This is the third article in The Academics Are Coming series.
"Why contain it? Let it spill over into the schools and churches, let the bodies pile up in the streets. In the end they'll beg us to save them."
Bob Page on the Second Ludology/Narratology War (Deus Ex)
Today, anyone and his granny can make a game and a new breed of street developer has emerged. Some of these new designers see the prevailing game paradigms as too constricting. Why the need to win or lose? What is the point of points?
Tale of Tales' Michaël Samyn views the conventional single-player experience as nothing more than a "test" and, a couple of years ago, he proposed the notgames "design challenge" – something he refuses to call an agenda or a movement. He wanted to encourage developers to put aside goal-directed play and aspire to make art with games.
Despite opposing notions of ludology, Samyn's restatement of the single-player formula as a test is a classic ludological, reductionist argument - tear away the shallow exterior, and you are left with nothing but naked hoops to jump through. And just like ludologists, Samyn is interested in crafting significant, unique work in the medium of games. Take a look at these "opposing viewpoints" on Myst:
Espen Aarseth in 2004: “Most critics agree that the Miller brothers succeeded eminently in making a fascinating visual landscape, a haunting and beautiful gameworld, but to experienced gamers, the gameplay was boring and derivative, with the same linear structure that was introduced by the first Adventure game sixteen years earlier. Nice video graphics, shame about the game.”
Michaël Samyn, the Notgames Fest 2011 keynote: “Why had people not realized that most of us were playing Myst for its world and its stories, and not the arcane puzzles?”
Aarseth and Samyn both make the same point, differing only in emphasis. Aarseth sees failure, but Samyn sees inspiration. Ludology says games are based on mechanics and goals; the notgames perspective calls goals and challenge out as clichés that hobble the greatest of video game art.
Notgames is just one of many facets of the recent "art game" movement. The term "art game" is practically useless as it confers little meaning; it conjures up images of games that have no score or goal, probably devoid of challenge and aspire to make the player feel something. Traditional players snipe that such games are jokes. They are movies with a click to proceed to next scene button.
On Destructoid, Jim Sterling fired out a video that aligned him with the traditionalist camp, also winding up art game enthusiasts with the suggestion that this "genre" was just a modern retelling of the Emperor's New Clothes: you're all pretending to see some grand meaning in these games, even though there's nothing to see.
Art games have succeeded where the academics failed - spreading the ludology/narratology debate contagion into the laps of players. Traditional players worry that art games will dilute what the gaming experience is really about; those who support art games see themselves as fighting against the incumbent status quo that denigrates experimental approaches.
The war has gone mainstream and encouraged players to take sides. Gamers disaffected with cutscene candy and the dumbing down of difficulty bind themselves to a cause that is ludological in all but name. Artists who think developers haven't risen to the real challenge of the medium, who think bullets have taken precedence over metaphor and meaning, have camped out in the ground that once belonged to the narratologists.
Back in 2006, no one took much notice of an interview with BioWare writer Jennifer Hepler where she proposed that, like cutscenes, combat could be skipped. After all there are those, like Hepler herself, who are fascinated with story more than combat and also have trouble finding the time to play through games completely. Perhaps games should start catering to those players instead of flattering the hardcore?
But since then that same hardcore has become alarmed that challenge is on the wane - and mainstream gaming is about easily marketable tough-guys in CGI trailers and QTEs. Will a new X-Com be as brutal as its original? Is Dark Souls the only remaining hope for the hardcore in games? Why is it possible to complete the first mission of Call of Duty: Black Ops without firing a single shot?
And so Hepler's six-year old interview was "unearthed" and attributed to the "decline" of BioWare. The Twitter mobs besieged her account and flooded it with hate tweets including the casual request for her to commit suicide. The first comment on a Kotaku post about this storm reads:
You have to understand: games are about gameplay. Games with stories should be games that tell these stories through, among other things, gameplay. Someone who works in the industry and DOESN'T care about gameplay, and would rather have you skip it, is objectively harmful to the industry, much the same way cancer is objectively harmful to the human body.
We've been here before.
Hepler's interview admission was perceived as a slur on rules at the behest of conversation trees and narrative, arguing some rules were less equal than others. To her critics, this was more than an adjustable “difficulty setting” – it was about stronger narrative bias, about making a movie with a proceed to next scene button. Perhaps it is the industry's own fault: after encouraging the fetishization of in-game achievements, relegating combat to an optional "for the masochists only" status undermines the weight of some of those achievements, such as game completion.
The new discussions aren't about modes of academic analysis, they are about "cutscene vs interaction" and "art games vs story-isn't-agency". They discuss the right and wrong ways to go about making a game.
Raph Koster lobbed his own grenade into the fray at the start of the year, with a piece that framed narrative as player feedback. It was interesting but levelled that feedback was narrative's only purpose. He warned developers that a heavy focus on narrative yields a game with no replay value. By all means make that game, provided you accept that you've made a beautiful interactive movie not a game. Case closed.
I chatted to Doug Wilson of Die Gute Fabrik about this in the public arena of Twitter – the "interactive movie" jibe ringing in my ears – and Koster spotted our discussion. The conversation expanded and Doug threw in Proteus as the anti-ludology nuke, Charles Pratt declared that what we consider as "games" today is a historical aberration and Koster pointed out that "loads of people" have been working on narrative "for years" and rules are hard – which is where our efforts should be devoted. And I said I had to go to bed.
It didn't really go anywhere. It was just two groups coming together for a little Twitter jihad. No one died, no one learnt anything.
I do get childishly gleeful watching you guys tie yourselves in knots with this stuff.
It was probably the most important tweet of the entire discussion.
Back in the 80s there were plenty of programs which weren't titled "art games" but would have acquired that lofty title today, such as Douglas Crockford's Hollywood Medieval. Games were narrowly defined by score and a limited set of genres; beyond that, things just weren't games.
Over the 90s, games became synonymous with the worlds they were built in, authored places with depth and back-story: Another World, System Shock, Wing Commander. At some point, the existence of a world became enough to label something a game, even if only the merest hint of agency was on offer. That's where we are today.
Games as rules. Games as narrative. Games as play. Games as games. It's not about ludology, it's not about narrative and it's certainly not about art. It's about the word "game".
No one is talking the same language any more. What is a game? Do we want to narrowly define what we mean by a "game"? If we do that, do we need to kick The Cat and the Coup, Proteus, The Path and Dear Esther off Steam because they don't meet something like the ISO Videogame Standard? Good luck getting the toothpaste back into that particular tube.
Stretching theories to cover the entire universe of games leads to extreme statements that don't seem to have value. Koster, for example, makes the point that all games are essentially turn-based, which is technically true in an algorithmic sense, but is that actually helpful from a design perspective? [see Raph's comment below] Jack Post (2009) tries to rigorously define the narrative of Tetris to "bridge the narratology-ludology divide" but does anyone care? Narratology is not going to create the next great puzzle game.
Michael Brough, developer of Vertex Dispenser and Glitch Tank as well as other games, suggested that we should deal with the definition of game that has the most relevance at the time it is needed. Michael Abbott has also weighed in on this subject, opposing the narrowing of definitions, arguing that the real action takes place on the margins.
Narrow definitions of games are perfectly valid within little contextual spaces. Ludology can have its rules-based framework. Narratology is free to pursue games through narrative. Art games can co-exist with the FPS, the RTS and the platformer. They don't have to compete. Why can't we have different theories for different situations, each one handling their own definition of game?
Every voice and viewpoint is valuable. What's so maddening are the destructive attempts to own the word game. Mathematics blossomed into a thousand different branches, so has games and so should the theory. Some will care about narrative. Some will care about rules. Some will care about player experience. Some will care about monetization. And some will try to change the world.
There's enough space for everyone.
9. pretentious old men
"A bunch of pretentious old men playing at running the world. But the world left them behind long ago. We are the future."
Bob Page on games studies academics (Deus Ex)
Mitu Khandaker, studying for a PhD in games studies at the University of Portsmouth, had a moment.
No postgrad wants to feel like their research is pointless - and Khandaker worried about the general relevance of games studies. Was anyone paying attention? Were games being created with theories and results from game studies in mind? She wrote up her concerns for an article in Kill Screen. The opening quote in the launch video for this series was taken from her article.
The academic debate over whether ludology or narratology is the natural setting for games analysis is pretty much over and the answer was both and neither. But while academics were scribbling out papers, game developers were creating, forwarding the medium by example. Opinions come out like knives during casual discussions of ludology and narratology yet the academic papers - containing hundreds of fiercely argued exchanges on the topic - stay on the shelf collecting dust.
This was Haggett's point. A bunch of us were being grumpy on Twitter but a philosophical argument isn't going to stop developers making stuff nor players buying stuff.
As for Khandaker, she found an answer to her moment of career crisis.
Academics could make games. They could demonstrate and test theory with their own examples. They could create experimental games to chart territory that developers with commercial considerations would fear to tread. Game studies academics could spread the word through the medium itself.
Thus begins The Academics Are Coming - a series of interviews with academics who make games.
notes in the margin
- Thanks to Mitu Khandaker for reciting the Kill Screen quote for the video.
- I am aware that the Hepler debacle is also wound up with a hatred of gay storylines.
- Perhaps too academic, but bullet points are good! Michael Mateas lecture PDF on Interactive Narrative. (I'd also argue there are plenty of "intertextual" game examples.)
- Henry Jenkins on Game Design as Narrative Architecture tries to chart a level-headed course between ludology and narratology.
- A modern offshoot of the ludology crusade: the belief that single-player games are an evolutionary dead-end that will soon perish now that we are all connected. The connection here is board games. Ludology stated games were built from rules and to forget that was to forget how to make games. In a similar way, the church of multiplayer states that games were always about other people and to forget that is to forget how to make games. I'm also looking nervously at Quintin Smith.
- Tadhg Kelly has his own take on rules vs narrative (warning, this one is for the designer-philosophers and not that accessible to the casual reader). He comes out against those who say "every game has a narrative". Kelly also insists Dear Esther is not a game.
- Jim Sterling's views on art games have progressed. Originally he said all art games are shit. Now he says art games are just cloning the few successes. I'm searching for the middle point where apparently he must have said an art game was good. Help welcome. Go see his updated go at art games.
- Ian Bogost's keynote for DiGRA 2009 "Videogames are a mess" has a lot to say about the history of the question: Is a game a system of rules, or is a game a kind of narrative?
- The MDA Framework developed in 2004 is pretty interesting. It didn't fit into A Theoretical War but I did consult it. It was devised by Marc LeBlanc of the original Thief team.
- I found the following video fascinating to watch as the show hosts gradually lose their cool. The best bits of this video are much later, once the discussion is in full swing. Have a look around 52 minutes in, for example.