Friday, July 18, 2008

Jazz and American Game Design

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.


Steve the Creep said...

I like your comparison between video games and Jazz. As an "imperfect art" as Jazz is, it's still an art. What will it take for video games to talk that next step and become art?

Even the sandbox style games you mention still have very strong narrative structures. And arguably very filmic narrative structures. (GTA IV does a film opening sequence better than most films) I think it's this urge by most designers to try to create interactive movies that keeps video games from becoming their own art form.

I think the projects that have come the closest to video game works of art would be the Sims and GTA. But then I look st stuff like Geometry Wars and remember that the whole industry started from Pong.

Anonymous said...

Hmmm, yes. Of course while some games emphasized the player's freedom to customize their own progress, some games are designed to illustrate a point and keep a specific path for the player.

With this said, what do you think about "BioShock", which has an equal amount of both jazz styles?

Actually, I'd go as far as to say that the freedom in BioShock is a major part of the illustrated point.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

(Sorry for the clumsy deletion!)

Wow, Iroquois. Thanks for a great post. I wonder what you'd make of the way I'm trying to deal with what I call the "sandbox-to-rails" continuum over at my place. For me, it has everything to do with the nature of interactive storytelling, just as it also did for the bards of ancient oral traditions like Homer.)

Yegwa said...

Games as jazz. I love it! It is odd though that although I really like improvisational jazz over the more formal and classicist stuff, I actually prefer videogame experiences that are more structured.

Games like GTA bore me after a while. Maybe not all players are good improvisers? In the same way that a bad jazz musician could play a terrible rendition of a great song. It could also depend on the structure of the 'game' I guess? Most games just allow a player to mess about in their world as opposed to really come up with elegant solutions or contributions to the narrative and in the case of no narrative, play styles.

Maybe that's what stops most games short from becoming art? The lack of anything worthwhile coming out from the player's improv. In this regard I guess shooters like Ikaruga or Gradius and competitive games can play like great improvisational jazz.

Nice post! Gave me something to think about. Sorry for the rambling. :-)

Iroquois Pliskin said...

@ Steve: I actually think that the "imperfect" label doesn't quite stick, because I believe that different forms of art have differing standards of excellence proper to each of them. (What makes a movie good as a movie is different from what makes a game good as a game.) And so I agree with you that games will not come into their own until they manage to tell narrative through gameplay rather than telling it through cinematics. I think there are a few games, like Half-Life 2 and Shadow of the Colossus, which do this really well.

@samurai: In Bioshock all the freedom comes from the number of options you have to deal with upgrading and the different ways of approaching enemies and the all the structure comes from the linearity of the levels and plot; I thought it was a pretty good mix of both, and the mechanics of upgrading reinforced the narrative in an interesting way.

@Roger: I liked your site a lot, and I think that there are some interesting parallels between games and other improvisatory arts like jazz and the ancient oral epic tradition, especially when you consider the role of the performer in the realization of the work. But don't players have a different relationship to the rules of composition than the epic performer had to those rules? Players need to discover and both the content and the rules at the same time.

Unknown said...

(Posted also at Living Epic.)

Thanks very much for stopping by, Iroquois!

I try to deal with the most important disanalogy that I see between the two models, that of the position of the various receivers of the game/story ("audience" ends up being too vague, I think) in a recent post. I don't think, though, that knowledge of the content and rules actually is a disanalogy, because the bard and the player are both creating within systems (oral poetics, game-rules) that they didn't invent, and which they learn more and more about as they go, and both are playing with content similarly given to them by other artists (previous bards, game-developers).

JP said...

Hey, cool, I made a similar comparison in a recent blog post, even the Miles Davis bit.

If player expression / improvisation hasn't produced anything super special to date, it's partly because not many games have catered to it explicitly. The frame around the structural tension between authorship and interpretation/expression is social, it's between the warring impulses within every game designer to control every pixel of the experience versus give players better means of expression. Either way as we get more mature about our craft, we'll get away from control for its own sake.

Anonymous said...

I really appreciate the time taken to make this comparison. I started a jazz ensemble made up of all university students studying the art of jazz. We're based out of Canada and are gaining recognition quickly in both the jazz and video game scenes. I hope you all like it.

Anonymous said...

As a musician, I think the Jazz analogy is a great one. In playing a song, it's always fun to modify it and create something new, but the song can only be modified so far before it loses its original identity. There is always a tension between being true to the original and improvisation. I'm always more towards the improv side of that spectrum and that has its own strengths and weaknesses. Others are more strict in following the original song.

The jazz analogy is more helpful than the movie analogy, especially when viewed from the perspective of the player. People play music. People play games.

My kids play games wrong, improvising instead of competing. In multiplayer games, they take turns winning, choosing the finishing order before they start. Often, one person will plug in all of the controllers for a multiplayer game and then fool around in the game, doing whatever they want without competition.

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