I'm devoting this post to Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor, but I need to lay a little groundwork first. I hope you'll stick with me.
often call video games an emerging medium, but what does that really
mean? Nearly 40 years after they first appeared, can we still
justifiably describe games as "in their infancy?" If so, when will they
finally grow up? And when they do, how will we know?
the critics will tell us. A game will arrive and be universally hailed
as a landmark achievement demonstrating the power of the medium as an
interactive art form. You know, the Citizen Kane argument.
say the market will tell us. When video games achieve the kind of
penetration books, television, and movies enjoy, then we'll know
they've truly arrived. Mario has appeared in over 200 games in 28
years, but his total sales are less than half of Harry Potter's,
accrued in only 12 years over 7 books. On the other hand, a recent NPD report says 63% of Americans have played a video game in the past six months, compared to 53% who report going out to the movies.
video games remain on the cultural periphery. Film studies programs
proliferate at colleges and universities while many of us continue to
plead the case for teaching even a single course devoted to video
games. And as popular culture fetes go, well, there's the Oscars and
the Golden Globes; the Grammys and the Pulitzers...and there's the Spike TV Video Game Awards.
say these cultural barometers are mostly irrelevant. They measure and
reward factors with few analogs in games, and they rely on formulaic
ways of knowing that increasingly seem irrelevant to understanding
games. Aristotle's Poetics - still the blueprint for framing our
understanding of literature, drama, film, and television - has served
us well for 2300 years, but dramatic theory cannot adequately account for
the structural or experiential nature of games. Roger Ebert may be the
elder statesman of American film critics, but applying film theory to
games is an effort that fails before it begins. Even market
validation is problematic. It's easy to count how many people buy movie
movie tickets, but unit sales don't always paint an accurate picture
for games, especially for social titles shared by friends and family
over months and even years.
We who love games wait and wonder,
but what are we waiting for? To be taken seriously? To be highly
regarded? To have our place at the table? I'm not suggesting we're
wasting our time making the case for games. I spend an inordinate
amount of time doing just that with my academic colleagues. But if the
door to cultural affirmation suddenly opened, what would we gain by
walking through it? How would our efforts to evolve and grow change?
Might we, upon reflection, decide that an "emerging medium" is actually
quite a fine thing to be?
The best case for video games as an
emerging medium comes from the people who make them. One might assume
gifted designers like Harvey Smith, Brenda Brathwaite, Jenova Chen, and Soren Johnson (to name only a few) would position themselves on the
front lines, demanding respect and acknowledgment for a medium and
industry they're working hard to build. Instead, they spend most of
their time looking inward, challenging themselves and their peers to
push the artificial boundaries of games and re-examine self-limiting
assumptions. I've seen this conversation occur at GDC , and I've written
about it here many times. But something happened this week that
highlighted just how intensive and illuminating this process can be.
A few days ago I wrote about Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor and praised its elegance and simplicity.
I promised to return in another post to discuss the game's unique hook:
a surprisingly vivid and disturbing story that emerges for the player
willing to construct it by paying careful attention to the game's
In the ongoing search for interactive storytelling
language, the game takes a fascinating step forward by trusting the
player, whose avatar is a spider, to do what spiders do (move from
place to place spinning webs and eating insects) and thereby uncover a
deeply human story. No amnesiacs. No aliens. No supernatural events or
save-the-world imperatives. Just a simple, but startlingly poignant
family tragedy revealed via the game's environments, photos, heirlooms,
and small bits of evidence left behind.
Your growing curiosity compels
you to explore, but the limitations of being a tiny spider both limit
and free you. As a result, your actions and decisions seamlessly weave
gameplay with storytelling (and a bit of puzzle-solving), and your
experience is refracted through an intriguing split persona with
tension between the two. You're eager to know more about the wedding
ring in the sink pipe, but you're running low on web juice, so you need
to find a tasty bug soon.
I love Spider because it points the way to a kind of storytelling
unique to games, and it does so on a device that developers have only
begun to exploit. It's a lovely game with delicate visuals and music -
and you simply must feel for yourself what it's like to flick your
finger across the screen and send your spider flying gracefully from
one object to another.
But Spider isn't good enough for its creator. In a post-mortem published in this month's Edge Magazine,
Randy Smith calls the game an "elegant dodge," and explains why, in his
view, the game falls short of his vision for narrative games. As he
puts it, "Spider is a game that strives to have an elegant
awareness of the interactive media but doesn’t try hard to open up its
frontiers." "This is a dead story, one you cannot change but only
discover through exploration."
I might quibble with Smith's contention that authored narratives are
"dead," but what most intrigues me about Smith's response to Spider is
his unyielding sense of where he believes games must go and his
willingness to share his ideas and reflections, even when they
highlight his own shortcomings.
Smith has appeared
in the vigorous discussion of Spider at Touch Arcade, offering a few
helpful hints as players attempt to decipher the game's many clues; and
he has stopped by here
too, encouraging me to read the Edge column I had already scoured after
completing the game. :-) More importantly, Smith has delivered some of
the most thoughtful and pioneering talks at GDC, challenging other
designers to think purposefully and self-critically about interactivity
and its relationship to narrative. With Spider, Randy Smith walks the
If this is what an emerging medium looks like, I hope we never stop emerging.