This is the fifth article in the series The Academics Are Coming.
Dr. Clara Fernández-Vara is a researcher for the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab and much of her research is focused on the integration of story and gameplay. She has been involved in the development of several games through her studies.
She's written an interactive fiction, Ariel, based on Shakespeare's The Tempest, but the bulk of her work concerns point-and-click adventuring. Rosemary (2009) adopted the "remembered past" as a mechanic (previously featured on Rock Paper Shotgun). Symon (2010) explored procedural generation in the adventure space using dream logic to sweep any narrative problems under the carpet (flagged on RPS just yesterday). The follow-up to Symon was Stranded in Singapore (2011) which aimed to standardize the procedurally-generated approach.
Fernández-Vara talked to Electron Dance about her work, what she loves about developing academic games and how research should not be constrained by the concerns of industry.
HM: Clara, there is still much scepticism regarding the value of academic research so... why become a game studies academic?
I was already on the academic track; I started my PhD in English and American literature in Spain to study Shakespeare on film. At first it was a secondary interest, tracing the similarities between traditional fairytales and videogames, particularly arcade games. Literature gave me the excuse to rediscover games, because literary theory helped me understand them in a new way.
Then I came to the US to study media studies at MIT, where I was surrounded by people studying comics, Bollywood movies, radio production; games were one more topic in the mix. I also started to hang out with people like Jesper Juul and my colleagues at the Education Arcade, who were games researchers and developers. Talking to them, I realized that there was so much to learn, that game studies was a vast field, mainly unexplored. My background in literature, and mostly on studying texts in performance, had provided me with good tools to gain important insights. I felt like I could make a contribution, which is essential to be a scholar. Making games was also very attractive--if I was part of theatre productions as a theatre scholar, it seemed natural to participate in production to understand my field of study better.
I’ve realized I just changed the subject of study, from theatre and film to games, and brought all my methods along. I focus on story-driven games because of my literary background, and work on adventure games because it is one of my favourite genres, and I know how to design and program them best. So basically I wanted to stay in academia, having a subject of study that was challenging and engaging. Although I have less resources than I’d have working in the industry, staying in academia gives me the liberty to make games about themes and using mechanics that commercial games would usually not tackle.
As for some people’s contempt towards games scholarship, it’s not something I’m too worried about. One of my teachers in Madrid frowned on me when he heard I wanted to study games, he said it was “a waste of time” and that I should stick with Shakespeare. I think he was one of the reasons why I study games--I wanted to show him and others that games are not only a very valid field of study, but that by understanding them better we can make the expressive possibilities of games thrive. Plus I’m a bit of a rebel--whenever a teacher told me I should stay on the beaten track to succeed, I promptly ran the other way. So far, it’s worked pretty well for me.
HM: How would you define your role on Rosemary, Symon and Stranded in Singapore?
As a researcher working with student teams, my role is first explaining what my research is and what I’m trying to learn from making the game. I guess that in industry terms I’m closer to a creative director. I start by explaining my design philosophy to the team, and my focus on exploration and world building, on letting players discover the world and make sense of it. There are certain design choices that I usually make beforehand, such as what type of adventure game we are making, or the topic of the game, e.g. the core mechanic is remembering, or the game takes place in Singapore. The students have ownership of the game too--it’s not made on spec, but rather is the result of the collaboration of the whole team. I’m leading the orchestra, but I cannot play alone.
Rosemary was the game where I had the most hats--I was the producer, and also contributed to the design and writing of the game. In Symon and Stranded in Singapore I was a bit more of a client and had a game director (Jason Beene for Symon, Rik Eberhardt for Stranded in Singapore) who helped me interface with the team. It makes my life a bit easier, because they dealt with things like scheduling and mentoring the students on game development practices, and allows me to focus on the design of the game and how it addresses what I want to achieve. But I love working with students, so in both cases I still worked closely with the designer and the rest of the team.
It is always tricky working with teams of students, because on the one hand the game is supposed to help me with my research, but on the other, they are learning. They are going to make mistakes--and they should be allowed to make mistakes every now and then. I have not completely figured out the process, but I have to say I love the energy of working with undergrads. I need to get my hands dirty along with them, because I also learn a lot from the team.
It’s also a great way of putting my theories to the test, since I have to explain my philosophy and research to them and make it clear.
HM: What was the motivation behind these projects? Were they experiments or demonstrations of theory?
They are definitely experiments because the goal is exploring the process. Even when the game or prototype does not quite come together, I still learn from making it. My theories are frameworks to understand games and to formulate specific problems; at times the goal of the game is to subvert them and put them to the test. The validation comes from releasing the games to the world and getting people outside the academic realm to play them. My goal is making games that are different, novel, and engaging; having people play them without realizing that they are research games shows that what I do is relevant and useful.
My general goal is to experiment within the adventure game genre, questioning preconceptions and looking for ways to innovate. I focus on them more as games, and how to bring together gameplay and story. Rosemary was a general experiment--at that point, I wasn’t sure we could make a short adventure game with the resources we had at hand. The experiment was bringing new mechanics to adventure games--could we make a game where the core mechanic was remembering? What was the process?
Symon is an example of a design question that can take you to findings in a variety of fields. The premise at first was questioning my own theories--I argue that narrative puzzles have to be set up in a world that is consistent, that creates expectations, so that when the player encounters the puzzle, she can solve it according to the logic and affordances of the world. For example, in the game Loom the player interacts with the world through musical spells, which are learned through exploring the world. So I poked at my own theories: can we make a game based on a dream world, an unstable place where the logic doesn’t quite make sense. We all know the feeling--what we do while dreaming makes perfect sense to us, but sounds crazy when we think about it what we’re awake (if we remember what happened).
After some experimentation and prototyping, one of the approaches that seemed the most promising was creating procedurally generated puzzles, first because it would provide that sense of instability. It was also a promising design solution: the puzzle generation system would have to model the mind of whoever’s dream the player is in. It also opened up a really exciting avenue for innovation in adventure games, since procedural generation would make the game replayable. There were several prototypes on the topic as preparation and Symon was the demonstration of how it would work.
From Symon, we learned that procedural generation created a new type of adventure game: shorter but replayable, where the player figures out the world through several playthroughs. The problem was that the designer did not have good tools with which to create a procedurally generated adventure game and it took very long. So the next step was developing those tools and putting them to the test making another game. For that game, I posed an extra design problem--the randomness of the procedural generation works well in a dream setting, but could we use it for games based on the real world? Otherwise, our tools may only be good to create dream-like games.
The process of development of Stranded in Singapore addressed that question: the tools worked quite well but the design, however, was more difficult because we were simulating aspects of a real place (Singapore) and not everything fits in a procedurally generated design. It was lucky that food is an important part of Singaporean culture, and that fit well, but it was a hard constraint, and not all of the puzzles work well.
In spite of this, my focus is not on procedural generation, but rather in the conceptual design. One of my students is extending the development tools for his Master’s thesis in Computer Science. My research focuses on finding the problems and creating solutions, and reflecting on the process--if in the process there are other pieces of research that can advance other fields, like computer science, that’s great, it’s the beauty of working in an interdisciplinary field like games.
What I’ve learned too is that as a researcher it is easy to constrain yourself too much, and that what may be good research may not result in the best game and vice versa. On top of that, teaching is also part of the process. Right now, I’m rethinking my methods, trying to figure out what fits my background best, what is the most satisfying process professionally, and how can I learn the most. I may have been trying to be too scientific about it and I’m mainly a humanist. So I’m looking at models of theorist practitioners in other media to learn more about their process, such as Eisenstein or Truffaut in film, or Anthony Burgess in literature, to look at how they combined their theories and criticism with the works they produced.
HM: In your view, how much impact does games studies have on the world of game development?
Not all of game studies work is going to be relevant to industry and it does not have to. As academics we need the liberty to explore our field. Research does not always have to be at the service of industry. From the humanities standpoint, game studies helps us understand games better, and some of those insights may be superfluous to developers. Same with technological research (a novel technology may not be feasible to commercialize) or the social sciences (studying defunct online communities) where the research is excellent and advances knowledge, but may not have an immediate impact outside of academia. I have chosen to make my work relevant to practice but not everyone has to, and I’m well aware that only some aspects of my work can be made useful to developers.
My friends in the industry very rarely read papers from academic conferences or journals, mostly because they do not have time. Papers are not the most efficient format to influence the industry, so we have to find other ways to communicate. One way would be having some more academics presenting at industry conferences. Until a couple of years ago, there was a GDC session called Game Studies Download, which provided a selection of papers that were relevant to the industry; we need something like that back, for example.
As academics, we need to realize that if we want the industry to hear us, we have to make our work accessible to them. We can write a paper for Game Studies, but we can also have a more accessible version in our blogs; not dumbing down our work but rather being careful with how we use jargon, for example, or thinking about how our research helps understanding games better. We cannot go into a room of developers and read a philosophical debate on the misunderstandings about Huizinga’s and Caillois’ work, which makes for a great session in a research conference like DiGRA, but would reaffirm the general scepticism that the industry already has towards academics. Making games is another way to gain some respect from industry--if you can link your theory with your game, it’s more likely that they’ll pay attention. Developers may not read papers, but they do play games.
I believe that the influence of game studies in the industry is barely visible now, but it’ll be more prominent as the field grows and more game studies academics teach people who later go into game development. It’ll also be more patent in smaller companies than in AAA companies where the contents may still be more controlled by publishers and big money. So I believe we’re getting there.
HM: Could you be tempted into larger projects with more commercial aspirations?
I keep saying that if I can deliver a game in eight weeks and a team of students who are new to development, then I’d be on fire if I could get to work for four months with a team of professionals. My goal is to be relevant, so applying what I know to larger commercial products would be a fascinating challenge and I would learn a lot from it. I’d love to have access to more resources, and face the challenges of bigger games.
One of the first things that I have to think of when making a game is my target audience, because they are the ones who will be making sense of the game. So far my goal has been to appeal to relatively niche audiences; reaching out to more people would be an interesting problem to tackle. I’d love to make a game that reaches larger audiences, and see what people do with them--that’s the biggest kick I get from making games as part of my work.
On the other hand, I’d be more worried about working on a commercial product where my creative input is exclusively at the service of what some marketing department or team of executives thinks would sell, making clones of other successful games. So making larger experimental games for the market may be a fun challenge; a humongous game cash-in is not worth my time.
HM: Thanks for talking to Electron Dance, Clara.
If you're interested in browsing through Fernández-Vara's academic output, you can find it available online. Her most recent paper was Games Spaces Speak Volumes: Indexical Storytelling on refining environmental storytelling as an integral part of gameplay as opposed to just back story.