I love writing my monthly Culture Clash column for the IGDA… except when I’m trying to think of topics. As I might have mentioned before, my entire mind immediately goes blank when I’m asked to think of things. Like, “Steerpike, where should we eat?” or “Steerpike, what are your games of the year?” My jaw goes slack and I can’t think of my name, let alone anything else. The solution? Plagiarism! At least, the liberation of ideas others came up with first. So thanks to Dix, AJ, and Harbour Master for getting this story started. You guys complete me.
In other IGDA news, the Board of Directors has named Kate Edwards of Englobe, Inc. as the organization’s new Executive Director. This is Very Good News. Kate is super-cool and incredibly dedicated; an absolutely fantastic choice who’ll do amazing things for the group. I couldn’t be happier. Though now that she’s technically my boss, the chance of getting her to do a Celebrity Guest Editorial for Tap seems more remote…
Play it Some Author Way
By Matthew Sakey
Originally published by the International Game Developers Association
Catherynne Valente’s delightful The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making is a fabulous read for almost any age. One thing I find especially interesting about it is that Valente’s prose style, specifically, is what makes the book work so well. In fact I could imagine myself being kind of irritated by some aspects of the story if it weren’t for the way she wrote them down. Put the same idea in the hands of another author and it wouldn’t work, at least not for me.
This point about the nature of authordom is interesting, especially when contrasted with authorial potential in games – something that’s been the subject of a few articles in the last several weeks. Joel Goodwin of Electron Dance provoked some great commentary with his piece on the separation of the author, the artwork, and the reception; two great writers at my own site took on the idea of authorial potential and responsibility in a recent discussion. So I’ve been thinking about authorship, or how individuals creating games can use them to communicate meaning through the experience.
Some debate whether authorship exists at all in games, but I tend to think it does; certain creators can and do speak through their games. There seems to be ample evidence of that. But we do have to redefine some of the generally accepted rules of authorship, because games are not other media, and the same rules naturally don’t apply. That’s okay though. Authorship in cinema is not the same as authorship in prose, yet no one argues that both can deliver meaning intended by the power(s) behind their creation.
The technical underpinnings of games mean that traditional authorial “style” is much less of a thing. I don’t see Valente’s Fairyland novels working without her particular prose style. Directors, cinematographers, screenwriters, and editors also have recognizable styles that can dominate a film. In a game, the “style” is less about the author (in the classical sense of that word) and more about the technology, the play format, the art, the mechanics. To put it another way, Black Ops 2 is stylistically more like Bioshock than Freedom Force is. Yet Ken Levine authored two of those games, and neither of them is Black Ops 2.
That brings up another issue. Today, most games have dozens or hundreds of people working on them; who’s the “author?” In most cases the mantle is worn in different ways by a bunch of people who (hopefully) generally agree on the meaning they’re trying to present. Cinema is similar, with a lot of authorial influence held elsewhere than the director’s chair. As long as multiple authors work in tandem, it’s fine – if they’re all doing their own thing, the result is messy, whether in a game or anything else.
Here’s the white elephant. Unlike any other medium, no matter how structured or linear a game is, some affordance must be granted to the player. The authors cannot retain absolute control. Since the author’s intent can be subverted, since the player’s role is ultimately the deciding factor in a game’s interpretation, authors have a completely new playground to work in as far as figuring out ways to explore their intent and engage the consumer. Far from making games incompatible with meaning, I see this as a new frontier aching to be explored.
Player affordance dramatically increases the chance that an author’s intent is missed or misunderstood. It certainly makes games a more challenging medium for an author to work in. And above all else, playability rules. The experience of the game is almost always paramount, outside of rare experimental work. An author who ignores the game part and bulls through with their intended meaning is doing it wrong and should go write a book instead.
The existence of the player is an incontrovertible truth about video games. The player dictates how they experience the work. Someone can read a novel and misconstrue its meaning, but they can’t break the novel. They can skip chapters but they can’t rewrite any. Games don’t work that way, and authors have to take this into account when crafting their messages and themes. Ideally, authors must weave “what the game is trying to say” into its construction in such a way that they get to make their point without restricting the player. Spec Ops: The Line did a pretty good job of that. The player may ignore, mess up, misunderstand, or laugh at what the authors wanted to say, but they see it and don’t feel overly manipulated.
Dishonored. Gameplay clearly came first in Dishonored; what came second was really sprawling, opportunistic gameplay where you could make a lot of decisions about how to tackle things. Stuff changes based on what the player does, but the message always remains the same because it was authored into every part of the experience. Dishonored is an example of the author actually partnering with the player, a fantastic if difficult technique.
As for one that maybe didn’t do it so well, there’s Far Cry 3. I don’t know what to make of Far Cry 3. It was fun to play. But the authors wanted to make a point that quite simply can’t be made in the play format they chose. Now they’re saying they meant it that way and… I don’t know, if they say it’s true I guess I believe them. But in the end I think it’s more a lesson in what not to do.
For game developers, discussion of authorship is probably not very useful on a day to day basis. But it’s a discussion we’ll nonetheless be having for a long time to come, and from that discussion will come greater understanding of games as cultural artifacts. That’s where it gets useful to developers. Not the cultural artifacts part; I just lost half my audience by using that phrase. The understanding of games part. The better we understand them, the better they’ll be.
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