Tuesday, September 30, 2008

On Visibility

Steve Gaynor reminds me of a stock character from my college years. If you went to college you probably know this guy too-- he sat in the back of the class and kept his thoughts to himself; wasn't the kind to chime in on every discussion. And then once every three weeks, he would open his mouth and out would come some absurdly articulate point about Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene, and you'd be like, “who the fuck is that guy?” And then you wouldn't hear from him again for a while. While the rest of us had been chattering on in order to stave off the section's inevitable slide into dread silence, he'd been, you know, thinking. Choosing his words.

The sense I get is that he's developing a view. Like, in his spare time he's been thinking about what makes games tick, what kind of art they are. And then he's decided to invest some effort in staking out a position. In games criticism there's a surfeit of cool one-off ideas, trenchant analyses of particular games, and clever riffs, but there's not many views to be had. I wrote a bit about Gaynor's piece “Being There” in late July, and his new post reads as a companion-piece, which expands on one of the central ideas he proposed there: abdication of authorship in video games.

Gaynor takes renaissance visual art as a model for the kind of creative ethos proper to video game design. Unlike other forms of art (say, romantic poetry and post-impressionist painting), whose object is to convey the author's personal vision of the world, renaissance aesthetics sought to eliminate all traces of artifice in order to achieve a maximally realistic rendering of nature-- a painting you could mistake for a window. This striving after lifelike representation led to technical innovations like linear perspective, which creates the illusion of depth in two-dimensional painting. In the case of video games, where rules are the medium of expression, this drive towards realism consists of the attempt to simulate the laws governing the world around us. So, we might say a physics engine is to game design what linear perspective is to visual art.

From this perspective, the designer's goal is to hide the artificiality of the game-world's rules to the greatest extent possible: “Every time the player is confronted with overt rules that they must acknowledge consciously, the lens is smudged, the stage eroded; at every point that a simulated experience deviates from the Holodeck ideal, the designer's hand is exposed to the player, drawing attention away from the world as a believable place, and onto the limitations of an artificial set of concrete rules governing the experience.” The designer's role, on this view, is to construct a world governed by realistic laws and then get out of the way. You put a world in front of the player and let nature take its course. He has some insightful practical advice on how to execute this program with regard to several basic design problems like level design and interface-- what sorts of choices “[set] up the game as a more perfect stage for others' endeavors-- the player's self-expression, and the writer's and visual artist's craft.”

On one hand, I think much of what Gaynor says squares well with my experience of certain games, like GTA4. The pleasure of that game comes from the sense of being dropped in an uncannily faithful simulacrum of New York and from the way that GTA's open structure puts emphasis upon the ubiquity of each player's experience. And he has never claimed that the game design philosophy he forwards here is the only valid one; he's only saying that, to his mind, this is the design path that best exploits the creative potential of the medium.

But I have some reservations about the desirability of the Holodeck ideal. First off, I have this belief that the fun of games comes from the uptake of unfamiliar rules. Stephen Johnson floats this hypothesis in Everything Bad is Good for You, that the the reason we enjoy video games is that our brain's evolutionary hardwiring rewards us for gleaning order and logic in the confused heap of our experience. And though I'm not sure about this idea as an empirical claim, I've always thought that he's onto something: what I enjoy about games is this sense that I am learning a set of novel rules, and that I am rewarded by the game for mastering them. Perhaps this is the sign of an overly slavish temperament, but if you throw an arbitrary condition my way I leap at the chance to satisfy it. This is just fun to me.

What frustrates us as players isn't so much the fact that game-worlds don't faithfully simulate the real world. Rather, I think we are frustrated by inconsistency-- game design that thwarts our reasonable attempts to follow out the logical implications of the rules that the game teaches us. (Like, “how come I can destroy pile of rubble A but not identical-looking pile of rubble B?”) A game like Braid totally confounds our expectations about the rules that structure time and substitutes a wholly arbitrary set of laws in their stead. But that is the very reason why we enjoy it-- Braid creates a world that is totally artificial and yet logical and coherent. The pleasure we take from Braid comes from ferreting out its beautifully idiosyncratic logic.

My second problem with the holodeck ideal is that it seems to force a false choice on us regarding the nature of artistic expression: either games are a stage for the player's self-expression, or they're a forum for the designers to impose his vision on the player. This choice is a counterpart to the dichotomy at the heart of Gaynor's account of visual art: it's about the artist or it's about nature. But I guess I don't think art is about making a choice between the two. My feeling is that the world is more interesting when told slant-- inflected by a particular sensibility and animated by a set of personal understandings. Though it may seem contradictory, there is a way that the world is more meaningful to us when it is made strange to us, seen through the prism of another consciousness.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty wrote an essay on the post-impressionist French painter Cezanne that beautifully illustrates these contradictions inherent in the nature of expression. The aim of art shouldn't be to furnish an unalloyed window into nature, he argued, because it is the hand of the artist that makes nature alive to us: Cezanne wrote that “The landscape thinks itself in me, and I am its consciousness.” He didn't express nature by removing the traces of his consciousness from the painting, but by laying bare the way that the mind shapes the lived world: this is expression. “Art is not imitation... it is a process of expression... Words do not look like the things they designate; and a picture is not a trope-l'oeil. Cezanne, in how own words, 'writes in painting what had never yet been painted, and turns it into a painting once and for all.' We, forgetting the viscous, equivocal appearances, go through them straight to the things they present. The painter recaptures and converts into visible objects what would, without him, remain walled up in the separate life of each consciousness: the vibration of appearances which is the cradle of things.” Merleau-Ponty's point is that expression is something born from the collaboration of two minds-- the spectator and the artist. By imposing arbitrary form on the material of the experience, the artist reveals a third thing that the both he and the spectator share: the world.

I think this vision of artistic expression as a form of collaboration is a truer description of the nature of game design than of any other medium, because video games are inherently interactive. And this is why the holodeck ideal has never appealed to me. What Merleau-Ponty says of Cezanne could serve as a blueprint for game design as well: “It is not enough for a painter like Cezanne, an artist, or a philosopher, to create and express an idea; they must also awaken the experiences which will make their idea take root in the consciousness of others. If a work is successful, it has the strange power of being self-teaching. The reader or spectator, by following the clues of the book or painting, by establishing the concurring points of internal evidence and being brought up short when straying too far to the left or right, guided by the confused clarity of style, will in the end find what was intended to be communicated. The painter can do more than construct an image; he must wait for the image to come to life in other people. When it does, the work of art will have united these separate lives; it will no longer exist only in one of them like a stubborn dream or a persistent delirium, nor will it exist only in space as a colored piece of canvas. It will dwell undivided in several minds, with a claim on every possible mind like a perennial acquisition.”


Nels Anderson said...

While I don't think Steve is making this argument, I am a little concerned that someone else might take his thoughts on the wrong direction.

Part of my appreciation for games (and other media) is that they facilitate thinking about the world in new ways. If I had access to a "Holodeck," the types of interactions I would have are limited by the ways I, as a single person, can think about them. A game with good authorial presence can assist me in thinking about things in ways I simply wouldn't have considered on my own. If I'm just let loose, there's only so much I can come up with.

As an aside, I'm glad you mentioned the importance of consistency. IMHO, having a "world" (in whatever form that takes) that behaves consistently is far more important than having a one that's congruent with the one we live in.

Iroquois Pliskin said...

@nelsormensch: yeah, I mean I tried to make it clear that Steve isn't saying this is the only thing game designers should be doing. I think his position is just that game designers haven't gone far enough in terms of making a world for characters to inhabit and fill with their own experiences.

For me, I don't think my desire to be transported to a specific place and to be set free to do as I want has been the primary draw. But then again maybe it just hasn't been done well enough yet.

Gaynor says his goal is to make the rule-set of the game "unobtrusive," and I think in this effort consistency is far more important than realism.