One might wonder why the organizers of IndieCade - a festival and conference devoted to showcasing the work of indie game designers - would choose a guy from a AAA studio (who admits he's never worked in the indie space) to open their conference. Happily, Lemarchand made his appearance a natural choice by delivering a gracious and thoughtful address called "Beauty and Risk: Why I Love Indie Games."
If there's a smarter or more personable figure in the game industry than Lemarchand, I haven't met him. He regularly appears at events like this, always available for conversation, with an apparently bottomless well of enthusiasm for games, designers, and players. He majored in Physics and Philosophy in college, where he says he discovered a life of the mind that continues to prod him to inquire and seek understanding. The best word I can think of to describe Mr. Lemarchand: effervescent.
Lemarchand credits the 'bedroom programmers' of the 1980s as inspirational in helping him understand "the DIY spirit of creating something from nothing." These game-makers were especially helfpul to him when he joined Microprose in 1991, and their influence continued when he moved to Crystal Dynamics three years later.
In his remarks, Lemarchand explored our natural fascination with systems, both organic and human designed. "I was captivated by the work of William Morris," he noted, and the 'design by subtraction' ideal. He cited Morris's famous advice: "Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful." Like other game designers, he admires "The Design of Everyday Things," and he also encouraged attendees to watch Jon Blow's recent "Truth in Game Design" talk at GDC Europe in which he discusses systems as sets of rules provoking behaviors over time.
"I've become very interested in human attention in recent years," Lemarchand observed, noting that we rarely talk about attention because it's hard to understand. He suggested that, "Games hold our attention by presenting beautiful systems to us that capture our imaginations. ...We love watching big systems unfold." Games can enable players to inhabit this process in ways other media cannot.
Lemarchand sees a human as the ultimate complex system - embedded in other systems (relationships with others, nature, etc) - and designers are challenged to build games that reflect this complexity. In this regard he acknowledges the limits of authored narratives in games like the Uncharted series, but he and his team are always striving to do better.
Lemarchand cited the development of Chapter 16, "Where Am I?" in Uncharted 2 as an example of Naughty Dog's efforts to provoke an empathetic response in the player. This interactive explorative sequence asks the player to follow a Nepalese man named Tenzen through his village, engaging its residents. The player is prevented from running, climbing, or performing combat moves while in the village. Several members of the design team expressed reservations about this sequence, but Lemarchand felt certain it would work because he had experienced its effectiveness in another game.
Chapter 16 in Uncharted 2 was inspired by an indie game: Tale of Tale's The Graveyard. Lemarchand admired the way this game "created space for reflection," and he tried to offer a parallel experience in Uncharted 2. The 'punch' command, for example, was replaced by a handshake animation. An interaction with children results in Drake getting hit by a soccer ball. "Most players never saw these exchanges," Lemarchand noted, because they aren't accustomed to looking for such possibilities. Such experiential sequences will be a big part of the forthcoming Uncharted 3.
Narrative "in a looser, less structured sense" is something games can do, and Lemarchand believes indie games have their greatest opportunity here. Less constrained or abstract art and literature can help us understand life and relationships, and Lemarchand cited Passage, Today I Die, Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery, and A Slow Year as examples of games that succeed in this regard. "Our depth of understanding (in these games) can be profound."
Lemarchand went on to consider the word 'videogame,' describing it a "a good word...but problemmatic." It implies a win condition built into the system, "but lots of video games don't have this state." He praised Minecraft as one of his favorite recent games and admitted to developing a short-term addiction to it. "I play Minecraft narratively," he said, seeing the game as a kind of "Lego I Am Legend."
He also referenced Kent Hudson's recent talk at GDC 2011 on player-driven stories, noting that agency within a game world can occur from top to bottom, throughout every element of desgin. "Minecraft expresses this perfectly," and it does so entirely through its systems. A major part of Minecraft's pleasure, for Lemarchand, is the player creating beauty and wonder through his own efforts. "It's systemic Theater," he observed. "Minecraft isn't a story, but I made it one."
Lemarchand also mentioned the theater production Sleep No More (which I've written about) as a very recent influence, describing it as a mash-up of "Choose Your Own Adventure" books and ARGs, embedded into a formal system, "plus human psychology...and masks." "There is much for us to do here as game designers," he noted.
"If you want to pursue art in games, make sure it is about something," Lemarchand suggested. It can be "hard-ludic" or "loose experiential," and either method can succeed. "It's hard to find an indie game that isn't about something, and that's why I like them."
Lemarchand concluded with practical advice for aspiring game designers. "Some people will tell you you can't make something for very good reasons. Don't listen to those people. Be honest about what you're good at and then make something using those skills. Then show it to someone... You must collaborate. Follow up. Be persistent."
"Say when you don't know something because then people will teach you things."
"Treat people with respect. Tell people the truth in a way they can hear it... Don't be a dick."
"Be vulnerable. ...It creates an envronment where it's okay to make mistakes."