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Opinion: Looking For Meaning In Games

Opinion: Looking For Meaning In Games Exclusive

November 26, 2009 | By Chris Remo

November 26, 2009 | By Chris Remo
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[Do games lend themselves to a unique kind of meaning? Is greater meaning in games an intent problem or a design problem? Can shows like Mad Men provide an answer? Gamasutra's Chris Remo examines the issues.]

While it's tough to ever assign a running theme to an entire conference, I did feel that there was a bit of an undercurrent running though a number of the Montreal International Game Summit talks I covered, about the need to reconsider the expressive or creative possibilities of games.

Where Are We Now?

If you're reading this, you probably love games. I certainly do, but I've been thinking about what makes games important to me, versus what makes books or music or film important to me. Over the years, I have become interested in the formal and design aspects of games more than of those other forms, probably partially because my career path has resulted in me spend so much time thinking about that.

It's also undeniably rare and exciting to be here to witness the evolution of a creative form so early in its existence. The theory and creation side of games is going through much more discovery and evolution than the theory of those other forms, which is much better established and understood.

But there are still some parts of my life that games don't address very well. They do the "fun" thing well, and they frequently give me a lot to think about, but they rarely speak to me the same way a wonderful novel, film, or album does. I don't as frequently feel that I've genuinely realized something about myself or my world in the same way I do when I read Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose, watch Mad Men, or listen to The Who's Quadrophenia.

That doesn't mean I don't get creatively energized when playing games. That happens all the time, and it's great. I love it. But, at least for me, that excitement is more often related to the exploration of game design and the video game medium than it is related to broader human revelation.

It's obviously easy for me to say things like this; it doesn't take much to throw stones. Whenever I want to write anything on this topic, I have to simply accept the fact that, as a commentator, I'm speaking from a limited perspective, and one with no real risk. But if nothing else, it's the perspective of someone who has played a whole lot of games.

It is also true that I chose examples of other works that were created much later in their forms' history than would even be possible with games now. This is hard to avoid, although at least in the case of a medium like film that exists entirely in our relatively modern era, it is easy enough to find enormously significant earlier works.

Different Forms Of Meaning

Most of us, myself included, probably believe games are capable of similar insight and resonance. I think games have the possibility of speaking to us as people, not just as gamers, in the same way a film by Scorsese or Bergman or Welles or Kurosawa or the Coen brothers can speak to us as people, not just as film buffs; or The Beatles or Beethoven or Charles Mingus or the Flaming Lips or John Adams speak to us as people, not just as analysts of music theory; or Vonnegut or Nabokov or Shakespeare or Orwell or Hammett speak to us as people, not just as appreciators of literary prowess.

That's a lot of highbrow namechecking, but it's worth remembering that the work of all those creators (with the possible exception of composer John Adams) have been enjoyed by many millions of people.

Some may claim games are already there. I wouldn't necessarily disagree. For me, there have already been a few amazing games that speak to me beyond triggering my "fun" receptors or engaging my interest in design. And obviously there's no objective measure of this; I would never presume to decide which games have achieved this or haven't achieved it for anyone who isn't me.

As Chris Hecker suggested, nevertheless, that crucial consideration of the "why" of game development -- along with related questions like "What are you trying to say to people?" or "What influenced this?" or "Are you trying to say anything at all?" -- seems to be less important in this medium than it is elsewhere. That's understandable, since "fun" can be pursued for its own benefit, and to great and impressive effect. We've got that covered by this point, though, and there's bandwidth for more.

Randy Smith's discussion of whether it would be possible to make a "not fun" game is also probably less important than the question of whether we can make games which don't explicitly put "fun" at the top of their list of paramount goals. (I imagine that, outside of the context of his directed thought-experiment, he would agree.) It seems as though, through iterative design and decades of progress, we have -- at least to a reasonable extent -- figured out how to iterate until we've found some fun.

Directors like Scorsese or writers like Vonnegut are no doubt plenty concerned that their works turn out "fun" (or whatever equivalent synonym you want to apply to their forms), but they have never focused so single-mindedly on that goal that they strip away any elements that aren't All Fun, All The Time. They have other goals they are trying to achieve with their work that serve some higher purpose, and their skill and experience as craftsmen allows them to keep "fun" (or whatever) as one consideration, rather than as the one consideration.

Just today, I read an interesting and honest postmortem of the Flash game Time Fcuk, which designer Edmund McMillen kicked off by discussing the motivations and inspirations behind the game. I was pleased to read it, having already enjoyed the game; demonstration of broader intent is always welcome. It's hard to get past the fact, though, that at least for me, Time Fcuk itself was more successful at conveying an impactful and unified tone than it was actually getting across to me what McMillen intended. That's still great, and even when it doesn't 100 percent work, I find it a great alternative to a completely abstracted puzzle experience. McMillen certainly isn't the only one doing things along these lines, and the current indie scene is extraordinarily exciting.

Still, indie games like these often -- be it intentionally, unintentionally, or as a byproduct of practical usability concerns -- obscure their message so much that only the tone can get through. They remind me of David Lynch's denser work like Mulholland Drive or Inland Empire: you can tell something is going on, and while you're experiencing it, the pure sensory experience may be enough to fully absorb you. But the amount of mental effort required to decode their signals might represent too unbalanced an input:output ratio for them to be fully accessible on a day-to-day basis.

Bridging The Gap

Surely there's a bridge that can exist between that kind of personal intent and the world of larger-scale game development, with its ability to represent (relatively) convincing human beings engaging in different kinds of human interaction.

Too often we may get sidetracked by the notion of "story." Stories are important, but they can be a means to an end, not necessarily the end itself. Right now I'm playing BioWare's Dragon Age: Origins, and I've found there to be a surprising volume of genuinely believable dialogue and characterization, which is all the more impressive given the number of different conversational routes I can choose as a player (and the number of different writers I imagine contributed to the game). Depending on the race chosen by the player, there's even some contextual consideration of caste and gender roles, as well as the nature and place of religion.

Admittedly having not yet completed the game, however, I find myself wonder if it's going anywhere. Will all this exploration and conversation leave me with anything more than some scattered, if relatable, incidents, and victory over an ancient evil (or delayed victory, as implied by the Origins subtitle)? Is the interactive nature of games like these at odds with the notion of presenting a broader central observation, consideration, or point? Is it a design problem, or is it a lack of intent? It's probably both, but I don't have the perspective and experience to make a hard claim.

For the record, the other game I'm playing is Runic's Torchlight, a hugely enjoyable and unapologetically mindless dungeon romp. There's room for all kinds. The difference is that Dragon Age and other games of its ilk take so much effort to create investment in their world and characters that I frequently find myself wishing they'd do more with that foundation.

The Television Model

Perhaps there's an analogue here to television. I mentioned the AMC series Mad Men earlier. Like most television shows, and most games, its creation is collaborative: each teleplay is led by a different writer or pair of writers, who are supported by a whole team of writers (in the oft-referenced "writer's room"), and each episode has a different director. There has to be some kind of instructive parallel to the structure of creative director, lead designer, and game/level designers here.

Like narrative games, the overall experience takes place over many hours and encompasses many events that are able to stand on their own. And yet, there is a strong overriding arc; while the show is enjoyable on the strength of its acting, directing, photography, and drama, it also has something to say.

Irrational's BioShock is often cited in discussions of this topic, and for good reason. That game made a conscious attempt to broach larger themes of self-determination and some arguably inevitable aspects of human nature. Were those themes successfully integrated well enough with the game's actual mechanics? That's a question Hecker recommended developers ask themselves. I'd still be happy with more developers trying to tackle higher intent any way they can.

Particularly right now, as the industry becomes even more risk-averse than ever in a period of declining revenues, maybe this isn't on everyone's mind. But I think game developers who actively have something to say and want to express it through games don't necessarily need to engage in particularly risky or experimental design to work towards this goal. Intent seems like a great first step.


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