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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 4 of 4
 

And would it, at the end of the day, be fun? Well, of course it would! The question is, fun for whom? Not for people who enjoy frenzied activity, certainly; more for people who enjoy mysteries, puzzles, and the complex interactions of human beings. It would be fun, or rather, entertainment of a different sort.

A Merchant Ivory video game would give the sense of deep satisfaction we feel when we reach the end of a great play or movie or novel, a long-lasting pleasure that the mere memory of the experience evokes years later.

Who would build a highbrow video game? Like Merchant Ivory itself, probably a small studio that knows its audience extremely well and is content with moderate rather than massive success. To people who create such works, the most important measure of achievement is not the number of dollars earned but the praise of those whom they respect. The dollars are a means to an end, but not an end in themselves.

Some folks will probably accuse me of snobbery for suggesting that we need highbrow video games, but I won’t cop to it. Snobbery is deliberately exclusive; the snob seeks to distance himself from ordinary people. High culture is available to anyone who wants it (though it can be expensive). The difference between high culture and popular culture is that high culture refuses to compromise its standards for the sake of a larger audience. That’s a risky tactic, and many producers of high culture—artists, classical musicians, small movie studios, and public television—have to struggle continuously just to stay afloat. But that should be a familiar feeling to a game studio…

So who’s the Merchant Ivory of the video game industry? I mentioned Sid Meier and Will Wright, because some of their games are on interesting and unusual themes. Whoever thought that city planning could be fun? Or knowing the progression of social, technological and political developments that lead to different forms of civilization? Yet all over the world, people are telling each other, “Dude—you can’t have industrialism until you get the assembly line, that’s totally obvious. You are such a n00b.” That may not sound like high culture as we’re used to thinking of it, but an idea is an idea, and Civilization IV is a long, long way from Mario or Black.


Civilization IV - a long, long way from Mario or Black.

We need more games like that to help us win the culture wars and to serve a market that we currently ignore for the most part: people who read the Beat poets, people who enjoy comparing different productions of Das Rheingold, people who would rather visit an art museum than attend a Kylie Minogue concert. And people who watch Merchant Ivory films. If you know of anyone who you think is developing a highbrow game, I’d like to hear about them.

Maybe I’ll design one myself, just for the fun of it.


Article Start Previous Page 4 of 4

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