An Unfinished Note about Making Games

I have been thinking a bit about what would make a good iPhone game, a big catalyst for this being the times I have been traveling recently, during which I would have liked to have a good iPhone game on which to pass the time. I think a key element would be some sort of persistent and semi-emergent (which is to say not all that scripted) setting or characters, in the mode of something between the Sims and SimCity. So Dwarf Fortress for iPhone, basically, but with an interface that leaves it legible. It would be nice if it also generated something interesting and relatively unique, so that the game also ended up being a kind of composition tool (Dwarf Fortress, Minecraft, and a lot of the Maxis games kind of do this already, and there is probably more to be said elsewhere about “the saved game as a document and the document as a saved game” or something like that).

There was a pretty great piece in Rock, Paper, Shotgun about the general badness of story in games, followed by a somewhat less convincing counterpoint (by the same author, who was using them to set up for a panel discussion he was going to have on the topic, although the discussion didn’t really adhere to the parameters he’d set out in the two pieces) that brought me back to some general questions about narrative in games and what games are good for.

I would claim that there are at least two big categories of narrative in games, which are the narrative laid out explicitly in a game’s fiction, to be followed as you would follow the plot in any of the traditional storytelling media, and then the narrative that gets generated in an individual player’s experience. Explicit narratives are almost always really cheesey and unhelpfully genre, although you will in the course of your life run into that dude who cried at the twist in whichever Final Fantasy it was. But they will still, executed properly, sometimes be pretty ok, and often serve as decent frameworks for hanging fun game elements on. Generated narratives are the part I find really rad, because they will so often feel more real and more funny (it is the difference between “we had been asked by the king to solve the problem of the ancient evil again” and “before the necromancer could finish his first menacing sentence we kicked him into the lava pit because Catbite the Monk had specialized in Necromancer Kicking”). There will often end up being a pretty funny disjunction between these two narrative categories.

The big newer games have kind of worked toward a place where explicit narrative is privileged, and seem to be aspiring, in many cases, to be more like bad action movies, with a lot of very deliberate spectacle that only ever plays out as specified by the scriptwriter (this is a tendency that is taken apart really well in the anti-story RPS article linked above). I would categorize this move as unequivocally bad. I am also against conscious level design, which is sort of in the same vein as overscripting, insofar as it works to create the illusions of choice and the possibility of failure while pushing players into situations that are actually kind of linear, obvious, and hard to ultimately fail.

I should probably finish this later.

-the decent random games, lessons we might learn from them.
-the utility of games as pedagogy, looking particularly at the frog spawning interactive we did for Discovery Place and the Oregon Trail meets Ticket to Ride mail delivery game we did for NPM.

Narrative Pretension in Games

Moving Image has a big exhibit up now of the famous video games of history, which is partly pretty good (you can play the actual old Spacewar, on a really well done PDP-1 replica, with a round cathode ray tube and crazy controllers) but mostly fairly dubious (maybe it is a byproduct of having all the games be playable, but the space feels dumb, and the game selection is not really a coherent survey of games that mattered in history, by any standard that I can think of).  In the course of going to see this exhibit, I kind of blundered into Indiecade East, which turned out also to be happening at Moving Image this weekend. I thought that I had arrived just in time to see  a talk about 30 Flights of Loving, so after giving the space a brief initial perusal I sprinted down to catch the talk.  But I had misread the schedule, and the talk turned out to be about a sort of self-consciously dull art-ish game called Cart Life.

The guy giving the talk explained at the beginning of it that he did not really “enjoy” Cart Life, but nevertheless feels that it is, at the current moment, a critical step in moving video games (you know you are in a very particular milieu when people start using the term “video games” as opposed pretty specifically to “computer games” or even “games.” It is the milieu that tends to love big retro pixels but also feels strongly about a particular self-conscious kind of “art” or whatever) to where they need to be. The definition of where video games need to be is where I find myself disagreeing pretty strongly with the dude who gave the talk.

Cart Life (you will get a much better sense of it much faster, probably, if you follow the link) is a “retail simulation,” which differs from the extant and extremely prolific existing field of retail simulation by having you control very specific characters, and control them when they are off duty as well as when they are selling things, so that instead of JUST a spreadsheet-driven exercise in building a business, you are playing a spreadsheet-driven exercise in building a business with some bizarre extra-hours minigames (you have to brush your teeth every morning, and they make it into a thing where you are prompted to punch arrow keys until you’re done) and multiple-choice exercises that add bathos. From what the presenter showed of Cart Life, I think this might be moderately amusing, or at least tedious in an interesting way.

BUT! the lesson that the dude giving the talk drew from this is that we should start to think of games in a genre fiction/literary fiction split, and that game people should start trying more self-consciously to do lit-fic sorts of narratives, OF WHICH he holds up Huckleberry Finn (yes, ok, and there are many good “James Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses“-style takedowns of things that happen in games, but that is probably not the dude’s point) The Master (I did like There Will Be Blood, and I guess there’s nothing wrong with aspiring to P.T. Anderson’s level of craft, but this still seems somewhat dubious) and Wit (and this is where I think we have to draw the line) as good examples. Wit, in particular, having been pointed to as a reference/inspiration by Cart Life’s creator.

Let’s grant that in many if not most modern cinematic games in the shooty or RPG mode, one ends up having to save the world, and this gets a bit tiresome. But there are a lot of things in which you don’t have to do this, or in which you do it in a jokey way. And of course there are even cinematic games, like the GTAs and their offshoots, in which you are doing some crimes and not saving the world, although the general tone is still pretty genre. But is the way forward really supposed to be super-intentional aspirational middlebrow dullness? I think the really good games tend to bypass these goofy narrative questions, and that the medium probably shouldn’t be framed in those terms, and that it is especially stupid to dredge up ye olde literary vs. genre thing.

Anyhow, I had some issues with that talk, which ended in a Q&A with the game’s creator, who was I guess pleasant enough but really did seem like someone who might hold Wit as some kind of pinnacle of artistic achievement. Then there was a thing about that fairly well-liked but somewhat too didactic drone game, and then I wandered around the little exhibition hall for a while and was too nervous to speak to Brendon Chung.