Designing for Grace

[Note: while everything I wrote about grace is still exactly what I believe, I was completely wrong to attack Koster in this way, and have written about that in The Bogeymen of the Indie Scene.]

One of the things that has always frustrated me about game design is that in almost every single discussion about it, the language and mindset used are those of engineering. Is it balanced? How optimized is the GUI? How can the gameplay be streamlined? It is entirely characteristic for modern games that they have to be described in terms of features – like a product, not like a work.

We say games are art, but do we mean it? We certainly don’t behave like it. A comparison with other art forms immediately highlights the difference. No-one sells a book with a feature list. Not even blockbuster movies, the most commercial of all film types, are sold as if they were haircare products or power tools. Only games are.

I’m sure it’s all got something to do with how games developed as a medium – pretty much corporate from the get-go, made only for profit, and in the late stages of capitalism to boot. The artistic spirit that somehow became part of the film world (despite everyone’s best efforts) was long dead and buried by the time computer games came around. But that’s another story. Wherever we came from, this is where we are, and this is what we’ve got to deal with.

What strikes me about articles like Raph Koster’s “Narrative is not a game mechanic” is that for all intents and purposes, they might as well come from a parallel universe. People try to respond to them, but it’s impossible. To say that story is a form of feedback rather than a game mechanic is not so much to make an incorrect statement (well, it is, but let’s not go there now) as to make a statement about a different matter in a different language on a different planet in a different universe. It’s a statement entirely alien to the essence of what story actually is. It’s like describing people in terms of their chemical reactions. Not strictly false, and sometimes quite relevant, but missing the point by a margin of infinity.

I’ll tell you what I’m trying to achieve when I make a game. This is an entirely personal thing, not something I’m trying to impose on everyone else. But it’s the principle that guides me, in game design as well as in other art forms.

I’m trying to achieve a little bit of grace.

Not simply in the sense of gracefulness or elegance, though these are things I appreciate in a game. No, grace in the sense of transcendence, in the sense of something being more than the sum of its parts, in the sense of a salvation or elevation that comes into being even though all our flaws mean it shouldn’t. You can say it’s a theological concept, though I’m not religious.

(The common roots of art and religion are not a new idea, of course. You’ll find the same feeling in film, painting, sculpture, literature and poetry. It’s not even that rare, though it’s probably not as fashionable anymore.)

What the purely engineering-minded have trouble understanding, I think, is that this isn’t some abstract philosophical mumbo-jumbo. It’s as real as love, though equally hard to grasp. But it’s not an engineering term. Grace cannot be expressed in a formula or an equation. That, in fact, is its point. Grace is when the two sides of the equation don’t match but the thing works anyway. Grace is the absurd yet wonderful fact that sometimes you get out more than you put in.

Grace is a paradox. That’s why game designers should read more Chesterton.

If there is a reason that people find my games to be memorable, it is that they have grace. Just a little bit. It’s why people are moved by The Fabulous Screech or inspired by The Infinite Ocean. Alphaland is all about a moment of grace, and it is the central theme of Arcadia, too. And if there is a way out of the Museum of Broken Memories, it is through grace.

Even Traitor, my most mechanics-heavy game, works primarily because it remembers that revolutions, as ugly and inelegant as they are, are deeply related to grace, because grace is itself a revolution against the meaninglessness of the world.

This isn’t how we’re supposed to talk about game design, and I’m sure someone is going to come along in a moment to tell me I’m pompous and pretentious. Seriousness is frightening, after all, when it’s not used to confirm the simplistic cynicism that fuels the adolescent egos that make up so much of the internet.

I’m sure someone else is also going to want to point out that games still have to be designed (as I said in my response to Over Games), which is missing the point. Unlike the silly people at Tale of Tales, I have no problem with game rules, no postmodernist point to make about the evils of the humanist machine and rational thought. Of course making a game is a technical process. Did you think writing a novel wasn’t? Or making a movie? But authors don’t spend all day talking about verbs and adjectives, and though some filmmakers may be fond of talking about lenses and shot lengths, that’s hardly all they talk about. Every form of art is technical, and there’s nothing wrong with that. There is something wrong, however, with not allowing it to be more than that.

Finally, grace doesn’t sell. Especially not in computer games, but also not in other media. Grace isn’t in, grace doesn’t make people comfortable. There are exceptions, of course, but it’s not something you can rely on. Modern Warfare tends to outsell Cart Life. Harry Potter reminds us that there’s more to the world than Twilight, but who reads Patricia McKillip? Peter S. Beagle won’t outsell George R. R. Martin anytime soon.

So what the hell is this failed game designer telling you? Certainly not how to make a living. Certainly not how to reach mass audiences. Most certainly not how to make your own games. Where you find your little bit of grace is entirely up to you – as is whether you want to pursue it at all.

I’d just like you to consider the not-so-radical idea that just as there are a million approaches to every other form of art, approaches that have yielded breathtaking results over the centuries, there may be more than one way of approaching games; and that perhaps it is necessary to develop a richer and more varied understanding of what a game can be. “Games are art” is a statement with consequences.