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Understanding the Medium
by Jason Bakker on 12/20/10 02:56:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


What does it mean to be a storyteller in games?

I've talked before about how each game is its own medium. This means that each game you make doesn't equate to "a book", "a movie" or "a song"; for each game you create you are both making the content and devising the delivery mechanism.

I can go into detail to prove this fact - I could point out the existence of Minecraft, or mods, or even multiplayer games in general, in which a limitless range of potential stories may be told.

Or I could discuss how the line that players draw between acceptable and unacceptable game design imitation is arbitrary only until you draw a corresponding line between medium and message. But it's more important to talk about how we use this piece of information to further our work.

Big budget game developers understand this already or, not understanding, follow this principle and have been doing so successfully for years. The medium is the gameplay mechanics, the systems and the holistic experiential structure of the game.

The message is not just the theme, it is the content - it is everything that has been put into the game by the creator, and the experiences that are created through the player's interaction with the mechanics.

Independent developers struggle morally with the concepts of imitation, mimicry and "sequelitis", while seeing in the big-budget sphere that these processes time and time again have positive qualitative results.

Too many independent developers are attempting to reinvent the medium, being unable to separate innovating with the medium and creating interesting, compelling content. Count myself among this number.

This is not a call for acceptance of "cloned" games (ie. Fruit Ninja -> Veggie Samurai) - it is simply an idea to take under consideration - the idea that your medium does not have to be recreated with every game in order for it to be an original game.

Perhaps, through careful cultivation of your own personal medium over the course of many developed games, you could grow as an artist of that unique medium, and create ever more complex and nuanced works within it.

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James Hofmann
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The mindset of the AAA developer is necessarily different from that of the indie and changes the nature of the work in a very fundamental way. As implied in the name, AAA uses a organization of many specialists, each meticulously working within small domains of knowledge, to push the quality of all aspects of the game as far as it can go. An indie can't be so specialized and still make a great game in a reasonable period - they can be more efficient in the actual creation process by knowing exactly what is needed without communication overhead, but their motivations will be torn asunder if they also try to achieve the absolute limit of their abilities in all fields. An indie team of two or three can go much deeper into specialization than a solo developer, but they will still hit a wall if they attempt to go toe-to-toe with that sort of content-heavy process.

Content bulks out the game for purposes of thematic interest and overall marketability, but it tends to be ridiculously inefficient at supplementing core game mechanics. This makes it a pleasing option from the mindset of a AAA developer looking for ways to "throw around their weight," since it is easy to come up with ways to blow the budget sky-high with more/more detailed content and one-off showcases of ability, all in the name of pushing the thing out come Christmastime with a mega-marketing campaign. But if you want to have some commercial success as an indie you can't just lock yourself away with a similar workload and hope to ship anytime soon; you have to think more entrepreneurially, make huge, daring cuts in the content of the game, put all your weight into the other mechanics or gimmicks at your disposal, and start hustling for the dollars with something more sleek and slim.

It helps that making the game "better" in an intrinsic sense (by most definitions of better - more pleasing, more accessible, more attractive) tends to be exactly what is necessary to make the game build word-of-mouth sales, too, so an indie that succeeds in cutting the right things while still making a great game enjoys a mega-hit. This may mean "almost no content/user-generated content," or it may mean "just enough built-in content to supplement the mechanics." Even indie successes like Cave Story, which expose a relatively detailed game world with storytelling, remain efficient on content usage via carefully applied usage of various stylized low-fi techniques. It's the fuel to reach the gameplay destination, and you can't waste it lightly.

This has the natural result of making indies work towards crazy concepts and heavily procedural world-building, not detailed hand-crafted content, since it's the most efficient way to get the attention of gamers and the media; the more out-there it is, the more built-in hype they get. Even if it's a 2D platformer, it's a 2D platformer with a gimmick, or multiple gimmicks.

Of course, if you're looking this from a pure-art angle, not involving the commerce at all, you'll probably disagree, yet interestingly enough....the art games are also gimmicky. Have you burned any ropes lately?

Jason Bakker
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I agree with your points, but the idea that I'm putting forward is that if you did use the same engine, and even a lot of the same gameplay mechanics over multiple games, over time you would be able to focus less on functionality and more on content. Innovation and polish in content is, I feel, sorely lacking in the independent sphere, and to a lesser extent even in the big-budget sphere.

There is definitely a reason that most successful games these days follow the formula that you describe (not much content, "gimmicks" - interesting features), but I feel that this could be another way that could open a whole new avenue of development and interesting games.

Douglas Rae
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Minecraft > all. Pretty much beats both your arguments down.

Jason Bakker
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Because Minecraft is better than everything currently out there, there are no other avenues or possibilities for future development?

I'd better go find a spade...

Tim Tavernier
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"Of course, if you're looking this from a pure-art angle, not involving the commerce at all, you'll probably disagree, yet interestingly enough....the art games are also gimmicky. Have you burned any ropes lately?"

Art without involving commerce? Historically speaking (as a historian) this is not possible. Art is just that which is commercially viable or even successful. The dogmatic stance of separating art and commerce is a modern notion, but also the big mistake made by modern artists. And because a lot of indie developers are soaked in this "Modern Art" thinking, a lot of them are making huge mistakes in game design.

There's reason why Minecraft works and why it was a single engineer who did it: he's not in for the art...but trough that, made the most artfull indie game the last 5 years or even decade.

Want some tips?

1) Drop Narratology, seriously, drop it. Narratologists are too busy with how the writer should exhibit his "genius" vision (and being writers, they ofcourse have one...far ahead in time that the simpletons of today can grasp it). This thinking, in gamedesign, is heavily present and is hurting gaming enormously. A game is about the ability of the expression of the Self. Not the game's maker ofcourse, but of the game's participants. A game should allow people to be want they want to be, not what the game's maker is forcing on them.

2) Drop the Modern Art dogma. The Modern Art Dogma has something called "Authorial Control", a doctrine where the input of the maker is the alpha and omega, everyone who doesn't get it are stupid/don't put in effort/simpletons. Game designers, by wanting to make art, are soaked in the Modern Art dogma and such also the Authorial Control doctrine. As with Narratology...really bad thing for videogames.

Dean L
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Why do you think Minecraft is the most Artful indie game in the past 5 years? Is it because it lets the player create their own 'experiences'?

If Authorial Control was inherently bad for videogames there would be no fun videogames.

Jason Bakker
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I really don't know why so many people are focused on limiting the spectrum of independent game development. Why would you tell people to drop what interests them and do what the successful competition does? That seems like the antithesis of the indie spirit to me.

As for narratology, I feel like each game sits somewhere different along the line between developer-expression and player-expression, and for me personally some of the most interesting games I've played lie pretty darn close to the center, with both developer and player being expressive and creating a positive feedback loop of awesomeness. Kind of like books, movies, or... any other medium.

Matthew Anderson
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I'm guessing you were on the receiving end of the "stupid/don't put in effort/simpleton" criticism as you struggled your way through community college somewhere.

You're mistaking "modern art" with the philosophy of early twentieth century "modernism"

Modern art, like the stuff that would likely be displayed in the MOMA or the Tate gallery, generally favors work that is, in its philosophy, "post-modern"; a movement that betrayed "authorial control" as you call it. see Roland Barthes "Death of the Author".

once again you'er over-reaching and making a fool of yourself. Reign in the arrogance and faux-intellectualism, and you might see less of the above criticism come your way. people might even be interested in what you have to say.

Josh Foreman
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Agreed, T Ta.

Matthew Anderson
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At Jason Bakker. Hey I've railed on this and other forums about the "art" of games being a question of medium specificity, and how that hasn't really been located yet. I read your linked article, and just wanted to say i'm pickin up what you're puttin down. I predict about 99% of these University of the Matrix dropouts won't even comprehend it, but.....huzzah to your capacity for rational thought, sir!

Jason Bakker
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Thanks for the kind words, Matthew :) I have been working towards putting my thoughts into action since writing this, but am still a fair way from providing demonstrable proof of my beliefs.