Sunday 12 May 2013

do something to videogames

Quick (edit: not so quick) response to Darius' piece that's been going around because there's no comment box attached to it so everyone has to write their own post in their own place (which might not be a bad thing hey).

On the whole I agree with what he's saying, some good points. Don't limit yourself to one medium, pick the right tool for the job, find what works for you, be prepared to abandon what doesn't work for you, be careful about being guided by external validation.

Now, slide 2 specifically points out that this message is not for me - expressing myself creatively through videogames works for me - so this response may be off track. I do "struggle" to express myself, but I feel satisfied with the outcomes. But I have struggled with less satisfactory results in other artforms - the written word, music, mathematical proof - so I feel like I have some idea.

Underlying Darius' piece is this idea of "I’m trying to do X, now what can I do to make it happen?", and that maybe the particular grain of videogames makes them unsuitable for doing X. This is a 'top-down' design approach, starting with a concept or message and then trying to express it. And I'm not sure this is quite the right approach to doing creative work - insofar as there can be said to be anything like a 'right' approach.. I guess what I mean is that it's not the only approach, and it's not one that I've found to be very productive for me. I've gotten better results by picking a medium and then working with the grain to see what comes out. Usually I do start with an idea, but as I try to implement it changes, and I've found it better to be open to this than to try to force through my original concept.

I gave a talk at A MAZE in Berlin recently on this topic of 'working with the grain'. Not going to rehash everything I said there because they were videoed so I'll just link that when it's online (edit: link). But the basic points were: a lot of our brainpower is unconscious and is accessed by doing rather than thinking, the underlying structure of a form can carry truth and beauty that's revealed by working in it, it's better to create things by jumping in and creating and being open to unexpected influences than by trying to plan things out before we start.

I feel like videogames have a particularly strong and structured grain, so they might be more resistant to the top-down design approach than some other artforms. Maybe this makes a stronger point than Darius' - maybe if you're struggling to express a concept in videogames it means not only that the concept is unsuited for videogames but that your entire approach to art is unsuited for videogames. This might be related to problems Darius has had expressing himself, I'm not sure - his recent work creating curious bots has been lovely and natural and grain-exploring so I certainly don't want to claim he's taking the 'wrong approach'. But in general I think good things come from listening to the problems that come up so it's better to respond by adapting your concept to take that feedback into account rather than running away to somewhere you don't encounter resistance.

When I make a strategy game, I have particular ideas about which ways to play will be interesting. Sometimes it turns out they aren't - maybe this can be fixed, but not always. Sometimes it turns out they are, but the game discourages them because they're dominated by another strategy which is boring or 'grindy' - to fix this may requires a clever insight into how to remove the boring approach without breaking anything else. They're intricately balanced systems, and tuning them requires finding the correct underlying rules to produce the effects I want.

It's hard to lie with a game. This is an advantage to having a rigid grain, it pushes you to find the truth in what you're trying to express rather than just uncritically broadcasting what you believe. If you want to write a story that communicates "communism is bad" or "the free market is bad" that's easy - just make the villains communists or capitalists and say that's bad. But to make a game that critiques such a system requires simulating the system. If your enemies are capitalists and it turns out your simulation of capitalism makes them more efficient than the communist heroes, that challenges what you're trying to express. Don't get me wrong, you can definitely lie with a game - you don't have to accurately simulate systems, you can cheat in the background, you can use all the non-systemic parts to lie about what the system means. You can avoid simulating the systems you're talking about - games-as-propaganda tend to reskin old games and use only the text/images/sounds to convey their message rather than holistically expressing it through mechanics as well. But fundamentally: any game simulates some system honestly - even if you mislead about how that might correspond to any real-world system. If you want something to happen in a game, you have to write the rules honestly so that it happens - you can't just assume it will happen because that was your authorial intent.
(Games aren't special in this respect; it's even harder to lie with a formal logical proof - though it's easy to mislead with an argument that appears logical or that reasons from false assumptions.)

So if you're struggling to express yourself through games, do consider Darius' points and question why you're set on making games specifically, but also consider whether what you're trying to express might be 'wrong' - whether adapting your concept to avoid the problems you're having might actually make it more beautiful.


  1. Quick anecdote on how "working with the grain" worked for me: In the latest Ludum Dare I was struggling to think of a way to express the theme. After a few hours of going nowhere thinking, I just opened up the editor, threw in an FPS controller and started fiddling with settings. I increased the fog to rediculous levels, I made colored blocks to jump and slide on; they appeared out of the fog as you moved forward. Then when I went to add sounds I decided to use my music program instead of a sound effect generator. At first I was going to generate some odd noises to be footsteps, but for some reason played a chord and assigned that as the footsteps. And that was the aha moment. In the end my game consisted of navigating through an abstract world that played music notes and chords on each different colored surface you land on. I was pretty happy with it, but even more pleased with the process of creating.

  2. I do like your metaphor, discussing game development like carving an object out of wood can also be extended out dependent on how you personally perceive your craft. I wonder how this metaphorical perception can influence the resolution of design problems.