Don't misunderstand me just yet. I love the expressive potential of Destiny mechanics. They give me, and the designers I work with, endless opportunities to craft small, satisfying moments amid the often bombastic chaos of Agency gameplay. Or, to say it another way, Destiny mechanics allow designers a vital and vibrant means of expression. But it is not a particularly new form of expression. We've been down this road before, only with a different coat of paint. As the Brian Eno quote that opened this essay argues, mere interactivity is not something new to the arts.
Destiny mechanics have been popular and well utilized since the days of the earliest text adventures in the '70s, and they are only getting more sophisticated as each Heavy Rain or Uncharted appears on the shelves. As video games evolve into complex little narrative-meaning engines, we absorb their stories, contemplate their aesthetics, and make a general assessment of the developer's message: "What is the author trying to tell us?" "What is the work's theme or meaning?" This is a fun and exciting time for lovers of interactive narrative. But it is a rather traditional feature of a very radical medium.
The most visible recent example of this traditional tendency in mainstream game criticism is Taylor Clark's write-up on Braid designer Jonathan Blow, a talented guy who deserves none of the ridicule this hagiography generated. Sadly, as a critique of games and their ever-evolving guises, Clark's essay is a collection of musty priorities.
Like a graduate student scribbling at the margins of a modernist poem, Clark obsesses over the meanings, metaphors, and codes of Braid's literal narrative without bothering to address how clumsily its old-fashioned narrative unfolds: not through gameplay (save in the brilliant finale), but through pop-up text boxes spouting purplish prose and a few painted images.
It is entirely possible to play through Braid and ignore the literal tale entirely, rendering the visual and situational metaphors embedded in the gameplay useless. For the most part, the game's narrative is simply a thin veneer that could be removed without harming most of the game's content.
Only Braid's time-manipulation game mechanic has any plausible ties to its narrator's obsession with memory and nostalgia, but the tendons holding this metaphor together are weak since possession of this information has no bearing on the game's mechanical operations. These so-called "symbols" just hang there, impotent, like a reference to Dante's Inferno embedded in a '65 Ford Mustang's repair manual. A wasted opportunity to fuse form and content.
If Braid's time-rewind mechanic is symbolic of Tim's crippling inability to escape his past misdeeds, I felt nothing making this connection -- especially while solving puzzles that had little narrative content to speak of. It wasn't until Braid's genuinely affecting finale that I actually felt this metaphor in action. Here, in the game's concluding moment, was a beautiful synthesis of Destiny and Agency, together at last! In this instance, Braid's celebrated time-rewind mechanic does not simply serve the story as a symbol. It tells the story itself.
So here at last, we are creeping towards articulating one of the most curious features of this most modern medium. Or multimedium, we might say, since there is literally no artistic discipline a video game cannot absorb and use for its own bizarre purposes. But I believe we should not be content with wanting to see video games as just another form of artistic expression when we have not yet fully investigated its role as a tool that allows a range of expression as well.
The Novelty of Agency
The answer to this double-sided riddle lies in finding a better way to speak more coherently about Agency mechanics, the unsung underdog in our medium's quest for purpose. As narrative-obsessed critters, mainstream critics have not yet simplified their methods for discussing the unique contributions that Agency mechanics bring to games. I'll go one further and say that Agency mechanics are responsible for helping video games usher in a more radical understanding of art itself by violently decoupling it from its pesky Artists. No small feat. But it's been happening for decades already.
Generally speaking, a heady cocktail of 18th century Romanticism and modern capitalism bears much of the responsibility for our ideas of what passes for Art these days. We have been educated to think of Artists as generators of concrete ideas or a set of aesthetic principles, and we still view art with something like the eyes of a jeweler, trained to find inherent value in concrete objects or ideas -- a sculpture, a painting, a story, a parable, etc. In other words, we think of Art as an artifact with defined boundaries and intentions, something we can hold in our hand or in our head, and which we can investigate, experience, pry into, and cherish.
Taylor Clark's portrait of Jonathan Blow slides neatly from this old Romantic mold. More than once in his essay he yearns for the appearance of more video game auteurs, having found his own favorite brooding beneath Blow's inscrutable brow. He is caught up in a romance of sorts, choked by an old vocabulary that cannot express the entirely new paradigm that games have inspired. A paradigm where the premeditated meanings of a "work of art" are no longer primary or fixed.
What is needed, instead, is a vocabulary for taking about those products of human creative activity that lack permanence, clear boundaries, and even fixed-meanings. Here the thoughts of influential urban planner, Kevin Lynch, author of the seminal The Image of the City (1960), offer some guidance:
"While it may be stable in general outlines for some time, [a city] is ever changing in detail. Only partial control can be exercised over its growth and form. There is no final result, only a continuous succession of phases. No wonder, then, that the art of shaping cities for sensuous enjoyment is an art quite separate from architecture or music or literature. It may learn a great deal from these other arts, but it cannot imitate them."
Here he is arguing for a method for shaping cities into spaces of beautiful form and function. But he just as easily might have been talking about an ongoing game of Chess, Go, World of Warcraft, or The Sims. The general "outlines" of these games are stable, but their internal workings are changeable, iterative, and surprising... a "continuous succession of phases" with no correct outcome (though some games do finish, sadly).
For the past 30 years or more, digital games have opened a similar path. Now a work of art need not be a "thing," but might be an "instance" or an "experience" instead; something located not in a unique space but in a unique time, akin to an art installation, or Andy Warhol's Factory collective, or a performance of a piece of familiar music. For every live cover of Leonard Cohen's "Chelsea Hotel #2," for example, we must contend with two or more complementing instances of authorship: one is Cohen's contribution as a songwriter and lyricist; the other comes from the artists performing it.