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April 30, 2008

Drama and Choice in Games

An interesting blog discussion is forming between TRC (over at Tales of the Rampant Coyote) and Scorpia (over at her lair) about the apparent conflict between drama and fun in games, and the differences between heroes in movies (who often start off as accomplished heroes) and heroes in games (who typically must work their way up from the embarrassment of "level one").

Mostly, the two points being made are that (1) conventional stories where the protagonist or hero never suffers setbacks or defeats are dull, and (2) games typically allow players to proceed through the game story without having to suffer these setbacks (mostly via save and reload). The player's constant desire to win -- and the ever-present ability to save and restore -- negates any of the story- or drama-building effects of setbacks or defeats.

The result is that game designers must force these defeats upon players through non-interactive cutscenes that are built into the storyline and have to be accepted by players. Or, perhaps, to come up with some kind of system (like TRC's "drama stars" in Frayed Knights) that forces players to weigh different options when it comes to dealing with setbacks.

Scorpia's counter-argument, if I'm interpreting correctly, is that "we must [already] endure endless combats and trivial errand-running to reach our goal. That is certainly work enough; why make it any more difficult?"

Rather than diving into that debate, I thought I would take a step back and consider the situation from a more general perspective, rather than the RPG-centric focus that their discussions typically have. After all, many other game genres (including FPS and adventure games, including interactive fiction) try to introduce failure or setbacks into gameplay, and these usually are just treated the same way as in RPG games, with a save/restore or, in the case of IF, a simple "undo" command.

The existence of save/restore/undo, in fact, is one of the strongest arguments for why there is no true choice in games. And this is what this discussion is really about, isn't it? Choice. As Emily Short once described it:

choice: challenging the player to prefer one outcome of the story over another, and in the process to consider the implications of doing so.

Whether that choice involves accepting a particular outcome of an encounter, or making a particularly important decision of morality, it's essentially the same: the player choosing one path over another. Part of the problem is that, in many games, this choice comes down to a black and white decision related to winning or losing; in most of those cases, the constant desire to win (it's a game, after all) will drive players to restore or undo and try again. But, as Victor Gijsbers has pointed out in the past:

...there have been games that no longer challenge the player to reach the ideal ending: sometimes, choosing which ending is the best one is itself the most important act of the game.

A particularly important response to this, as it appeared on, was:

Choice is meaningful in real life only if it is excluding and irrevocable...When you apply the concept of choice to interactive fiction, you'll notice that, from a player's point of view, choice is never excluding and always revocable. Thanks to RESTART, UNDO, SAVE and RESTORE, choice in IF is meaningless.

As it is, arguably, in just about any game genre. This was also expressed quite well by Stephen Bond, also in reference to the world of interactive fiction, but which could also easily apply to practically any game genre:

Morality involves choice, and in IF there usually isn't any real choice. In the new moral IF, I just try all the options without any moral commitment, safe in the knowledge that I can undo and try again, which distances me from my character, and distances me from the game.

The point of all this, I suppose, is to argue that by offering so much player choice -- at least, in the form of save/restore/undo -- the impact of those choices is diminished. And the impact of those choices is where the real treasure is found, in the form of the emotional engagement of the player. The more meaningless that choice is, the less the emotional engagement, and the less impact the experience (story) has on the player.

But importantly, as Scorpia points out:

What we need - as I’ve said before - is less fighting and errand-running, and more interaction with people. A failure of some kind there could open a new story line, rather than just calling for a “reload and try again” situation.

And, in a different but related post:

I think we know that real drama, real tension, comes mainly from the interactions of people with each other. Let’s face it, not getting that lock open is hardly a matter for drama, unless saving the world depends upon it. And you just know you’ll reload if the first try doesn’t work.

Although I agree entirely with these statements, it brings up two very important questions:

1. How do we effectively design interactions with people in games? and
2. How do we design those interactions so that the outcomes are meaningful in the setting of a game that allows save/restore/undo?

After all, I think that NPC interactions are one of the most unsatisfying areas in game design today, and in my opinion, if there is going to be one major advance in game design and gameplay it's going to have to come from this area.

April 28, 2008

Foggy Times at Pastel Games

A new flash game called "The Fog Fall" was recently released by Mateusz Skutnik of Pastel Games. Skutnik, as some of you know, is the incredibly prolific creator of numerous flash-based point-and-click adventure-style games, such as the Covert Front series that earned the #2 spot on's Best Freeware Adventure Games of 2007. The Fog Fall would appear to represent the start of a new series, although other series (including Covert Front and DaymareTown) are still being produced.

The game has the same haunting look and feel as the Covert Front series, although The Fog Fall takes place later in time, in an alternate post-nuclear history around the Cuban Missile Crisis. The overall series objective is not entirely clear, but the graphics style and the sound effects make for a very typically enjoyable experience. These are simple games, and often it distills down to just hotspot searching and keypad puzzles, but they are also undeniably engaging and entertaining. There was one particular puzzle in this one that left me scratching my head and reaching for the walkthrough, and I'm convinced I never would have figured it out otherwise. But despite that, I found it to be a nice short diversion. Over time this particular type of gameplay or visual style may lose its appeal, but for now I know I'm still enjoying it and I hope Skutnik keeps putting these out for some time to come.

You can play the free game online or download it at Go on. You know you want to.

On a related note, Skutnik also just came out with the fourth installment of the "10 Gnomes" series, this one called "Foggy Flat". For those of you unfamiliar with this series, they are short games all with the same one goal: find the 10 gnomes hidden in the pictures in less than 10 minutes, with a simple point-and-click interface. Very simple, and entirely a hotspot search, but disturbingly addicting.


April 23, 2008

Vespers: The Power of the Bool

One of the things that has always been nagging at me since starting development on Vespers is game performance. We haven't really been developing with frame rate in mind, our thought being that we would leave optimization until we had most of the content plugged in. Most of that optimization would come from the graphics end -- LOD, portals and zones, textures, things like that -- but that's a lot of work for the artist to do, and it's not terribly exciting work at that.

Still, after trying out the game on a number of different systems, I was not very happy with performance even at this unoptimized stage. Frame rates on the better systems would rarely get to 30fps, even at lower screen resolutions. And in far too many areas, rates were commonly in the teens. In some places with a lot of objects in the field of view, rates would bottom out at 10 or less. Rates in the teens give a pretty choppy performance; rates around 10 are just unacceptable. And on one system, with a lower end graphics card, the game was completely unplayable with rates unable to get above 5.

So recently we started addressing optimization, first by adding some LOD to objects and buildings, and then tackling portals. Unfortunately, portals turned out to be an unwieldy beast that we just could not master. Setting up portals and getting them to work in the Torque Engine can be very tricky, especially for complex models like our monastery buildings -- any tiny little misalignment, visible or not, and you're out of luck. At this point, finding those misalignments would be like trying to find an unknown number of needles in a series of very large haystacks.

So I turned my attention elsewhere, and implemented code to replicate (for the most part) the function of portals and zones. It works well, producing nice frame rate boosts on most systems. Whereas before I was sludging along with rates in the teens and twenties, now I'm getting rates in the thirties and forties, and often more than that. I'm very happy with that.

But there was still one thing bugging me: these performance improvements were seen on my desktop (a PowerPC Mac G5) and on my laptop (an Intel Mac), but only on the laptop when running under WindowsXP. If I ran the game on the laptop under Mac OS X, I was still getting the same crappy frame rates as before. How could that be? Same laptop, same hardware, but under one operating system it runs fine, while under the other it runs crappy.

The desktop also runs Mac OS X, and both the desktop and the laptop have graphics cards with 256MB of VRAM. So I didn't think it could be the operating system itself, or a lack of VRAM on the laptop. I thought it had something to do with the Torque Game Engine code, something specific to the graphics rendering on different platforms and CPUs, probably related to the rendering of buildings like the monastery. I went through round after round of testing, using various tools to analyze the code to see where the slowdowns occurred. Long, boring, frustrating work.

The only conclusion I came to is that the laptop was probably tricking the Mac OS into thinking the video card had run out of VRAM, even though it probably hadn't. And this was likely related to Apple's ATI graphics driver on the laptop, which is different than the ATI driver I use on the desktop (and different, of course, from the one used by XP on the laptop). A driver issue like that is a bummer, since there's not a lot I can do about that. I was not very happy with that.

The only other thing I thought of trying was to mess with some of the global preference variables in the Torque Engine, to see if I could somehow improve performance on the laptop without sacrificing too much on the graphics end. There are a huge number of preference variables available -- stuff related to interiors, lighting and shadows, terrain rendering, and OpenGL performance. The latter struck me as potentially useful, as it would probably be related to the driver. So I started looking at those more carefully, and I saw this one:

$pref::openGL::allowCompression = 0

That seemed interesting. Allow compression...likely related to texture compression. Textures can take up a lot of VRAM, especially if you use lots of them, and lots of large ones -- like my artist enjoys doing. It makes for prettier graphics, but it rapidly eats up memory on the graphics card. And even though I didn't seem to be running out of VRAM, on the laptop it seemed like the system was being tricked into thinking so, which would certainly cause these types of slowdowns. But what could this one little boolean variable do? I set it to 1, and gave it a try.

Amazingly, frame rates in general tripled, and often more than that. Whereas before I was getting annoying, choppy gameplay with rates in the low teens, now I was seeing smoothness with rates in the thirties and forties, sometimes more. And, as far as I can tell, no discernable change in the appearance of the graphics.

Even better, the game now runs on the older system with the lower-end card -- and runs well, with rates in the twenties and thirties, even at larger screen resolutions. I never thought I'd see it running on that machine at all, much less running well.

It's not a solution to the overall problem, which is likely related to Apple's ATI drivers. But still, it's an amazing improvement that appears to come at little to no cost.

And all due to one little boolean. A completely undocumented boolean, I might add.

April 18, 2008

Milliways: More IF Archaeology

The interactive fiction world was surprised and excited last summer when Dennis Jerz uncovered a true relic of IF history, discovering the original code to Colossal Cave. Fascinating stuff. Then, more recently, Jason Scott had the chance to view another historical slice of IF when he was able to mingle in Steve Meretsky's basement, a treasure trove of Infocom antiquity. Now, IF archaeologists have apparently uncovered another prize: a complete backup of Infocom's shared network drive from 1989, which includes not only design documents, email archives, internal meeting notes, source code, and game files, but also code for a game made by Infocom but never released.

Milliways: The Restaurant at the End of the Universe is the unreleased sequel to Infocom's (and Douglas Adams's) The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and has an incredibly detailed account of its history and development spread over a number of years. Not only that, but they've made the compiled code available to be downloaded and played -- or played online with a version in Java. Not much there, of course, but who cares?

It's a great article that provides a fascinating look into the complex issues surrounding interactive fiction game design and development, as well as a tiny glimpse at what might have been. There are even comments after the story by those involved, including Meretzky, Lebling, Blank, and now Bywater (as the author, Andy Baio, wrote: "Steve Meretzky, Dave Lebling, and Marc Blank commented on my weblog. I think I'm going to pass out."). I'll leave you with this uncovered snippet from Steve Meretzky on the development of the game, but by all means read the whole juicy thing yourself.

"Doing Restaurant is not my Dream Come True, but I do have paternal feelings about the Hitchhiker's IF series, and I agree with those who think that letting Magnetic Scrolls do Restaurant would be, overall, a Big Mistake. I think we'd do a significantly better job, and that's good economically for Infocom and good aesthetically for the Hitchhiker's series."

Tip o' the cap (and a mighty thanks) to RPS for spotting this wholesome goodness.

April 14, 2008

You Want Art With Those Games? (Part 2)

This is the second part of a series of blogs that aim to contribute yet more internet detritus to everybody's favorite age-old argument: Seriously, are computer games an art form?

Part 2: "Games as Art" = "Games as Storytelling Medium"

In Part 1, I proposed that computer/videogames are not yet a true art form, but are capable of being one. To do so a game will need to come along that has a substantial impact on its players because of its beauty, insight, or emotional power, in the same manner as some of the successful works from other forms of traditional media like film, theater, or literature. Without a form-defining piece, the medium will likely continue to make some advances and convince some individuals, but fail to achieve widespread acceptance by the public as a true art form.

For a game to have this kind of impact on its players, the experience of playing the game must be compelling, and that experience is embodied in the communication that takes place between the game (and its designers, writers, artists, etc) and the player. Unlike most traditional media, however, in games this communication is inherently bidirectional, which is perhaps gaming's most unique characteristic. To me, the two most important components of that communication, and thus the experience of playing, are storytelling and gameplay. Both must be compelling for a game to succeed in impacting players, and both should be outstanding for a game to achieve recognition as a true form-defining piece. Too often we see games that seem to focus on one preferentially, resulting in experiences that are fun or entertaining, but still leave something to be desired.

Much of the conversation about "games as art" has focused on the consideration of games as storytelling devices, in much the same way that theater, film, and literature are storytelling devices. Part of the ongoing debate is that it's not generally accepted that games are, or at least can be, effective storytelling devices, and this has led to the profusion of blogs, esssays, opinion pieces, and lectures on such topics as can games tell stories, how games should tell stories, and how games can tell better stories. Nevertheless, if games aspire to the level of a new art form, my sense (as that of others) is that we first need to fully embrace the premise that games are storytelling devices, and then to understand and explore that domain in considerable depth, until we begin to see games that affect us in powerful ways.

Storytelling in games has been covered at length by a number of people with far more expertise than me in writing, storytelling, and game development. Some of the more provocative work, in my mind, has been from people like Corvus Elrod (and his white paper on the story-plot-narrative model); Mark Reidl (who, with others like Andrew Stern, has written pieces on character-focused narrative generation); Ivo Swartjes (and his published works on virtual storytelling and emergent narrative); and, of course, Chris Crawford (for better or for worse). Most of my thoughts here are essentially a synthesis of the information derived from these writings and others.

Elrod, Riedl, and Swartjes have spent a good deal of time individually discussing their conceptions of the structure and components of storytelling, which I think are relevant here. Elrod, for instance, defines the three elements of storytelling as narrative (the physical components of the storytelling process, the medium presented to the audience -- including, in games, the user interface and art assets, for example), plot (the planned events of the narrative and the order in which they ought to occur), and story (the emotional experience of the narrative, the intended emotional experience which the storyteller hopes to convey). According to Elrod, "whereas Plot is concerned with the literal unfolding of events, Story addresses the emotional progression of events throughout the narrative."

This is interesting when juxtaposed with the work by Riedl (and later Swartjes), who both refer to the schema of Mieke Bal which seeks to define the components of narrative, which here is "the recounting of one or more real or fictitious events, usually oriented around a single goal, that are related to each other temporally and causally" (which I have always considered similar to my own definition of story). In this model, narrative is decomposed into the three components of fabula (the sequence of events that take place in the story world -- some of which are exposed, and some of which are hidden), story (the expression or exposure of the fabula through a particular viewpoint), and text (the specific wording and phraseology chosen to tell the story). Swartjes takes an additional step by reassigning these components as fabula, plot, and presentation, where plot is now a selection of the fabula that forms a consistent and coherent whole (where many plots can exist within the fabula), and presentation is the information needed for the actual delivery of the plot in the chosen medium.

The parallels and overlaps between Elrod's model and those used by Riedl and Swartjes are not altogether straightforward, but the purpose here is not necessarily to contrast these models, but rather to (trudgingly) point out the fact that it is sometimes difficult to discuss the concepts of storytelling because of the many ways in which individuals refer to the terms and components. A discussion of narrative from one viewpoint, for instance, might be about something distinctly different than from another; likewise, even using the term storytelling can be confusing because of differing views (including my own) of the term story. In attempting to distill these various schemata into what I think are the important concepts (rather than the terms), I found these four essential elements:

  1. all factual events that take place, both exposed to and hidden from the audience, and the order in which they (ought to) occur;
  2. a subset of #1 which forms a coherent whole, often as seen from a particular viewpoint;
  3. the medium and physical components used in the presentation to the audience; and
  4. the intended emotional experience to be conveyed.

Putting specific labels on these concepts will certainly only confuse more than clarify, but nevertheless (for this discussion, at least) I visualize #1 as the omniscience; #2 as the plot; #3 as the medium, and #4 as the impact. To me, when a plot becomes expressed through a particular medium and with an intended impact, it becomes a story. This process of expression is what I think of as storytelling. (As for narrative, I find it curiously difficult to find a unique place for it. I guess I have always considered it to be equivalent to story, and that has not yet changed.)

Right. I'm sure that's all crystal clear now, so we might as well return to the actual discussion at hand.

As above, in my mind, for computer gaming to achieve widespread acceptance as an art form, the experience of playing games has to deliver beauty, insight, or emotional power to its audience, and that experience is embodied in the communication that takes place between game and player. Storytelling and gameplay constitute that communication. The communication is the key -- it is, as I've argued in part one, one of the primary elements of art. Currently, games don't accomplish this communication well enough. But they can -- it just will take a concentrated effort to explore, understand, and refine storytelling and gameplay, and particularly how the two can and should synergize.

With respect to storytelling, if the presumption is made that games are storytelling devices (and the impression I have is that many are already on board with this idea), where might the failure thus far be? You can argue that games already do tell stories; the concepts above of omniscience, plot, medium, and impact are all, to varying degrees, represented in the body of computer games. It seems to me, however, that it is in the impact -- the emotional experience, Elrod's concept of story, the answer to the question, "What is the game actually about?" -- where most games fail. The reasons for this are varied; in some cases, there is underdevelopment or little emphasis placed on the emotional experience, or the intended impact is somehow never realized (often because of other components such as medium or gameplay). But to me the real problem with impact, the intended emotional experience, is that it just isn't profound enough. Too simple, too shallow, too trivial. Developers just haven't figured out how to set the bar high enough.

Why not? This is where, to me, the writing of Chris Crawford is most relevant. Crawford has a lot of opinions on games and storytelling, but if you pick through the chaff you'll find what I consider his most worthwhile observation, the simple, basic truth that stories are about the most fascinating thing in the universe: people. It's the first of his nine breakthroughs (related to his Storytron), the focus of his book on interactive storytelling. And I think it's a critical concept, the one thing which games have not quite figured out.

As Crawford states, "This simple truth...explains the utter failure of games to incorporate storytelling in any but the most mechanical and forced manner." In games, people are, generally speaking, an afterthought -- a cardboard representation. Games, he argues, concern themselves primarily with objects rather than people. But if you look at other forms of media -- theater, film, and literature -- and the works that have truly powerful impact, these are predominantly about people, their emotions, and their relationships, not objects. "Casablanca", "Romeo & Juliet", "To Kill a Mockingbird" -- when you ask, "What are these works about?" the answer is almost universally an exploration of people, their feelings, and their relationships. There are works that focus on or incorporate objects, for certain -- the conch in "Lord of the Flies", or the One Ring in "Lord of the Rings" -- but for the most part these objects do not play central roles; they are metaphors, devices used to assist the larger story about the people and their experiences.

This is not a new thought, of course -- people have been criticizing the shallowness of NPCs and clamoring for more realistic and interactive characters for some time. But people are hard. Modeling people well is difficult; implementing satisfying interaction with people is even more difficult. Creating a game that includes strong models of people, satisfying interaction with people, and which is primarily about people -- that is apparently still out of reach. Yet, this to me remains the one concept that games must embrace and explore in order to achieve the same kind of impact, or emotional experience, that is possible in other forms of media. That will raise the bar, and will get people to stand up and take notice.

Of course, this is not to say that games have not yet begun to explore this area. Mateas and Stern's Facade received a great deal of attention and recognition for being just this: a game about people, where the goal is to interact with them to explore and influence their relationship. This is where I think the game can and should have its greatest influence on the games industry, and in that respect I think it is truly avant-garde. But it is only a step in the right direction; the impact is still fairly shallow, and there are a number of issues with gameplay that limit its effectiveness.

Other recent games that are getting attention around the web are Jason Rohrer's The Passage and Harvey and Samyn's The Graveyard. Both focus on an exploration of people and their relationships, and as with Facade, these are remarkable steps in the right direction. But also as with Facade, limitations with their gameplay essentially restrict the overall experience, and the result is two enjoyable but not quite powerful games.

A number of works of interactive fiction have, for some time, explored the idea of focusing on people and their relationships. Probably the most recognized is Emily Short's Galatea, which she describes as "a conversation with a work of art": a single conversation with a single character, which can end many different ways based on the actions of the player. What I find interesting about it is that the conversation centers around the character's relationship with her creator, and because of that the game provides the sense of considerable depth. It is a short game, however, and as such the depth of it is not as extensive as one might hope in order to achieve a powerful impact. Still, this is a piece that was released some eight years ago now; it is interesting to note that, in the years since, few game authors and designers have picked up on the ideas and techniques offered by this game in terms of its ability to tell a good story about people.

Numerous other works of IF have ventured into this area as well, and perhaps because of this the games industry as a whole might benefit from looking more closely at what IF can do and how it does it. People like Crawford, in my opinion, dismiss interactive fiction too quickly; Crawford devotes less than two pages in his book on interactive storytelling to IF, disregarding it without any insightful explanation or discussion:

"Interactive fiction is certainly interactive, and it's fictional in the sense of being made up, but it's certainly not storytelling...the actual creations remain elaborate puzzles."

It is a relatively shallow evaluation of the medium, using only one or two examples to draw generalizations and conclusions about the medium as a whole. An excellent and thorough review of Crawford's book was done by Emily Short on her blog about a year ago, and as she summarized well: "Crawford has strong opinions about what type of thing interactive storytelling is, how it might be achieved, and why most of the current efforts are sad failures. They are sometimes aggravatingly unsubstantiated."

Nevertheless, the point remains that games just haven't done a good enough job at storytelling, and storytelling is the key pathway to a new art form. The "games as art" discussion has to be about "games as storytelling devices", which means we need to see more games that focus on people, their emotions, and their relationships. And that, in turn, means we need to find better ways of designing games to be about people, better ways of modeling those people, and better ways of creating satisfying interactions with those people. Small steps are being taken, and some games do some of these things well, but we have yet to see a game that does all of these things well enough to produce a truly powerful experience.

As we'll explore later, there is also the other element of the communication between game and player that has an equally vital role: gameplay.

Next: Part 3: The Synergy of Storytelling and Gameplay

April 8, 2008

Spring Thing 2008 Is On

Just a quick notice that "Spring Thing 2008" is now underway.

Spring Thing is an annual interactive fiction competition which began in 2002. It is different from the other well-known IF competitions (IFComp and XYZZY's) in that it promotes medium-sized to long works of IF, and it also has an entry fee. According to the organizer, Greg Boettcher, this is "to encourage excellence in game authorship and discourage shoddiness." Given the wide range of quality we typically see at comps like IFComp, this is probably a Good Thing.

There are three entrants this year: Pascal's Wager (by Doug Egan), Without a Clue (by David Whyld), and Blue Lacuna: Sneak Preview (by Aaron A. Reed). The games can be downloaded individually or as one archive at the Spring Thing 2008 web site.

The judging period will end at midnight on the evening of April 28th. Cash prizes (or, interestingly, indie RPG games) will be awarded.

Whyld has been writing IF for some time now and has authored many games, so I'm interested to see what he came up with this time. I'm really looking forward to Reed's work as well. Aaron has written some excellent IF in the past, including Gourmet (which placed 5th at the 2003 IFComp) and Whom The Telling Changed (a finalist at the 2006 Slamdance Games Festival).

According to his e-mail, this is a preview version of Blue Lacuna, which is "a literary-minded interactive fiction story with strong doses of adventure and fantasy." He says that "many of the final features related to pacing, character development, and of course the resolution of the story are not yet present. But it provides an early look at what I've been up to."

Should be an interesting competition, I look forward to checking these out.

Instructions for downloading the games, and interpreters if you need them, are on the Spring Thing web page.

April 3, 2008

You Want Art With Those Games?

This is the first part of a series of blogs that aim to contribute yet more internet detritus to everybody's favorite age-old argument: Seriously, are computer games an art form?

Part 1: Games Are Not An Art Form

By now I would guess that most people with a finger on the pulse of the computer/videogame industry have the sense that there is a growing movement for this medium to be regarded as something more than a hollow, trivial pastime. The "Games as Art" debate has certainly been ongoing for some time now, and unfortunately for everyone I feel the burning need to chime in. Part of the argument that games are not, and perhaps never will be, considered a true art form is that the medium has yet to produce any works of timeless relevance, unlike more traditional media like theater, film, and literature. In other words, the experiences provided by games have yet to (and perhaps cannot) achieve the same level of distinction as that produced in traditional media. But if games, as some (including myself) contend, do have the capacity to produce powerful experiences, why have we not yet seen works capable of attaining the status of an enduring classic? Is it possible for a game to be regarded in the same light as a "Casablanca", "Romeo & Juliet", or "To Kill A Mockingbird"? Can a game establish itself as a popular "classic", a widely accepted work of art? And does a game even need to achieve such lofty status in order for the medium as a whole to be considered an art form of its own?

I think to begin exploring these questions, it first would help to establish what I mean by some of these terms -- the most important being what I mean by "art". Of course, attempting to define the term "art" is problematic, to say the least; it means many different things to different people, and one simplistic definition here will assuredly be insufficient in some way. Still, when I speak here of art I am generally alluding to the fine arts, or rather a generous appreciation of what constitutes fine art, to the inclusion of such forms as painting, sculpture, dance, theater, architecture, cinematography, photography, drawing, poetry, and literature (or creative writing). In this respect, I think of art as an aesthetic expression of an individual or group (whether visible, tangible, or abstract) that can be appreciated by others for its beauty, insight, or emotional power. Although Tolstoy's dogmatic definition of art from 1896 leaves a great deal open to debate, he does touch upon what I think are some key components of art: a means of intercourse between man and man, based on the capacity of one man to receive another man's expression of feeling and to experience those feelings himself. There is an appreciation that art stimulates the human senses and mind, by transmitting emotions and/or ideas, and in that respect art is a form of communication between artist and audience.

With this definition of art in hand, an assessment of the body of work that constitutes computer games would, in my mind, conclude that this medium very much has the capacity to be an art form. But as with my contention above, that games have "the capacity to produce powerful experiences," there are two implications here: first, that no game has yet been able to produce a truly powerful experience; and second, that such a compelling work must exist before this form of entertainment is given serious consideration as a true art form.

With respect to the former, it's difficult to submit any examples of games that truly convey some meaningful expression about the human condition that is in the same zip code as some of the classics mentioned above; I think some games have begun to tread in this territory, and from the discussions around the net it would seem that this is a target firmly within many game developers' sights. As for the latter, I suspect the statement will elicit some debate, but I contend that it is the major obstacle to the widespread acceptance of games as a new, true art form. I think many game developers and players would argue that some games -- Jason Rohrer's Passage, for instance -- should already be considered works of art given their characteristics and accomplishments. And perhaps from the perspective of the restricted community of game developers and players, they may be. But until there is a game whose impact and reach is powerful enough to extend beyond this focused (and perhaps biased) group, we'll only continue to have our simple games, thoughtful games, exciting games, and even beautiful games, but nothing widely appreciated by the public at large as "art".

Nevertheless, as stated above I will contend that within the medium of games there is the capacity to generate a work of substantive beauty, insight, or emotional power. I believe it is possible, and that it will happen eventually. But not until two things occur: first, games figure out how to be more about people rather than objects; and second, we develop a deeper and more meaningful understanding of that unique aspect of games that separates them from other traditional forms of entertainment: the role and use of interaction.

Next: Part 2: "Games as Art" = "Games as Storytelling Medium"

April 1, 2008

Steve Meretzky's Basement

As mentioned in my last blog, Jason Scott is the creator of the BBS Documentary and runs a blog called ASCII. He's currently working on a new documentary project called GET LAMP, about the history of the text adventure game, which I eagerly await.

As part of his work on GET LAMP, Jason has interviewed a number of big names in the history of text adventures, one of them being Steve Meretzky of Infocom fame. This past weekend, Jason spent some time in Meretzky's basement. As Jason says, "There are worse places to be than Steve Meretzky's basement."

Apparently, Meretzky saved just about everything he could -- original game boxes, memos, ad copies, correspondences, and so on. For those of us who enjoyed those Infocom games, it sounds like a fascinating experience. Jason was able to photograph some of it for use in his upcoming film. Based on his work on the BBS Documentary, I think it will be an excellent piece.

For an interesting read and some very cool photos, head on over and check out Jason's blog.