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The Designer's Notebook: Where's Our Merchant Ivory?
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The Designer's Notebook: Where's Our Merchant Ivory?

August 7, 2006 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 4 Next

Elite forms of media discourage censorship and encourage respect, not only for the works themselves but for their creators. In this regard we might be a little ahead of comics already.

At a guess, I’d say that more Americans know who Sid Meier and Will Wright are (who make the games closest to being highbrow of any designers I can name) than who Alan Moore and Art Spiegelman are. But far more still will have at least heard the names of Mozart and Verdi, Rossini and Wagner, the best-known composers of opera.

What would a Merchant Ivory video game look like? To begin with, its execution would be flawless. Its music would be great music. Its acting would be world-class acting. Its animation would rank with the best of Disney or Miyazaki. Its user interface would be impeccably smooth but never in your face—like the ride of a Rolls-Royce.

A Merchant Ivory video game would be visually opulent, without being about explosions or “bullet time.” Its polygons would be spent on small details rather than large effects. As with a masterwork of painting, you could take a magnifying glass to each frame and see artistry even in the corners and shadows. It would reward close attention and playing more than once.

Alan Moore's Watchmen

In common with literature or poetry, a highbrow video game would include connections to the wider world; it would tell us something about our society and ourselves. Not the cutesy winking references of postmodernism, but real cultural roots. Like many of the Merchant Ivory films, a Merchant Ivory game might offer us a glimpse of another time and another way of life; but, being interactive, it would allow us to enter and act in that world, not merely observe it. And it would leave us wanting to know more.

So what would it be about? The same things that highbrow books and movies and other entertainment forms are about: history, science, technology, politics, music, art, religion, diplomacy, family, manners, love, death, duty, sorrow, revenge, depression, and joy. For starters, anyway. Oh, yes, and probably sex, too, but sex handled with grace and sensitivity.

Above all, a Merchant Ivory video game would be about people and ideas. It would appeal to thinkers and creators, which is why the works of Meier and Wright spring to mind as potential examples. It would challenge the player to understand and appreciate new things rather than to jump on platforms or to shoot aliens. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with jumping on platforms and shooting aliens, but they belong to a different class of products that entertain in a different way.

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