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.

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74 Comments

  1. Sarah

     /  July 6, 2012

    I’ve always said that popularity doesn’t usually equal quality, and you’ve hit on the main reason why here. Thank you for articulating this; I had found the words myself. Without grace, a game is not much more than the timewaster some people believe games to be.
    I need to think more about this.

  2. YES!

  3. You are so very right – in every regard, unfortunately. Grace is not in high demand currently, having been replaced by features, gimmicks, stats and cost-benefit-analyses – not only in game design, but in everyday life itself, all around us. Of course, achieving a little bit more grace (in our lives) will eventually be our only hope of salvation. But it’s not bringing home the bucks, at least yet.
    What a quandary. Yet, me shall not forsake grace. It’s all we really “have”, after all – without actually “having” it, of course.

  4. Wow. Amazingly well-said, Jonas. This rings so true for me.

  5. Sam

     /  July 6, 2012

    Screech is one of the few games that made me tear up, but when I showed it to a friend, she couldn’t get past the mechanics. It’s a matter of expectations. Someone motivated to download one of your games for some casual distraction will not experience it like someone who approaches it as a work of art.

    Clearly, there are people out there who are open to the grace (extravagance, spirit, whatever) in games like yours. I suspect that many of them do not read gaming blogs and do not use Windows. Ironically, the challenge artists who want to work in games face is reaching people who don’t play games. This is the point that “Not Games” people like Tale if Tales keep making.

  6. When I was still a very young game designer, about fourteen or fifteen years old and only making games for a year, I made a game that surprised me. It was different from my other games. It wasn’t focused on being a game as much as it was focused on creating a mood. The game in question I called ‘Valo’. If you go through the games I made up to that point (still on my website) you can quickly see how different it is from them. It is airy, light, and calm where the other were trying their best to be – how might we describe it? – gamelike.

    It perhaps would have been a one time occurrence but for a comment I received from a player about how they were moving to a new place and that the game was, in some small way, helping them to adjust to that stress, providing them peace, grace.

    It was a formative moment for me. I realized that a game could be more than just a thing on a screen. It could be something that mattered to people – and not in a possessive or addictive way, but something that helped them, something good.

    It’s a moment of grace, as you’ve identified, and it’s a certain shade of grace I feel games may be uniquely suited to give. If my games have provided anyone that moment of grace they needed, then I feel I’ve succeeded as a designer on that particular game.

    Sometimes I get distracted and start thinking that I need to make games that are “deep”, whatever that means. (unVerse may be beautiful, but is it deep? This kind of thinking is a trap.) But you’ve illuminated here something I didn’t quite know how to vocalize about my own design. Thanks.

  7. Robb

     /  July 6, 2012

    Awesome. My faith in humanity is always resurrected a little bit more when I read your blogs, sir. I must take issue with one point, however. “So what the hell is this failed game designer telling you?” Failed? Says who? The ones who think the amount of money something has made determines it’s worth? These are the same who judge everything by dollar signs, be it works of art, schools, and even people. I’m sure there are plenty of people, like me, who will deny all of these points to the grave.

  8. This is more on the Raph Koster point that everything you have written.

    Before I wrote A Theoretical War I was pretty much in this camp. I was fed up of people grabbing the term “game” and making it their own thing.

    But I had to do more homework when I was putting this down for real. What I discovered, when going through Raph Koster’s history was that I had trouble isolating something negative and exclusionary. You can look at some of Eskelinen’s work and it jumps right out at you; you can also stab yourself with some of Jim Sterling’s writing on art games and also see this. But I couldn’t pin down a moment where I saw arrogance with Raph’s work.

    So I had my little epiphany. We don’t have to make everyone agree on “game” but, for theoretical purposes, a precise, narrow definition is essential. Raph works on theories relating to games- now, he could have made up a term like “mechanicsblob” and created an entire theory on it where “playing a mechanicsblob is the act of solving statistically varied challenge situations presented by an opponent who may or may not be algorithmic within a framework that is a defined systemic model.” (That’s Raph’s definition of game.)

    But he chose not to. He’s making a theory about making games and gone for the term “game”. It’s up to you whether you consider that single decision wrong-headed, but I understand it. He is a fan of works like Dear Esther and Dys4ia even though he cannot call them games (I think he called Dear Esther a “liminal” case).

    In the comments on A Theoretical War, Raph thought everything was going to shake out over time into more appropriate categories.

    I look at it like this: if you’re building theories, you are going to have to be precise about what you mean at some point. The arrogance is a problem when you start shouting down other works that don’t fit it and, to be honest, Raph isn’t guilty of that. In his framework, narrative just can’t function as a mechanic. If you’re a follower of Raph’s theories and thoughts on game design, narrative is not a game mechanic makes perfect sense. If you’re not, it has no bearing on you whatsoever.

    I was going to avoid commenting on this because I knew I’d end up writing a bloody massive comment. But I felt derelict in my duty if I didn’t throw my own 2 Euro into the hat, considering our discussions and strange alien sculptures over the last couple of years.

  9. I have no problem with Raph and (as I believe I said in a comment on his blog) I actually even agree with a lot of things he says. I don’t think he is horribly arrogant or anything, and I understand the need to define terms to create theories.

    However, I nevertheless find that defining games as purely “the act of solving statistically varied challenge situations presented by an opponent who may or may not be algorithmic within a framework that is a defined systemic model” to be extremely detrimental to everything games (and computer games in particular) can be. Narrowing stuff down may be good for coming up with theories – though one may also question how useful a theory is if it ignores huge chunks of a field – but I’m not so sure it’s good for an art form. I’m also not sure it’s actually useful to the overall discourse, which is already obsessed with classification to a ludicrous degree.

    I think it’s also telling to compare this to theoretical discussions about other art forms. Why is, say, “film” so much more capable of encompassing a variety of radically different experiences? Or “novel”?

    So maybe I would have preferred mechanicsblob as a term. At least it’s definitely truthful.

    (Edit: I don’t like this reply. I feel I’m missing my own point.)

  10. A lovely piece of writing. I’m rather fond of your description of grace in games, as well.

    If I may quibble, though, authors and poets talk an awful lot about the craft of writing. The engineering of it, the verbs and adjectives. The idea that this engineering is somehow the antithesis of grace–the idea of separating the craft from the rest of the art and imparting all of the grace unto the latter–strikes me as odd.

    But perhaps that is just me? As an aspiring physicist and computer scientist I have a tendency to see transcendence and grace in the mechanical. Yet that does not seem so out of keeping with what I’ve heard from artists I know. They speak of verbs and adjectives, color and line as often and as seriously as they speak of theme, evocation, or grace.

  11. If I may quibble, though, authors and poets talk an awful lot about the craft of writing. The engineering of it, the verbs and adjectives. The idea that this engineering is somehow the antithesis of grace–the idea of separating the craft from the rest of the art and imparting all of the grace unto the latter–strikes me as odd.

    If I may quote myself:

    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.

    I spent years working in a Writing Center, I know to appreciate the craft. We need the craft in order to attempt grace. But no writer talks only about verbs and adjectives, or about verbs and adjectives as a purpose in and of themselves.

    (Come to think of it, maybe that’s part of what’s wrong with so-called literary fiction. It’s more interested in complex sentence structures than in storytelling or beauty.)

  12. What constitutes “literary fiction?” I’m not familiar with that terminology as such.

    Without knowing, however, I’d add that sometimes there’s grace to be had in the rawest of mechanics. Poetry made of syntax or sound alone.

    Tastes vary, of course.

  13. I guess I’m really not sure what you mean, then.

    To me there is grace to be had in the rawest of the mechanics. In the pure engineering of it. In the toying with sounds and syntax without formal meaning.

    So what I wonder is where you personally draw a distinction between the engineering and the artistry of games. It’s fine if the line is fuzzy–I wouldn’t really expect otherwise. But your articles reads as though there is some degree of line-drawing at work and I’m not sure I have a handle on it.

  14. I’m not trying to draw a line. I’m trying to say that there are different ways of approaching game design – that concepts like grace can exist, can be a goal.

    I have no objection to the idea that beauty can be found everywhere.

  15. That isn’t really the line I thought you were drawing, either, but if you had no intention to draw ANY lines, then I suppose I ought to apologize and slink off to the corner of the Internet that spat me out. Also to sleep. Sleep would be good.

    My apologies, and goodnight.

  16. Sam

     /  July 8, 2012

    Why is it so dangerous to admit that the computer is capable of hosting different types of interactive art? Ralph’s analogy to the relationship between theater and film rings true here – both are based on human actors, but we use different language to discuss plays and movies. That has hardly been detrimental to either field!

  17. Lith

     /  July 8, 2012

    This sums up what I think is a problem for the games industry: it’s dominated by left-brained people (yes, I’m well aware that Left/Right brain theory is bunk; I’m using this as a metaphor). The logical, linear thinkers…in other words, nerds. I’m not discrediting nerds, but I’m saying it’s wise to recognise strengths and weaknesses of various people.

    They like systems and working within established parameters. Like an academic essay, they like being able to show working. Coding’s great for this: a strict system of rules that must be followed, otherwise, well, your app doesn’t run. When you want your program to do X, you type Y. There’s not much chance for creativity. Your can’t type Z and expect it to still do X.

    The downside to being wired in such a way is that the abstract and creative tends to be hard to understand…if you can’t measure it, if you can’t show proof where it’s worked before, then therefore it’s crap. Don’t do it. Want to create a graceful game? What the hell is that? No, we’re sticking the Brown Cinematic Shooter 5, because the last for BCS games worked well: they were just like COD!

    (It also appeals to the bean counters: new ideas have no guarantee of selling – just copy a popular game and change it juuust enough so you don’t get sued.)

    Creativity is the polar opposite of established parameters. It involves making something new, not simply taking something established and rearranging it.

    You can see where this attitude would clash with the left-brainers: “new” doesn’t mean “fresh, novel, unique!” to them; it means “untested, unknown, unproven”. Everything they know as good has references, citations, rule sets!

    Unfortunately, a lot of “creative” positions in gaming seem to be taken up by left-brainers who feel they’re qualified because they’re running the show, or perhaps because they saw a really awesome movie last week. And this is considered a GOOD thing. (I remember, back at my game college days, people would happily describe their game projects as “like Starcraft!” or “like Baldur’s Gate!” with nothing further added…this was not only all you needed to know, but all you needed to hope for, too.)

    As we’ve seen, this has wider repercussions. We’ve seen great strides made in the left-brained sides of game devving. Graphics (in the technical sense; “graphics” as gamers refer to them are not art) get better every year, budgets get bigger.

    Yet the artistic side is languishing – atrophying, even. The very reason for gaming – interactivity – is getting less and less important, it seems. We haven’t seem to figure out how to tell a story beyond cut scenes (movies) or text dumps (literature). We’re replacing player control more and more with scripted sequences and other “cinematic” garbage. Again, reliance on established parameters: other artforms.

    In short, few people seem willing to explore the artistic potential of the medium, which is what an artistic medium needs. Few people are willing to take the risks the medium needs.

    What we end up is with a series of games that feel like you’re an actor in a movie, or a series of games that are perfectly mechanically competent – high frame rates, doesn’t crash every five minutes, shiny, shiny graphics – but artistically dull.

    This isn’t saying that nerds should get out of gaming – rather, I’m saying we need to start recognising other aspects of game development. You don’t let the guy who built the engine in a car design the interior trim and dashboard setup.

  18. Sam

     /  July 8, 2012

    Innovation doesn’t happen when the coders and designers stick to their established roles – when you “don’t let the guy who built the engine” have a say in the design. The potential of the computer as an artistic medium depends upon on the marriage of art and science. We should be able to talk about games as games, not as graphics + code + design. This is why I find the work of game theorists admirable; they are trying to develop language to discuss the medium in its own right.

  19. “Creativity is the polar opposite of established parameters. It involves making something new, not simply taking something established and rearranging it. ”

    Not to be too left-brained, but the science on creativity disproves this. :) Creativity is mostly driven by collage, by the intersection of distinct ideas melding into one new thing.

    Lith, my background is ALL as an artist. I am a writer. I am a poet, and have am MFA in poetry, and have published poems. I have studied studio art. I am a musician who plays a half dozen instruments, and compose my own material in a variety of styles. My music has been played on TV. I was serious when i said that I have been working hard at being an artist since I was twelve.

    Believe me, I am not the sort of left-brained person you describe. Oh, they are out there, particularly right now, driving the metrics-driven design approaches.

    But the examples you cite, of brown games that are yet another FPS, are actually just the work of people who grew up never seeing greater variety. Not left-brained people. Just people who love games.

    FWIW, virtually none of the best-known or most-respected designers are the left-brained type you describe, with the exceptions of Will Wright and perhaps Sid Meier. Maybe Pajitnov, but I haven’t met him.

    We are actually in a Golden Age of games as art. The strong movement towards games-as-science is maybe 5 years old, with some random antecedents. It is not languishing or atrophying, it is at a high point unseen since the naive work on the 70s and 80s.

  20. “Yet the artistic side is languishing – atrophying, even. The very reason for gaming – interactivity – is getting less and less important, it seems. We haven’t seem to figure out how to tell a story beyond cut scenes (movies) or text dumps (literature). We’re replacing player control more and more with scripted sequences and other “cinematic” garbage. Again, reliance on established parameters: other artforms.

    In short, few people seem willing to explore the artistic potential of the medium, which is what an artistic medium needs. Few people are willing to take the risks the medium needs. ”

    I don’t think that’s true. I’m seeing the artistic side of gaming grow every year, not shrink. I’m seeing more and more people in these sorts of discussions standing up for games that have artistic intent or for artistic interpretations at games.

    You talk of left-brain and right-brain. And while you made it clear you understand that the concept is scientifically invalid, perhaps you haven’t fully considered what that means for the distinction you’re trying to make. This is what I was trying to get at when I was addressing the author directly–the article seemed to be threaded with this idea that there are two major camps or at least two major fuzzy blobs into which most of the industry and it’s consumers can be separated.

    I just don’t see that, not even the more liberally worded version.

  21. Lith

     /  July 9, 2012

    @ Raph. You cite academic credentials; that’s all very well and good, but academia is inherently left-brained, even the artistic side (which is where I went to after I left the games college – I am studying a BFA right now).

    Artistic academia, as you exactly mention, is simply assembling the styles of other artists who have gone before – in short, it’s still biased towards the left brain. As I’m sure you know, if you wrote a piece based on your own artistic theories and not, say, Lyotard, you’d get pilloried. Trust me, I’ve tried. Academia is one of the most rigid systems of all, and it’s rather telling that a lot of the artists academics laud never went through that system themselves. Picasso bailed from art school, Hemingway never went, Hendrix spent his youth nicking cars…

    I think it’s kick-arse you’ve gotten work published and “on TV” – but that doesn’t tell me much about your creativity. It could be interpreted as you being someone who knows how to make stuff other people already know they like.

    Ethos appeals work for engineering and science fields – left-brained fields – but not so much for art. As you said, Raph, “by the intersection of distinct ideas melding into one new thing”…that’s just assembly. To use the car metaphor (I don’t have any particular love for cars…I honestly don’t know why use them a lot; I guess that makes these metaphors invalid, because I can’t show working or precedent as to why I use them, or show which people with more letters after their name used them as well) that’s not creating a new car. That’s just saying “Hey, we’ve got a petrol sedan and a diesel ute…let’s put the diesel engine in the sedan!”

    Or, as Homer Simpson might say, taking an existing product and putting a clock in it.

    But the examples you cite, of brown games that are yet another FPS, are actually just the work of people who grew up never seeing greater variety. Not left-brained people. Just people who love games.

    Exactly, but I’m failing to see how this disproves anything I’ve said. The self-referential cycle perpetuates itself, no? These guys don’t make new games because all they know is the old games…and that’s apparently OK. It’s OK to simply rehash. It keeps gaming alive, but doesn’t get it anywhere.

    Why didn’t they seek to do something different? Why didn’t they seek “greater variety”? It’s not hard to do, in gaming, a medium where having a female character with A-cup breasts is considered downright revolutionary, if not borderline seditious.

    It seems that the other left-brainish stereotype is coming to the fore here: not being able to relate well to those different from themselves :). Raph, you’d understand: how many times did you hear the “Would you like fries with that joke?” when the engineer-minded heard of your MFA?

    Being left-brained does not preclude someone doing well, as you have, Raph, formalised art-related business and academic spheres; in fact, I’d say it’s easier for a left-brained person to do than a right-brained person to do: academia and business are both systems, with rules to be learned and worked within.

    All I’m ultimately reading that “Jeez, I’d love to take those right-brainers…but I’ll only do so when they frame their speech in a left-brained manner! Otherwise, they can go to hell and clearly have no substance.”

    In other words: “Why the hell is this Kyratzes talking about what he’d like to do? Who the hell is Kyratzes? Does he have the necessary qualifications and citations of others’ work to prove his point? Wait, he’s just talking about an idea *he* had on his own? Well, it’s a load of crap, then. Show working for ‘grace’, then I’ll believe it.”

  22. Lith

     /  July 9, 2012

    (Note: I get a little worked up, and I don’t mean to flame anyone…this is just a refreshing change from the “GRAPHICS WERE BAD, 7/10″ levels of discourse that normally surround gaming.)

    @ Sam:

    Innovation doesn’t happen when the coders and designers stick to their established roles – when you “don’t let the guy who built the engine” have a say in the design. The potential of the computer as an artistic medium depends upon on the marriage of art and science.

    Innovation also doesn’t happen when you insist that all car interior designers know how to assemble a gearbox, and that gearbox assembly comes first, which seems to be the case for a lot of game companies: “Can’t code? Then go to hell.”

    I think a coder should have about as much bearing on the final output of the finished game as the metallurgist has on the music of the saxophonist whose sax the the metallurgist mixed the brass for.

    Movie directors don’t go, hey, I, want to make a film – better go learn how to make emulsion/make a camera CMOS sensor. Authors don’t go hey, wanna write a book – better learn how to construct an offset printer. Guitarists don’t hey, I wanna record a song, better go learn how to build a microphone.

    And I’m talking about *gameplay* innovation, game’s *artistic* innovation, something that is not happening much anymore, not “Oh, look, praise us as geniuses, we managed to squeeze our game onto the Xbox’s woefully outdated RAM!” Engineers’ll do the latter sort of innovation happily. They’re good at it.

    Unfortunately, we tend to focus on it, because technical innovation is easy to measure. Has those big, fat ethos appeals that are the only kind left-brainers will accept. Of course Game X is better than Y! Game X has more polygons! More characters on screen! More levels! Less CPU use!

    One thing he game industry has got to learn is that technical innovation is not interchangeable for artistic innovation…

  23. Lith

     /  July 9, 2012

    You talk of left-brain and right-brain. And while you made it clear you understand that the concept is scientifically invalid, perhaps you haven’t fully considered what that means for the distinction you’re trying to make.

    What you’re implying is only valid in a scientific context, which I thought would be clear isn’t the ONLY context. I did say it was a metaphor – just because “metaphor” isn’t listed in a science textbook doesn’t mean it’s invalid.

    Again, it’s showing that despite the so-called desire to the see the two sides of the divide come together, it’s not meeting in the middle the left want; it’s for the right to become the left.

  24. Raph’s analogy to the relationship between theater and film rings true here – both are based on human actors, but we use different language to discuss plays and movies. That has hardly been detrimental to either field!

    Theatre and film are separate media; they are created, performed and experienced in completely different ways. An actor acting in continuous real time in front of an audience is not the same as an actor acting with the help of cuts and close-ups on a cinema screen. But the difference between “computer games” and “interactive digital art” exists only in Raph’s narrow definition; otherwise the medium is the same. The types of things the player does (clicking, using the keyboard, making choices) are the same, the way the software works is the same, the way graphics and music are used is the same…

    Imagine, on the other hand, if films tending more heavily towards the artistic rather than towards traditional Hollywood filmmaking were called “notfilms” because they didn’t fit a narrow definition of “film” – would that be healthy for the world of cinema? Is it constructive to look at a Terry Gilliam movie and say “well, this is 50% film – lousy as a movie, but great as an experience”?

  25. We are actually in a Golden Age of games as art. The strong movement towards games-as-science is maybe 5 years old, with some random antecedents. It is not languishing or atrophying, it is at a high point unseen since the naive work on the 70s and 80s.

    I’d certainly say things are better now in terms of games as art than ever before; I’m not sure that really makes it a Golden Age. The majority of the discussion is still dominated either by mechanical or by formalist thought, which is why posts like Designing for Grace seem unusual; they’d be entirely unremarkable in other art forms. The games-as-science movement specifically may be new, but the games-as-engineering thought pattern has been dominant since the beginning.

  26. We should be able to talk about games as games, not as graphics + code + design. This is why I find the work of game theorists admirable; they are trying to develop language to discuss the medium in its own right.

    But how can I do that with a definition of “game” that excludes a lot of the work that has inspired me and much of my own work as well? How can any of us contribute to enriching the idea of what a game can be when our potential contributions are excluded because they may involve interactivity, but they don’t involve enough “gameness”?

  27. All I’m ultimately reading that “Jeez, I’d love to take those right-brainers…but I’ll only do so when they frame their speech in a left-brained manner! Otherwise, they can go to hell and clearly have no substance.”

    I’d say it’s not as negative, but yes, there is an element of that. And that makes this discussion so difficult; I keep getting further away from what I was actually talking about, because the language of the discussion is not one in which concepts like grace even exist.

  28. Rogher

     /  July 9, 2012

    I double agree.

  29. Michael

     /  July 9, 2012

    Two thoughts.

    First, it feels to me that games do a very poor job of presenting a narrative, compared to movies, books, etc, and that this is something inherent to the medium that cannot be fixed. I’m a voracious reader, and the books I read are other people’s stories, other people’s lives and choices. It can be entertaining and relaxing to experience and empathize with the characters, but there’s clear separation. In a game, I AM the character, I’m trying to play what I’d do if I were in that situation. If there is any pre-set story or narrative, then inevitably the game is going to make me do something that I wouldn’t naturally do, and that becomes just frustrating and makes me enjoy the game less. Better to just present a world and let me have fun.

    Also, I often find that when people write a game ‘to make a statement’ instead of ‘to let players have fun’ then more often than not the statement is one that I find naive and trite. Maybe it’s just a culture difference between developers who want to make a statement vs those who want to make a fun game, but it seems that the majority of those ‘make a statement’ people choose statements that I cannot at all agree with. Every time I play a game with big evil corporations trying to pollute the earth and dehumanize their employees while trampling beauty to feed their bottom lines, I have to just roll my eyes and try to ignore it and focus on enjoying the gameplay. It’s very frustrating when the mechanics of a game are enjoyable and fun but the story being told is so off-putting that you can’t engage at all. It’s like you could make a fun game about trading, managing resources, supply chains, transit routes, all that, and then ruin it by making it really all about trading slaves or something. The narrative detracts far more than it adds.

  30. “What you’re implying is only valid in a scientific context, which I thought would be clear isn’t the ONLY context. I did say it was a metaphor – just because “metaphor” isn’t listed in a science textbook doesn’t mean it’s invalid.”

    I think you’ve misinterpreted me. I was likewise using figures of speech, but they appear to have done little but obfuscate my meaning.

    The trouble isn’t that the left-brain, right-brain schism is based on bad science, but that it is based on a false dichotomy. I don’t really see a clear divide or even an obvious but fuzzy divide between those intellectuals who are intensely artistic and those who are intensely scientific.

    I don’t see a world split between left and right brainers, regardless of their actual neurology. I don’t think the two conflict with each other in the way you presume.

  31. @Lith:

    I’m citing academic credentials because there’s an absence of anything else to cite. I could tell you things based on impact on an audience (“people have gotten married because of my creative work” “people have changed their careers because of my creative work”) or to be more inward-directed, things based entirely on self-expression (“my MMO work is about exploring dynamics — social, economic, ecological — and about immersion into simulated worlds” “my casual games are about tackling unexplored formal permutations of puzzle games, usually by adding dimensions” and “my art game work is about capturing zen”)… but does that tell you anything more?

    I find it funny that you cite Picasso, a consummate formalist. He put himself through a thorough schooling in art, and did conscious exploration of technique — it’s very visible when following his work year by year.

    I am unsure how to respond, honestly. I hate to presume and do not want to sound condescending — you say you are pursuing a BFA. But my experience is that the whole mindset of “creativity is all about new unique stuff springing from the brow” is the sort of thing inexperienced artists say. Please don’t take offense, because I mean none. I find myself very sympathetic to what you are saying, because, well, I was inexperienced once and said the same damn thing. :)

    And it may just be that I have grown cynical and have lost the idealism that you have.

    Let me give you the right-brained version of my position, as best I can (and by the way, there IS some science around that — but you need to look up “systematizing brain” instead, and the work of Simon Baron-Cohen. And by the way, most designers I know test out as “B brains” meaning they straddle the fence. Anyway.).

    I believe passionately and deeply in how this medium can teach, inform, entertain, illuminate, and make profound statements. It can reach for grace, for terror, for feelings of insignificance and for the awesome awareness of interconnectedness. It excels at portraying links, great gears and delicate spiderwebs, fragile touches between people and the enormous distance between viewpoints. It is, in other words, a wonderful potential canvas for art.

    Like all canvases, it also sucks at some things. It is unclear to me and many others how much artistic merit is added by inserting a button press between cutscenes, no matter how many retro pixels the cutscene contains. I worry that culturally it is a medium obsessed with bouncing breasts, casual violence, and the notion of CONTROL.

    I have written. A lot. I am keenly aware of where I reach for art when making games, and fall back on my writing skills rather than my gamemaking skills. No, they are not mutually exclusive, but the things I want to do with games as art don’t feel to me like they should rely on something i could without a game in the mix.

    I want it to be better. I want to do better work in it. And my way of doing that is to map the territory as best I can so I can then send explorations out along the borders.

    You might also like to read this link, wherein I lament the math and the systems and how they get in the way of art:

    http://www.raphkoster.com/2006/11/10/project-horseshoe-influences/

  32. “But how can I do that with a definition of “game” that excludes a lot of the work that has inspired me and much of my own work as well? How can any of us contribute to enriching the idea of what a game can be when our potential contributions are excluded because they may involve interactivity, but they don’t involve enough “gameness”?”

    By saying

    I am an artist who can draw inspiration from many things. My work is uncomfortable because it does not fit boxes and boundaries. My work is honest because it marks out its own territory. My work is art because it is well-crafted. I am not interested in doing what is already done. I am interested in transcending.

    By saying “I want to the person whose work makes future theorists change their vocabularies and their pat, simplistic ideas of what is possible.”

    By saying “I seek grace.”

    As you did.

  33. Sam

     /  July 9, 2012

    I think a coder should have about as much bearing on the final output of the finished game as the metallurgist has on the music of the saxophonist whose sax the the metallurgist mixed the brass for…

    And I’m talking about *gameplay* innovation, game’s *artistic* innovation, something that is not happening much anymore, not “Oh, look, praise us as geniuses, we managed to squeeze our game onto the Xbox’s woefully outdated RAM!”

    You’re exploding the medium and determining that parts of it are art and other parts are not. Musicians, painters, and filmmakers know that their instruments, canvases, and cameras are integral parts of their final products that they had better understand and exploit if they want to have full control over their work. The medium is the message – and like it or not, video games run on computers.

    You and the current game industry (in your view, anyway) are taking an extreme and missing the point. How can you take advantage of interactive technology to produce art when you refuse to dirty your hands with the technology itself?

  34. Sam

     /  July 9, 2012

    Whoops, the first two paragraphs of the above are quoted from Lith.

    But the difference between “computer games” and “interactive digital art” exists only in Raph’s narrow definition; otherwise the medium is the same. The types of things the player does (clicking, using the keyboard, making choices) are the same, the way the software works is the same, the way graphics and music are used is the same…

    Imagine, on the other hand, if films tending more heavily towards the artistic rather than towards traditional Hollywood filmmaking were called “notfilms” because they didn’t fit a narrow definition of “film” – would that be healthy for the world of cinema?

    They are the same only if your criteria are so limited. Notgames differ from games not only in the intentions of their creators (loosely defined as “artistic” by you) but also in their structure. To summarize many definitions, the most basic feature of games is the presence of extrinsic goals. Your games are games indeed, and I don’t think anyone has argued otherwise. But when that basic framework that is shared by games as diverse as Tetris and The Book of Living Magic is not present in a given work – when one does not play it – it is useful to liberate it from existing game theory and discuss it in more precise terms.

    But how can I do that with a definition of “game” that excludes a lot of the work that has inspired me and much of my own work as well? How can any of us contribute to enriching the idea of what a game can be when our potential contributions are excluded because they may involve interactivity, but they don’t involve enough “gameness”?

    By doing exactly what you’re doing – creating digital interactive art that is important to you and contributing to the growing body of works that challenge the definition of “game” and may not be games at all. We are slowly coming to understand what games are, what they can do, and what is better expressed in a different medium.

  35. Sam

     /  July 9, 2012

    I did it again. First and third paragraphs are Jonas’.

    (Fixed it. – Jonas)

  36. Brent Gulanowski

     /  July 9, 2012

    This article takes a large number of assumptions for granted. I think it’s safe to say that it was written specifically for an audience which considers those assumptions to be non-negotiable facts. The belief that these ideas are unquestionably true is probably at the heart of your difficulty in understanding or responding to Raph Koster’s writings.

    Let me respond to some of the generalizations and assumptions in this article.

    ‘We say games are art, but do we mean it? We certainly don’t behave like it.’

    Who is the “we” to whom you refer? Game designers? Who qualifies as a game designer? Some of the other comments make it clear that programmers don’t qualify, but lots of game designers get their start by coding games because there is no one else to do it.

    ‘A comparison with other art forms immediately highlights the difference.’

    Comparisons of such enormous, vague concepts as categories of art forms is fraught with peril, yet you tread into it with complete abandon. How vast is your knowledge/experience with the marketing of different forms of art throughout the ages? Are you in a comfortable spot from which to be making such pronouncements?

    Even if you had the authority to make such a statement, you really need to back it up, otherwise it’s just empty rhetoric.

    How many games are marketed predominantly on their technical content? How many games actually make a claim to be art? A large number of games have art in them, and could be described as artistic, but often, their goal is not to bequeath an emotional response, but to be first and foremost mechanical challenges.

    More importantly, the wide variety of things which fit more-or-less into the category of games allows for varying levels of art-ness. Attempts to draw lines between games that are or aren’t art is like trying to distinguish any thing that exists in a continuum. It’s hopeless. You can’t even draw a sharp distinction between games which are software and games which are not, since many games rely on both digital and physical elements.

    ‘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.’

    Is “impossible” the best word to use there? Or is that level of hyperbole not a bit excessive? Since the article has many responses, I’m going with the latter.

    So, maybe you didn’t mean “respond”. Maybe you meant “disprove”. You say outright that Koster’s statement is “incorrect”, so clearly you think he’s wrong. The rules of rhetoric are pretty clear about how to disprove an argument. Perhaps the problem is not that it’s “impossible”, but that it’s simply too hard, or beyond some people’s ability, or that no one has yet come up with a successful counter-argument yet. Clearly, though, it’s not right to say that it’s impossible to respond or to disprove, especially if your premise that it’s incorrect is true. (However, it’s also possible that it is impossible to disprove Raph’s statement: because it’s correct.)

    As for the idea of parallel universes, what you’re basically arguing is that your point of view and Koster’s are basically irreconcilable. That Koster and yourself are wholly alien to one another, and that it is “impossible” for either of you to make statements about the fundamental nature of games that the other can make sense of, let alone agree with. Don’t you think that’s a bit outlandish? That maybe, either one or both of you just gave up too easily? I mean, you’re both apparently able to read and write and speak English adequately.

    Arguments that depend on seeing opponents as alien others are dehumanizing. They are a kind of lazy rationalization, and are at the root of virtually every crime committed by one person against another. I strongly urge you to rid yourself of such toxic rhetorical devices, lest you drift into dogmatism and xenophobia. You have already attracted some blatant xenophobia in your readership.

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

    ‘It’s as real as love, though equally hard to grasp. But it’s not an engineering term.’

    Maybe you’re right: but who can prove that love (or grace) is even real? I’ll grant you that love is a feeling, an emotion that people experience, and that it feels “real”, but in that case, all you’re saying is that you’re trying to achieve an emotion.

    It could be easily argued that a different emotional state is all anybody is trying to achieve when they do anything. Emotions are basically the mechanics which motivate people to act. (That’s why “emotion” and “motivation” have the same root word.) It’s not in the least mystical. It’s biology.

    Inherent to your entire argument is that same alienness of designers and their elevated station to engineers and anyone else without the requisite magical attribute bestowed upon designers by their muses.

    This is a flagrant appeal to mysticism. You are making a religious argument to the effect that you, as a designer, are specially gifted with the ability to understand issues of a magical variety that other lesser mortals are not capable of. This is bad news, my friend. You are claiming a membership in a priesthood, and you are using it to exclude the viewpoints of other people.

    I call bullshit.

    Engineers and designers are not separate species. Engineers are not required to limit themselves to “engineering terms” in their ability to have discussions about games and how to make them. On the other hand, all ideas—all of reality is fair game for consideration in terms of logic and engineering, including feelings.

    The root of this disagreement seems to come down to this: some people choose to make their points with logic: to build and present arguments based on premises and the causal relationships between them. Others, meanwhile, either can’t or won’t reduce themselves to such trivialities. Instead, they rely on vague emotional arguments, grandiose analogies, and appeals to faith and mysticism.

    The truth of the matter is that everything is fair game for engineering, because everything in the human world is technology. Every idea anyone ever had for how to do anything is an idea about a process, including making art.

    Every word, every rhyme, every image, and every sound was made by a process that was learned by experiment, practise and study. Everything human beings do is technology, is made with technology, and relies on technology. Art and technology are the same thing. If it’s not technology, it’s just nature.

  37. Ntero

     /  July 9, 2012

    Video games are both much younger than books or movies, and also much more entrenched in the technology that creates them. This causes games, as opposed to other artistic mediums, to be much more strongly defined by their technical features. It’s not because of some corporate greed that many games showcase new technologies as features, but rather that as a medium we are still greatly affected by new technologies. Journey is a very artistic game, but it’s only recently that it could be presented in the way it was. It took a lot of new, unique technology to achieve the artistic vision they wanted. From Dust is another example of something that could not have been achieved previously, and is a new creative expression powered by new technology. Outside of 3D in movies (which is also a technology listed as a box feature), directors have the same tools available to them. The same goes for writers. This causes our medium to be much more technologically focussed compared to mediums that are much older, and significantly more technologically stable.

    Another aspect that forces game design towards the engineering is that the lowest level of all interactivity is logic. If you can do it in a game, it was programmed. This means even your definition of grace can be modeled by an algorithm, or else it could never have been implemented into a game. You can tell an actor to be vibrant, and he can figure out the rest, but by the time you’ve created your game, you need to have been able to define ‘vibrant’ down to the mm of bounce in his step.

    This doesn’t mean that high-level, abstract concepts aren’t very important. They are the base granite from which your game logic is constructed from. However, unless you can define your ideas (‘grace’ for example) in concrete, logical terms the conversation will break down. It can’t be implemented unless you can define the rules. Video games are rooted in logic, and the most artistically fantastic games are the ones that take an abstract feel, and the emotions they want to evoke, and translate that into the medium of logic. This causes many effective design conversations to trend towards the technical. Because once the abstract is defined, once the idea is conceptualized, it needs to be encoded, which requires a translation, and a strong technical ability on top of the creative.

    To reuse an example, Journey is a very good example of transferring the feel to the logic. The jump heights, the overall pacing, the sand steps, the angle required before you begin sliding, the way the screen over-saturates in some zones, the unique tinting for each zone, and the flowing effect of the ‘creatures’ are all things that just feel right. But the way they made it feel right was to be able to define in concrete logic the emotions they wanted to evoke.

    To be able to expand the medium, we will need to talk about these high level, abstract concepts. But because of our technological entrenchment, we also need to be able to merge these ideas with concrete logic, which is a massively daunting task, more so than other artistic mediums, who can separate the technological from the creative, in a way where one is much less dependent on the other.

  38. James Patton

     /  July 10, 2012

    This whole left/right brain thing seems to be getting a bit out of hand. Raph, I completely agree that the problem with games that are clones of or heavily inspired by other games is mainly that the designers haven’t experienced enough variety. I’m sure we’ve all done it: we play System Shock, or Planescape, or a shooter with dual-wielding, and say “Yes! I want to make that, but this time let’s do THIS…”

    Which is missing the point. If we are only inspired by other games then we will only ever make the same things.

    What I will say about this left/right brain thing is that, fundamentally, games are systems. This doesn’t mean that every game must be rigidly systemic – you can still use a systemic framework to make something which has no real system to it. (Avant-garde poetry comes to mind.) But if game systems involve the manipulation of elements in pre-determined ways, then surely it would be narrow-minded to form a theory of game design that said “The systemic stuff is just a canvas – games should be as unsystemic as possible”?

    Which is not at all to say that grace has no place in game design. Far from it. I personally want as much grace in my games as possible, the same way I want as much grace in my films, books, poems, plays and music as possible. But I think that to attain grace – as Jonas remarks – it would be a good idea to work with the systemic nature of games, rather than against it.

    Take a game like Braid. There was a lot of story stuff and a lot of lovely art but, on a moment to moment level, the game actually made the player think differently by presenting them with complex puzzles. I won’t spoil the ending for those who haven’t played it, but the fact that the player thought in a particularly scientific, maybe emotionless way by the end of the game was very important to the game’s story. Braid has problems, but Jonathan Blow (the designer) understands some very important things about game design: namely, the fact that games affect players through being played by them, and that players’ responses to the game are a vital part of the experience of playing and, therefore, of the game itself.

    May I make a suggestion? I hate the idea that many games are poor copies of other games, as Raph has suggested (although I think he’s totally right). I recently wrote a play which was shortlisted for a prize and was, I think, probably the best bit of drama I’ve written. It wasn’t fuelled by some unknown Muse, though: it was inspired by Greek Tragedy (which I studied a few months before writing), Manhattan Transfer (a 1930s American novel) and in-depth discussions of late capitalism and postmodernism which I had with my fellow students. Thinking these things over in my head, I couldn’t HELP writing a play. Deciding to NOT write the damn thing would have been far more uncomfortable than sitting down late at night and letting it just sort of emerge from the interactions of those three things.

    So, like Raph says, creativity is often just combining things in what some people might think is an uncreative way. But it’s often the case that if you keep looking at things that interest you, you won’t be able to stop yourself thinking “Wait, what if this were a game – what if the player had to make a decision, or were the pawn in this manipulative conspiracy, or were misled, or were encouraged to think differently…” My advice is simply to throw out this left/right brain stuff, to not worry too much over whether game design is too technical, and to just go out and read and watch and listen and discuss as much as you possibly can, in whichever fields interest you. When you have so many things floating around in your head that you cannot keep them all in, and you really just have to make a game, then there will be no room for worrying about whether this is a game or an art game or a not-game.

    I’m also aware that this post reads like some trite nonsense from a writers’ forum, and I’m also also aware that if I read this post on a writers’ forum I’d leap in and say that the poster knows nothing of the craft of writing… that they need to be more technical, etc. etc. All these things delight me, for some reason. It is probably because I am tired and should go to bed.

  39. I’m all for ditching the left/right thing. And I don’t think your post reads as trite nonsense either.

    I came from a writing craft lecture just this afternoon in which we talked about defamiliarizing objects in various ways. Taking things and protecting them from a reader’s automatic responses either by pre-empting them or forcing new ones. The lecture went into more detail about devices that do this and so forth. I bring it up because a running theme was an idea you mention: taking things and processing them in ways that don’t necessarily seem especially new or original. Using specificity and odd juxtapositions to make break that automation–not to make a simple stone something mystical and strange, but just to “make it stoney again,” make things experienced rather than recognized.

    I’ve also been learning how to code in C++. Object oriented programing is all about reuse, re-purposing, and classification.

    The two of them together in my head give me this: to suggest that something being new gives it inherent value is not wrong. But to suggest something being unoriginal means it has nothing to teach us is to ignore some of the best art and thinking humanity has to offer. We should be riffing on already-produced games like a jazz artist plays with a classic tune. We should be reusing material both to give our work a sense of history and our players a familiar jumping-off-point from which to access the new ideas we bring to the table.

    Completely original thinking and design is great. But it by no means bad that most games reuse, reiterate, and steal. What makes these games falter, in my mind, is the lack of original intent and energy behind the re-purposed content. The difference, I suppose, between building off an idea and building to an idea.

  40. First, it feels to me that games do a very poor job of presenting a narrative, compared to movies, books, etc, and that this is something inherent to the medium that cannot be fixed. I’m a voracious reader, and the books I read are other people’s stories, other people’s lives and choices. It can be entertaining and relaxing to experience and empathize with the characters, but there’s clear separation. In a game, I AM the character, I’m trying to play what I’d do if I were in that situation. If there is any pre-set story or narrative, then inevitably the game is going to make me do something that I wouldn’t naturally do, and that becomes just frustrating and makes me enjoy the game less. Better to just present a world and let me have fun.

    My games are the exact opposite of that, and yet they mean a great deal to many people. Different strokes for different folks. More than one approach can be valid.

    Maybe it’s just a culture difference between developers who want to make a statement vs those who want to make a fun game, but it seems that the majority of those ‘make a statement’ people choose statements that I cannot at all agree with. Every time I play a game with big evil corporations trying to pollute the earth and dehumanize their employees while trampling beauty to feed their bottom lines, I have to just roll my eyes and try to ignore it and focus on enjoying the gameplay. It’s very frustrating when the mechanics of a game are enjoyable and fun but the story being told is so off-putting that you can’t engage at all.

    But you’re just saying you don’t like left-wing content. That’s got nothing to do with narrative in games per se.

    (Also, you might want to stay very far away from my games. Heh.)

  41. The trouble isn’t that the left-brain, right-brain schism is based on bad science, but that it is based on a false dichotomy. I don’t really see a clear divide or even an obvious but fuzzy divide between those intellectuals who are intensely artistic and those who are intensely scientific.

    I agree, actually. I used “engineering-minded” to describe a mechanistic approach, but perhaps something like “formalist” would have been more accurate, because as I said elsewhere I think the notgames people basically share the same mindset, and they’d call themselves “artistic.”

    I myself am extremely interested in science and a scientific view of the world, for example, and sometimes regret not having studied something scientific. I also love talking about design and structure in games, film or writing. But what worries me is the degree to which that’s *all* a lot of people will talk about, and the logic which forgets that these elements are tools rather than goals.

  42. This article takes a large number of assumptions for granted. I think it’s safe to say that it was written specifically for an audience which considers those assumptions to be non-negotiable facts.

    No, not really. It just explains my personal perspective.

    Who is the “we” to whom you refer? Game designers? Who qualifies as a game designer? Some of the other comments make it clear that programmers don’t qualify, but lots of game designers get their start by coding games because there is no one else to do it.

    Not comments made by me.

    Comparisons of such enormous, vague concepts as categories of art forms is fraught with peril, yet you tread into it with complete abandon. How vast is your knowledge/experience with the marketing of different forms of art throughout the ages? Are you in a comfortable spot from which to be making such pronouncements?

    Even if you had the authority to make such a statement, you really need to back it up, otherwise it’s just empty rhetoric.

    It’s not so enormous to say we don’t sell movies with feature lists. We don’t. We don’t sell novels with feature lists. We don’t. This requires no vast historical knowledge.

    Pick up a book from a hundred years ago. It does not have a feature list on its back.

    How many games are marketed predominantly on their technical content? How many games actually make a claim to be art? A large number of games have art in them, and could be described as artistic, but often, their goal is not to bequeath an emotional response, but to be first and foremost mechanical challenges.

    I did not say games these games were making a (marketing) claim to be art. I said we say that computer games are an art form, but we treat them as products. Most Jason Statham movies don’t aspire to bequeath an emotional response either, but we they’re part of the art form called film. And we don’t sell them with a list of how many types of kicks Statham performs, how many guns he wields, or how many people’s heads he punches into a fine paste.

    Attempts to draw lines between games that are or aren’t art is like trying to distinguish any thing that exists in a continuum. It’s hopeless.

    I don’t think you’ve been paying attention. I’m *opposed* to the logic which categorizes games as “games” and “notgames” or “games and “interactive art”. That’s my biggest problem with Raph’s definition of what constitutes a game.

    So, maybe you didn’t mean “respond”. Maybe you meant “disprove”.

    If I meant “disprove”, I would have said so. The problem is the great difficulty (or impossibility, as I said, which may or may not be accurate) of responding to a formalist argument in non-formalist terms.

    You say outright that Koster’s statement is “incorrect”, so clearly you think he’s wrong. The rules of rhetoric are pretty clear about how to disprove an argument.

    You’re confusing two different matters: the formalist argument that narrative is not a mechanic (with which I disagree on a formalist level, but which is not the point of the debate) and the mindset or approach that leads to looking at games in these terms in the first place.

    Arguments that depend on seeing opponents as alien others are dehumanizing. They are a kind of lazy rationalization, and are at the root of virtually every crime committed by one person against another. I strongly urge you to rid yourself of such toxic rhetorical devices, lest you drift into dogmatism and xenophobia. You have already attracted some blatant xenophobia in your readership.

    Don’t you think you’re being a bit excessive here? Xenophobia is pretty much the last thing you’re likely to see me engaging in. Neither is it dehumanizing to see that there are different approaches to a subject matter. I find it far more intellectually lazy to pretend that there always is a middle ground or that such a middle ground is necessary. Two people can go in different directions without harming one another or becoming enemies.

    This is a flagrant appeal to mysticism. You are making a religious argument to the effect that you, as a designer, are specially gifted with the ability to understand issues of a magical variety that other lesser mortals are not capable of. This is bad news, my friend. You are claiming a membership in a priesthood, and you are using it to exclude the viewpoints of other people.

    No. The existence of a personal viewpoint does not exclude the right of others to think differently. The only point I made in my article is that this approach exists; that this is one viable way of making games, and that it is an approach that has yielded results. The rest is your fantasy of what I stand for, which is wildly inaccurate.

    Engineers and designers are not separate species. Engineers are not required to limit themselves to “engineering terms” in their ability to have discussions about games and how to make them.

    Yes. I would like people not to limit themselves.

    On the other hand, all ideas—all of reality is fair game for consideration in terms of logic and engineering, including feelings.

    Of course it is. And entirely logical analysis of the universe may result in the conclusion that certain aspects of reality are paradoxical.

    The root of this disagreement seems to come down to this: some people choose to make their points with logic: to build and present arguments based on premises and the causal relationships between them. Others, meanwhile, either can’t or won’t reduce themselves to such trivialities. Instead, they rely on vague emotional arguments, grandiose analogies, and appeals to faith and mysticism.

    No. That’s the typical dogmatic reduction of entirely real human experiences to the “vague” and “emotional” because they don’t fit into a comfortable framework of thought that someone prefers – which I consider to be extremely unscientific. (Ironically, you’re also missing Raph’s point, who is equally certain that grace is a real concept, but differs on how to best create it.)

    Every word, every rhyme, every image, and every sound was made by a process that was learned by experiment, practise and study.

    How many more times do I need to say that craft and a technical perspective are absolutely essential to every art form? The problem is confusing the craft with the art; confusing the biological processes that allow the human to be with the human being.

  43. Completely original thinking and design is great. But it by no means bad that most games reuse, reiterate, and steal. What makes these games falter, in my mind, is the lack of original intent and energy behind the re-purposed content. The difference, I suppose, between building off an idea and building to an idea.

    I agree. While I don’t think innovation is a bad thing, I think the way the gaming discourse treats innovation as the Holy Grail is problematic; I, for example, am not at all interested in innovation for innovation’s sake. I want to make something good; I want to be true the spirit of the work I’m currently trying to realize. Sometimes that means using ideas and methods that haven’t been commonly used in games before, but I’m not doing it for the sake of the newness itself.

    (As I’ve said elsewhere, I’m more interested in the gaming equivalent of the Odyssey than in the gaming equivalent of postmodernist poetry. We don’t even have proper classics yet, should we really be doing so much of the whole degenerate self-referential deconstructivist thing yet?)

  44. This means even your definition of grace can be modeled by an algorithm, or else it could never have been implemented into a game.

    I don’t think that’s entirely accurate. It’s more than just the general design of the game; it’s not something abstract, but something extremely specific. As in a story it is not just those sentence structures but those words, arranged just so that create what you might call grace or transcendence, so in a game there are a variety of elements that in a specific arrangement can have the same effect. But from that arrangement you cannot necessarily deduce a logic by which this effect can replicated in every situation.

    Of course this will then be implemented with entirely technical tools, as it is done in every other art form, and if we do not understand those tools, we can do nothing.

  45. Michael

     /  July 10, 2012

    >I am an artist who can draw inspiration from many things. My work is uncomfortable because it does not fit boxes and boundaries. My work is honest because it marks out its own territory. My work is art because it is well-crafted. I am not interested in doing what is already done. I am interested in transcending.

    This attitude is why the art world is so inaccessible to most of society. If you want to make art that’s uncomfortable and lacking in mass appeal, go ahead, feel free to. It doesn’t make it good art, it just makes it uncomfortable and unpleasant, and people will rightly avoid it.

    I’ve never understood why wanting to create a really enjoyable experience for a large number of people is dismissed as mainstream/bad, while upsetting and shaking up people is seen in any way as a positive. Your art only has value for the joy it creates, why design something to be worthless?

  46. This attitude is why the art world is so inaccessible to most of society. If you want to make art that’s uncomfortable and lacking in mass appeal, go ahead, feel free to. It doesn’t make it good art, it just makes it uncomfortable and unpleasant, and people will rightly avoid it.

    What I said was “uncomfortable because it does not fit boxes and boundaries.” What does that have to do with mainstream appeal or accessibility? All kinds of popular stuff is not easily pigeonholed.

    I actually quite agree with you about elitism and the assumption that popularity equals bad. It’s a silly position.

  47. I actually quite agree with you about elitism and the assumption that popularity equals bad. It’s a silly position.

    I also agree. You should see some of the debates I’ve had with people over Harold Bloom on this site! Popularity equals neither bad nor good – just popular.

    My favourite quote on that subject is by Adrian Mitchell: “Most people ignore most poetry because most poetry ignores most people.”

  48. Lith

     /  July 10, 2012

    You’re exploding the medium and determining that parts of it are art and other parts are not. Musicians, painters, and filmmakers know that their instruments, canvases, and cameras are integral parts of their final products that they had better understand and exploit if they want to have full control over their work. The medium is the message – and like it or not, video games run on computers.”

    That’s a very nerdy stance…

    Photography forums are full of nerds with ten thousand dollars worth of high-end gear and no photos to speak of because they’re too busy testing it (or working overtime to pay it all off). All the gear and no idea, as they say.

    Or, in joke format:

    An engineer is at the opening of a gallery he built, admiring some photos, when a man walks up to him and says “Ah, do you like that photo? I’m the photographer.”

    “Wow,” says the engineer, “These are a very good. You must have a very good camera!”

    “Really,” says the photographer, “What do you do?”

    “Oh, I’m a structural engineered. I helped design and build this place.”

    “Wow,” says the photographer, “You must have a very good pencil.”

    “You and the current game industry (in your view, anyway) are taking an extreme and missing the point. How can you take advantage of interactive technology to produce art when you refuse to dirty your hands with the technology itself?”

    If you wanted to paint watercolours, would you first take a job grinding pigments at Winsor & Newton?

    Why aren’t all musicians forced to learn Pro Tools before picking up a guitar? Why don’t writers code their own word processors, or make their own paper? Why don’t actors build their own stages?

    Lack of knowledge in the technicalities behind one’s chosen artistic field does not preclude artistic excellence in that field. There should be people to handle that: coders to code, engineers to engineer, pigment grinders to grind pigments.

    If you start insisting musicians be audio engineers first, and artists second…you get jazz fusion.

    And nobody want’s that :).

  49. Lith, I think your examples are very illustrative.

    If you take away the camera, can we agree that the photographer could not have gotten any of his photos done?

    At the very least, there’s a minimal level of technical competency required. You cite guitarists. No, they are not obliged to learn pro tools before picking up a guitar. But they sure as heck are obliged to learn some guitar in the process. (I saw that as someone who plays myself). And the more guitar they know, the better able they are to express their ideas.

    If you want to paint watercolors, you do not start grinding pigments, no. But MANY famous painters do in fact end up grinding their own pigments and mixing their own colors.

    You don’t have to, no. And I agree there are plenty of folks who know every technicality and still suck.

    But I do think there is a pretty strong correlation, historically, between craft knowledge and artistic merit. We don’t have a strong tradition, in human culture, of the naif artist accomplishing enduring work.

    Now, if they are doing it all just for the joy of expression, great. I know plenty of folks who bang away on a guitar and don’t care to or need to get better. They derive their value in the activity from other things — a hobby, the communal aspect, etc. But that’s not (to my mind) the same as doing it for art.

    Now, then you go further and start mixing together things like actors and stages, or writers and papermaking. Those are false equivalencies to what we are talking about. We have been discussing actors and how much they should study acting methods & theories, writers and how much they should study literature, prosody, and grammar. In this case, we’re talking about the degree to which game designers should examine how games work and what they are made of and how they mean and all that jazz fusion. ;)

  50. James Patton

     /  July 10, 2012

    Lith: a painter who doesn’t understand how pigment works, or a writer who doesn’t understand grammar and prosody, or a musician who doesn’t understand key signatures, might have all the enthusiasm and brilliance in the world, but they’ll be a pretty bad painter/writer/musician.

    I think part of the problem is that, for videogames, the TECHNICAL aspects are (almost) at one with the MATERIAL aspects. (I think those terms explain it best.)

    Take novels, for example. Novels are made up of words, and must be arranged according to certain technical considerations, ie. grammar and style. If the writer were writing poetry instead, the technical considerations would also include prosody. Now, if the writer doesn’t know about these technical things, then his writing is going to be pretty dire. But the writer has no need to know about how the book will actually be printed: that is a material consideration, and really has much less to do with the art itself. Similarly, a playwright should know about dialogue, about how people speak, about the way words and spectacle fit together, perhaps even about acoustics, but they don’t need to build the stage because any old flat bit of space will do.

    Painting is a special case because the material IS the art, hence mixing pigments.

    In videogame design, though, it seems like the technical elements and the material elements are just summarised as “coding”. And while it seems to me that a game designer should have an understanding of how coding works – otherwise they won’t be able to make anything – once third-party platforms and engines become available to them (like AGS or something) the need to really understand what goes on in the computer at a deep level goes away. If that’s taken care of by your engine, you don’t need to worry about it; it’s this that allows people to code in high-level languages.

    But some technical expertise is still needed. To understand how to use AGS you still need to know about variables, because that’s how a computer works. And if you understand procedural generation then you might be able to use the computer’s power to your advantage, and create a game that would have been impossible otherwise. Eventually you might become frustrated with the current engine and decide to build your own, to your own specifications: the game design equivalent of grinding your own pigments.

    I don’t think that deep coding knowledge is *necessary* to create what I would consider a deep, meaningful, emotionally engaging videogame. (I’m aware that “videogame” in this sense doesn’t match up with Raph’s definition, but I’m not sure what I’d call it, so I’m sticking with that for now.) But, the more technical expertise you have, the easier it is to create these things, and the more options you have while creating. If a painter only knew about one kind of brush, he wouldn’t be much of a painter.

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