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Monthly Archives: August 2007

I usually manage to avoid writing about AI – mainly because it makes me think about work. Work is fun and all yet, inevitably, still work (yeah, I know, I’m really fucking profound in the morning).

But I’ve been meaning to mention this one poster from AIIDE ’07 (sadly, didn’t get to go myself): Player Autonomy vs. Designer Intent: A Case Study of Interactive Tour Guides (via AIGameDev).

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Julian Eggebrecht condemns the ESRB rating system as being worse than the process used for movies.

While I have yet to watch it, I doubt Eggebrecht has watched This Film Is Not yet Rated, either. Or you pretty much wouldn’t even imply that there was somehow some of improvement to be had in the ratings process… Guess what? Getting a movie/game rated is an incredibly political affair which is completely biased against some forms of controversial material over others.

If, as a (commercial) artist, there is something controversial in your message, you inevitably have to apply the same creativity in getting it past the ratings board as you do in crafting it to begin with. Or, if you’re like Trey Parker and Matt Stone, you just learn to enjoy the process.

I’ve read in a few places Hitchcock’s thought that a viewer’s empathy for a character could be created via suspense despite things they might actively dislike about the character. The archetypical example is the thief breaking into a house, under threat of getting caught – He’s a a thief for starters, so it’s not like he’s going to be of particularly solid moral character, but properly filmed you can be on the edge of your seat, caring about what the heck’s going to happen to him.

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I’ll admit, I’m loathe to even talk about this, but in the vein of blog-as-therapy, I figure maybe I’ll post my thoughts on it and never spend another waking moment concerning myself with the debate. One can hope, that is.

Clint Hocking posted a number of well thought out rebuttals to Ebert’s assertion that games are not art. And I still find N’Gai Croal’s post downright funny in how well it points out Ebert’s idiocy (admittedly, this is coming from a man who doesn’t think games are a narrative medium).

But is any of this going to change Ebert’s mind? No.

The bigger question – why does anybody give a fuck what Ebert thinks?

Why do we (including myself) get pissed at this? Why do we give someone who has practically no experience with our medium this sort of power over us? To me, it’s the same reason game developers talk about “abdicating authorship” to players – do architects talk about abdicating authorship of their work to the people that walk through their buildings? No! We are just not at the maturity level to able to take confidence in how we express ourselves in the medium. Game developers need to grow – collectively & figuratively - a pair.

So maybe the actual debate enlightens the listeners if not the other side? To me, debating whether games are art is pretty similar to debating whether or not they are narrative – for different definitions of each term, the answer is obvious to everyone involved. For some definitions the answer is obviously yes, and for others the answer is obviously no. So can any ground be made in understanding when we’re just running in semantic circles?

Plus, people calling Ebert an ignorant fat fuck just doesn’t help the debate. Oh wait, nobody called him that.

To anybody with a grasp of either the nature of indirect authorship and/or non linear narrative the answer to both questions is yes (I like the term Umberto Eco used in a book of essays similarly titled - an “Open Work”, art requiring participation of the viewer/user. Although the damn book is still on my dining room table in my pile of “to read” books. Not that I actually have a dining room, but I do have a dining room table. Ah, semantics).

Each debate follows a sort of silly decision making process. Here’s the games are/are not narrative version:

  1. Do you think narrative can be experienced a non-linear format (like a hypertext novel)? If yes, goto #3.
  2. If not, what is a person’s experience reading a great artistic novel in a different chapter order? Did it stop being art? Goto #1.
  3. Can a piece of narrative be expressed in terms of objects and experiences navigating a world instead of direct text (like say, picking up a journal in a game or talking to an NPC)?
  4. If not, is this because you are using the term story instead of narrative? Search and replace, bitch. Then goto #3.
  5. Does your definition of game imply that putting a different narrative context onto a game will not provoke different emotional responses since the rules have not changed? Does whack-a-mole not differ from whack-a-baby? If your answer is no, goto psychological counseling.
  6. Does your definition of game still not include games that tell stories? Pick another damn term for games that tell stories and goto #7.
  7. Games (or whatever term you’ve decided on) can be a narrative medium. QED, goddamnit.

There are more loops along the way to fall into, to be sure, but they all have similar exit branches. The people who get stuck on those loops are going to stay there, because the shit that would get them to the final point (games are narrative and/or art), is also obvious. They choose to ignore it, which means no amount of convincing is going to encourage them to change their minds.

So, it seems to me that, as developers, we can choose from two options:

  • Follow Ebert down this semantic masturbatory rathole.
  • Makes games that are art. Not to prove Ebert wrong, but to express ourselves, as Jon Blow describes very well in a recent interview.

As tempting as the first is, that second one is pretty fucking hard as things like this go - I’m gonna say any time that can be spent doing the second instead of the first, probably time better spent. But what the fuck do I know?