I Did A Thing On A Hill: On Meaning And Purpose In Games
Dead and anxious
Rob Sherman’s Black Crown crept into parts of my brain that hadn’t been touched by literature for years. I didn’t expect a game to reach them. Some of the scenes and turns of phrase set up shop in my limbic nether regions and an occasional echo of their cries and coughs can be heard.
Last Friday, Black Crown abdicated, vanishing from the internet, and in memory of its passing, we share the memories of the author in the form of an extended essay based on a talk about the meaning, structure and purpose of games, writing and other matters - Adam.
This essay is a jalopied version of a talk that I gave at my old university, Exeter, not so long ago. If you are one of the seven or so people that came to hear me talk; how are you? Wasn't that wine delicious? Do you think we could have stood a few more of those little prawney numbers in filo? And did you ever go to that shitey toga party in the end?
It was dead and anxious.
I've spent a lot of my very short professional life as a writer and a games designer (an accidental one, not really given to awesomesauce) being accused of extreme obscurity in the way I write. People seem to think that I delight in being confusing and verbacious just for its own sake, that I’m in love with the idea of myself, that all these Saxonisms and long clauses and even longer words are a sort of pseudo-intellectual duffel, and that if they untoggled me they would find that, at the centre of all this insulation, is just a chubby zygote who only has the genetic material available to grow a mouth exclusively for the inhumation of sandwich paste.
There’s every possibility that those people are right. I may indeed be a fraud full of ouija and noise. However, I would like to promise you that I cannot help it. When I’ve tried to write in simple, short sentences in the past it hurts, like I am shimmying up a chain rope and I keep getting something puckered caught in the eyelets. It’s almost physically painful. And when it became necessary to introduce this article by saying that I made a game last year, a browser-based cough-em-up text adventure called The Black Crown Project, I tried to think of just two short sentences to describe the process.
It was dead and anxious.
The game was indeed, for the most part, set on or underneath one particular hill. It did mainly involve the manipulation of dead things, Ozymandian things, buried once-greats. things already past. And it was certainly very anxious. It radiated worry like a power plant. The players seem certain that by way of genre it is body-horror, but I think body-anxiety, or body-honesty, might be more appropriate terms. Playing the game shouldn’t provoke any more horror than looking at one’s genitals and finding a smelly discharge, or eating a knuckle of pork. Having a body, and being aware of how it flakes and peels and needs, needs, needs, is more than enough horror for me.
I’ve eloped with myself again, haven’t I? But then I’ve always been afraid of committing myself to describing what the game is. Its entirety is not so easily gathered up and catalogued, but the best thing would have been for you to go and play it. It was mostly free, and accessible in the same medium that you are currently reading this essay. It wouldn't have been any trouble for you at all. I would have waved you off. Good voyage. See you later.
When I had finished making the game, my old tutor, Sam North, the man who had helped me start it all up in the first place, asked me to give a talk about it at my old university, high on a hill above Exeter. Exeter is a rocky, rainy place, burdened with Daily-Mail-eating gulls and immigrant palm trees, and whose cathedral still binds some of the oldest works of English literature not yet rotted, including Widsith, a boastful, wheedling self-aggrandisement written over a thousand years ago which I like very much.
I came to tell them what I had done, when I was there in Exeter as a student, and what I had done since I left. On the night of my talk it was raining still, and the English department building smelt of too-boiled kettles and shaved legs, just as it always had. I talked at a theatre-full of writers, not game designers or digital developers or web entrepreneurs, but writers, some of whom, I’m sure, were wearing hot costumes under their clothes, ready to skulldug out to their last-night-of-term parties before I’d finished. I wished that I was going with them. I used to like dressing up as a woman when I was that age, not for any noble reason, but because it made people laugh.
Isn't that a dreary thing to do?
The Thing Was Young
I came to Exeter in 2006. I was eighteen, too homely to travel, wearing tribal necklaces made out of cork. The people who hate how long I make everything can be pleased; the following three years can be reduced to a simple list of dids. I ate too much pizza. I worked on the university paper. I ran away from relationships after one night. I learnt guitar, and then mandolin, and then banjo, all of them barely. I dyed my hair bright red on Valentine's Day, and because people started to recognise me in nightclubs I kept it like that, for two years. My friend died, on his way to meet us one night, and I avoided the street where he fell down, for two years. I watched his parents come and carry out bin bags of his golf clubs, and the beer bottles that we all used to collect. I got my tragus pierced. I dressed as a transformer, a thundercat, Samara from The Ring, a bearded headmistress and, one Halloween, a revenant grandmother, shampooed with soil and wielding a plastic cleaver, and who had, in some febrile, girlish afterlife, grown out of her menopause and started menstruating again. That night my friend came as my partner, a frothing Morris dancer jingling with grief. I met the love of my life, and taught her poor guitar in turn. I went to the beach. I drank perry from a cardboard box thinking it was wine. I was impossibly sad sometimes. I was impossibly happy sometimes.
I studied English literature, a subject which had been my cuttlebone at school, something to preen myself against, but which at university had dulled compared to everybody else. It all seemed too much like hard work in the face of playing music all night in the rockery or driving into lay-bys just to lie back and astrologise. I hated my modules on the Enlightenment, on Renaissance comedy, and practically had to syringe myself up that bloody hill for my four hours of contact time a week.
Despite all my nonsense, I got a very good grade, which I put down to the department’s optional Creative Writing modules. These were taught by Andy Brown, a poet with asymmetrical earrings and a chest that I saw more than any girl's. I enjoyed producing felt-bound journals of my writing, whether they were terrible or not. I've put some below, for all judgement.
In my third year, as I was compiling my undergraduate dissertation (a series of stories, using a technique stolen from Alan Moore, that made an Edda of my parents meeting and marrying at Oxford University, superimposed over vignettes of child sacrifice by the river Isis, plague and fraud mermaids), I was asked whether I had considered doing a Creative Writing Masters.
I did the Masters course because I could afford it, because rumours from the provinces of London said that there were no jobs, not yet, and because it offered me an opportunity. An opportunity to play music every night of the week, to meet a seemingly endless roster of new friends, to put on plays, to live in a little flat under a Victorian iron bridge, and to write. An entire year in which to write things opened up before me, like the staircase of a minaret.
The Thing Was Viperish
I have written, and I have read, and I have played since I was very small, and in my mind these three things have never been untwined. I’ve always held them aloft in front of me, like a trinity or, more appropriately for my paganism, a caduceus. None has ever existed without either of the others. I wrote my first poem when I was six, about my brother splitting his head open in a playground. I made card games and tabletop roleplaying adventures out of crayon and the back pages of property magazines: it was always when we were on holiday, my only respite from the business of being a boy. I always sat under an umbrella whilst brother was blister-packed in the water, begging me to come into the pool with him.
I'm not sure if I can remember the first book I ever read, but I can remember the first game that I played. A babysitter, who was most aware of his role in my life as primary carer and drug dealer, brought me a shareware version of Duke Nukem 3D for Windows 95. It may even have been handed to me in a little plastic baggy. When I gave this talk in Exeter, I had to explain to the majority of my audience what Duke Nukem actually was, and it was a painful process. The point that I made then, and which it is not redundant to make now, was that despite the game’s Spartan narrative, in every sense, and its vaguely horrifying protagonist, it brought me to something that no other artform had, at that point; a world in which to continue living on my own time, one with depth and height and breadth, pure ketamine for my coltish spatial reasoning. The fleshy little triangulators on each side of my brain got their fair share of blood whenever I played. Once I had completed it fifteen times I crept into the DOS to install mods, and to canter through thousands of other worlds, made by people just like me. I was enraptured. The game may as well have come to me under a purple stole, for all the frankly ecclesiastical importance it had in my life. It had turned me into a base animal, panting with exploration and love for something beyond my experience.
As I got older, its omnipotence did decay, and I saw its uglier side. I tried to move on to more sophisticated art; this was less a question of quality, in all its subjective nonce, and more a question of growing up, and letting those triangulators get fleshier and plot what I was learning about sex and furtiveness and generosity and terrestrial travel. There was more to life, every single day, and whatever it was that constituted the whole of what I wanted from art, I was not finding it wholly in videogames, though some had it in parts. I was never truly sure what this whole was, and I still don’t. I call it beauty, truth, nobility, honesty, just like everybody else. What is important is that these were things that I was assured, by adults who had done it all before, that I could find in books and paintings and sculpture and even, if I looked very hard, in film. But never in videogames.
This body of conservatism that I was piling around me, the world of basic literary criticism and my parent's bookshelves and teacher's prescriptions, told me that I wouldn't find any of these things in games. Games were a distraction, a marvel of medicine, but a drug that nobody had ever used to write poetry.
“No,” I was told. “Play your games for an hour or so a night. We’re not monsters; you can have your fun. Just don’t let your jaw get too slack, or your head too blunt. You know all of those feelings? The ones you crave? The ones you care about but cannot explain? You will not find them here. Not in those slaughter-dreams, the ones we see burnt on the BBC. Not with the sorts of games that are marketed to us by the papers who know as little as we do, not in the Zoombinis or Lara Croft and her appliance-like chest or Duke Nukem and his disgusting exchanges and lynched marines and rotten Los Angeles.” Truth and beauty and all those other words would only ever be found in the old arts. In the old weight, of everything that had gone before me, that was already making me stoop.
I was at an age then when masturbation becomes a pretty large concern, and I was growing used to feelings that I didn't really understand and had to let ride me out. I knew that games did something to me, did something physical, something with bioelectricity and humours deep down inside me. It wasn’t horrid, or corrupting. It was expanding and tingling. But because of these prescriptions from my parents and my teachers, who I loved, there was a guilt to my adoration, a vicariousness, as if it was something to keep under a frosty duvet. Despite everything I tried to promise myself, there was no gravitas to games, no mythology. Unlike in the world of art, where everyone seemed to be marble or dead, their work unassailable, their minds reified, the world of games was men and boys, sweat and spelling mistakes and families. I couldn't quite believe that games could be part of the same cosmology as Dahl and Blake and Jacques and Jarvis.
And so I stopped trying.
The Thing Got Bigger
So, so, so. After my second childhood at Exeter, I had my third, and did the Master's course. It went extremely well. I played a lot of music. I put on plays that I had written, about gods in wells and kidneys arguing over which one would be transplanted. I put on gigs in the windows of shops and on balconies over Camden Lock. I played games, mostly big Bethesda numbers such as Fallout 3, and modded them with more alacrity and skill than in my DOS days, though I did find time to discover Minecraft, and Braid, and European boardgames. I also wrote a lot.
Most of what I wrote was for my course; my favourite module was New Pathways in Fiction with Philip Hensher, a realist novelist with an enormous appetite for cardigans and pithy markings. In class, wonderfully, we were whipped to the limits of what a book could be, what ends writing could serve: I read the works of Oulipo, the French experimental absurdists, and Raymond Queneau and his Hundred Thousand Billion Poems, and I read A Humument, gay erotica cut into the pages of a Victorian morality novel. I read Italo Calvino and his winter's nights and his travellers. I read Finnegan's Wake, slash fiction from every tacky crux of the internet, Georges Perec and Eunoia, a novel composed entirely of vowels. I read Borges and his senderos que se bifurcan. I read Roland Barthes and his literary analyses of boxing matches on television. In my spare time I tried to educate myself outwards like a family tree, reading up on world mythology, primitivism, outsider art and the contributions to culture of insane people.
I can recite these influences to you now like a prayer, because they still have the flavour of transcendence that my early experiences with videogames also had. I learnt more, I believe, in that classroom and in that year than I had in all my years of playing games and reading books and going to school, and there is something about that time that I want to preserve as Biblical, as received wisdom. To that end, I won’t be linking to any of the above works. I’d rather you sought them out yourself, like hermits talking to themselves in the hills.
Though my education in videogames that year was not as unorthodox as my explorations in literature, there is a common theme which united almost every piece of work, in whatever medium that I was finding interesting at the time. All of them operated right butting up against the limits of their mechanics and techniques, so close to the skein that the art and its processes were almost indistinguishable. Braid took the platforming mechanic as a whole artefact, along with the hero-myth of rightways salvation, and told a story about how ridiculous this all is, if you double-jump around inside it for a while. Most of these works, critically, refused to recognise the sanctity of the binding in which they had been placed, whether that be the platform they were built for, the materials that went into their construction, or the genre to which they were arbitrarily attached. The literature I read recognised that literature is an idolatry, perpetuated with the zeal of a cult. The games I played recognised that those groaning, neat and nasty conservatisms that were endemic in the industry were as a result of a peculiar set of people working at a peculiar time, and did not have to define the entire culture.
They all recognised that the conveniences of category and commerce should never bundle expression. That by ripping apart any and all assumptions, right down to the very way in which the work is experienced (boxes full of loose pages to be read in any order, or perhaps a game that lies about what each button on the keyboard does) something refreshing might occur.
The Black Crown Project, my project, began in one of these classes, as a quick exercise. We were handed copies one morning of some of the most important photographic work of the twentieth century; the social portraiture of August Sander, a German who, prior to the ringfencing and mean primogenitalism of the Third Reich, travelled across Germany photographing people in their everyday lives. Before us were lain photos of a baker with flour in his beard, an ex-convict, hair still cropped, and an artist wearing man's clothes and with birds painted on her cheek.
We were split into groups, before being told to write a story using these photographs. I hate working in groups, mostly because it brings out the worst in me, and demonstrably, as the group squabbled over which route we could take, which would be the most experimental, I got all bossy and told them exactly what it was that we would be doing.
Underneath each portrait we wrote a caption, but instead of describing the person above it, instead it described an empty landscape, a mountain town emptied of inhabitants and whose abandoned belongings held such secrets.
We did this, there were some comments made, the class ended, people went to lunch.
I forgot about our experiment. When it came to do my final dissertation, nearly six months later, the mountain town winked back into being, in my head, after I had discarded tens of other ideas. None of us in that group had ever articulated why the town was abandoned: it had remained clandestine, inbred, without any chance of fresh blood, for six months.I resolved that, whatever form my final piece took, that I would repopulate that town, and tell its story.
Unfortunately, I wasn't sure how I would go about doing that. I was afflicted at the time, and still am, as you can probably tell, with a need to be novel. I have a very spurious, eternal hope that doing something a bit barmy will make people like me, or at least pay attention to me, and at the time this hope manifested itself as a fervent desire to get a really good mark. Even after these all those years I was still gripping my caduceus of game theory and literature, and around it like the laurels of an independent film I wove my other interests; paleontology, archaeology, literary ephemera, the lists of long-dead, short-great writers, the internet and its vast ability and desire to catalogue the past, the self-hermeneutics conducted by much of the public on social media, and old junk that I hoved out of junk shops. I’ve often thought that making art is a little bit like packing a bag, though you are rarely the one who is going away for a while. It seemed then only right, with my variable moggy influences and my obsession with making an impression, that I do just that.
I packed a bag.
The Thing Had Handles
During my talk, it was at this point that I pointed to the battered red suitcase that I had brought with me, lying open on the table at the front of the lecture theatre. I told the small audience that they were welcome to come and have a root around inside it while I was talking, but I gave them fair warning that it did smell a bit. The suitcase, that I had brought back up the hill to Exeter on that night, was what I built for that final project. Inside it is a myriad of objects; an old golden key, a Tibetan ritual knife hammered with thunderbolts, photographs of naked women, an antique zither with roses painted on its soundboard. Buried beneath is a journal, and this journal proved to be the key, the legend to all this unmapped stuff. It was the diary of the suitcase’s owner, a strange, selfish, over-educated beast, not dissimilar to myself, called the Miasma Eremite. The suitcase represented the last souvenirs of his journey to the hidden mountain town that we had described at the foot of all those German photographs, a town now called Loss.
An amateur anthropologist, most of his journal entries concern his studies amongst the people of Loss, collecting their holy texts, their voices, their recipes for stew. The suitcase itself is plastered with bumper stickers from places that never existed: they say things like 'Atlantis' on them, 'Lyonnesse', 'I Lost My Heart and Found Stars In Shangri-La'. The Miasma Eremite, it seems, was experienced at getting away from it all into the middle of myths. And as the journal goes on, as the reader pulls items out of the suitcase and breaks them in half, rips them in twain or even starts to deconstruct the case itself in search of contraband, a story comes in fits and starts, sometimes in the “wrong order” but always inexorable. The story of how the Miasma Eremite, through a combination of horniness and selfishness and self-delusion on a scale previously reserved only for sweatshop owners and Greek gods, had caused Loss to self-destruct, to implode under the weight of his mistakes and empty, just as those photographs had shown.
And on the front of this suitcase, if I were to show it to you today, you would still find an address, which led to the case being placed on the desk of Sam North in Queen's Building up at Exeter University, only a few vertical feet from where I was giving that talk. Sam was the person who would be marking this mildewed rag-and-bone tome.
Luckily, by dint of some administrative relativity, I had been given just the right person to evaluate my work. Before he even got to the writing itself, Sam liked the way it smelt. He liked that it fell apart in his hands, that he had to open it like a jungle fruit at his kitchen table. He liked how vulnerable it was, how it represented not just the edited, perfumed matter of a writer's brain, but a frail, mistaken life, oddly sweet, in a perverse way, denuded and fiddlable.
Sam’s experience with the suitcase was certainly more interactive than reading a book. There was no true start to the experience. His hands, his interpretation of smell and texture, were as important as his intellect. The pacing of the thing was a joke, entirely at the fingertips of the reader. The journal was the only component with any familiarity to a student of literature, but the story’s ending could not be found inside it. Its true ending, if there really was one, was a CD glued up in the lining of the case. This could have been the first thing that Sam found, but if it eluded him until the very end, if he had ripped open every other package and investigated every other crevice like a child rockpooling, if he had torn already torn open the black plastic sac containing a curious gas mask, Sam might have found the work interacting back with him, using the medium of open air and breath.
The CD tells Sam that the suitcase is an artefact of blackmail, designed to ensnare him solely by being intriguing. Through his curiosity, by ripping open that sac and breathing the air inside, perhaps even putting the gas mask on to better read the messages scratched onto each eyeglass, Sam has infected himself with a disease which, though he is immune to its negative effects, will kill his family if he ever goes back to them. The CD ends with an address in California, a mission to discover the drowned temples of Mu beneath the Pacific, and a debt of thanks from the Widsith Institute, the Eremite’s employers and Sam’s now, as well.
Sam told me he spent twelve hours at his kitchen table, laying everything out, reading and sniffing, and only discovering that CD days later.
If nothing else, this story confirms that the best way to get a good grade at university is to threaten the lives of your tutor’s loved ones. Sam’s family, who I have since met, suffered no ill effects from my work, and seemingly in gratitude Sam told me that I could pick my own mark.
I gave myself 90. I’m not a monster.
The Thing Was Hated
So, the suitcase, the Eremite and the town of Loss proved to be an interesting experiment, at least to myself and Sam. It was my first attempt at ergodic literature, attempts which continue to this day with varying levels of success.
Ergodism is a literary term, borrowed from mathematics by Espen J. Aarseth, which is not encountered very often in ordinary criticism, but which might have great relevance on a videogaming website. Non-ergodic literature includes works that have very culturally-accepted ways of interpreting them, and forms the trunk of humanity's output. Books are non-ergodic; they have page numbers, are read from left to right or right to left, and their traversal is trivial. If you are taught to read a book once, in a practical sense, you can pick up any book and, while you may not understand the content completely, you will understand how you are supposed to receive the information inside.
Ergodic literature is, by its very nature, non-trivial in its construction: finding the story, the thread of narrative, is not just a matter of reading the next sentence. Revelation, development and growth in the story is inextricably linked to how the work is put together. An example might be Marc Saporta’s Composition No. 1: the reader here functions less like a desktop scanner, moving over the work line by line, and more like a hunter, a winkle-picker, shelling meaning and shucking it from the different places that it can be found.
It is easy to think of Sam as a winkle-picker, with his pin, pulling out tiny meals of meaning from every corner of that suitcase, until, all of a sudden, he was full.
I won't now tell the story of how that suitcase became the electronic game The Black Crown Project, where the keys and zithers are built out of pixels and the suitcase is just one of thousands, and the player sits at their own digital kitchen table atop the enormous hill. About the miles I hauled it by its handles, shopping it to publishers who only sniffed it over, peered in the margins, and wearily told me to just turn it into a novel and stop trying to be so clever. About how Random House was the only one that would even consider doing something with it, and how our agreement turned into two year’s work, half a million words and a new piece of art entirely. About how unwell it made me, the panic attacks with my hood pulled up, stumbling down the drive.
That story has been told too much already.
It would have been better if you were still able to play it. That’s what I told the writers at my talk to do, and then told them a different story. I told these writers, who had never considered videogames as a career, how important I thought it was that more writers, especially ones trying things too hepatic for the market,, made the move into games. I am still in no doubt that games are one of those few artforms, in all the panoply of stuff which our species pop-pops out like a pop-pop boat, that have the potential to define an epoch. However, to do so the medium must face vast technical and philosophical difficulties, difficulties that those already in the games industry are only just beginning to brave.
One of the largest of these difficulties, often dismissed but perhaps the most important, involves those unutterable absolutes that I searched for all those years ago. We have little idea how to define beauty, truth, nobility and honesty in a medium which is shaped by its audience as much as its authors.
To begin overcoming this difficulty, I believe, we really do need to start talking about art. I’m extremely sorry.
The Thing Was Art
Oh, but don't we hate talking about art, when it turns to videogames? There are so many people trying to get at us. It’s those bullies again, with their thick canons and magazines of authority. They make us so spiteful and scared.
Don't worry. There is one particular question about videogames and art, a fairly base one, that we can completely ignore. It’s much easier to just say that games are art, and get on with things. Try it, and forget about it. It’s remarkably easy. We don’t need to devote any more words to it.
If we can move on from this, we can begin to talk about what art really is, in its broadest sense. To me all art, that great useless nubbin of a term, regardless of its format, is about message. It's about the vocalisation of something that deviates from everyday reality. Now, by everyday reality I don't necessarily refer to such quotidian miracles as kindness, or love, or committed sexual excitement. These everydays often do appear in art, and are more often than not its subject. By the everyday, here, I mean boredom, sweat, using one's body as a machine or a factory to keep on producing a quota of life. The unthinking, unfeeling reality of hefting our fetid torsos about all day, everyday, without ever questioning what that might mean.
If we bow to literature’s self-appointed authority (it has stolen a lot of clever clogs over the centuries) we can see this magical influence of art in our mundane lives in the following quote from the Russian Formalist critic Roman Jakobson, who I entirely ignored in my undergraduate year. Jakobson says that literature is an 'organised violence on everyday speech'; it takes the phatic communication, the how-do-you-dos and well-goodbyes of our trips to the shops and IM conversations and arguments with others and makes them into something extraordinary.
If art is about transmitting ideas and messages which deviate from the everyday, it’s not heresy to think that art does not then need to have an author, or an artist, in the traditional sense, to be called art. Consider all the wonderful things we encounter which are entirely created by accident in forms and systems that arise without any intelligent hand making them so. These are debatable points, points which many of you will most likely argue, but I think we only need to step out onto the open air, wherever we are, and go for a stroll (gaming stereotypes, take a wide-brimmed hat with you)l to see the effect of unauthored art on our chemistry, the messages produced.
A windblown arch. A forest. The decay on a book. The entire concept of antiques.
We might also include glitch art, the presentation of errors and bugs in media as mayfly tableaux of their own, in this category, though again creators such as Robert Overweg might grumble. Overweg’s work, just beyond the meshes and textures of Half Life 2 and Left 4 Dead deliberately seeks unintended vistas, secret facades with no body behind them, and documents that which was never meant to be documented. I don't mean to insult this work, only to point out that, sometimes, an artist is not the only factor in an artwork’s genesis of message.
The Facade, Robert Overweg, 2010
If an artwork cannot be defined as always having an author, then perhaps it can always be counted on to apparate, as if by a very real magic, through having a viewer, somebody or something present which can witness these objects or systems behaving in a way that seems out of the ordinary.
This is not to say that the author is unimportant. Their meaning and thoughts and processes most often give the piece of art its ribcage, its structure and its most apparent purpose. However, this input, this creation, is only one part of the total meaning of a work. The audience instils meaning, perhaps never publicised on the work’s Wikipedia page or IMDB entry yet always inherent, through their unearthing of subtext, of their own values mirrored in the experience, as well those which they had never considered. The artistry of an object is not totally internal, or external; it exists on its own terms, as an osmosis, value and meaning passed back and forth across a very loose membrane web between the artist's intentions and the audience's reactions.
And if we accept this meaning, significance and value to be an important part of an artwork, we must also consider the vessel into which this meaning is stored. We can call this the medium. Lots of other people have. Videogames, or more appropriately digital computation and graphics, what we refer to as games, is one such medium. Books are another. Divisions such as novels and poetry and shoot-em-ups and Impressionism are not mediums. They are constructs, genres or movements. Some are useful to organise our thought, some are integral, and some are bloody dangerous, because they oversimplify a body of work. At best, they are idealistic, and at worst commercial. A medium, in contrast, is the raw, indisputable stuff of an artwork, the mechanics by which it is both constructed and interpreted.
If we look at Jakobson's quote above, ignored by the youthful Rob in favour of inadequate love and chord practice, and the balance between the artist and the audience, we can see that the medium of an artwork is caught up in the membrane between these influences, right in the shifting, shimmering groin of what makes the work special. Medium is not just a collection of devices, of computer parts of paper bound by tradition or probability mechanics. By using it to deviate from the everyday, by altering the discourse of what the artist and the audience both take to be normal, the very stuff of the work is created spontaneously. The medium is integral to what makes the art unique.
For example, if I were to tell you that a film was being made about the Crusades, in which all the knights have far more facial cancers than Orlando Bloom ever did, you would react very differently to this news, though perhaps at a level you cannot perceive consciously, than to an announcement of a book or a game on these same subjects, these same cancers. There would be similarities in plot and tone between the different works, but the medium would alter their construction, their message and their interpretation irrevocably.
In a flurry, let me make some broad distinctions in art along constructive lines:
Depictive Art: Pictures which don’t move.
Aural Art: Sounds, noise and music.
Language Art: Words, speech, rhetoric.
Filmic Art: Pictures which move.
Body Art: Tattoos, bodybuilding, dance.
Transcendental Art: Hallucinations, drug trips, religious ecstasy.
Natural or Unintended Art: Those arches, those trees, that decay.
There are definitely more, sandwiched in between, but these are the ones which my own experiences have lent me. All possess their own tools for disseminating meaning, and they do overlap in places, but they have been broadly distinguished from each other throughout human history, and very often forcibly separated. Some have never been considered art at all.
Perhaps, at last (though we should have done this long ago) we can add ludic art, or 'game' art, to this pantheon. Art which allows the viewer to bypass this membrane, and assist in the creation of its final state, and not just their interpretation of it.
Of course, in games such as chess, as well as in dance and music, the involvement of the audience in the medium has been bricked up in human culture for thousands of years, but the rise of consumer electronics, and the screen, an overlooked invention but which has changed our perception of reality more than anything, I would argue, in hundreds of years, has been the major development that has led to game art being codified and considered. Now is the time to consider it properly.
Let me make a comparison between game art and another form now,, a fairly reductive comparison, but which has something to it all the same. A comparison that I needed to make for those writers in the audience that night who didn’t know a thing about games.
I took the Mona Lisa as my starting point, pretty much the most recognisable piece of visual art in the Western world. Look at her up there, in your mind’s eye, knowing something you don’t know.
In all the world there is only one physical Mona Lisa, and I and da Vinci and the pensioner who looked at her in the Louvre after a lunch of creamed clams on a Tuesday in 1884 have all brought something, large or small, to the bulging, invisible tuber of meaning that has grown around the painting since before its manufacture.
Let’s try, imperfectly, to convert the message of the Mona Lisa (not that we can ever know it completely) into game form. We would certainly have something different, in the conversion. An artwork which follows La Gioconda's life, her birth, her early loves, the cherries she might eat, what those cherries might mean, the decisions and marriages and miscarriages and every thing that might have happened in her short life, many of the decisions and simulations of the small, blinded playground that the life of an Italian noblewoman affords. We would see her through to the last level of the game, standing above that gauzy, eternal landscape and view the fruits of our decisions on her behalf. The smallpox scars, the Polish dress, the absent suitor, the husband dead in wars, different loves, Bohemia. A different Giaconda, fractally, every time we played, and irreversibly ours.
There are many, again, who would argue with my assertion that the oil and wood hanging in the Louvre is the only objective Mona Lisa in the world, and that in fact my perception of that painting is as real as anybody else's, including Da Vinci, his patron and the charming Republican with clam cream in the corners of her mouth. That all of our very different Mona Lisas are each distinct, each created by our interaction, or viewing, of the original work.
However, I’m leading you, caduceus aloft, fairly deep into the theory here, and while that is one of my most favourite pastimes, at this point in my talk I could almost taste the nightclubs that my audience were not currently inside, roiling up the hill, and I swiftly moved on.
What matters, then, is that the physical reality of an artwork has rarely been fluid before videogames. In them, beauty exists as a sideboard of niche, shelves of possibility of which we must all become pharmacists. Therefore, when we do explore, play and bounce, our interpretation of the game, by dint of having helped create its final form, the final prescription, is far more nuanced and powerful, or at least has the potential to be. As a player, rather than a reader or a viewer, we have something asked of us: to participate, to author, and in doing so shape the truth of the work with great delicacy and relevance. Not only does this make the medium of games extremely democratic, but it also makes it peacefully anarchic, treating all creativity within its bounds as permissible, no matter the perceived authority behind it.
Now, many people, including all those in my infancy who frowned on my attempts to seek gorgeousness, sublimity and all the rest of it in a videogame, find this subjectivity of medium a weakness. They say that an interactive story, with a loosening of authorial intent, can never be as expert, nuanced or true as traditional art, which delivers sacrosanct ideas over time at a measured rate until those ideas, unfortunately, run out.
I'm all grown up now, and I have read a lot more than Jacques and played a lot more than Duke, and I can call figs, geese and bumshine on this entire notion. It’s a snobbery. That’s all. I find it incredible that intelligent, cultured human beings, who have at hand the entire cycle of human folly and mistake, all the naysaying and conservatism of past elites hyperlinked on Wikipedia , and that they cannot look at similar poo-pooings of new artforms, in Mercia and Alopece and Rotterdam, all down history, and see that they themselves might be short-sighted about the potential of games. That perhaps the Golden Ages have not passed. I feel similarly when overweight, three-chord pricks in pubs tell me that music died with Hendrix, Lennon and all those other droop-nosed Zeuses to whom I owe no debt.
These critics of other mediums, holding game controllers for the cameras like particularly thorny genuses of crab, will tell us that if we choose not to make a novel or a painting or a theatre, that if we choose to make a game instead, that we are not real authors, or real authorities of our own ideas. This is a miraculous blindness. It seems obvious to me that games have the potential to make me as much of an authority as any another artform, and perhaps even more so. That I might be the author of an entire world, materially, and that by allowing choice and circumstance I might show a benevolence and confidence in my work that surpasses anything that I could attempt on the page or canvas. And so when I see things like this, I stress that we owe it to ourselves to continue trying to wander in this great artform from our current, basest of camps, to not dismiss it or allow ourselves to be dismissed just because its form deviates from some rather staid, parochial regulations about artist, audience and meaning that are nowhere near as old as we give them credit for.
However, once we have all of our insecurities trussed up and goosed, we start to come to the real horror of what we must attempt, an enormous difficulty in games, their making and their advancement.
This difficulty lies in the very word “games”, this glyph that we all accept to stand for something greater, and its association, in our culture, with another word.
The Thing Taught Things
What a hot, languid mystery play is. From tiger cubs hardening the keratin in their claws to nerfing in car parks, most species have engaged in non-essential, structured activity since we were all just different breeds of legume in the joey-bean soup of hot, languid Earth. Before we can understand a story, before we are armoured for narrative process by our maillemaker parents and our schooling and the great battles we see others fight with literature, far off, we have games instead, games which we understand implicitly with just our synapses and nodules, games in which we cork our swords and smother our teeth and do things just for fun.
However, despite our reliance on play at an early stage of life, the sneering, the charges of delinquency we ascribe to it, when we see others LARPING or building Lego or playing Super Motherfucking Aqua Warriors (a game I helped invent in the Baltic Sea one summer), is unwarranted. Play is not pointless, unstructured, or chaotic in any sense, despite how it may look to a non-player without a feel for its matrix. Those inside the game may not realise it either, but play is an ancient educational complex, authorless, so developed and nuanced that not even Gove could fuck it up. When we play, and especially when rules are imposed on the play, a system to which we must adhere, we are doing one of two things.
- Reinforcing values that we have already found useful or desirable.
- Learning entirely new techniques or systems.
Even though I am grudging to admit it, these mental processes may account for the unwithered fanaticism that many have for football, despite the rules barely changing in two hundred years. Each game is not quite like the other, and the actual audience, in the stands, help to influence the system that the players themselves are interpreting and exploiting, the matrix in which they trip each other over.
This also goes some way to explain the (baffling, in the case of football) squirts of interior drugs that we perceive when we ourselves are playing a game. We are happy, we are concentrating, we are learning new things and new ideas and experimenting and receiving feedback at a constant yet dramatic rate, and then, as we cool down after the event and fall back into life, as we wash the dust off our legs and out of our eyes and stand up and stretch, these experiments and experiences are hammered into a new cuirass and pauldrons, a new suit in which to survive our own battles. If we return to our tiger cubs, we see their pliable claws harden, their roars get deeper, and what were once playful little leaps onto the backs of their brothers and sisters become a starvation-hunt against water buffalo.
The Dutch historian Johan Huizinga, in his rather niftily-named book Homo Ludens, spoke strongly of play operating as a (but not the) defining component in generating a culture. He spoke of the ‘sacred circle’ that play creates around itself, protected from real-life laws and rules, in which its own fiefdom operates, captive to its own systems. Within this circle, ideally, outside ties and prejudices are forgotten; scenarios can be tested without consequence, things experienced in simulation which would never be possible in everyday life. The player can become the tiger, or a poacher, to whatever degree they need, in order to fulfil the purpose of the play.
Most of all modern games, digital and analogue, contain this ‘sacred circle’ element. I could pick any, from the teetering pile, but a more recent example demonstrates the circle fairly literally, if a slightly more architectural shape. Gone Home, in which you play a young woman exploring her family’s new house after returning from travels in Europe. The house is empty, the rain lashes at the window, outside is forest as far as the draw distance goes. The game begins on the interior porch, with your duffel bag at your character’s feet. It would, of course, be interesting to see how many players began their game by trying to open the front doors of the house, back out into the rain, and how they reacted when it would not open. I make the assumption that most players would accept this tacitly, understand the humming, venerable systems at work, and never return to that door, or look for its key. The edge of Huizinga's circle is discovered, and the players do not question in which direction the play extends; into the house, let inside by good ol’ Christmas Duck.
Once inside the house proper, this ordinary space is made sacred with knowledge and expectation of play within, of exploration beyond what one might ordinarily do in a house. This experimentation, pioneering, what many adults might call regression, will lead you to... well, none of us are quite sure.
It may, at times, feel that there is very little correlation between play and art; one is concerned with applicable life lessons and practical solutions, whereas the other is designed to... well, none of us are quite sure, yet again. But there are parallels to be drawn, in literature and art’s ability to teach us emotional breadth, to reinforce universal truths, to reveal surprising beauty, and to allow us to experience and experiment new ideas with the help of other, pathetic authorities. We see techniques and spaces made special, witnessed by an appreciative or at least present audience, and the establishment of a boundary, either in the binding of a book or chapters or a frame or a single track or a stage or whatever device you might like to quote, a boundary which renders everything inside it unique, different solely by this arrangement.
If these similarities exist between extant artforms and play, we could argue that there should not be any trouble with inserting narratives into games, stories which take them beyond the function of drug kingpin, glandular gangbangers, and into something more. Something still biological, still anthropological, but which satisfies more than just one clutch of our neural endings. Why, then, does this seem to cause us so much bother?
Raph Koster is a game designer whose philosophies I heavily admire. Indeed, much of the above discourse comes from his work. However, where Koster and I fork in our thinking is at this juncture between early, “primitive” games and those of the modern age.
Games, Koster says, are about the uncovering, recognition, and repetition of a pattern.
Now, if we apply this to our tiger cubs, or 40-40, or Stick-In-The-Mud, or British Bulldog, or in fact most of the games currently ejected by our industry, this is indeed true. In such games you, the player, are presented with a scenario, make choices based on previous knowledge, are an audience for the result, and then repeat this process until the game ends or, less ideally, becomes boring.
At the fundament, it is more difficult to map our reactions to a piece of art. We may indeed find a book boring, or believe that we have understood the ‘key’ to a painting over in the right-hand corner and then apply such a key to the rest of the composition, but I believe, without superciliousness or superiority or any other superpower, that experiencing a piece of art is far less easy to reverse-engineer than this.
Now, Koster’s chop-shopping of games is still receptive to the idea of them containing more wooly artistic merits. Indeed, much of the last third of A Theory Of Fun In Game Design, his codex, laments the lack of games that tell a story well, and which express those ideas that do something other to the human spirit than just release the same, traditional cocktail of pedagogic liquids into our brains every single time. His text’s complementary cartoons show characters dreaming of Shakespeare whilst holding a controller, or talking about the 1337 game (this was, of course, written in 2004) called Lolita they picked up the previous night.
Despite Koster’s optimism, however, the solution to the problem may be slightly more complex than he gives credit for, certainly more complex than producing a game equal to Citizen Kane, Lolita or The Lark Ascending, a quixotic quest we all seem obsessed with completing. The problem is interwoven with Koster’s philosophy, with all of our philosophies, with our collective insistence on this convenience, this word “game”, and the corresponding need, meshed as tight as tights, for all games to be fun.
The Thing Was Not Fun
There are four canonical manners in which games, throughout history, have attempted to tell good stories through their interactivities.
In many analogue games, the ones so ingrained in our cultures that we provide concrete furniture for their playing in our parks, like stelae, the players are presented with familiar allegories, implicit in the mechanics. These games transmit meaning subliminally through broad narratives about human experience, with metaphor and thematic assonance, away from cultural specifics. Chess is the prime example of this category, and even Pac-Man, despite containing ‘assets’ that we commonly associate with tale-telling such as characters, environments and tangible objects (the cherries, the ghosts, his gender, the colour of his skin), functions more as a story of ecosystem, a metaphor for that frenetic bloat of nature in motion.
If we move on to modern games, many, if not most, do away with metaphor and present the player with a literal, direct and artistically authored story, but it is rarely something which is bound in any meaningful way to the interactivity of the experience. In fact, these games often feel afraid of allowing players to influence or shape their meaning by altering anything. They wrest control from them, leaving them clicking a hollow mouse or, at their most merciful, inching the camera back and forth as an emotive scene, about which that player may have all sorts of opinions and wishes, plays out. While these tenets may be part and parcel of film and literature, the art’s path agreed by the viewer without much gripe, in games it is a betrayal of the medium. The system has broken its own rules, and it is no surprise that we often react much as a child or a tiger cub would.
An improvement on this practice includes games where this authored story is interactive, branching, with player choice influencing its final reality from a tight suite of possible ones. However, the creative burden on the designer in providing such a self-similar array of choices, hundreds and hundreds of nodes each with their own litter of nodes, is incredible. These games, as a result of restraints on time and budget, are often strangely stilted, their decision-points trivial, or are instead turgid beyond all belief. The edges of the sacred circle, in this case, are so jagged and forbidding that their architect finds it impossible to do their geography justice. I was one of these architects, when I made The Black Crown Project. It’s an awful feeling, to know how limited you really are.
However, due to a variety of factors such as platform agnosticism, indie successes and the evolution of old forms, more and more games are emerging which provide rich systems and environments, juicy with potential interaction, and which allow players to create their own narrative, instead of being captive to an authored one. The narratives that do emerge in these games, while sometimes lacking in traditional dramatic elements, coming often to the same conclusions, and reliant on the same mechanics (similarly to how plays put on in the same theatre space often have an eerily familiar feel to them) are the closest thing we have achieved to truly interactive, democratic storytelling. This is it, for the moment.
Of course, there is a thread connecting all of these approaches. These games, however they treat story, attempt to present it through the use of the core tenets of gameplay, of fun, as we currently accept them within this culture. These include, but are not limited, to the following:
Power Fantasy: I would argue that most games incorporate an element of conquering, overcoming, supplanting or control, in the course of playing them. The player becomes more powerful at all times, more accomplished, and more at home in their surroundings; their ability to influence and control their situation almost always becomes greater. In fact, our adherence to the power fantasy is so ingrained, as Our Friend Tom Francis points out on his blog, that many of the richest narratives in games arise where the player manages people, rather than being a person. It is easier to tell a story with the dynastic play of the Total War games, Civilisation and many others, the political machinations and movements of nations, than to delve down into the pixels, the tears and sebum and sweat of one of its many subjects.
Economy: A currency, and shrewd management of it, is key to most games systems, though in fact most storied games now provide a currency only as an unbalanced necessity, an arbitrary between you and your eventual belongings.
Competition: We are very, very keen on the idea of winning and losing, aren’t we?
Puzzles: Puzzles must have clear solutions, or the player will become bored, and those triangulators in their head will curl and dry, and they will switch off.
Repeatable Actions: If an action makes us feel nice in our brainpan, we should be allowed to do it more than once.
Strategy: Actions taken, and interactions made, should be based on an understanding of the situation at hand. A lack of understanding is too close to how we feel in real life, and instead we beseech the game to be our advisor, massaging our egos and the pads of our fingers.
These tenets are the ones generally considered to be fun, to be indispensable in the creation of a good game. Looking at them, it is perhaps unsurprising that the games in which we are most comfortable telling stories are ones which involve combat, commerce or engineering. These activities lie extremely naturally next to the tenets, and so a small clutch of ready stories make themselves available, in which strategy, economics, competition and above all power fit most naturally. The zombie infestation. The space explorer. The wildman. The war hero. The mathematical puzzler. The trading simulator. With these systems so institutionalised, so genred by our industry, there are only a relative few stories being told, and accepted, more widely in the medium.
I think this was why, despite all my issues with the publishing industry, I took my suitcase there rather than to a games developer. The Black Crown Project, the game that arose out of that suitcase, is not much of a game, by the standards of those tenets. It is certainly not fun. Throughout the experience the player becomes less able, less knowledgeable, more unwell. By the end of the game their character can barely walk or wipe their rear end. As the game progresses, their grip on the Eremite’s story, their belief in its simplicity and chunkability, is muddied by the introduction of new characters, lies and warped, conflicting discourse. Strategy, and the solving of puzzles, is based on an internal logic, one derived from my own flawed brain and realised through the characters’ defects and syndromes: this logic is perceivable, but players arrogant with the tenets might miss them entirely. Competition between players, when it rarely occurs, is animalistic, unjudged, both parties walking away changed. The economy of the gameworld is deeply flawed, given to bouts of inflation and exchange rates that make little sense from a ludic point of view.
By the authority of the tenets, it is a deeply troubled experience. However, despite this, I do not see it as a piece of bad design. All of these ‘bugs’ are in fact ‘features’, from my perspective. There were never meant to be winners or losers, stockpilers or paupers. There was only supposed to be the experience, weak or strong in individual cases, yet always uncompromising precisely because it is reached through the player’s actions. There are whole swathes of material that perhaps only three players in the entire world have seen. Some characters died a slow death at the end of the game, weak and betrayed. A few never find answers.
No, it certainly wasn’t much fun. However, I feel that this should not be the insult that we have allowed it to become.
Fun is a tyranny. If we believe that this new artform of ours can achieve its potential, that we can instil meaning and myriad interpretation by allowing our audience to actually alter the physical reality of the art itself, then I believe that ‘fun’ is only one, now-rather-tired genre of experience that we should be aiming for. We need to believe in the power of mechanics and of medium, and use ours in a way that is unique, directly tangible in whatever it is that we are trying to say about being us.
Currently, however we sit between two dogmas. One is the dogma of traditional media, of those critics who mock and sneer, who at best see games a flippancy, a key to people’s brains that may be snapped once the lock is opened, and which at worst see systems logic, randomisation, psychology and design as inherently ‘non-artistic’, and our experiences as inherently not art. The other is gaming’s reactive dogma, reactive in the way that I reacted as a child when told that I would never find beauty in my games. One which is a mixture of rebellion and defeat, which fights against the narratives of old media by stating that story is a mere luxury to games, peripheral to the main experience of ‘fun’, and yet which at the same time seeks those stories out, importing them from other mediums without understanding what made them work in those mediums in the first place. A game is not a film, or a novel. It has its own tools, its own devices.
It is through the industry’s conservatism within these devices that so many of the games we make feel unsatisfying or rote. Our reliance on the gilt relics of game design, every possible scalpel, brush and knife rolled up in that word ‘fun’, means that we are making the same games, over and over. Our skill with these repetitive, strategic and qualitative mechanics means that the metaphors and messages which games transmit are of a similarly limited inventory. We produce and play so many games that are about power, loneliness, totalitarianism, banality, isolation and the Kafkaesque, and little else. Of course, The Black Crown Project, set up on its whistling-wind hill and involving the player in a nightmarish administration, is about all of these things. I don’t claim to be anything less than a coward when it comes to finding and using new tools myself. But God forbid that all games be like The Black Crown Project. God forbid any more of my games are like it.
To move past these conservatisms, these hoary, unhelpful equipments, we must find a balance between the dogmas. We must not be afraid to guide player agency if we must, or even limit it; our understanding of agency is so blunt and primeval that we cannot think of any other way to keep interactivity holy than to constantly reward players like fish in a tank, with timed releases of shrimp paste and a yawning treasure chest which stirs up the water every now and then. However, we must also not distrust our players, and consider them merely an audience. We must remember that an artwork has foundations on all sides, injections from many different directions. The audience in every piece of art is important, whatever its size or form, and in games it is more important than anywhere else. They must be allowed to express themselves, in a way they cannot in a gallery or at a cinema, they attempt through fan wikis, forums, fan fiction and the like. They must contribute to the final truth, and that truth must be unique to them.
In my suitcase, it did not matter that Sam didn’t find the “true” ending until long after he had finished rummaging through the suitcase. The truth was still there, in the air about his nostrils. He had been infected with the disease, and when he did finally, accidentally, discover the CD, he told me that he began to wonder what else he had missed. And if we, as players of games, end up missing the “best” plotlines, or different ones from our friends, or if we do not quite understand the strategies or hear the anecdotes to which we were not party on the internet afterwards, we should not be angry. We should not fear missing out, or consider it our right as consumers to catalogue the game’s assets in a non-ergodic manner, like a perusable library which we can ‘read’ down through the file structure. In other media, we have been conditioned to look for story on the next page, the following sheet, the next frame of animation or next byte of data. In games, in game art, we are engaging with a system, and such systems, and our ergodic traversal of them, is part of the vagary, the beauty, the wild beauty, of the medium.
It was at this point in my talk that I tried to enunciate to the assembled writers what a game made on such principles might look like. It would be a game that didn’t just reward the overstimulated endorphin-sphincters in one’s head, but which used a heady spectrum of human life to create something which could never be realised in any other medium. I asked for suggestions from my audience, but it was getting late, they were thinking all sorts, and the hidden costumes were starting to itch. I went on with the example which I had planned in advance, which perhaps I would have told all along, a game which I was sure, and am still confident, I could never make.
I have dim memories, from when I was very small, of two of my great-grandparents, one from each side of the family. Their partners died years before I was born, but Nanny Em and Grandad Jack lived long enough that I can remember just-about walking through their living rooms, both of them heavy with smoke. Em lived in a terraced house in East London somewhere, with a screaming trainline at the bottom of the garden, and Grandad Jack had a tiny flat at the top of a block in Ealing. Both lived alone until the days they died.
These seemed, when I was writing this talk, like stories that were worth honouring, stories I barely knew, stories which I wanted people outside my family to understand and to help me shape into a game. That word “game” seemed even more disingenuous as I stood up there describing what such a thing would be like. How could I be so flippant with these two lives? I tried to explain.
It would be a terrifying process, lending this delicate, now-gone woman to a public audience. In my game, for no reason other than a strange turn of my brain, the player would become Nanny Em, her and her life transplanted into that minuscule flat of Grandad Jack’s. Jack himself would be nowhere to be seen.
The game might begin in media res, when Nan is already elderly. Huizinga’s sacred circle would be established quickly; due to her age (I can still remember her zimmer frame, kept in her pantry on the lino) and lack of mobility, she would rarely leave the flat, and the players, I hope, would understand this limitation implicitly. What also might be quickly established would be the entire absence of win conditions. Nan’s life is nearly done, her biggest decisions long ago. We rarely see her like in games, or stories at all, for that matter.
In my game, there would always be a central pool of tasks which need completing, little quotidian comforts which, at first, might take on the characteristics of some of our more traditional games. Nan would need to make sure all the fish in the fishtank get fed; I still remember that glowing, enormous demi-shrine in Grandad Jack’s flat, where he sat and watched the bubbles and smoked his pipe. Things would always need putting away, washing up, and there would always be people, as small as currants, to spy on out of the window. Each of these, in Em’s mind and the players, could be fun, objective, strategic, economic, and could employ current paradigms if we needed them. A sort of HUD. A health bar. A targeting reticule.
Of course, these repetitive tasks would become dull, after a while, and the player’s sympathies might fade in kind. Em isn’t their great-grandmother, after all. Many would find this existence, and their simulation of it, depressing (perhaps it is) and lonely (perhaps it is) and pointless (perhaps it is). But this everyday life, I could bring them to understand, would only be the surface of what it is be Em. Only what they, or I, might see if we were to visit the flat of any similar pensioner and spend too little time with them; the pathos, the inhuman isolation, the mixture of guilt and disgust.
While we should not discard these feelings, real feelings, with utility and truth to them, Em has not always been alone. She has not always been old and lip-smacking and deficient. And once players begin to explore, to use their authority and curiosity to move past this single ‘vision’ of a life simulated, they might find all sorts of things they were not expecting.
Some players might find Em’s love letters, hidden here and there, under cans of soup and heating bills.
Some players might look in her address book, and call the meals-on-wheels boy, who looks just like her late husband. Perhaps they were rude to him, the last time he came, just because the option was there for them to try. Perhaps he will never come again. What might happen if he did?
Perhaps, with time and perseverance and an empathy for those varicose veins, drapery legs and shaking hands, they might be able to leave the flat, go to shops, see a sliver of the city in which Em lives. Her exploration of it, and thus the creative burden on me, the designer, would be restricted by her disabilities, and so in the small radius of existence which has shrunk to become her life I could build in such richness.
Some players might throw her out the window. This does not make me sad to think about.
Some players might discover that they can have conversations with the man on the television, the one always droning on about wars and benefits cuts.
Some players might take things into their own hands, carve out realities and truths that I did not account for. They might use the game’s physics engines to arrange Em’s knick-knacks into a shrine to a music-hall dish, or pile them against the door to stop her relatives coming in. They might knock for the neighbours, leave them biscuits from their inventory without knowing if it will gain them anything. They might terrorise the neighbourhood. They might build an igloo out of books, and many other things that I cannot possibly imagine right in this moment. They would make my great-grandmother into another person entirely, a recluse, an outsider artist, or perhaps someone who still has the heart of a girl.
And perhaps only one player, in all the thousands that might play my game, would put my great grandmother to bed. Such an action would not advertised as an option by the game’s HUD, as Em hates going to bed, and would in fact involve the laborious task, almost an engineering puzzle, of laying that ninety-three year old spine recumbent on the pillows. It would not be easy, because it is not easy for such an old woman to go to bed (though of, course, the meals-on-wheels boy might be there to help her). And if they manage this, this hypothetical player, perhaps they would discover an entirely new game behind her eyes, in her sleep and dreams, her past as a wartime nurse, a newspaper editor, a film star, a little girl running through a beautiful wood.
Perhaps they would never tell anybody that such a bottleneck existed.
A not-unwarranted question to me, at this juncture, might be what is the point of building such a thing if only one player finds it? If the others are reheating lasagnes and doing the bingo or trying, desperately, to find one particular photo album? How can you call that true?
Such a thing is true by its potential to occur. There is at least one Nanny Em for each and every player, and in fact many more possible ones depending on their actions. If I trust my audience to be something towards her, be that open-minded, empathetic, playful or perhaps even spiteful, if I trust them to just try, there is a chance that they will unveil such an Em for themselves, and soundlessly enter it into the canon of Ems, all living slightly different lives.
As I have already said, I cannot see such a thing being made extremely soon. I cannot think of many games that include an older woman as a protagonist, apart from ones which transmogrify them into ninjas, monsters or even the undead, as I did with that costume all those years ago, with a costume shop cleaver and that travesty of a period. I’m not sure if, regardless of their background, a player’s mindset could accept or inhabit not just the mind but the body of an older woman, an avatar which our society, though it would never admit it, views as dull, backward, disgusting, repetitive and broken. Perhaps, instead, I am pessimistic, and what might happen instead would be an outflow of social responsibility, of tenderness, of guilt. Perhaps it would bring out the worst in people. Perhaps such teacherly concerns, of art having a goal beyond emotion, are redundant.
Whatever the case, as long as something is brought out of them, and embedded into the work, into the possibility space that the game provides, the art is complete; not in any traditional sense, but such a thing does not matter. This game would be unreliant on any other medium for its justification. It would be a game, as useless and limited as that term is. It would be, and could be, nothing else.
The Thing Is Finished
They were right, weren’t they, those of us who gave up right at the start of all this, all those words ago?
I have gone on, just a little bit.
That talk, on which this essay is based, was a bit less... sprawling, and a bit less troubling. I was younger then, and didn't have to think as hard; the words practically fell out of my mouth. After just an hour my audience and I were walking between the apse-like vending machines and empty study nooks the English department, the cleaners hoovering up that familiar smell they had for another evening. The rain had stopped, and it was already dark. We went to sandwiches and wine in another room, and when I looked behind me I was very pleased that we had not lost a single audience member. Not a single one had found what I had to say dull or pointless, or gone down the hill, through the darkness, towards the smushed and warping lights of Exeter, to their parties or their pubs or their trains home. They stayed, at least, to drink the alcohol and eat the bread and talk to Sam and I, Sam the second father, I the sweater. All but a few told me that they had enjoyed the talk, that they had liked the pictures of me dressed up and foolish, just like them (which, as this is not a closed room in a province of England, I won’t be reproducing here). They told me that they had never really considered games in the ways that I had described, as writers of fiction or poetry, as tyros of an old medium, their education about games limited to the same derogatory channels as their critics. They had never thought that games could ever be considered the work of artists, or hold something extraordinary or self-effacing; certainly not in the same way as the output of the fabulous writers and painters and photographers that they were studying to become, as I once did.
I left that talk feeling vindicated that I had spoken to representatives of those older, custodial mediums, the ones with a hoary self-confidence and a sneering romanticism, had spoken up for a medium that I was coming to understand as an adult, along with the rest of the world, and at the same time secured small part of gaming’s future. It almost felt as if I was trading penicillin with warlords at a border checkpoint: in laying bare the games industry's corruptions and weakness, and pinning blame on its lack of narrative sympathy, the only solution lay in attracting hungry young experts from exotic disciplines to try and help me cure all of the industry's problems, ensuring that a transformation, and maturation, took place.
How stupid I still was, even as I talked about how stupid I had been, when I was their age. Though they were receptive, talented individuals, I should not have given my talk to writers: I realised that I was trying to get them to decamp to a medium where they had no expertise or passion, where the only things to tempt them was less competition, more money and more glittering. In doing so, I had fallen prey to my insecurities, my masturbatory inner child, who felt that games needed a solution and that I would only find it in the old mediums where things, it was decided, had been proven already.. I was trying to rouse writers, who should have been writing books (or whatever it is that I wanted to do), and telling them that our brutish medium needed a tutor, needed doctors.
Games do not need better stories.
Games need to be better games.
They must find their own beauty and truth, whatever that may be. I am no more certain than when I was ten, and I was stepping, Aldrinous, across landscapes that I had never touched before, memorising the maps and the sound effects, and turning my body into an aerial for signals that I did not really understand. These words beauty, truth and nobility are all placeholders and jargon for what I really mean, and I shan't know what I mean for some time, I feel. This talk has taken me a small part of the way, and whatever it turns out to be, I know that it will not be the same as the beauty, truth and nobility of books, of films, of symphony.
I'm not sure how many of my audience, in total, I may have lost with this particular evolution of that talk. Now, as I write this, I feel differently about the whole debate, and may have written it down differently as a result. It feels less flashy, more complex, than it did back then, and I'm not sure if my argument has the same romance to it. Things have changed, in the intervening months and months; I have taken out my piercings, and gotten slightly taller. I have almost forgotten the face of my dead friend, and I have stopped dressing up as women just because. My hair is now the same colour it was when I was a child. I am a better writer, now, when I decide to write, and I am a designer by choice and not by accident. The Black Crown Project is getting old, in terms of the insectile lifespans of work in our current time. I have played other things, read other things, and made other things, than the trove I discovered at university. All of a sudden I have spread out from the middle, in my learning and my gut, as if I was a deep-sea fish brought up out of that abyss of when I was younger.
Most importantly, I have created my own symbology. I now know what that caduceus, that entwined shibboleth of games and art and reading and writing and everything that I carried with me, really means. It represents what I want from games, in a form which must be read, and deciphered. I must discover what the symbol means. To discover that, I believe that the first step is to cast aside this convenience, the term 'game', and everything that goes with it. Every time I use it now it feels too small in my mouth: what we produce has far outgrown this little syllable, and in fact its associations may be venomous to what comes next.
Since I gave my talk, it feels, even in that short time, the wider gaming ego has polyped and celled in interesting ways, as is healthy for anything as sensitive and reactionary as this particular community. It has become more transparent, diverse, medusozoan, spread into a colony of parts rather than a centralised authority of discourse. But what we are left with is not enough. Crude, clumsy, benighted stories are still being told, and they always will be, but since the time of Duke Nukem and his endless folded bills, our stereotypes and conservatisms have become more subtle and insidious. We treat them as a survival of an earlier era, a ‘tradition’ which we must protect voraciously, as legacy.
Unfortunately, this legacy includes a moronic monoculture, an arrogance as to the artform’s superiority, as well as a deep-seated anxiety about those older cultures and their indifference. Instead of evolving past these concerns, it champions the current paradigm as the sole, defining, retaliatory character of games Story is both sought and held in contempt, and because the technologies are difficult, the ways unproven, games often sidestep the subtle, the human and the ineffable and instead stripmine the superheroic, the mythological and the brash, rendering it everyday, so everyday that we almost do not notice it, like the parp of arses or the bus timetable. Proven constructs are nipped wholesale from other mediums, these constructs adopted so whole-heartedly that any distinction between games and everything else is all but made irrelevant.
We believe so wholeheartedly in the pituitary strength of our current games, in the internal smack of fun that they produce, that we tease those same nodules again and again. In so repeating the display of power, strategy and commerce we have created an entire business out of these chemicals which our brains excrete. We have genred our hypothalamuses, more deeply, I believe, than in any other medium, and made games mundane and familiar every time we play them, despite the subconscious buzz of their playing. And as audience, implicit in their creation, we are to blame; through rampant cabalism, a literacy and familiarity that nobody but the cabal understands, as well as a reliance on the limited examples of past successes, we cry that we want more of the same, more fanaticism, more hits, again and again.
Whoever has survived all this way, and no matter the difficulties in getting here, I believe that I am speaking to the correct audience, now. All together we need to enact some of Jakobson’s ‘organised violence’ on the very everyday of games itself. Incite it by stepping away from the beloved, wheezing tenets which produce the same, feeble effects in every game we make, and rebel against Koster's assertion that it is the fate of all games to become boring. Incite it by understanding that medium is not only a set of tools, but is also what makes an artwork unique, and use it, evolve and improve it, and not just our stories, to create message and meaning all its own. No matter its problems, the suitcase I made, the game that came out of it, and all the things that I plan to do now could not be made in any other way. They have medium at their very heart, just like all my linkless heroes showed me.
What is most important, perhaps, to this bloodless, gorgeous violence, is a trust in our audience, both as players and makers of games. I do not think that I have confused my audience, on this website; as far as I am concerned, you are all one and the same, indistinguishable. By being artists and audiences together, by relinquishing our mythology and accepting that there may never be gaming's Calvino, Da Vinci or Sanders, no matter how terrifying and naysaid that may seem, we may discover the one tenet that elevates us.
Oh, look. I just can't help it. All this yakking. Let me try and start again, more simply.
I'm not dead or anxious.
I haven't left.
Come and join me up here.