Simplicity plus



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.

We 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?

Some say 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.

Others 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.

Yet 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.

I 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 environments.

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 walk.

If this is what an emerging medium looks like, I hope we never stop emerging.