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Fun is Boring


July 5, 2012 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 3
 

The problem with our present set of hieroglyphs, the rubber-stamp game concepts out there, it's getting common to have the same conversation with players over and over. And where novelty -- especially if you buy into this idea that it's creating a practical, mishmash language -- meets a game that actually gets finished, that expands the possible. Enriches our ability to converse. For now, big houses can get away with the PR-approved novelty that comes from bedazzled graphics and polished, epic soundtracks. But for people who love the medium, it's no surprise the trend would raise alarms.

Historically, it doesn't always work out.

During the 18th Dynasty of Egypt (roughly 1550-1300 BC) -- known for such Pharaohs as Tutankhamen and Hatsheput -- scribes reproduced papyrus scrolls of a text ingrained into ancient Egyptian daily life: The Book of the Dead -- a version known as the Theban Recension, a collection of hieroglyph spells meant to guide a person past the trials of the afterlife.

Originally, starting from the left-hand side of the scroll and working to the right, scribes inked both the spells, and small vignettes. They used black pigments, mostly, to outline small illustrations.

Approaching the end of the 18th Dynasty, up to the 21st (around 950 BC), papyri copies of the Theban Recension are painted in reds, greens, yellows, and white, with all the text wrapped in red and yellow borders. They're beautiful; see for yourself with a quick Google. They're the work of master artists, contracted to make larger, grander vignettes, leaving less and less room for the spells.

Even with plenty of space, whole sections of "the magic" start to get left out. Sir Wallace Budge of the British Museum wrote that one 21st Dynasty scribe, "knew or cared so little about the text which he was copying that he transcribed the LXXVIIth Chapter from the wrong end, and apparently never discovered his error, although he concluded the Chapter with its title."

The Book of the Dead was old even in the First Dynasty of Egypt, with kings and peasants giving its hymns and prayers real belief. They trusted in its ability to lead them to the light of Osiris, that the scribes and priests were sincere. But the scribes couldn't keep up with the market. Copies of the Theban Recension were eventually mass produced with spelling errors, omitted words, and fill-in-the-blank spaces for the purchaser's name.

Our present language of fun isn't just incomplete, it's degrading into a cacophony of social gaming ripoffs and first-person déjà vu. Not just the same games, with more polygons. Or, well, sometimes that's exactly what they are. It's hard enough to speak in an incomplete language, but without pressure to experiment or innovate, "fun" is getting derivative. Fun is getting less fun.

Like the Egyptians, developers seem to have forgotten that fun's the icing, not the cake. Nothing wrong with icing. Some of what raised up great works of the last three millennia was decorative -- the arresting styles of Bram Stoker or Van Gogh; historic shifts in skill and execution brought out by Jimi Hendrix or Imhotep. It makes a difference, in the final product, but it's a mistake to confuse it with substance. In every creator just named (and, sure, it's my subjective opinion) style and substance came together.

In her well-known GDC talk on Train, Brenda Brathwaite describes hearing Mary Flanagan, another designer, refer a game as "my work". That the subtle change of language brought on a weird transformative moment, helping to further shift how she thought about the medium. Not long after, at Ian Bogost's tenure party, she's having the standard games industry conversation, "So what are ya workin' on?" "Can't say." "Yeah, me neither." But, this time, Brenda was working on some board games because she wanted to, because she could. Trying to use games to capture the difficult emotions open to other mediums. Trying to see if that's possible.

"So, what are your games about?"

She'd made one about the Middle Passage, called The New World. One about the Cromwellian Invasion of Ireland. And just then she was working on one called Train, about The Holocaust.

"But, Brenda," says this industry person, "That's not fun."

Was Schindler's List fun? Is fun what makes blues music compelling? Brenda started to question whether fun had anything to do with meaning. That of works most likely to move us, and stay with us, some (if not most) deal with human pain. With suffering. And that under the worst atrocities in humankind, Brathwaite says we can always find a system. And with a system, designers can make a game. If we care to treat games as emotionally complex experiences, as mediums for big, moving ideas, that we need to look past the fixation with pleasantries. With just a game's ability to entertain.

It'd be a mistake to see fun and meaning as mutually exclusive. Style can help great ideas stand out. Yet, up till now the stylistic ordinance of games originated at the simple delight of them. Gamers frolicked in dreams, in ways not possible a generation ago. Of course these worlds would catch the eye. When The Great Train Robbery's highwayman pointed his revolver at the audience and fired, at the turn of the 20th century, some members of the audience literally ducked. We don't do that anymore. Novelty eats itself.

Moving from hieroglyphs to a specific alphabet should give some fresh light to fun, maybe even directions beyond it. Empowering meaning, while translating powerful aspects of the human experience into games. A refined language might provide new ways to discuss life, in the ways only games can show it. A refined language will also take context, listening skills, and time.

For now, illumination comes from action. From finishing a novel project well. With so much of concepting communicated in the language of completed games, maybe it's okay to want fewer soapboxes and more playable experience. Fun is boring when it's nested in semantics. But a thousand tangible, playable visions mixing fun and meaning? A whole night's sky, lit by a hundred constellations of play?

Speak to me, you theorists, in the sexy language of games.


Article Start Previous Page 3 of 3

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