Games as Art: Learning a harsh lesson

Matthew Wasteland has an interesting piece up on Games As Art over at GameSetWatch.  He raises 3 possible art styles, but discounts them all:

  1. Linear narrative with gameplay between spots
  2. Open game with player developed narrative
  3. Systems-based rules that describe a concept

I still believe all 3 of these are valid (though I operate primarily in the 2nd and 3rd). But I’ve found my biggest barrier to success (and the fallacy of the article) is absolutism of approach. It takes surprisingly little for a narrative to be resonant, yet frequently as developers we feels like it has to be all or nothing.  By insisting on nothing if we can’t have it all, we frequently underestimate our influences.

To quote one of the commentators, JP Davis:

“A great example lies in this article itself, with Portal’s Companion Cube. The plot there is linear. The player uses the cube to move forward through the level, then destroys the cube. There is no option to avoid destroying the cube. There is no “alternate ending.” And yet would we say that this emotional arc would therefore be better represented through a different medium likes movies or books? No, and the reason why is simple– the very fact that it is the player carrying the cube and that it is the player who has to destroy the cube is what gives the scene its emotional power.”

Yep, the player is forced to carry the cube, and forced to destroy it.  And the emotions this generates in the player are in fact unpredictable – they could be sorrow or annoyance.  But it does generate emotion, and the designers smartly direct the outcome of the negative backlash at a character instead of at themselves – GLADoS.  This technique throughout the entire game builds up to a memorable final sequence and a widely heralded masterpiece, even though the entire experience is as linear as it can get, narrative-wise.  And it’s also pretty simple – just a few lines of dialogue here and there, minimal interaction, with the cube, the final battle, and a few secret rooms being the only narrative set pieces of significant note.

Many a time if I was on the team I would have said it wasn’t deep enough, that we weren’t pushing the game hard enough.  But Portal works spectacularly, because designers don’t need much to create an emotional experience.  Just iteration, playtesting, and a coherent gameplay-emotion rule set.  Even this mechanics set is rarely as necessarily obvious or straightforwardly related to your narrative theme as early concept would lead you to believe is necessary.  A lesson I’m still struggling to learn, but a highly useful one.

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