The idea of instanced art is not something consumers of mainstream entertainment are too cozy with, but examples abound in the past decades. Yoko Ono's "Cut Piece" and Marina Abramovic's "The Artist is Present" are examples of performance art pieces that required unscripted audience participation to achieve fleeting, unrepeatable moments of enlightenment. And for fans of Brian Eno's ambient music of the '70s and '80s, instanced art is also familiar territory. Specifically, his experiments with what is now commonly called Generative Music have strong parallels with pure games and simulated systems.
Beginning in the mid-'70s, Eno began fiddling with tape loops and synthesizer sequencers in order to build musical systems that, when activated, generated unique musical performances each and every time. Many of his groundbreaking ambient albums from this period were composed solely through the use of generative systems of his own making.
Unfortunately, due to the limitations of the vinyl delivery format, the album Eno was obliged to sell at the conclusion of his various experiments contained only a single instance of music created by a system capable of generating an infinite number of variations.
In a few interviews from that period he laments the fact that he cannot sell the system itself directly to his listeners. But it simply wasn't feasible to package, market, and sell eight interconnected reel-to-reel tape machines as a final product.
It wasn't until the mid-'90s when home computers offered high-quality audio reproduction at reasonable cost that Brian Eno got optimistic. The result of this period of hope and creativity was the 1996 floppy disc release of "Generative 1" -- the first truly generative, digital music experience I had ever heard of.
And what a treat to my young ears! Generative 1 was bizarre, captivating, intellectually liberating, and -- so far as I can tell -- a total flop. The audience just wasn't there, and generative music never caught on the way Eno hoped it would. And yet his ideas had been revolutionary from the start:
"Imagine music as writing a series of little seeds, you know. I'm writing some genetic instructions, basically. Here's the genetic instruction for a piece of music, the DNA for a piece of music, and I put it in the computer and I watch it grow. Now, I watch it grow and I think, 'Right, that sounds a little too sweet'. Okay, so I go back to, for instance, the harmony rule, and I say 'Okay, let's reduce the number of major third harmonies, or have no major third harmonies and have more minor third harmonies', for instance. ... It's an amazing way of composing, it really is. I think it will completely change not only the way people listen to music, because the result never repeats exactly, but also the way people can make music."
A decade later, Eno's wonderful but little-known visual-musical experiment, "77 Million Paintings" fared somewhat better. But it wasn't until Eno partnered with Spore creator Will Wright that the obvious parallels between his work and video games found a broad audience. By this point, the connections were clear. Eno and Wright were exploring overlapping territory, a place where Agency mechanics and processes allowed maximal creative output. "[I] make seeds, rather than forests," Eno once said of his role as an artist.
When I first read these interviews in college, what struck me first was Eno's enthusiastic desire to sabotage some of his own role the process of music-making and forge a new ratio that gave equal control to the system itself. This was an idea that seemed deliciously blasphemous at the time. Fast-forward a few decades, however, and he is describing the main function of Agency mechanics in any video game: well-designed systems that allow for a vast number of emergent surprises.
Just as the numerous creators of Chess could not guess the millions of amazing contests that would eventually emerge from their humbly bundled set of rules, the lone designers of the ruthlessly popular DayZ mod for Arma 2 could not have imagined the vast majority of incredible and harrowing displays of human interaction made possible by their diligent work. The same is true of sandboxes of Far Cry 2 and 3, Just Cause, and of course, Minecraft -- the ultimate generator of instanced experiences. Anything and everything seems possible in Notch's cubicle world, including building a functioning computer.
This line of thinking flips the "art question" on its head. Games built on Agency mechanics no longer need to answer the question "are games art?" but rather "are gamers artists?" And the answer is a qualified yes. I don't mean to imply that any old gamer playing an impressive speed-run of Super Mario Bros. is on par with Leonardo Da Vinci. But it is critical to acknowledge that through the clever application of Agency mechanics, countless video games allow players a great deal of personal expression and skilled experimentation. And in the right context, or with the right narrative layer, these expressions and experimentations can lead to something emotionally or intellectually profound.
In multiplayer games like Journey or DayZ, cleverly implemented Agency mechanics can bring two real human beings together in emotionally stimulating or draining ways that would not otherwise be possible. A brief but empathetic gesture from a stranger in one of these worlds can have more emotional resonance than any single line of planned narrative or written dialogue. Such interactions are almost inevitable when the available set of Agency mechanics is expressive enough to allow true creativity to flourish -- to allow players to develop a "style" -- but constrained enough to keep the game's meaning coherent for all players.
This does not apply solely to multiplayer games, of course. Even when other humans are not around to add a dash of intrigue, cleverly designed game systems can still generate surprising and touching results for solo gamers. Titles like The Sims and Minecraft have given players the tools to play and experiment with broad systems containing just enough narrative context to allow them to experience strange new modes of narrative building.
The now static blog "Alice and Kev" gives us one such peek into just how disorienting and delightful these generative experiences can be, and how unalike traditional art forms they really are. Such experiences offer us a profoundly different view of art than we are typically used to. Not static pieces of meaning and intention bequeathed to us by god-like auteurs, but frameworks designed to generate new and fresh experiences for anyone willing to interact and play with them.
It is important to stress here that I am not making the case for Agency mechanics being more vital than Destiny mechanics. Far from it. I only suggesting that we -- as developers and critics and players -- come to a clearer understanding of what sort of games we are playing and making, and why.
Teaching ourselves how to understand and evaluate the disparate experiences offered by Agency and Destiny mechanics, in their infinite combinations, will help us push through the often befuddling conversations about our humble craft. And even as we scan the horizon for our favorite new game auteurs and their singular visions, we must also be on the lookout for designers working diligently in the dark to allow players new and unique forms of play and expression. Fresh experiences from the seeds of possibility.
I am thankful we live in an age where this has been happening for quite some time.
Context and Narrative
Let's return -- now primed and eager -- to Journey and have one last look at its rich combination of Agency and Destiny mechanics. What captivates me most about its peculiar multiplayer feature is that it combines the mechanical freedom of an Agency mechanic with the clear narrative overtones of a Destiny mechanic. To put it another way, Journey's designers have given this mechanic an immediate and static contextual meaning -- "Other shroud-people will make you warm (powering up your jump scarf)" -- whose ultimate narrative function is left unresolved until the point at which two players use it (or don't). A rare feat of ingenuity that, in my case, left me feeling shunned by a fellow player.
Contextual meaning versus narrative meaning; this is ultimately where the tension between Agency and Destiny generates heat. Almost all Agency mechanics have a contextual meaning these days: we find ourselves shooting, stabbing, jumping, swimming, singing, dancing, and so forth. But given the right framework, these contextual actions can possess additional narrative meanings too, depending on how the player uses them.
In Journey's case, the body-warming mechanic has an immediate and beautiful contextual meaning: camaraderie is beneficial to both parties. This is made explicit by the mechanic's immediate function. But the game's quiet triumph is that it gives players the Agency to use or avoid this mechanic as and when they see fit... thus giving rise to my curious disappointment when my first companion actively avoided contact with me. It was powerful, poignant, and totally unscripted. For me the marriage of contextual meaning and narrative meaning had never more powerful.
Had Journey's designers decided to force players to use this warming mechanic at any point during the game -- to pass a blocked path for instance -- its meaning would have instantly become fixed. It would have reduced the mechanic to a single message: co-operation is required to succeed in this game. But by avoiding a concrete authorial stance, the designers of Journey have put their faith in the hands of their players. They are just as curious to see what happens as we are. And in my view, it is this curiosity -- about ourselves and others -- that deserves our fullest attention.
Special Thanks to Brie Code, Rafael Morado, and Christopher Robert Weiler for their contributions and valuable insights.