Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Out of Context

The Washington Post has an amazing article (and experiment) on the truth of beauty. Please, read it (link). For those of you daunted by the length of the article, bored by the subject matter, or just too busy to take the time, I'll summarize. The Washington Post asked one of the most renowned and appreciated violinists of our age to preform some of the longest lasting and beautiful music created in front of roughly 1000 people. 1000 people who were on their way to work via the Washington Metro. Hardly anyone stopped. Hardly anyone listened. Hardly anyone noticed.

The article talks about a number of things, but I wanted to focus on Context. One of the reasons postulated for the tragic anonymity granted to Joshua Bell is that anything, especially beauty, out of context is hard to accept and hard to recognize. This, of course, raises questions of the worth attributed to works of "beauty", and all sorts of other trivial questioning of the reality of the universe. I don't want to go there.

What it made me think of was how alike this seems to be to the creation and recognition of games as a legitimate artform. Now, I'm not going to argue for or against Games as Art. I think it's a silly discussion, as the decision is highly subjective and reliant on both the definition and the subject. Is all music Art? Is all sculpture Art? Are all paintings Art? So can games all be Art? Are we done with this now? Good, let's move on.

What is really important to creating an artistic game, I would suggest, is more reliant on the context of the game, and perhaps on the context of games in general. And this issue of context bleeds into other areas of game creation as well; namely in creating and supporting strong narrative and character elements. Many games start with a contextual handicap that they never escape; preceding libraries of work define what a game or a genre can be or contain, hindering games who try to extend themselves beyond these molds.

Take, for example, Double Fine's masterwork Psychonauts, which I am having the distinct pleasure of playing right now. The game itself is a fairly pedestrian platformer, with gameplay elements that have been handed down from many predecessor games. I was able to quickly assimilate the play style because I was familiar with it trough other platformers I have played; that constitutes a kind of contextual bias. However, the strength of the game lies in the quality and subtlety of the narrative, the dialog, and the level design, not in it's use of established gameplay elements.

From an external perspective, the game does not put forward a strong argument for itself. While reviews and critical analysis of the game reveals it as a bastion of creative story and character, the casual observer will be tainted by the context of the game-as-platformer. Even more, the gamer himself would be tainted by their own perceptions and styles of gaming. For me, a platformer would be right up my alley, although perhaps not the top of my list. What about someone who is looking for an RPG, or and FPS, or a Match-3?

Further, there are barriers to entry defined by the existing titles in many genres. Platform games are often known for their action, their navigational puzzles, and their shallow character designs more than for their ability to provide a subtle metaphoric world. FPSs are bastions of twitch-action and co-op strategic play, and not often seen as capable of great artistic feats (unless you count sheer polygon counts). RPGs are known for their winding stories that follow narrow paths, their large level grinds, and their use of trivial choices over meaningful choices.

Designing games within these frameworks that are intended to subvert or transcend these frameworks is a monumental task. It requires knowledge of what the context is, and an acceptance that people will ignore your masterpiece because it is out of context. Yes, some few will stop and play. Perhaps some few will be changed, or become evangelistic about your work. But these will be the minority and in a competitive marketplace few have the luxury of swimming upstream. The question remains: will you keep to your vision knowing that by creating something out of context you are going to be actively ignored by those who can't hear the music above the noise?

I'll leave you with a note of hope. In the article, it mentions that there was no ethnic or demographic pattern to the people who did stop an notice, save one. Every child who passed by Joshua took notice. Perhaps because children have a natural affinity to music. Or perhaps because children don't have the same perceptions and context built up that the adults do. Without that burden they were able to see (or hear) the purity of the music above the constraints of the time and place. It gives hope that there are those out there who don't have preconceived context when approaching any situation, even games. It will be our goal to tap these innocents and through them reach the larger audience - and then change the context of games into something beautiful and complex, and worthy of our time.

Article found via Kim Pallister's ...on pampers, programming & pitching manure (link)

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