Pulling their weight
LittleBig classroom

LittleBig literacy


Everyone who has had in his hands a piece of film to be edited knows by experience how neutral it remains, even though a part of a planned sequence, until it is joined with another piece, when it suddenly acquires and conveys a sharper and quite different meaning than that planned for it at the time of filming.
                                                              --Sergei Eisenstein

Shortly after its release in 1916, D.W. Griffith's Intolerance was brought to Russia, but exhibitors rejected it. After the Revolution, the Bolshevik government arranged premieres of the film in Moscow and Petrograd, touting the film's "agitational" qualities. Lenin, who saw the film as a model of proletarian ideals, ordered that it be shown throughout the Soviet Union, and it ran continuously for nearly ten years.[1]

Prints of Intolerance were screened at the Kuleshov Workshop so frequently that they began to fall apart. Film stock was scarce in those days, so Kuleshov and his students began reassembling Griffith's sequences into hundreds of different combinations, creating different meanings from the same essential text. Kuleshov's landmark theory that film conveys meaning through the juxtaposition of shots was proven true even before he conducted his famous experiement with footage he shot himself.

I thought of Kuleshov and Intolerance last week while listening to Clint Hocking grapple with a question raised by Chris Hecker at a previous GDC: How do games mean? In other words, if film's basic unit of meaning is the shot, and the language of film is communicated via sequential editing, what is the language of video games? Can we understand how they convey meaning as clearly as Kuleshov came to articulate montage?

It's a valuable question worth pursuing, and Hocking's answer (simplified) - that dynamics emerge from player behaviors in response to mechanics and rules - helpfully articulates a relationship between player and game that's distinct from film, theater, etc.

But we tend to forget one important fact about those early theorists and filmmakers like Kuleshov and Vertov. They didn't discover the language of film. They were simply the first to articulate a theoretical description of it.

Griffith, whose film Intolerance was probably the most influential film of the Soviet era, instinctively practiced these principles in all his major films. He was instrumental in formulating the syntax of film by employing it - sometimes brilliantly, other times less so - in his own work. He came to understand film as an idiom by speaking its language himself. The framework he built, consciously or not, became the theoretical foundation for a lineage of filmmakers, beginning with Eisenstein, who studied these techniques and responded with his own refinements.

I mention all this because I see fascinating parallels between the creatively experimental work Kuleshov and his students did with Intolerance and the wild variety of creations currently being produced by the LittleBigPlanet community. In both cases, a brilliantly conceived set of assets is manipulated to produce original work that is unique and individually expressive, but channeled through a singular vision. The resulting creations are interesting by themselves, but more importantly they function as formal experiments that explore how to do and say different things with the same basic set of materials.

LBP 2's enhanced toolset offers more possibilities for breaking the platformer template, but even as designers try their hands at shooters and RPGs they continue to grapple with formal issues of design and construction. To extend the Intolerance parallel further, we can see this kind of 3rd-party experimentation as enormously useful if we assume it has effects beyond Sony's "Play/Share/Create" mantra. For those willing to dive in head-first (both creators and players eager to try original content), it promotes, for lack of a better term, video game literacy.

Such literacy produces more discerning players and more possibilities for progressive design ideas. It fosters an audience more receptive to both homage and experimentation. If you want to hear a creator reflect on the value of studying design from a player's perspective, ask Daisuke Amaya (aka "Pixel," creator of Cave Story) where he "went to school" as a game designer.

Maybe it's unreasonable to hope that "the Eisenstein of video game designers" will emerge from the LBP community, but as I've made my way through dozens of original levels recently, it's become clear that some of these designers are producing work of exceptional quality and refinement. Despite what you may have heard, not every LBP designer is working on a Super Mario Bros. level 1-1 clone. 

In my next post I'll feature a few of the most gifted LBP designers I've found, and I'll discuss why their work deserves your attention. In the meantime, if you haven't played LittleBigPlanet 2 you should remedy that at your earliest convenience. Yes, it's "floaty." Sackboy isn't Mario. You'll be fine. A game with so many wonderful ideas should be celebrated for what it is, not for what it isn't.

1. David Cook's "A History of Narrative Film" includes a fascinating account of Intolerance's impact on Soviet cinema, and I highly recommend it. I draw from Cook's work in this post.