A couple of years ago I read Ted Gioia's History of Jazz. One of the interesting elements of that book was Gioia's insistence that Jazz is an “imperfect art.” While Jazz is typified by a common sound palette and a set of harmonic and rhythmic conventions, Gioia argues that the constitutive element of Jazz music is improvisation-- the expressive power of Jazz comes from the soloist's on-the-fly composition of music during improvised passages in the song's structure. While the song's composer dictates (to a greater or lesser extent) the harmonic framework of soloist's composition, the ineliminable discretion of the Jazz artist with respect to these dictates makes for the romanticism and spontaneity are the marks of genius in Jazz music.
Gioia argues that this friction between song-form and improvisation was the prime creative force in the development of Jazz music. Some artists, like Birth of the Cool-era Miles Davis and his collaborator Gil Evans, sought to achieve the restraint, formal complexity, and compositional closure of classical music within a Jazz idiom. Others (like John Coltrane, and Davis' 60's quintet) made music that emphasized the soloists' freedom; the formal structure of their songs had an open texture and impressionistic quality that allowed the soloist to relentlessly probe and attack the song's harmonic framework. Both of these reactions yielded unforgettable music, but Gioia's “imperfect” label reflects his conviction that these two responses are ultimately irreconcilable and placed limitations on the range of song forms that were possible within the genre.
I thought of this book when I saw some of the comments on my post about “rules and fun” earlier this week. When I was trying to flesh out an aesthetic for games in those posts I had placed all the emphasis upon the pleasures of intuiting the a game's formal structure and of grasping the intentions of the designer through one's apprehension of the game's rules.
Several commenters astutely pointed out that there was something classicist about this aesthetic understanding of games. It skews in favor of games (most of them Japanese-designed) that steer the player towards a specific set of choices and enjoyments. As a model it seems to have a hard time explaining the joys of sandbox style games like the Rockstar Games' Grand Theft Auto series and role-playing games like Oblivion. In these games, the designer furnishes a large group of tools (abilities, items, expansive environments) to the player and gives them the freedom to choose their problems and devise impromptu and unforeseen solutions to those problems. (This dynamic goes by the label “emergent gameplay.” In the terms of one of my previous posts, we might say this is like giving the player a paintbox rather than a script.) I think these commenters have a real point, since these (mostly American-designed) games best exploit the constitutive feature of games-- interactivity. They allow the player to make many of the most significant decisions, and create their fun through the player's free choice. Like Jazz, they celebrate and foreground the subjective and imperfect contribution of the player to the realization of the work.
These two differing approaches to game design point to a creative tension in many of the best recent games that is like the conflict described in Gioia's assessment of Jazz history. The more formally structured approach of games like Okami or Metal Gear Solid allow for the realization of a definite narrative. In order to achieve characterization, it is necessary for the game's figures to have relatively stable dispositions over the course of the game, and this is hard to achieve while placing all the control in the hands of the player. On the other hand, the unique fun of sandbox games, online multiplayer games like Halo and Team Fortress, and World of Warcraft comes from story that the player tells to herself by using the game's wide palette of rules.
I think these conflicting design imperatives of narrative and interactivity are especially conspicuous in the excellent Grand Theft Auto IV. As I said in a previous post, I think that game is a “problem” game, in the most complimentary sense: the ugly clashing-together of narrative and sandbox elements that mars the game at points is a sign of a game's quest for a higher synthesis.