Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Language of Videogames


Over fifty years into the existence of moving pictures, critic André Bazin wrote “The Evolution of the Language of Cinema”, suggesting that film had the power to effectively communicate what could not be communicated through any other medium. About ten years later, critic and soon-to-be director François Truffaut wrote “A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema” where he articulated the idea of an Auteur theory (formed on the basis of Bazin’s writings), that the director is the primary author of a film and uses this power to communicate his or her own personal world, like an artist or composer.

Right now, over thirty years into the existence of our medium, we have a vague notion that there are a few of what we’d call “videogame Auteurs”: Miyamoto, Will Wright, Hideo Kojima, Fumito Ueda, Warren Spector, whatever. Beyond the ability to recognize that their games are maybe weirder or funner than others, however, we really don’t understand what they’re doing or what makes them a meaningful experience.

A mention of a “language” of videogames is even rarer - mostly in an academic setting, tied to the systems of board games. While using board games as a frame of reference for looking at videogames is useful, it only encompasses a part of the experience. The rules are there but without any kind of real-time feedback or context, and the aesthetics (visuals, sounds) are not even a factor. How videogames actually work to communicate with the player on a moment-to-moment basis might as well be a mystery to us.

This mystery addresses something fundamental about our lack of ability to truly comprehend how technology shapes our experiences on this planet. We can build a machine, we can bring it into being, but we are perplexed when we see that machine begin to build us. Our experience with videogames is no exception. Almost all game designers are probably aware that they’re communicating something to the player through their design. These are concrete: what area to go next, what items to use, what part of the boss to punch (hot tip: the glowing red part). Sometimes the feeling goes further than that, like creating a feeling of anticipation before a major boss fight, or a feeling of unease after setting foot on a recently massacred planet.

Taking this communication into a more abstract realm has been much more problematic. Many game designers, even several of the Auteurs previously mentioned, would likely dismiss outright the idea that they may be communicating something deeper through their games. They might state that they make games for the player, not for themselves, and that their primary purpose is entertainment. They’re may be very concerned with being fair to the player and creating an enjoyable experience, but they are not trying to communicate something personal.

Doesn’t that say something horrible about the state of videogames as a medium for expression? Aren’t these guys supposed to be ones we look up to for inspiration? Why, then, do most seem to hold such conservative views of game design? What if they’re just wrong about their creations? How could they not spend years passionately devoted to a game and not have some personal ideas or beliefs seep in somewhere? Isn’t that inevitable? And how could anyone think that they know what we, the players really want out of their game? How do we even know what we want from a game?

Maybe we don’t even deserve games that are personal! I mean, we should probably just admit that the image of a person who likes videogames is not one of a well-adjusted, emotionally mature human being with a lot of life experience. Our medium mostly seems to have been a willing reflection of our own shallow desires back to us. And we love this! We willingly participate in the illusion that this means more than it really does. We still tend to approach “fun” as the ultimate goal, and see anything that brings our fun into question (re: “art games”) as the enemy. We still see this issue like children. It’s as if we’re afraid that whenever something brings our “fun” into question, it will just disappear forever. How would we know how to want something other than entertainment?




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It’s probably as right as anything else to see a video game as a kind of pseudo-organic creature made up of a bunch of math equations. The role of a game developer is both of a god and a magician: first to use numbers to bring this creature into a functional state of being, then to present that jumble of numbers to the player in a way that will make us think and feel. At best this appears utterly effortless, though underneath it is always a massive ordeal. In order for a game to even exist, there needs to be some kind of environment to interact with, an interface, visuals, sounds, (most likely) music and text. In other words, it’s a lot of fucking work in a lot of areas that aren’t really traditionally connected to each other. A really excellent programmer might absolutely despise the design approach for the game he or she is working on and try to subtly steer it in his or her own direction through the code. A talented writer or musician may not know the first thing about how to write for a videogame, or how a videogame even works. From this alone it’s easy to see how the game development process is often so fraught with frustration that results in immense creative compromises. If everyone on the development team can’t even remotely stay on the same page, the end result will likely be a disaster. Add to this an almost nonexistent market for innovation in higher-budged games and it’s easy to see why there are few developers who are willing to take it into their hands to have their game across with any kind of artistic coherence.

And then there is this peculiar, insatiable addiction to technology shared by us “gamers” and developers alike that has completely defined the history of videogames up until now. It’s only natural that game development would attract more systematically-minded people, right? The biggest obstacle to game creation is the level of technical knowledge required, a level most don’t have, after all. One could also say that developers have been narrowly fixated on technology as a natural response to rapidly expanding technology creating new consumer demand. It would be stupid, however, to say that game developers weren’t just as eager to be using new and better tools to make bigger, prettier games. And why not? Why shouldn’t we love technology? We live in exciting times, where tremendous achievements are made daily. Most AAA games made today are minor technological wonders, and they certainly would have seemed totally inconceivable fifteen years ago.

If nothing else, we believe in technology. It’s a new extension to our being, an augmentation that allows us to see and feel what we couldn’t before! New technology is an utter joy - the two have established a link in our minds. I suppose if what we’re getting then already feels amazing, we don’t feel much of a need to go beyond it.

But then why are “gamers” so damn angry? Here I am trying to explicitly address the ways a videogame can affect human beings. If i keep doing this, I bet some people will think I’m pretty big jerk who should die of cancer! Why is that? Even you cancer-wishers out there must acknowledge that a videogame can evoke powerful emotions. The public outcry over DOOM supposedly turning children into mass-murderers is a testament to this. A game like DOOM was so visceral in a way that was hard to forget, even for those who only watched another person playing it. Of course we will be total smartasses and retort that being a killer in a game doesn’t make us an actual killer, mom (though to be fair, it’s not like parents ever really understood a single thing about videogames).

Limiting ourselves to this view, however, means missing something crucial about the experience. We couldn’t say that a game we’ve played doesn’t become a part of our reality, after all. Many of us spend our lives showing horrifying levels of devotion to particular game franchises or game companies. There’s even some idea floating around (too stupid to be named!) that the world would be more manageable for us to navigate if we replaced parts of our day-to-day reality with rules from videogames we’ve played.

It’s true that we live in an era where displaying an absurd level of identification with fantasy worlds from popular entertainment is the norm. But there is something else about videogames, a feeling that we actually are experiencing events firsthand. Maybe this is why we form such a strong attachment to memories we’ve had had playing videogames: they are, in a literal sense, part of us. That Final Fantasy game is an unshakeable memory that has shaped a part of our being. All from a bunch of math equations and pictures!
This is a remarkable power. To play a videogame is to have a life shaped!

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In recent years we’ve had a notion that we must prove that videogames might actually be “art”. Though no one in this day in age are seems very clear about what “art” is actually supposed to be, we are determined the only way for legitimacy is being in this category. We have pored over our many lists with the inevitable items checked off, the sweaty, profanity-laced forum poll results tabulated: Earthbound, Deus Ex, Silent Hill 2, Braid, Passage, Shadow of The Colossus, et cetera. We understand that each of these is a game where every component part seems to add up to a desire to communicate something larger and more abstract about life on this planet. Whether you need to call them “art” or not, these games are certainly extremely complex vessels for personal expression, and that’s all that probably matters. They often work on a personal level, one that defies easy articulation. They also tend to require us to take on a more active role as a player, so that we’re able to read between the lines to truly comprehend our experience.

This idea is in no way part of the existing “gamer” vocabulary. Most games have trained us to shut the active part of ourselves off and just enjoy the experience. The moment we start to ask why we’re here and what we’re doing, our experience seems cheapened. But maybe the experience should be cheapened! Maybe this is a very healthy response! It’s damaging to be so readily allowed to cling to an illusion.

Of course, every game can still communicate something deeper. It is important that we understand this and not allow any validity in a dismissal of our medium as mostly garbage. Almost every game has at least one or two elements in it that are somewhat interesting and worth thinking about. Over the years, each game designer has silently built upon a particular set of design tools borrowed from previous games in order to communicate with the player. We understand, for example, that it’s unfair to just kill the player without warning, or to have inconsistent expectations placed on a player, or to force the player to take “leaps of faith”. Many 8-bit era games were still experimenting, often seeming unfair, or unbalanced, or just inept. As game developers and players grew more experienced, games began to adopt a more common language in their design.

The language is so powerful that it’s manifested itself in complex kinds of communication that move far beyond what was actually intended by the developers. We’ve mainly misused it as a straightjacket for game design so far. Many AAA games will adopt the same rules with no real deviation. The developers can successfully provide a “streamlined” experience, but put little to no thought into providing a unique or interesting one. Here we have a very intense dialogue from the designer to the player, one that can only be comprehended through playing a videogame, and we’ve completely marginalized it.

We must understand that this language is unique; it is not same language as film, or music, or visual art, or novels, or poetry, or even other, non-digital games, though there is plenty of overlap. To use purely film language (i.e. cutscenes) to establish a story, or to give a player explicit text instructions is a severe misuse of a very powerful set of tools. Compare Super Mario Galaxy to Super Mario Bros: the former goes out of its way to make sure that we, the players, know exactly what to do at every moment to achieve our goal (get a star), whereas the latter merely orients to the right and places enemies in our way, letting us orient ourselves and learn that we must move forward. There is a sense of mystery to the latter, like we’re discovering a strange new world with its own unique ecosystem. A sense of satisfaction comes from us having gained the knowledge of how to progress merely through our own actions. Long after we’ve fully discovered every inch of our planet, we can still be explorers in videogames. It arouses a fundamental part of our nature: the need to discover. This is what we lose in this era of relentless tutorials. The mystery of discovery that originally defined games like Zelda or Mario has vanished and been replaced by games which feel plasticky and overly constructed. Well, maybe some things should stay a goddamn mystery.

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The internet is an unstoppable, unquenchable, raging sea of words where each word seems to hold less and less weight by the day. A lot of people write about videogames on the internet, and much of it is tedious. Content is replaced with a chaotic need for immediacy. The thoughtful is replaced by the thoughtless. It’s no wonder why most people seem apathetic about critical writing. What does it matter what a bunch of internet people fart out about videogames?

The notion that there is language of film is widely recognized now because a bunch of very frustrated people in the past chose to write about it, probably with the intent of exposing what was previously ignored or misunderstood by audiences and critics at the time. This started a debate, and soon people were drawn to talk of things that had never been discussed in a public setting. Some of those people were seized with a desire to go out and took to the challenge of expressing something a bit deeper. And now we have The Godfather. Or 8 ½. Or Stalker. Or whatever. The point is that a substantial critical discussion of a medium brings with it a more enlightened public sphere, which also brings more interesting and new uses of that medium into the world.

This really doesn’t exist right now for videogames. Current “reviews” are still structured to be consumer-driven buyer guides, not any kind of actual analysis of what a game does or doesn’t do. A lot of websites pop up with the promise of providing more insightful commentary, but they often end up oversimplifying issues and subliminally following the same game-review structure we were all weaned on as kids. And even as the old reviews are less dominant, the massive spectre of metacritc looms larger than it ever has over all aspects of AAA game development. Current game journalism is usually narrowly bound to latest commercial trends force-fed to it by the industry. When it isn’t, it’s limited by immediacy and a need to maintain reader interest, making it a very ineffective means for critical discussion. The whole process has left game journalists looking like a bunch of overfed fans who are just trying to grab a piece of an industry that’s looking more and more bloated and ridiculous by the year.

Let me ask: if we live in an age where we don’t even seem to understand how to communicate with one another, how can we hope to use videogames to do that? How can we hope to talk about games in any other way than just blindly tossing around some buzzwords like “immersion” or “atmosphere” or “innovation” or “games as art”, patting ourselves on the back, and calling it a day? How do we even know that our use of “art” isn’t really an empty void of a word meant to make us feel like we’re more legitimate? If we’re constantly in the position where we have to debate the definition of each word and throw away everything to subjectivity, how can we hope to talk about anything? It certainly means that we’ll be nowhere close to approaching what we desperately need to talk about any time soon.

And we couldn’t need it any sooner! By now, those who are adept at navigating the fickle tides of consumer interest can basically engineer whatever they’re pushing so it sells the maximum amount of copies (or at least they believe they can). Design-by-committee may be a dirty phrase to many, but its use is more ubiquitous than ever. Whether or not these tactics even accomplish any real commercial gain at all - it doesn’t matter. If every marketer doesn’t use every available tool at their disposal at all times, they are committing commercial suicide. To make a game without the intention of it making the maximum possible amount of money is unheard of! It might as well be a crime! We are being flooded; we are drowning under unending waves of shallowness. What does this do to us?

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Each bit of information that makes up the massive clusterfuck that is the media we are forced into contact with every day carries with it a whole load of associations. These associations implant themselves into our subconscious, feeding upon our insecurity and self-doubt. We begin to construct barriers. We identify by our stuff. We abandon a difficult search for meaning within ourselves and focus only on what is happening this very second. We want to be given exactly what we want, when we want it. When something doesn’t do those things, it annoys us; it even makes us feel outraged. We’re probably even aware that these things are happening, but we don’t even care!

Videogames, right now, have found themselves at the epicenter of this kind of culture. They, in fact, seem to embody all of the worst aspects of it. They’re time-sucking, soul-sucking collect-a-thons! They’re wannabe action films with sub-B movie dialogue delivered by a bunch of uncanny valley-dwelling humanoids! They’re false, easy realities for those of us who can’t deal with the complexities of living life, day-to-day, on this planet! They’re toys for the pathetic, overgrown male adolescents among us, in need of a power fantasy, like a junkie, to feed our addiction, to whisper into our ears that we’re really a superhero, that we’re the king, baby, that all the people in our lives who stood in our way will suffer horrible, brutal fates, that our bosses and peers quake in fear from the thought of us, in awe of our supreme strength and intelligence, that we can and should bend and manipulate people to our will, that we have a limitless, unfathomable power beyond all other humans to shape our own destiny, that our lives aren’t utterly meaningless!

But it doesn’t have to be that way. We know, goddammit, know that videogames have a power that extends far beyond this. A vast frontier of possibility lies before us!

This is a tremendously exciting time to be a game developer. Independent developers are rapidly gaining traction in a way that wouldn’t have seemed feasible even five years ago. The progression of graphics technology has plateaued, and audiences are beginning to become more taken in again by the actual game design once more. Independent development has in some cases even become a more lucrative business than the games industry. But we must be careful. There’s no guarantee that most indie games won’t end up any less shallow or vapid than their AAA cousins. Until we start explicitly trying to understand what these games are doing to us, we’re doomed to repeat the same mistakes.

In the future, videogames will only form a more integral part of our lives. The choice of how we will use them, then, is ours. We can choose to stay within the current confines of widely accepted game design, creating shallow experiences with empty rewards. We can do this, and then we can watch as we grow angrier, more selfish, more confused, and more powerless.

Or we can destroy any and all associations between videogames and the shallow commercial culture they’ve been linked to since their inception. We can drastically change the way we approach videogames, both as designers and as players, from passive participants to active agents of choice. We can take ourselves away from the empowerment fantasies of old and actually, really, genuinely make ourselves feel empowered. We can make ourselves more empathetic and experience aspects of existence we never dared to consider. We can make ourselves aware, we can break ourselves from our ambivalence, our need to consume, our false sense of security, of entitlement fed by never-ending currents of meaninglessness. We can turn ourselves into informed, enlightened human beings.

But first we must change the way we talk about games. We must try to explore and break down our experiences in a more meaningful, heartfelt way. We must question everything and take on the roles of game developer and game critic or game journalist with the highest sense of responsibility. And then the world will have to take videogames as seriously as we want them to be taken!

It’s time to grow up. Our nostalgia was always ours, never Nintendo’s, or Sega’s, or Sony’s, or Square’s to exploit. Those Mario and Sonic games aren’t theirs anymore, anyway. We’ve chosen to waste away our own years, drenched in sweat, cursing, controllers broken, dignity erased, numb, held transfixed in pure wonder by our own personal, beloved glowing rectangle. These are our lives. We’ve lived these games, oh yes. We’ve lived them and they’re fucking ours.

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- Elizabeth Ryerson

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