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Persuasive Games: From Aberrance to Aesthetics
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Persuasive Games: From Aberrance to Aesthetics

August 2, 2011 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 3

As it happens, Jason Rohrer's game Sleep is Death adopts precisely this objection as its primary design value. In creating that work, Rohrer rejected "clockwork" approaches to simulated characters and dramatic arcs, those common in games like Heavy Rain, Mateas and Stern's interactive drama Façade, or Chris Crawford's interactive storytelling system Storytron. In their place, Rohrer built an improvisational platform for fast-paced two-player story-­performances -- more kids with a ball than authored AI agents.

But such arguments overlook the unique narrative aesthetic in these games. Heavy Rain has its own characteristic way of making a story playable -- through interactive vignettes that telegraph the sensation of particular emotions within a relatively static story structure. Façade has its own aesthetic, that of the AI agents and narrative intelligence systems that give Cook and Rohrer pause. And for that matter, Rorhrer's own response to games like these reveals its own aesthetic character, drawing from improvisational theater and the role playing dungeon master.

Who is right about the role of players and of narrative in games? Raph Koster? Dan Cook? Michael Mateas? David Cage? Jason Rohrer? Someone else? It's not a very interesting question, even if we could answer it definitively.

Instead, each of these creators offers his own particular take on these and other challenges in game design and engineering. Their individual works are appealing not because they show us the one way forward, nor because they lead us out of the sins of historical aberrance, nor because they show that a method generally considered anomalous is poised to become emancipatory.

Instead, they are appealing because they offer unique, singular, and definitive takes on what it means to conceive of a video game and to execute on that conception in concrete form. And each such conception has its own charms and blemishes. Heavy Rain is both lovely and terrible, and Sleep is Death is too.

Like arguments from technological progress, arguments from historical aberrance attempt to maintain the sanctity of games. But just as an obsession with technology can blind us to the weird pleasures of the devices and methods we have cast aside as obsolete, so an obsession with traditionalism can blind us to the strange beauty of the new methods we have collectively discovered.

Sleep is Death

Video games aren't science. They are not a mystery of the universe that can be explained away via testable predictions and experimentation. We need to stop looking for answers, whether those answers would come from a technical innovation whose arrival only renews obsession with the next breakthrough, or from the final exploitation of the true nature of our medium by means of a historical discovery so obvious that it will become indisputable. The answers lie not in the past or the future, but in the present, which is all we will ever get in any case.

Not all design principles are aesthetic ones, and some styles of games warrant lamentation. And a designer can certainly argue for or against a particular style. But when one finds a game that does manage to deliver a detectable aesthetic -- a set of creative principles and effects that make it the sort of game it is -- that alone is a triumph.

To object to such a work on the grounds that it is not another kind of game, or because it wasn't designed in a different way -- these are judgments of taste rather than value. And as the aphorism goes, there's no accounting for taste. But to mistake a work or a creator with a unique aesthetic for an anomaly, a perversion that can be excised from history as aberrant -- that's as boring a response as it is blinkered.

Enough pronouncements and posturings about game design as problem-solving, of finding the most effective solution, or the most powerful trump card, and wielding it in the air like an autistic Achilles. Let's make games. Let's make good ones. Let's try to figure out what that means for each of us. Let's help our colleagues and our players and our critics understand it.

As the early twentieth century art critic Clive Bell put it, to those who have and hold a sense of the significance of form, what does it matter whether the forms that move them were created in Paris the day before yesterday or in Babylon fifty centuries ago? The forms of art are inexhaustible.

Article Start Previous Page 3 of 3

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