Tropes are for dopes

Who needs winners?

Skyrim  Minecraft

What can you find in an old picture except the painful contortions of the artist trying to break uncrossable barriers which obstruct the full expression of his dream? F.T. Marinetti, “The Futurist Manifesto” (1909)

Modernists ruin everything. Prior to the 20th century, visual art was mostly pictorial, depicting scenes and themes from the real world. Artists painted or sculpted images that anyone could recognize and understand. Then, in 1863 Manet scandalized the art world by painting a naked woman at a picnic. The Impressionists soon emerged and did their best to mottle everything up.

Then along game the Cubists. And the Dadaists. And the Expressionists. And the Surrealists. Manifestos whizzed by like flying plates, and suddenly nothing made sense. Reality was up for grabs and nobody knew what they were supposed to think or do anymore. Arguments raged over lighting and brushstroke technique. Critics praised or condemned in fits of unbridled vitriol.

It wasn’t just the painters. At the first performance of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring in 1911, a riot broke out in the theatre between audience members who reviled the production and others who loved it. (I should note that the Theater has a longer history with hot-tempered audiences. In 1849 one patron expressed his displeasure with William C. Macready’s rendition of Hamlet by hurling the carcass of a dead sheep onto the stage.)

Hausmann_art_criticIt was a time of upheaval, ideological clashes, and reinvention. And it was wonderful. Art - and what that art meant or represented - mattered to artists and the public in ways it rarely does today. These days an occasional kerfuffle may arise over public funding for “offensive” art; or maybe a festering hip-hop feud re-erupts now and then - but it’s hard to find artists and audiences locked in spirited philosophical debate over “the future of art form X…” or “why artist X is advancing/killing art form Y.”

You know where I’m going with this, don’t you?

Those kinds of heated exchanges (not always civil or enlightening) are a regular part of “the video game conversation” occurring all around us. It unfolds on forums, chat rooms, and comment sections, but it can also be found at the local GameStop, in dorm rooms, and even in the classroom. One of the most vigorous debates I saw this semester occurred among students focused on the question of whether The Legend of Zelda’s Link should ever speak.

More importantly, the debate (healthy and constructive) continues among designers. I’d say roughly a quarter of all sessions at the annual Game Developers Conference in San Francisco could be classified as mini-manifestos, calling in one way or another for a change in thinking, a reassessment of methods, a challenge to assumptions. GDC and similar gatherings continue to ask fundamental questions about the nature, form, and purpose of games. Heck, we still have rip-roaring discussions on the basic question: “What is a game?”

This ongoing analysis of fundamentals distinguishes games from older media. I’ve attended theater and film conferences for many years. Trust me, we don’t spend much time asking those kinds of basic questions anymore. We’ve got that stuff figured out. Heh. Yeah.

The mistake we often make with games is to assume that one design philosophy must defeat all others. It’s the nature of manifesto. “I believe this to be true and ideal,” which, by definition, invalidates any alternate philosophy. Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto, quoted at the top of this post, also contains this lovely sentiment:

Literature has up to now magnified pensive immobility, ecstasy and slumber. We want to exalt movements of aggression, feverish sleeplessness, the double march, the perilous leap, the slap and the blow with the fist.

Out with the weak, stupid old. In with the bad-ass, superior new.

Jasper-johns-target-15783History shows that no single aesthetic approach or philosophy ever “wins.” Representational art wasn’t killed by Abstract Expressionism; nor was classical Hollywood narrative killed by the French New Wave. But when you see a painting by Jasper Johns or a film by Martin Scorsese it’s easy to see how each style lives in the work of artists with many influences.

In the last month, four major games arrived that exemplify four distinct approaches to narrative game design. At the risk of oversimplifying, I contend these games represent the four major pillars of video game storytelling. The lines separating them aren’t impermeable, but each game presents a viable approach to narrative that many players find valid and meaningful.

You may be an exception - because, of course, BG readers are exceptional! ;-) - but most gamers I know prefer one, or maybe two, of these games over the others…which may prove why there's an important place for each one.

  • The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword - the latest edition of the definitive hero quest adventure game. Zelda narratives are rituals, with each game re-telling the same essential story, set in a familiar universe with recurring motifs. Exploration and puzzle-solving are similarly ritualized, with iteration gently rounding the edges of the series. Link remains the quintessential silent hero, a old-school convention in a game chock-full of narrative and ludic conventions.

  • Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception - the definitive playable movie. Sky-high production values, canny writing, and convincing performances elevate the series and punctuate its authored narrative with cinematic flair. The Uncharted games embed player-driven challenge sequences into the larger framework of a linear adventure story unfolding at breakneck speed. If you ever dreamed of stepping into the screen of an Indiana Jones movie, the Uncharted games offer a thrilling way to do just that.

  • The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim - the definitive open world RPG. A stunning universe built for a player to explore however she wishes. A central narrative thread is woven through the game, but the player is free to engage it, or not. Emergent possibilities arise at every turn. Listen to players discussing their experiences (telling their stories, really) in Skyrim, and you will hear nearly every account delivered in first-person. Skilled veterans of the series spend more time playing with Skyrim than playing the game as it was “meant to be played.” Authorship in this case is less about formal storytelling than about enabling player autonomy within constraints intended to spark imaginative, self-directed play. Engagement deepens through an avatar created and evolved through the player’s own actions and choices.

  • Minecraft - the definitive sandbox. A procedurally generated world in which players build, acquire, craft, and battle on their own, with no designer mandated directives aside from the single imperative: survive. So where’s the narrative? I’ll rely on Naughty Dog’s Rich Lemarchand for that answer, a fascinating observer, given his artistic connection to the Uncharted games, which, design-wise can be seen as Dr. Jekyl to Minecraft’s Mr. Hyde. As I reported in October on Lemarchand’s IndieCade keynote:

Lemarchand went on to consider the word ‘videogame,’ describing it a “a good word…but problematic.” 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 design. “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.”

I realize my claim that four games can stand for all narrative games is bound to fall short. My intention isn’t really to classify every storytelling game into one of these silos. But I do believe these games represent distinct and viable paradigms for storytelling.

Maybe the real value of such classification is to better understand how designers find inspiration (and unacceptable limitations) in these games moving forward. For example, it’s easy to see how BioWare positions its games somewhere in the space between the Uncharted and Elder Scrolls games. The artists I mentioned above understood it well. The real action is in the margins, crafting something new out of lessons learned from the old.