This month’s Culture Clash column is inspired in part by a chronic affliction of mine: every twelve months or so, I undergo a strange frenzy of attention-paying to the work of Ice-Pick Lodge, the inscrutable Russian developer of Pathologic, Cargo!, and The Void. The studio’s website rarely sees substantive updates, but nevertheless I always tend to find something new there – though it rarely is anything about their activities. This time around I found a series of papers and lectures on game development, the translation quality of which was… quite poor.
Still! I like that stuff and it formed the basis of what I have to say in this month’s column. Despite it making complete sense to me, I have a feeling this is one of those installments that will make the eyes of other readers cross. Like Penny Arcade’s Twisp & Catsby comics, I try to only do that once a year or so. Enjoy!
The Fourth Letter
By Matthew Sakey
Originally published by the International Game Developers Association
Rather belatedly for a fan of their work, I happened across Ice-Pick Lodge’s 2001 Deep Game Manifesto:
The deep game calls for complete immersion, concentration, and attention…We deliberately refuse to create a comfortable environment for the gamer. The addressee is not the consumer. He is the coauthor. Passing the deep game is a creative process.
The Manifesto details a commitment to the medium, to the uniqueness of games. It uses the word “art” but really it’s about Ice-Pick’s view that painters paint and writers write and game developers develop games, and all of them can produce something powerful using the tools of their chosen medium. Years later, in an address titled On the Threshold of the Bone House given at the 2005 Russian Game Developers Conference, Ice-Pick’s CEO Nikolay Dybowski remarked that during the development of Pathologic
…[t]he theme announced in Deep Game was soon forsaken. At one point I realized that, even among my closest comrades-in-arms who as it may have seemed shared this idea with me, it is long lost, forgotten and not interesting to anyone.
That sounds kind of gloomy. And Pathologic did struggle with these things. It did not always (or often, depending on your point of view) succeed at what it was trying to accomplish. A noble first effort, it was impenetrable in ways that did not contribute to the Manifesto’s intent. But the idea is still interesting, and even Dybowski wrapped his remarks by saying that it can be done. That, in fact, it would only just be the beginning – “only the fourth letter of the alphabet,” as he puts it. One of the earliest tools developers will find to make their games potent. Using the correct tools correctly, something Warren Spector mentioned in a recent talk, is really the key to success here. However many letters this alphabet has, developers are still in the process of discovering each and learning to use them correctly.
Last month I remarked briefly on the fact that media evolve over time, from very basic and limited to very complex and nuanced. That evolution typically reflects a growth in what the medium can do, or what people believe that it can do. Evolution requires ongoing development of two things: the medium’s tools (new brushes, lenses, colors, words, or film stocks, for example) and the people who work in it. Their progress depends on the tools, on learning from what had come before, and on a willingness to explore previously unconsidered potentials.
The earliest two-dimensional art was probably used more to record than to express, and were limited even in that. The stylistic and technical shortcomings of ancient illustrations are obvious. By Medieval times, 2D art had long since become expressive, but still technically quite primitive. Artists wouldn’t master perspective or anatomy, for example, until the Renaissance. The same is generally true with any medium: compare the fragmentary hymns of Inanna to the rigid foot and meter of classical epics to today’s poetry and the progression is pretty clear.
The unique medium of video games is often compared closely with cinema, which was remarkable at its birth because it could capture motion, creating an explicit record of events. Though technically cool, it’s a huge limitation, especially since its rather narrow-minded inventors didn’t see their creation as particularly useful for anything else.
Fortunately visionaries experimented, discovering that composition, cinematography, and editing – conveniently glommed together into the term mise en scène – give motion pictures their true power. This was the “alphabet” of cinema, the capability that allows for complex, symbolic messages within the technical scope of the medium. Citizen Kane’s camera defines audience opinion of each character; Schindler’s List famously uses one colorful object as emblematic reinforcement; Natural Born Killers frenetically swaps stocks and styles to visually parallel the movie’s deconstructionist message. Which brings us back to games, still quite young as a medium but already showing that kind of creative tinkering.
The Deep Game Manifesto of Ice-Pick Lodge is a bold statement of intent, simultaneously challenging to itself and a challenge to the medium as a whole. That Pathologic didn’t deliver on it, that in the eyes of the developers it even somehow divorced itself from the lofty ambitions of the statement, isn’t all that surprising when one considers the other crucial aspect of game development: like cinema, it’s a business. Games need to sell, first and foremost, and gallant proclamations about artistry don’t always help them do that. But don’t forget that games like Pathologic have a lot of potential to be well-received. It could have sold really well, but was held back by practicalities: bugginess, poor translation, dubious production values.
Artistry can readily exist in commercially successful games. One need look no further than Bioshock Infinite to appreciate that. Talk about a high-intellect game with tons of rich messages presented in powerfully interactive ways. Is it the Best Game Ever? No. In fact it has some pretty major shortcomings. But that doesn’t diminish its role, or the role of a Pathologic, or the concept that the medium of games is a creative and impactful force.
Creatively, games still have plenty of distance to cover. Few make important statements, and fewer still will be remembered as long-term cultural artifacts. But I don’t see that as negative, and would never use the reality of the statement to bash games as a medium. According to Dybowski, who may well turn out to be right, we’re only at the third letter of the alphabet. We haven’t even reached the Deep Game yet. Developers of all stripes tune their craft every day. Even the controversies that games spawn are, in a way, good for the medium – anything that expands the cultural discussion is. As we well know, illustration, cinema, poetry: every creative medium has its own path of development. Games have theirs too. In fact, the culture that consumes them (that’s us) may just be along for the ride. Who’s to say that anyone actually influences evolution?
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