art is an exploration of the self and its environment.
This is true enough.
There are no rules in art that cannot be broken.
This business of rules again. This is a tricky subject. Certainly art, as an abstraction, does not force us to follow any specific rules. But within each work of art, there are rules and patterns: without them, it cannot exist.
There’s no goal that does not evaporate as soon as it is discovered.
I’m not sure what this is supposed to mean. Art is all convenient vagueness? Art is obscure rambling to impress those lacking in vision? Nonsense. There can be goals in art, goals of clarity and elucidation, of bringing your vision to your audience, of making them understand something specific about the world. The best example is Carl Sagan’s Cosmos – as deep and complex and beautiful a work of philosophy and art and science as ever created, and yet with clear goals in mind that it achieves.
Art is a conscious act of an author who seeks to communicate with an audience in a language without grammar, in a structure that is undefined with no predetermined goal and no rewards but finding yourself.
The fact that each artist has to create their own grammar does not mean there is no grammar at all; without it, how could the audience understand what the author is saying? Without patterns, information cannot be transmitted. And finding yourself seems like a pretty big reward to me. Actually, finding anything seems like a reward.
Also, if art is free and not easily defined, who is to say that games are not art?
ART IS DEAD
That sort of art, however, is dead.
No, seriously… BWAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!
Where do you even begin with a comment as stupid as that? With a list of all great writers of the 20th century? With a list of great poems written since 1950? By mentioning some of the amazing masterworks of film that the world has been treated to in the last few decades? That art of any kind should be dead is the most preposterous thing I’ve ever heard.
What is so different about artists today? Is it that they work in a commercial environment? So did Shakespeare! So did Milton! So did Euripides! Were these all uninspired hacks?
A statement like that reveals only one truth: the author’s lack of education, or perhaps the willful ignorance of anything that is not old enough to be considered a “classic”.
The modernist program of the previous century has eradicated all human aspiration for greatness.
Come again? I aspire for greatness. Plenty of people aspire for greatness. It’s in the 20th century that we made it to the moon, sent robotic missions to Mars and the rest of the solar system, created rock’n’roll, invented computers and film and the internet, established women’s rights and civil rights in many countries, saved and improved billions of lives with modern medicine and created incredible amounts of beautiful and meaningful art that will last the centuries: from The Waste Land to The Dark Tower, from Carmina Burana to Stairway to Heaven, from Casablanca to Avatar.
That we fail as often as we succeed in our aspirations is hardly an invention of the 20th century.
It has exposed transcendence as an illusion
Only to those who never believed in it in the first place.
and the human individual as a mere bag of bones whose only functions are to vote and to consume
Oh no, voting is evil! Also: I don’t feel like a mere bag of bones, and I’m agnostic verging on atheist. I don’t think Carl Sagan felt like a mere bag of bones. Just because we have learned that the human body functions on the basis of chemical principles (which, frankly, we knew to begin with) doesn’t mean we’ve given up on human intelligence, potential or even spirituality.
At first science was put in the place of religion
Really? What’s with all the popes and lamas? I know Christians and Muslims and Buddhists. They don’t worship science – because you can’t. Science simply describes what is: the objective, material truth. But as far as I’ve noticed, religion is still around – even in people who are fully convinced (as they should be) of the importance of science. If we no longer believe that humans are made of mud, or that we should sacrifice someone every time we build a bridge, surely that’s not a major loss to the human spirit?
it expanded to take over the place of art
So that’s why we haven’t had any art for the last 100 years! Oh, wait… we did. Some of our greatest work may have been inspired by scientific findings, but surely you’re not claiming that the publication of scientific papers has somehow destroyed the creation of art? Or that all art of the last 100 years is scientific papers in disguise?
only to be dismantled at the end of the century as one more world view, as just another lie
I’m just going to quote Alan Sokal on this one: “Anyone who believes that the laws of physics are mere social conventions is invited to try transgressing those conventions from the windows of my apartment. (I live on the twenty-first floor.)” The very idea that science has been dismantled as a lie is preposterous in the extreme: if you believe so, please demonstrate it by flying, or by catching a serious disease and surviving without any medication.
Modernist art has collaborated in this dehumanization of society.
How is it dehumanizing to believe that the Earth revolves around the sun and we’re descended from other lifeforms? Sure, science has shown us we are a tiny part of the universe, but that does mean there is no value in humanity. Science has also shown us that life is rare and precious and should be valued above all else.
At first it was fresh and welcome. A healthy criticism of values that people might have been taking for granted too easily. But slowly the rebellion turned into canon, the revolutionaries started frequenting the salons and the rebels turned into the new bourgeois. At the end of the century, the artists found themselves in a golden cage, safely disconnected from society and spinning around in an endless loop of self-mockery and clever irony.
That is mostly true.
This is not the kind of practice that a creative person with a vision wants to be involved in. So they are not. While the museums were getting bigger and more expensive and their collections more tedious and ridiculous, creativity has moved elsewhere. We may not have regained the glory of Vatican-sponsored masterpieces, but work is being done, far away from the museum, in the trenches of the internet and the cesspools of generativity and interactivity. On the world wide web and in videogames.
This is only partially true. Great work is also being done in Hollywood, despite its commercial nature, despite its obsession with celebrity, despite the shady and unpleasant nature of most of it. Great music is being published by the big record companies, even though they’re the personification of evil – because artists aren’t that easy to control.
VIDEOGAMES ARE NOT GAMES
Really? Before you come up with that broad a definition, why don’t you first define what computer games are? It’s not that easy to throw works as varied as Tetris and Photopia into one category.
It is true that everybody plays. All humans on this planet play games. We generally tend to play more when we are young. And as we grow older, we become a bit less interested. We play a game once in a while. But it’s a lighthearted activity that we can easily abandon when more important things come along.
And this is inherent to our nature, and not just a result of the increasing amounts of work that are piled on us? Why do my in-laws so enjoy playing cards with their friends, and why would they be severely disappointed if they had to stop? And who says lighthearted activities are not important? What is more important?
Not so videogames. We spend hours with these things! We can obsess over videogames for weeks, for months. We stop eating, stop paying attention to our children, to our clothing and facial hair, for the sake of videogaming. These are not games as we used to know them!
Clearly, you’ve never seen my uncles play chess.
All experts, many of whom are gathered in this room, agree that, in general, videogames are not as good as non-videogames.
Apart from the disgusting arse-kissing, what is being said here? There are experts on what is fun? Not the people who actually play games – that is all of us – but specialized experts! Fun experts! Now there is a dehumanizing way of thinking!
RPG fans will always praise their dice and rule books over any computerized rendition of Tolkien’s universe.
Whoa. You’ve never played a single RPG (of either kind), have you? Or are you just astoundingly illiterate? Tolkien’s universe? Tolkien wrote several remarkable novels, including The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion. They were neither the first works of fantasy nor the last, even though I consider them to be the most extraordinary. But Tolkien did not write Dungeons and Dragons or any other role-playing systems or worlds. D&D, despite stealing some elements from The Lord of the Rings, was primarily influenced by other works, such as the Dying Earth stories of Jack Vance.
The very notion that RPGs take place in “Tolkien’s universe” shows a terrible lack of knowledge, both about RPGs and about the literature of the 20th century. But that, I suppose, never occured, since art is dead.
Everybody reads books. Everybody watches films. Everybody listens to music. Everybody plays games. But only a small group of people plays games on computers.The reason for this is lack of variety. There’s books for everyone. There’s films for everyone. There’s music for all tastes. There’s many different kinds of playing. But videogames only allow for a single kind.
Have you actually looked at any statistics before claiming this? The rise of casual games and the Wii? Furthermore, computer games have only existed for approximately 30 years, and the technology is not yet available to everyone. More and more people, of all genders and ages, are playing computer games.
Yet every time their enthusiasm is killed by the videogame’s insistence on being a rigid rules-based system that challenges you to develop useless skills with the only purpose of increasing a number in the upper right corner of the screen.
Really? Aren’t they more often confused by the complexity of the rules and the lack of a clear purpose, such as a number to increase? Isn’t that why the more complicated games have yet to find a large audience, whereas casual games are flourishing?
Nobody minds rules, so long as the rules make sense.
Despite a few noble attempts, overall, videogames are empty systems that only serve the purpose of wasting time.
Having fun is not wasting time.
More importantly, having fun does not exclude a deeper experience. I had fun with the character development in Fallout, but I was deeply touched by the story and world it presented (and allowed me to create).
Videogames are stuck. Despite of the ongoing technical evolution and the continuing calls for a new medium, videogames have stopped evolving. They have found their comfort zone. Videogames are happy. They are happy being exactly what they are.
Gregory Weir’s response says it best: “To say ‘videogames have stopped evolving’ reveals a willful ignorance of the form.” Is there a lot of crap? Of course there is! But that is true of any artform, even at the highest peaks of creativity. But new and fascinating games are made every day – some by independents, some by bigger companies. Things could be better, but videogames are far from stuck. That’s why they’re still thriving, despite all the crap.
Videogames are fun. They nurture our inner child.
While the grown-ups are starving.
Here we come again to this Adorno-esque dismissal of fun, of enjoyment in art. Shakespeare managed to be funny and serious at the same time. Chesterton managed it. Euripides managed it. Fry manages it. Why shouldn’t we? And “funny” is not the same as enjoyable – a work of art can be deeply enjoyable without being funny. This has nothing to do with being childish or adolescent. It has to do with the quality of giving intellectual and emotional pleasure.
And what exactly are our inner grown-ups? Are they that part of us which says “let’s better stop having fun and be depressed; I have to go to work tomorrow” or “I shouldn’t be so childish, I have to conform to the rules of society”? Are they the part of us which buys into the party line that the essential nature of adult existence is misery, and that instead of trying to change our socioeconomic situation we should simply wallow in our existential misery?
The world is in flames.
True. Been that way for a while. We didn’t start the fire and all that.
After centuries of blind belief in unstoppable progress
You mean all those centuries of fighting the ancient conservative orders to gain basic freedoms of thought? That’s what we called progress, and our belief wasn’t blind. Blind were the people who wanted to have us killed for claiming the Earth was round. But since science is all just a lie, I guess the Earth isn’t round, right? (Hint: Don’t go on any transatlantic flights. You might fall off the edge of the world.)
the humanist machine has come to a grinding halt and is crashing into the old ghosts that we thought had been eradicated
The humanist machine? Do you even know what “humanist” means? And since when is humanism a machine? Humanism doesn’t have enough power to be a machine. Humanism is still a fringe position in a world full of lunatics.
We are defending what’s left of our ideologies with the same means that we used to seek to abolish.
Are you? You may be doing that, but I’m certainly not. The people in power are doing that, and the people in power are anything but humanists, and certainly don’t believe in progress.
We have lost all direction and are grasping to the straws of ancient values and untenable compromise.
I’m not sure what this means, but it sounds vaguely silly.
Why can we not get our act together?
Because we lack guidance. Because we lack the proper tools to think, to evaluate, and even to enjoy.
Guidance? You know the German word for that? Führung? Do you know who took his title from that word? Yeah, that guy.
Besides, you know, we’ve been managing to evaluate the problems of the world pretty well for the last few centuries. We have plenty of ideas – many of them conflicting – about what needs to be done. And sure, a lot of people know nothing about any of this, and a medium that could reach them would be awesome. Maybe computer games can do that. But they’re not the Messiah. (They’re a very naughty boy.)
Also – we have an excellent tool. It’s called the brain. Try it sometime.
The old media, with their one-way communication and linear formats have ceased to suffice. The complexity of the world has spiralled out of anything that they can handle. What can we do? We need a medium that is interactive, a medium that can generate realities, a medium that is not linear! Is there such a thing?
Yes, it’s called the internet, and it seems to have caught on.
Yes! There is such a thing. But it has been captured by the videogames industry! And is held hostage. The computer offers us an enormously versatile technology that can help us cope with our problematic lives in clever and beautiful ways. But the hugely successful videogames industry has planted its enormous behind on top of this technology.
I didn’t think we’d get to the point where people would be complaining that the video games industry is killing the internet.
For a while the videogames industry pretended that it would change. That it would allow the creation of new things with its technology. At some moments, it even claimed that it would help. It promised it would become bigger and friendlier. That it would let women play too and elderly people. And it kept its promise! It allowed us to create pacifiers and candy.
Note the sexist bit of the argument, where apparently “women and the elderly” need their own special games, because they could never understand all these maintream games-for-boys. Note also that my wife just passed me in Borderlands and is now way further into the second playthrough than I am.
We don’t believe videogames anymore. When they say they’re going to grow. When they say that one day, we will be playing instead of reading or watching or listening.
You mean when they will consist of more than walking down a path by pressing one button? When they will have more interactivity, more goals, more variety?
Videogames are too happy. Happy to be games. Happy to be candy and pacifiers.
Candy and pacifiers with deep anti-war messages, explorations of philosophy and politics and, more simply, deep and fascinating worlds to explore and experience? And even without that, a way for people to find joy for a period of time? (I repeat, to be made happy is not a waste of time.)
Videogames can only be games.
Why? (And so what?)
Videogames cannot grow.
Videogames are quite big enough.
We will take your games and rip out their guts of stupid rules and challenges and blow air into what remains and make pretty bubbles and balloons that take us high into the sky.
No, actually, you won’t. You may make new rules, but they’ll still be rules. There will still be a rule to make the bubbles stay on the screen, still a rule that takes your balloon of rule-guts into the sky and not down into the void. And if the player decides on a challenge for him- or herself, it will still be a challenge.
You cannot stop us. No longer will you program computers to tell us what to do.
No-one is really trying to, you know. They’re trying to stop all sorts of good things from happening, but I really don’t think this is one of them.
No longer will you make us die just because we missed a jump. No longer will you make our lives so miserable that the end of the pain feels like some weird kind of joy. No longer will you frustrate us with your game overs, with your high scores, with gold coins, with your vicious magic circles, with your never ending series of carrots on your never-ending series of sticks.
Who exactly is forcing you to play all these games that torture you so?
Here’s a thought, though: I hear about a book that I’m certain my wife would love to read. I gather some money, look for it on the internet and buy it. I am fulfilling an objective, and there is a penalty attached if I fail (my own disappointment, potentially my wife’s). Is this a carrot on a stick? Am I oppressed and unhappy by this formula? Life is full of goals. It is in our nature as sentient beings to plan ahead, to set goals, to attempt specific things.
(Yes, I’d prefer to live in a socialist society where books are free. But that would change nothing about having to work to achieve goals. They would just be different goals. Similarily, not every game has to be about collecting golden coins.)
A time in which we can play.
Without rules or goals or winning or losing.
A time in which we can make love, notgames.
You can play now. But as you yourself observed, games always have rules. If the players make up their own rules, all you’ve done is create a sandbox – you’ve pushed the burden of game design away from yourself and given it to the player. But changing the name or position of the game designer does not make the game designer disappear.
Roland Barthes may have declared the death of the author, but the author is still writing and Roland Barthes was run over by a laundry truck.
Thus endeth the lesson.
When I tell any Truth it is not for the sake of Convincing those who do not know it but for the sake of defending those who Do
– William Blake