Adam Saltsman, creator of games such as Canabalt and Gravity Hook HD, began his Sunday morning keynote at Melbourne's Freeplay independent game festival by asking of himself a simple but significant question: "Why do I make games?"
"Scott McCloud says this matters a lot," said Saltsman, alluding to the comics theorist. "I like Scott McCloud a lot, and I am going talk a little bit more about him as I go," Saltsman warned.
As Saltsman's keynote topic branched across the broad scope of "play and games and video games and us", McCloud's theories from Understanding Comics would be just one of the many sources Saltsman reflected on. Johan Huizinga's seminal 1938 study of play, Homo Ludens, and Roger Caillois's 1961 Man, Play, and Games also featured prominently yet abridged as Saltsman explored the answer to his own question.
"If we are going to talk about video games, we have to talk about games first," explained Saltsman. "And if we are going to talk about games, then we have to talk about play first."
Referring to Huizinga's work (and stressing the brevity with which he was appropriating it), Saltsman outlined a "broad but not too broad" definition of play. Not games, he stressed, but play.
Most crucially, "Play is beyond the human sphere," explained Saltsman. "This means animals play, and they play for the same reasons we do... This means play was around before us. First there was play and then there were humans."
However, while play may exist separate from humans, Saltsman argued, it is not disconnected from the real world, but linked to the very foundations of culture and civilization. "Play is not a techniques or an art form. It is a fundamental part of who we are as mammals," he said.
For Saltsman, games are just one of many things that can be played. "The thing I like about games as an isolated concept is that games are only about play." Callois's Man, Play, and Games defines four inclusive forms of game, competition, chance, simulation, and vertigo, that exist on a sliding scale of fun from 'joy' to 'challenge. Or, in Saltsman's terms "from spin-until-you-puke fun to solving-a-Rubik's-cube fun".
However, for Saltsman, the crucial thing games add to play is uncertainty. "If the outcome is predetermined, then it is just play and not a game." Uncertainty requires the player to improvise and to take initiative, said Saltsman.
"Okay, now let's talk about actual video games," he continued. While video games can be situated within this history of games and pre-history of play, they also have "an entirely different bloodline" in their relationship with other modern mediums.
"Lots of video game creators are focused on imitating books and movies. This is a good idea and a bad idea," warned Saltsman. His concern, drawn from McCloud's Understanding Comics ("Which is the most inspiring thing you will ever read about video games, obviously") is that "it is too easy for new creators to just copy surface design of other artists and art forms instead of exploring the unique abilities of the medium."
Saltsman emphasized again that video games could draw a lot of inspiration from comic books. "Over thousands of years, comics have used every conceivable style of presentation to tell every conceivable kind of story." Similarly, claimed Saltsman, "Games can tell a lot of different stories and we can tell them in a lot of different styles and they can be about a lot of different things."
"But too often we are only telling this kind of story," he said, showing a slide of Modern Warfare 2. "Or this kind of story," he added as the screenshot shifted seamlessly and indistinguishably into one of Killzone 2. "These are two different games, people!"
While acknowledging that, just as for movies, communicating with the audience visually is a significant aspect of video games, Saltsman is concerned that we still use 'cinematic' as a term to praise games. "We are praising games' movie-like qualities, but these are just surface qualities... We are simply scraping off the top level of cinema."
Saltsman's point is that while games and films share a lot of common ground both on and beneath the surface, video games must look beyond film in order to find their own language for the experiences they are truly capable of."For me, the video game medium is this incredible awe-inspiring thing," he said. "It is the pre-human force of play combined with the entire history of art in all its myriad forms."
Bringing his bibliography together, Saltsman summed up, "Video games combine play and tension with art to create a whole new medium… the first pure marriage of game and art."
"We can create original works of art that demand audience participation in ways that have only been imagined by our most gifted futurists. Art that can be rendered in any imaginable style, about any imaginable subject, art that begets more art through mere consumption, art that demands both players and an audience, and art that needs to be filled with mystery and explored not just by the creator but by the player."
So why does Adam Saltsman make games?
"That's kind of the long answer. The short answer is: 'I need to play'."