I’m finally getting back on track with my monthly International Game Developers Association column, thanks mostly to the patience of the organization and my editor, Cat Wendt. IGDA Board of Directors elections were held a while ago. Sadly my personal favorite pick – the awesome Kate Edwards of Englobe Inc – won’t be joining the IGDA board, but I have a lot of confidence in those who did win, and lots of optimism for the future of the organization.
This month I write about the uniqueness of how games relate to their consumers, and how developers are inventing some clever new approaches to authorial control that ensures players see and experience what the developers want them to, despite gaming’s inherent affordance. Enjoy!
The Magic in the Machine
By Matthew Sakey
Originally published by the International Game Developers Association
I’m just gonna go ahead and open by saying this is absolutely not a “games are art” column, so don’t rage quit. I just need to use part of that debate to get my thesis rolling. Okay? Okay!
One of the arguments against games being art is that the interactive affordance of a game makes it impossible for the “author” to completely control the experience. With a book you read until the end, and only the words the author wrote. With a painting you see only what the painter put on the canvas. But with a game, you may or may not see the whole story, you may or may not see that cool set-piece event, and so on. This is definitely true, and depending on your viewpoint could certainly be seen as a limitation to the implied authorial control of other art forms.
But what’s really interesting is what some developers seem to be doing with that. We have now seen a few examples of games whose narratives could not be told any other way and result in the same experience.
In Ice-Pick Lodge’s Pathologic, about midway through there’s a major twist that changes the way you look at things completely. It’s impossible to miss, and it absolutely positively couldn’t work if Pathologic were a novel, or movie, or anything else. The manner in which it’s so tightly integrated with the game’s interactivity is both revolutionary and revelatory. So that’s a situation where, yes, authorial control is not precisely the same as it is in other media, but authors are figuring out really clever ways to maintain their influence all the same.
Christine Love’s Analogue: A Hate Story, meanwhile, could probably be done as a movie or book, though I think you’d miss out on some of the intended flavor if it were. Love’s work is very nuanced; she approaches it knowing that she is making a game, and takes advantage of that while also innovating it. Analogue doesn’t have traditional win or lose scenarios: it’s possible to get a perfectly successful ending maybe halfway through the game. If you do, you won’t find out everything you want to know, but you don’t “lose,” and regardless of what path you take, Love’s intentions as an author are maintained. She is able to, essentially, show you want she wants you to see, how she wants you to see it, unfettered by the rigid demand that the creator maintain total control.
And another trick a game’s authors have pulled recently: 98% of players who finish Dark Souls are going to do it in a certain way, and draw certain conclusions about the fiction as a result. I certainly did. But there is a different path you can take, one obscure enough that were it not for the game’s obsessive community, I can almost see it going unnoticed. It’s not hidden or anything, just that triggering it calls for a sort of roundabout approach to certain activities.
Now, that game’s fiction is ambiguous to say the least. I mean, we’re dealing with a realm where the flow of time is distorted and parallel copies of the world occasionally wander through one another. And From Software didn’t exactly lay the story out clearly. In fact you don’t have to think about the story at all if you don’t want to. But if you do, and if you happen to trigger this alternative line, you’re going to experience something that conceivably calls into question almost everything most players believe to be true about the storyline. More intriguing than that is we’re not talking, like, a good ending/evil ending type of thing here. It just very casually presents a situation with two incompatible but otherwise equal interpretations of the story. Compared to the bombastic, ponderous forking dilemmas of the Mass Effect series, what Dark Souls does is so nonchalant it almost seems like an inside joke without the humor. And again, it’s not something you could readily do in another medium.
On the subject of Mass Effect, I don’t necessarily mean “bombastic” and “ponderous” negatively. It is not perfect, not by a long shot, but it is a very significant demonstrator of authorial determinance coupled with player affordance. I feel bad for Bioware, because this ridiculous outcry about the game’s ending has overshadowed what the discussion truly should be: here at the conclusion of a massive, epic trilogy, the discussion should be about what Mass Effect has meant to the medium. As it is, it might be a few years before that has a chance to re-emerge into the discussion.
The reason so many people got so ludicrously outraged by the trilogy’s ending is because they felt that their own precious unique path through the experience was usurped in the final moments, which, I’m sorry to say, was very much Bioware’s prerogative and squealing about it isn’t going to change that. (Personally I think it ended fine, aside from the developer’s evident greed for DLC dollars, and if people burned up as much righteous indignation solving world hunger as they did complaining to Bioware the entire planet would be obese).
But once again, in Mass Effect – and to some degree in all of Bioware’s stuff – you have a narrative approach that couldn’t be done if it weren’t a game. They could make a Mass Effect movie, or a Mass Effect opera, even, but everyone who went to see it would see the same story, which is utterly contrary to the Mass Effect dogma.
So! What is the moral of all this? The moral of all this is that I find it exciting to realize how much subtle innovation we’re seeing in this medium. Oh sure, probably next month I’ll whine that games should be more innovative, but for now we ought to stop for a second and think about how developers are maintaining authorial license, how they are taking advantage of the inherent mechanics and structure of video games and, well, turning them into a perfectly legitimate and impressive art form.
See, if this column were a video game, you’d be awed by the fact that I did a whole thing about how games are art and tricked you into believing it wasn’t until the big reveal, but since this column isn’t a video game I had to just say it. Layers and layers of meaning!
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