I haven’t been posting much to this blog over the past year. With the release of SuperNimbus roughly a year ago, I have been re-evaluating where I have been and where I am going. I have had plenty of time to reflect on what it is that I am doing, and what it is that I want to do. Today I turned 38 years old, and I have given a significant portion of my life to this profession, and I am finding myself wondering if it has been worth it.
When I was young, during my formative years you might say, I had two real loves: video games and reading. I voraciously consumed and read everything I could get my hands on. It was mostly fiction, and mostly pulp. Usually science fiction filled with fantastic worlds and imaginative ideas. The video games I played were complex, PC based games that required thinking and strategy. Games like SimCity and Civilization and XCom, but also Role Playing games like Wasteland.
The love that I ended up following for these past 15 years or so was video games.
This year, I embarked on a mission to read 26 extra books that I haven’t read (outside of work related reading, I mean). The goal here wasn’t to read anything fancy or hoity-toity or intellectual, just to read more than I had been. I have been posting some thoughts on what I’ve been thinking as I read these books and how I think they relate to my chosen career (see the link I already posted).
I recognize that not a lot of my observations have been particularly poignant, or even necessarily interesting. This blog is mostly for my own personal amusement, and judging by the numbers of people who have read it over the years, I know my audience mainly consists of me. I have no presumptions of being a tastemaker or a truth teller or a prognosticator, nor do I have any desire to be. It’s not my nature to be in your face.
And much of what I’ve been saying has been hashed out by folk with much more emotional involvement than I.
For many people, the discussion has boiled down to the question of “Are video games art?” a question, I think, that is largely irrelevant. After all, what is art? Any definition you wander into will become so subjective that it will, in the end, lose all meaning. Where do you draw the line? What can and can’t be art? By any definition, you end up excluding something that shouldn’t or including everything. The question, like the word, is practically useless for any discussion. Rather, I want to know if video games are meaningful in the way that great art is meaningful. To me, that is a far more interesting question, and if it is the case that they are not, then I have been wasting my life.
When Roger Ebert suggested Video Games are not art, there was a fairly significant outcry from the Video Game public. Much of it along the lines of the response of Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik at Penny Arcade: that is a reaction of indignant disbelief that the question even warrants consideration. Don’t get me wrong, I have great respect for the Penny Arcade guys, they have done some great work and their opinions carry a lot of weight. But, despite the fact that they are more influential than me, influence does not equal correctness, and so unfortunately I can’t simply take it upon faith of those with a blind love of the medium that they are indeed meaningful.
For others, meaningful-ness is simply a question of reach. When I was working at EA and burning my twenties, I remember a quote by Don Mattrick, another figure I have a great deal of respect for. He said (I’m paraphrasing) that the video game industry was showing it’s cultural relevance based on the fact that video games were a billion dollar industry and that gross revenues were on par with the movie industry. To unpack the argument, I suppose it depends on what you mean by cultural relevance. Simply having knowledge that a thing reaches a great deal of people does in fact make one culturally relevant. In that way, the flu is culturally relevant, but it doesn’t tell me if a thing is significantly meaningful to people. It doesn’t tell me if it effects the way people look at the world, or if it makes people reflect on the human condition. So this tack doesn’t help me either.
With my partner from my previous venture, we discussed this problem somewhat. It is the illusive question that is always there and unspoken amongst designers: how can I make a player cry. That is the gold standard of meaningful art, that is the proof that video games can transcend the critics to take their place as real art. Movies can make people cry, as can television, novels, music and paintings, theater and dance. Why can’t games?
When I read “A Prayer for Own Meany,” it reached so deeply into the human experience that not only was I compelled and drawn through the narrative and characters, but I gained such a deep emotional attachment that more than once did I find myself openly weeping. The same can be said for my experience reading “The Stone Diaries.” Here are two novels that are about something so banal as a person’s life and experiences, yet they are far more moving, far more filled with the “visceral moments” than games with their intentionality.
The elephant in the room is no elephant in the room, it is not even an open secret. It is the question that goes asked over and over again: where is the game that makes the player cry. Where is the game that makes the player care for the character, that creates such a deep and transcending bond that the player feels a real sense of personal loss, not just the Objectivist economic loss of investment of time are resources, but a serious personal loss. Where is the experience that makes the player feel like they have touched and accessed a part of the human experience?
But making a player cry is not the gold standard that will prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that games can be great art. Because books, film, painting, photography do so much more than move us emotionally. They force us to question cultural norms, like Huck Finn did. They ask us to consider the point of view of others, like Life of Pi. And sometimes they force us, like Lolita, to confront disgusting and repellant material through compelling aesthetic beauty. They invoke anger at ourselves for being drawn back to something distasteful because there is something transcendent. And afterwards we feel scarred and human, not like a superhuman unidimensional cartoon, but an actual flesh and blood, flawed human being. I have seen games that are disgusting, and I have seen games that are aesthetically compelling, but I have never seen a game that is both.
Instead, it seems we ignore the question. We shy away from it’s worrying connotations that it has no answer, that this medium will fall flat and never have the importance and reach and depth of Hemingway or Twain or Dickens or Hitchcock or Kubrick. So we talk of “moments” in games, of constructing a “visceral moment.” It is a term over-used, over-hyped, and now practically trademarked. We focus on the moments because the details are understood. We can nail down mechanics, we can construct characters that are unidimensional and shallow so that a player can pull them on like a pair of pants. Faceless characters like Master Chief in Halo, that disappear as the player becomes the character: a super human, impervious to all and champion of the world. But superman has no fears, and the player is omnipotent, they can reset when things don’t go their way. They can choose to walk away from a situation, knowing that there is no cost. If they do not like what they see, it ceases to be upon the push of a button. There can be no true cost if there is no loss, and there can be no personal cost if there is no personal loss.
Too many games I find like the escapist stories that I love for their entertainment and fantastic scenes; for their ability to take me out of my life for a brief moment, regardless of how empty that moment may be. I’m talking about novels like Foundation, or A Wrinkle in Time, novels driven by plot with characters forgettable or just vague enough to be like the pair of pants that characters like “Master Chief” have become. This is not to say that they are bad, or even not art. It is to say that despite the interesting things they may do they do not approach the high art that transcends the media and speaks to the soul. They are, I am sad to say, forgettable, temporary escapes from the now.
And all of this bothers me, because even when I read a novel that I find mediocre, like The Time Traveller’s Wife, which I found shallow, predictable fantasy, I still found it to have deeper, more believable characters and a more compelling plot than the “best” games of the past decade. It may be that games are at their best when the characters are unidimensional pairs of pants for the player to pull on, like the silhouette boy in the beautiful Limbo, or the mute Dr Freeman in Half life. But at what point do they all seem to be the same and blend together. Limbo had its aesthetic charm and fine atmosphere, Half-Life had its original take on the FPS genre. But since then have we seen anything that can distinguish one from the other, or is it all a field of Medal of Duty’s and Call of Honor’s. Assassin’s Creed is a game that I found so dull, repetitive, predictable, and with such a ridiculous premise that I didn’t bother to finish the first one, let alone play the sequels. Not too long ago, I gave a talk regarding the importance of taking chances. But I’m not sure if it is actually important, necessary, or even advisable in games, at least from a business standpoint. Safety seems to sell, as does repetition and outright theft.
This past year I interviewed at several local game companies as I re-evaluated my options. I found myself walking through predictably poorly lit rooms while an HR representative crowed about the on-staff chef and pool tables, while I breezed past cubicles and open floor plans that bespoke the current trend in “collaborative innovation,” a veritable oxymoron. I once heard the rhetorical question “How can the product of a hundred artists not be art?” in a response to “Are video games art?” But as I walk through these eye-straining environments, the cubicle and table inhabitants that I see make me think that these folk are to expressive artists what workers on an assembly line are to engineers (not to mention that I know artists who are lawyers, mail men, carpenters, etc, and being artists does not automatically make all their work art). How can individuals in such an environment be expected to create anything original, interesting, or new? The people are young and inexperienced, in such a sheltered environment how can they develop complex characters?
And perhaps this is unfair. I hope it is. I look at the amount of my life that I have spent pursuing this medium and I wonder if it has been wasted. I question whether I am the victim of the sunk cost fallacy, or if there is value to these things that I am not seeing. I recently began playing the new SSX, a game that I have loved for years and was looking forward to, only to find that after an hour I felt my time was being wasted. The Lily had been gilded so often and so deeply that it was no longer a flower, but a block of awkward golden solder, useful for little more than preventing paper from blowing away from an open window. Fable III kept me smiling through to completion, but it simply made time pass more quickly. It didn’t enrich my life in any way.
Surely it is not impossible to develop complex characters, a believable plot whose plot points don’t pivot simply because “the player needs this gun now.” I can’t be asking for that much, can I? Can it really be so much for me to ask for a good game to be a game that appeals to people who think?
When I started my previous venture working with my original mentor, I had a dream for creating something new and interesting. A dream of stepping away from the trite and meaninglessly bland offerings of which there are too many. Unfortunately it didn’t work out, my first title was a flop, and not even a noticeable one. I didn’t even receive enough feedback in order to know what it was that people didn’t like. I don’t mean to sound bitter, I am not. I recognize the failing is mine, it is not the industry’s and nor is the the fault of the medium. But when I started my next project it was with an eye towards the commercial. Design decisions were made not to find the most compelling or novel experience, not to tell a story or for artistic or narrative reasons, but for business reasons. What would sell, what would appeal to the widest audience? What would drive the “compulsion loop?” The same questions I would hear so often from “business leaders” and “innovators” that I had met in the past year in this industry. And I found that I had no interest in making this game, how can one lovingly create something that one knows is inferior, a product made solely for money, or a blatant act of plagiarism?
So where does that leave me at 38 years old? I am finding lately that there is so little in the entertainment world that I find interesting. Pop culture is choked with a cliched zombie trope. I am finding it harder and harder to force myself to play trite new titles in my field, yet I am rediscovering books. In terms of ROI, if one can break down their entertainment that way, I find I get far more from a good, or even mediocre book, than the majority of games that I have played recently, and at a fraction of the cost.
Clearly, I am at a cross roads. I have to decide if I should abandon my experiment to be a self employed independent game maker, or if I should re-enter the world of game development on an assembly line, or if I should try a more creative track like law, or plumbing, or accounting. It is painful to have to consider it, and perhaps this is the point where a video game makes me cry, or rather, where all video games make me cry: by forcing me to experience the personal loss of a medium I gave too much credit.