Sunday, 19 June 2011

The Player - the artist?

In this week's Extra Credits it was argued that we should treat the player of a video game as an artist and co-author of the game. One major point was that other media can be said to be valid without an audience, but not so for videogames. In video games a player is needed for the work to fully come to life. The other point was that players have an artistic role in this co-operative creation and that understanding the feelings that drive an artist can be used to make better video games. You can watch the whole video here:

While I think that Extra Credits is an excellent show, I do not really agree with this. The hypothesis of player-is-artist sound quite plausible at first, but I think that if you take a closer look it does not really hold up. I also think that if we choose to design games with this mindset, we might be missing out on very important things that can be done in the medium.

Why an audience is crucial
Consider the information that a novel transfers to its audience. More than often a few words is all that is given as base for the reader to imagine a scene. It is assumed that the reader is able to fill out large informational gaps, make assumptions and to even retroactively dress earlier scenes as new information comes along. A novel also throws a lot non-trivial concepts at the audience. Just consider something simple as a person being labeled as "depressed". In order for the reader to understand the state of mind of this character, a personal knowledge in human behavior and psychology is necessary. The reader simply cannot understand literature without a certain amount of experience.

What I want to say with this is that books cannot be enjoyed in a void. They have to be processed by a human with a certain amount life experience in order to come alive. An alien would be completely unable to understand any literature even if it could decipher the language. There are just so many prerequisites needed that a deep study of humanity would necessary for full comprehension. And even then it might not be possible for the alien to understand; the very workings of our minds is probably crucial for a proper enjoyment of the work.

Further more, the mental image painted up in our mind is not merely an opinion-based interpretation of the written text. It is a full blown world, populated and maintained by ourselves. We are not just doing a trivial text to sensory input conversion when reading. We are doing an actual simulation, constantly adding and updating details based on the written words of the novel. The book helps us a long on the ride, but at the end the heavy work is done by the audience.

This mental construction work is not passive exercise either. We choose where to read, what to skim, where to put focus, if something should be skipped and so on. This is even more evident in other media. When watching a movie, interactions with other audience members can help shape the experience (a simple example would be laughing during funny moments). When listening to a piece of the music, the settings, our own movements, etc all change the way in which we experience the piece.

Enjoying a work of art is a very human experience and I argue that in this regard videogames are not different from other forms of media. What is so special about video games is that data flows in two directions and that the audience can help shape the output to an extent far beyond any other media. However, that does not mean that experiencing a videogame is totally different kind of activity.

Why players are not artists
Unless a game is incredibly linear (e.g. Dragon's Lair) everybody who play it will come away with their own personal experience. Because of this it is easy to imagine that videogames differ a lot from other media by essentially making the player a story-teller. And as being story-teller is essentially equal to being an artist, it leads to the conclusion that players are artists. I do not think this holds up though.

Consider doing a trek through the woods. Even if several people follow the same route in the same forest, each one will have with very different experiences. Some might take side-tracks, have some unique encounters, do the trekking at a different pace, etc. The possibilities are essentially endless. The person doing the journey shapes his/her experience in a unique way and has a big responsibility in how it all turns out. Still, this is not an artistic endeavor.

That is until the hiker decided to write, paint, talk, etc about the trek. Once a narrative, in whatever media, is created of the personal experience, an artistic process takes place. The art is not in living the journey, the art is in conveying it to other people; to create a work that expresses the very personal sensory input, actions and emotions evoked.

The same is true for videogames. Even though the player posses a great freedom in shaping their path through the virtual world, this does not equal the player to an artist. Likewise, even though readers of books create and simulate complex worlds, this does not make the reader into an artist. It is not until the personal experienced is expressed in some kind of medium, be that a written narrative of a game session or a painting from a scene in a novel, that art is made.

Sure there are videogames that give great opportunities for creating art, Minecraft being an good example. However, this artistic creation is a side thing and is not a requirement. The players can simply just let themselves be one with world, build a shelter, etc. It is not until the player simply sees the game as tool and foundation for their own work when the line between player and artist really blur.

With all this I am not saying that the activity of enjoying art is void of creativity. As explained when discussing how we read books, I made it quite clear that it takes a lot of effort to do it right. However, this does not mean that the act of reading a book is categorically equal to writing one. Instead it is more like the difference between solving a puzzle and creating the puzzle in the first place. Both activities are creative and challenging, yet quite different.

Why this matters
Why even have this discussion? Is it not just a silly debate over semantics? Well in part it is. But if we do not take care and use the words properly they will start to loose meaning. If we would say that the activity that players participate in during play is the same as artistic creation, then I think we simply stretch the concept of artistic endeavors too far, making far less usable.

A more important reason is that the way we see the relationship between players and videogames greatly shape the direction we choose we take the design of videogames. Even though video games have a very different voice from other media, we should not think of the activity of experiencing it as completely different. I fear that if we see players as storytellers and artists, we will miss out on a lot of opportunities at expanding the videogames medium. If the player is an artist, then our focus on game developers will be on creating brushes. This implies a bottom-up design, were short-term effects trump the bigger picture. If we want make games with a deeper meaning this is not the way to go. Instead we must focus on a higher level, something I think the player's role as outlined here greatly encourages.

Also, saying that the player is an artist and storyteller shift the burden in the wrong direction. If we grant the player a large artistic role, we make it easy to blame the player for any lack of meaning in a videogame and discourage the creators from trying to add it. A painting should not require a painter to enjoy it, a play should not require you to act for it to be engaging, and so forth. Like great works of art in other media a videogame can require a lot from the player. However, this does not mean it is up for the player to create meaning and depth, it should instead be there for the player to find and become immersed in.


  1. I think both of your arguments hold water, but what I also notice is that both of you define 'artist' in quite different ways...

  2. A few grammar errors but an excellent read.

    Extra Credits are a bunch of inexperienced nobodies that have never had anything of value to say.

  3. @Suibriel James, the mind behind Extra Credits, seems to be a game designer. I have no idea what he has been working on throughout his career, though I do not think it is entirely fair to call them "inexperienced nobodies".

  4. @Thomas:

    Semantics or not, it's good that you've opened a discussion.
    I agree that it's not good to equate the player and the artist; for, although there certainly is an artistic component to the role of a player, it is only a part of the picture - and not all players have equal artistic talent.

    One aspect of game-related storytelling is "telling the story around the player", an the other is leaving space for imagination: from these two the player receives cues about an overarching storyline (that doesn't have to be explicitly introduced by the game designers, bat can stem from other elements), and uses these cues to shape the experience. That requires some artistic effort - because the player is creating the story and then telling it to himself.

    But, you mentioned Minecraft; note that it's primarily a sandbox game - it is important to establish what is it exactly that we mean by "game". What kind of experience we're aiming for?

  5. Hey Thomas. Thanks for your elaborate posts, they always tend to spark some ideas. Here's some slightly incoherent thoughts that ran though my mind while reading this:

    I agree that art requires an audience for it to mean anything, perhaps even for it to exist. But I'm not so sure about this: Saying art is not in the experience of walking through the woods, but rather in a painter's or a writer's communication of the experience to an audience might be true in some cases, but doesn't that kinda brush over the entire category of improvisational pieces?

    I'd say 'a walk through the woods', or more abstractly put 'a walk through a possibility space' is a very good way to describe the improvisational performance of a musician or dancer. Granted, it still requires an audience. You could perhaps say that the improv performance is a musician's way of channeling his or her experiences to the audience through the medium of music and to his fellow players. In fact, I can view improv (especially with multiple players) as a continuous feedback loop of experience sharing; the musical output of one being the input for the other, and so on.

    The above is, I think, something computers can do too. Games hardly do it to this extent, and I don't really think they can in their current form. Nevertheless I can (or hope to) imagine software somewhat reminiscent of games that enable these kinds of cybernetic experience loops between players and/or systems.

    I agree with you in how you compare games to paintings and books. We've done that, and learned useful things. But how about music, or dance in all their different forms? Especially *live* performance, where there's deeply varied interaction between different agents through some form of instruments?

    And game can have an audience that is separate from the players. I watch my friends play their favorites, and many people watch pro Starcraft matches. Here, there *is* an audience, and they *are* watching an improvisation of sorts, and meaning *is* generated. Here, the players are the improvisers, the game is their instrument, Blizzard are the instrument builders. The intent is very different, of course! Neither Blizzard or the players have any intention of communicating complex ideas through the medium of play. The player's have nothing to express apart from skill mastery, and that is pretty much what Blizzard designed the instrument to be used for. But with different intentions this could be changed.

    I guess Sleep is Death is a recent example of what I'm talking about. I imagine practiced SiD players could pour their souls into a live performance, with great value for anyone watching it unfold. I have no idea whether anyone's still playing SiD, it could be that it demanded too much from it's players.

    Still, games can make complex systems very accessible. And with better instruments, I'm quite curious to see where this could lead.

  6. The last header almost sounded as if you felt silly after writing this. ;-) You have a point though, I think they really meant "artist" and didn't misinterpret the meaning of the word or anything.

    Maybe this all boils back down to the player being creative in the decisions they make in games. It could be that EC looked at that wrongly. Seeing the title of this article I had to think about the concept of illusion of choice again.

  7. Regarding "telling the story around the player":
    I am guessing you mean moments games like Bioshock and Fallout 3 where the player can form story from the environment?

    If so I still do not think this means the player becomes an artist. This sort of gap filling, even it is extremely sophisticated, is still just the player becoming immersed in the virtual world. Books, movies etc also have this sort of thing were the audience has to do substantial work. David Lynch comes to mind as an example of this and "Last Year at Marienbad" is an even more extreme example.

    Also note that I say "videogames" (or at least tried to :) ) in effort to be a tad more specific. Still, the problem of clear definition still exist and there will always be gray areas.

    And while Minecraft, like simcity, etc is a sandbox game, I do not think this equate at all to the videogame being a tool for doing art. The default state is just to become one with the world and art creation is just side thing that. That said, I think that had videogames that at least try to tell some sort of story when I wrote the blog entry.

  8. Suibriel:
    I have to disagree that EC are inexperienced or whatnot. I think they often bring up very valid points, despite a somewhat limiting format. This is one of the few times that I really disagree.

  9. Heh, a tl;dr of my previous post. I'd like to see this:

    Software that is essentially an instrument for improvisation between players, with the game there as a catalyst to help things along and help players grow the skills they need for a sophisticated performance. Perhaps the game could even represent an actual player; an interesting conversational partner on its own.

    A musical instrument does the former, but it doesn't do the latter. This is why a lot of people give up early when learning to play. This is what Sleep is Death does, too, which makes the bar of entry way too high for most.

  10. Martijn:
    I have nothing against calling improvisation art. Pretty much all creation art start as a sort of moment of improvisation.

    I just do not see that player immersing themselves in world is the same as this.

    Sleep is Death is definitely slipper slope territory. It is quite obvious to me that the teller of the tale, really is crafting a story. It is much less clear if the person being told could be considered this though. I would say no, but I guess one could make valid arguments for the opposite.

    Starcraft is basically a sport when in that environment. This is also quite interesting, but do not think it is really connected to "art" vs "art viewer",

  11. I guess you're right. I would call a playthrough of Bioshock a work of art if the player somehow managed to subvert the story and mechanics, counter the arguments raised against Ayn Rand's philosophies and turn it into the entire experience into a pro-Rand message.

    Or something, hah. Merely experiencing the game, choosing which audio log to listen to, or how to kill a big daddy... You're right, that's not saying much to anyone.

    Plus, if you'd ever be able to take control in such a profound way you'd no longer a viewer.

    Thanks for your response. :)

  12. Both of you are/may be right, since there is no one universal way how to aproach video games - Minecraft, Zelda, Starcraft... all are good games, but each were done with different goals in mind. I can have great fun playing any one of them, but it will always be different fun...

  13. In reply to Thomas, but for the others too:

    I never advocated the idea that a gamer should be consider an artist - I just said that there's an artistic aspect to being a player.

    A few points...

    First - what is art? And I'm not seeking a definition here, but I want you to draw this understanding from your experience.


    These are, more or less, the obvious choices.
    But, software design can be art!
    Mathematics can be artsy, too!

    The artistic aspects of these are just harder to spot - because they are not so openly accessible as in the other cases. These require a certain investment first. The investment of knowledge, required to see the beauty.

    Art is creative expression. In games, the ones we want to talk about, what kind of artistry is involved.
    (1) Creative art of the developer/storyteller.
    (2) Creative expression of the player, using the game as a toolbox.
    (3) The art of immersion/self-storytelling.

    Now, (3) is very important. Think about it - all art is about immersion (take this word in a broader sense). Without the ability to immerse into a work of art - the "message" of the work can never be reached.

    Considering that players have different artistic skills, the quality of immersion will inevitably vary. Most of you talk about the player going through a level in a creative way, or using the game mechanics in a creative way. That is the sandbox aspect - I'm not talking about that.

    Earlier, when I talked about "telling the story around the player", and "filling the gap", I used those phrases in the sense they were used in this blog before (by Thomas). And I only mentioned them as examples of what kind of stuff triggers the immersion-artistry.

    Let me explain. In the beginning of Half-Life 2, there's an area featuring a children's playground, with a doll some kid lost.

    One kind of player will walk in there, and think: "Oh, look, some kid lost a doll. Damn the Combine, I'll kick their ass!".
    (excuse my French...)

    Another kind of player will have a different line of thought:
    "This was once a happy family, just living their lives. I wonder what happened to them? Is the kid OK? I hope the kid is OK... The Combine are nothing but fascists. They bully the people around, braking hope and bone to any opposition. The air is so thick with oppression you can cut it... Look at this city - what it turned into; fear, despair, brainwashing every day... It's enraging! It's sad! Tragic! It's just not right!"

    You'll agree that the two experiences are quite different!
    So, I'm not saying that the player should be considered an artist, but that this aspect of the player shouldn't be ignored.
    Provide enough material, enough subtle details, ques of various kind, and you can provide a much richer experience.

    A final note on why is "gap filling" an artistic endeavor.
    Who is art made for?
    At first, the obvious answer is for the receiver - the audience.
    Well, wrong. That may be a side effect of the process, but that is not the primary cause.
    Art is made for the artist that makes it.
    Why do you get an urge to write a song, or to paint, or to write a story? Or to plan-out and shape your storytelling effort?
    Because you have this need to express yourself, to make ideas flow out of you, to understand something on a deeper level. It is you who must be satisfied with your work, it is you who must find it of some value. Only then you can say: "Hey! This seems to be something good! Maybe I should share it with the world."

    Well, immersing is nothing else then telling a story to yourself (and not necessarily a verbal one). So, with experienced players, it can be art.
    But this is not limited to games. And this is not all that players do.
    So, I wouldn't categorize a player as a co-author.
    Just, don't forget that there's that, too.

  14. I'll pose to you the same question I asked of our escapist audience because I think it gets to the heart of the problem:

    Does football have a narrative? Indubitably so. But who creates this narrative? Because it's certainly not the people who originally wrote the rules to football...

    James Portnow

  15. Anonymous:
    I see where you are coming from, and I agree that it is possible to argue that the definition of "artist" does include the player. However, if you make that connection, then you cannot get away from making the audience of any media into artists aswell, and I think (for reasons outlined in blog) that is simply stretching the definition too far.

    And also want to repeat that not considering the player (or reader, viewer, etc for that matter) an artist, so not downplay the effort that goes into being playing a game at times. But I do not think you can say the activities are the same.

    All this boils down to the kind of statements you can make if you take either definition. For example, saying players are artist, implies that the motivation of creator and player of the game are essentially the same. A statement I do not think is helpful.

  16. James:
    Thanks for starting this conversation in the first place! :) I think it is quite interesting!

    On the football analogy:

    First of all, football is a game, a sport. It is not the same as a videogame. A videogame is a virtual world with strict unbreakable laws, whereas football is just a bunch of non-compulsory rules that forms the basis of play among a group of people. Yes, there are football games, but I would say these are very different. A football video game is not just the basic rules of football, but there is a whole virtual world added on top of that.

    So who is the narrator in a football video game? I would say this is an even clearer example than SimCity or similar. The creator(s) of the game is the one of created the space in which the narrative happens. Sure the exact plot and so on is unknown, but the player is not making it up as they play the game. They are simply letting the game "guide" them and along the way a narrative is created. A football game is created to give the audience a certain kind of experience, and it is in creating the virtual world that the artistic process lie, not when immersing your self in this world (as a player does when playing a football game).

  17. I like what Dan Pincbeck was trying to describe over at podcast 17 (or was it Briscoe himself). We observe the art from a point of view on it art itself - they were trying to describe being a a fly walking a sculpture, which I find an interesting view, but we are still observer. With linear singleplayer FPS, i think the audience is en-part a narrator and creator, but is reading from the same pages, and are not means an artist than that of those who read books. But sand-box, multiplayer, there we use the grammar and semantics of the game tool-set and create our own creation from within.

    but Valve brought this up, in an early HL2 interview when they were talking about the failings of sandbox being a creational tool and think people will be happy with just that, and that the story-teller and artist "need" to be in crafting the experience.

    Personally I'm a singleplayer nut, who wants more realistic worlds to be built (like the promise of Doom 1 creating the first decent space port to explore, but then filling it with things to be killed - a theme that has dominated First Person for the past 2 decades). I think the design challenge, is to remember all the important lessons learned, with colours, sounds, projecting our own emotions (from whatever experiences we have had) something which your guys at Frictional do well, I also was amazed by something I'd not seen in a First Person game and that was "wrenching" the controls, skewering the view to create a dramatic effect, as you "lost control", and it's a 1:1 relationship, you feel horrified, frustated at your immediete lack of control. If you brought that up in a conversation post HL2 I would have shouted you down, thou shalt not steal my control over the game. But here is Frictional doing it and it's Brilliant.

    It's an odd point to focus on, but my gut did so with a reason.
    Loosing control in amnesia, tells a story point, it en-parts you with feeling and emotion, it relies on your disgust and fear of loosing your FPS controls (and note it's not a cutscene - you are still able to crawl your way across the floor and I imagine drooling and urinating yourself uncontrollably in game with monsters stalking you).
    It was one of the more strongest experiences I noted in Amnesia, and I am neither artist nore creator when it happens.

  18. update: I stumbled across this, it feeds into Tomas' previous topic, and to sum it up. Projection.

    Just because we are projecting, filling in the blanks, does it necessarily meaning we are creating (co-creating) the narrative, and are artists ourselves. I don't think so, because most horror movies (some due to budget/bad special effects) rely on the creativity of it's audience, and yet do not imbue them with the title of artist.
    (in fact if you rewind back a minute you get a great quote from Eric that for him, the game does not exist, it only exists in the minds of the player)

  19. @Thomas
    Fantastic! I love the discussion.

    I have to disagree about live football being fundamentally different than a football videogame, but that aside (as we could fill several pages with that discussion) my response would be:

    Ask different Madden players what the narrative of their game was. Then ask the guys at Tiburon what the narrative of Madden is. Only one of those groups won't be able to give you an answer...and all the other answers will be radically different. If that's not a creative act, and one that's fundamentally different from how we interact with a novel or a painting, I don't know what is.

    (this is true to varying degrees for all games, even the most linear, pre-scripted, narrative heavy, JRPGs)

    James Portnow

    P.S. We can use FIFA rather than Madden if you'd rather for football ; )

  20. James:
    I am wondering if we use the same definition for narrative, and perhaps that muddles the discussion I bit. Normally (at least in film theory) the very simplistic definition of narrative is the combination of: plot, characters and story.

    Plot here is string of events that make up the narrative, characters the agents in the narrative and story is the overarching environment / backstory for it all.
    (I have previously used narrative for plot, so have been trying to clean up my terms after that).

    So given a game of football (American style or other) you got the basis of the story and characters already laid out by the designers. So what is created dynamically is the plot. However, I would not say that the players creates this themselves, it is rather something that comes to be as matches are played. The dynamics that create these different outcomes are determined by the videogame. And the outcomes cannot be anything, they must lie within the space of possibilities that the video game set up.

    So the designers do not create specifics plot, but they do create a system for certain kinds of plots. This combined with the pre-made story and characters form a narrative that is very much created by designers of the game.

    Now players can of course add extra depth to their experience, like dressing the back-story with more details, giving personalities of the various players and so on. But I cannot see how this is different from when reading a book or watching a movie. You can make up all kinds of extra story to vague characters, imagine all actions during cuts, etc. Sure it is a creative act (and videogames can be creative for its audience in a way that no other media can) but it is not the same kind of activity that was used to create the work.

    Given the definition I gave above, I do not see that video game narrative is that much different from other media. The two core differences are that the plot is not set and that the feedback process between medium and audience is far more intricate.

    PS: About the "pure game" vs "videogame" discussion you might wanna read this:
    Let's leave that discussion for another time though, but just thought that article might be of interest.

  21. RE to Thomas, and also @James:
    I never said that I agree that the player should be considered an artist, I just said that there's an artistic aspect to it. And I also said that this is not limited to games.
    So we (more or less) agree.

    But, footbal/soccer/tenis/chess/{<< real or virtual}/Quake Live/tetris... - these are not the kind of games I feel that we should focus the discussion on.

    The narrative of these is trivial. There can be creativity there too - you can creatively stack up tetris blocks, but - these are what i called sandbox aspects. You've been given a bunch of toys and rules, and left to play. I mean, Mortal Kombat has a narrative, right? But, it's purpose is secondary, and it's quality is... nowhere to be found. Extra Credits talked about aesthetics - well, I think we should focus on storytelling aesthetics.

    Maybe Extra Credits referred to games in general.
    But your goal at Frictional isn't to create the perfect ping-pong simulation or something.
    All your efforts have been directed towards creating a deep, profound, immersive interactive experience through the act of storytelling. (Except for Energetic - but, wasn't that ordered?)
    I think this is the kind of games that we should focus on this blog, and that this is the kind that is, more than other types, fundamentally connected to this discussion.

  22. @Thomas
    Sorry for the delay; sleep, then work overtook me ; )

    I find it strange to argue that the creator might not know the plot, the characters or the setting to their own creation. This to me is much akin to saying that the canvass maker and the paint mixer are really those responsible for a painting.

    For, in our hypothetical football game, the Madden player will tell you what characters took part in what plot and in what setting the plot unfolded. This isn't something that the designers or the developers can do.


    (As an aside about the utility/thinking behind the whole piece:
    I would wager a fair amount that when someone finally gets around to slapping electrodes on the skulls of people playing games and compares them with people reading and telling stories, we'll find that the brain activity that occurs when playing games is much more akin to that of telling a story than that of reading one. This to me implies that we need to understand how telling a story effects us psychologically if we want to create better player experiences.)

    James Portnow

  23. Regarding characters:
    Well, the designers do make a roster of characters and the same applies for an rpg. Even if the all characters were randomly generated, I would still say the designers are the ones creating the characters.
    The way I see it, the only way the players can have be artist in this sense is if they have a character creation menu for all major characters of the game, or if they write the algorithms that control the random generation.

    Regarding player as story teller:
    If I get you correctly, and speaking in p&p rpg terms, then your goal would be for the player to become the dungeon master? Instead, I think that the role of dungeon master should be the computer, that is what I consider the goal of the interactive storytelling.

    Examining the brain state would be really interesting, btw. I wonder if these kind of processes are not too complex for current tech though. But nonetheless, would be interesting to see what areas fire up. Might give some good hints.

    More on making art:
    Another thing that I have against the player as artist thing, that I probably have not taken up, is that the state on is in when creating art is not something that I see as goal for how I want players to experience the game.

    Creating a piece of art is often struggle, and more often than not it is quite boring and monotone. It is means doing something that you are not quite sure is possible, whether it is due to your skills or just technical or physical limitations. It is quite common that your imagined goal is not possible to attain.

    The experience of viewing art is not like this, and nor do I want it to be. I want it to be a fluent experience, not necessarily fun and exciting all the time, but it should not be grueling monotone work. I also want to set up the experience in such away that I know it is possible, and know that most will, be able to receive its fullness.

    Striving for the player to be an artist seems to me like it goes against how I want games to be played.

    Sure, one can say that the player should be an artist BUT that it should still be a fluent, well-defined experienced. That I see as trying to have the cake and eating it.

  24. Anonymous:
    Yeah, I agree. While football can be exciting it not really meaningful in the way we want to progress the videogame medium. But I do think the example holds in principle: what if we can have a videogame that was as open and interactive as football, yet carried more meaningful depth. This is actually one of the ways we are thinking about our upcoming game :)

    And "artistic aspect" kind of implies artists? Is not "creative aspect" better? Or is it just me messing up terms again :)

  25. RE: @Thomas:
    "But I do think the example holds in principle: what if we can have a videogame that was as open and interactive as football, yet carried more meaningful depth. This is actually one of the ways we are thinking about our upcoming game :)"

    Then it ceases to be a sport/sandbox/whatever game and becomes something more - but not necessarily a storytelling effort yet (although it can be that too).
    And, though I don't think a classic football videogame is very open or interactive, but rather constrained, I get your point.
    It is an interesting area to explore, but I think that one has to be very careful and meticulous. It's because then, instead of a few clear rules and goals, the player would be suddenly faced with a world of possibilities, and if the game doesn't provide adequate guidance, gameplay would suffer. Especially because this guidance should be so subtle the player wouldn't even know it's there. But if done right, this could really make the difference. It requires rich mechanics, far beyond anything we've seen before.

    I think the way to go to provide this richness is not by trying to simulate the world in all it's complexity, but to have a relatively small number of core mechanics that can somehow combine/interact in a multitude of ways, providing a wide variety of possibilities. And these should be made very game-specific, if they are to have meaning, instead of being just a generic way of doing something in a game.

    Wow. That is so abstract I don't even know what I'm talking about. But it's somewhere along these lines: Extra Credits has a video where they talk about including "the writer" from the very start of the development process - having the story in mind from the beginning. The key there is that the developers should investigate what are the key emotional aspects of the story, regardless whether it's a smallest detail or something of major significance, and then be ready to prepare very specific code that would support these.

    "And "artistic aspect" kind of implies artists? Is not "creative aspect" better? Or is it just me messing up terms again :) "

    You're probably right. "Creative" is more general, and probably more appropriate.

    I think you nailed it with this:
    "The experience of viewing art is not like this, and nor do I want it to be. I want it to be a fluent experience, not necessarily fun and exciting all the time, but it should not be grueling monotone work. "

    I'm just saying that those players who have an artistic streak should not be ignored. Why? Well, if you invest your time and money into enriching your game with elements that provide opportunities for "filling the gap", but that most of your players won't even notice or understand, may seem like a waste. Thus it seems reasonable to focus only on more general ways of communication. But, this "hidden" richness will mean a world to the minority that "has the eye" for it. It will make your game into something magnificent. And some of those who missed it for the first time will maybe come back to the game when they become more experienced or developed, and then they will find this hidden value. People will talk on forums/and blogs how great this game is because of these subtle statements it makes, and people will come back to it to see for themselves.
    The game will have a lasting value.
    At least, the way I see it.

  26. (continued)
    Consider when you yourself are playing a game. Don't you catch yourself sometimes contemplating over some in-game detail, letting your imagination go wild, even though the developers didn't really thought much of that detail, it just happened to be there?
    In SH4, there's a time when you end up on the lake-shore. They intended it to be creepy, and the aria was dark and gloomy, but otherwise nor very inspired. However, to me, the scene was somehow endlessly sad. To me, the lake was a symbol of life, of nature, of a world that is not concerned with our human mischiefs. Of a place that was once beautiful, but that is now corrupted with evil that probably human's caused in the first place. A symbol of innocent victims. I have similar feelings about war - in the sense similar to WarCraft 3 FMV: "Remnants of the war scar the land".
    What if the developers had predicted that the image of a lake can produce such strong feelings? What if they decided to enrich that area with a bunch of subtle details that would contrast the lost beauty and peace with the horrors that are there now? What if they told Akira: "Hey, this is a perfect place for a troubled tune"?

  27. Been thinking and me saying that a player needs to create the characters in order to be an artist is not correct. You can have a pre-made set characters, environment, etc and still be an artistic storyteller.

    The whole difference lies in how the story comes about. For the player there is a flow, gets event thrown at him/her and he/she acts as if inside the virtual world. The goal of the player is to become immersed. An artistic story teller does often not have a fluent experience when creating, makes up events and "acts" depending on what is best for the narrative.

    Not sure if anybody is still reading comments, but now I at least corrected myself :)

  28. @Thomas:
    I hope you read this - it's a bit off topic, but I just think it's good to throw the idea out there.
    I think it's a good idea to explore further what breaks immersion.
    There are the obvious things - something that is inconsistent with the game world, or that doesn't make any sense, or that prevents fluent gameplay.
    But get this - in Amnesia, while your regular player wont, for example, feel that the (unrealistic/unnatural) first person camera movement in the initial stumble through/wake-up sequence breaks the immersion (or at least, prevents the immersion to happen faster), a player with more developed observation skills will - although the game is likely to be forgiven for this.
    Who are these "observant people"? Game devs, actors, painters, writers, scientists, or just regular people with this kind of talent.
    The point is that for both (broad/blurry) categories, attention to this kind of detail will make the game that much better and more immersive, although some of them will not realize it.
    Especially if this detail is somehow related to some aspect of human behavior, because we are all good at recognizing that, even if only at an subconscious level.
    That's why these things are hard to fake (e.g. facial expressions - the most prominent example).

    Which brings me to my point:
    Why not devise dev tools that help achieve realism?
    Relatively simple tools with specialized tasks?

    Take the camera example: instead of scripting it with - look here for X ms -> then there for Y ms -> and then there for Z ms, why not load up the scene in a tool, maybe setup some initial overall motion, and then record camera rotation, while using the mouse to rotate it? Then maybe tweak things a bit, optimize and save to a file.
    And then do something like: PlayCameraAnim("").

    This is an affordable approach that could give your game an increased level of realism, and better immersion.

    Or check this our: you know how people, when they feel scared and unprotected, tend to "keep their head low"? Or how they "walk toll" when they accomplish something? What if you incorporated this into Amnesia, making the camera only slightly lower when the player is supposed to feel danger (not talking about the crouch/crawl state here)? It's so subtle no one would notice, yet subconsciously it would make the player feel small, insignificant, weak, threatened.
    Or if the camera got a bit higher when the player solved a puzzle - the feel-good/walk-tall moment? That would, for example, make it possible for you to make that puzzle-completed glow even more subtle.
    Again, I hope you read this - it's an interesting thing to explore, and you're in position to do so.

  29. @Thomas
    I still have the same issues:
    Creating a roster of characters is like creating a roster of paints. The thing creating the constraints is not actually the generative force behind the art.

    We don't deny authors the title of artists simply because they work within defined rules of grammar and vocabulary, nor do we argue against western musicians being artists simply because they work in a scale with 12 semitones.

    In terms of pen and paper RP, no, I think the player should be the player, but if you think the Dungeon Master is the only one telling the story there I'd have to bitterly disagree.

    As far as the artistic experience goes, I think that you extrapolate too far in saying that because it can be boring it must be boring. Stacking blocks is boring. Tetris is not boring. Running a farm isn't always fun, but Harvest Moon is fun. Getting shot at I'd imagine is generally a bummer (though arguably more exciting than the other two) but Call of Duty is fun. Games are about taking experiences that aren't necessarily always engaging in real life and distilling the amazing bits.


    P.S. This discussion's been a blast. Would you mind if I asked the escapist if they wanted to post it (with a link to your blog)?

  30. James:
    Yeah, you are correct about the roster thingie and I was wrong. I actually said so in an earlier comment a few steps up too :) (yeah I know easy to miss, blogger comments are not best of discussions forums...)

    I also want to say that I do think that players are part in creating a story. So agree there. But I disagree that the process is just like an artistic storyteller, I argue instead that it is quite unlike that and more like the activity of experiencing other media, just that it is much more powerful, because of interactivity.

    And regarding Tetris & farm analogies:
    Yeah are correct, Tetris is not at all like stacking boxes. And the reason for this is that it has not strives to be like a box stacking experience. Same with farming. You do not create a videogame about farming with the goal of making it as much as real farming as possible. And in the same way, you do not make the player emulate the work of a "normal" storyteller, but you strive for other goals instead.

    However, I think the analogy is flawed. Because creating a game about a story is not the same as creating a game about a story teller. If you were to create a game where the player had the role of, say screenwriter, then I have to agree that you can view the player as a kind of artist, and try to distill that experience.

    However, that is not what most videogames try to do. The goal is to put the player in a virtual world and make them have the most immersive and powerful experience in that world based on certain characteristics setup by the designer(s). I do not think it is helpful to think of the player as a storyteller in this kind of situation. Instead the player is very much an audience and given input from player, the video game's job is to create the most compelling narrative possible, within the preset framework of the of intended experience. Sure the player decides a lot of things during the journey through the game, but does so given his/her role inside the virtual world, not in the role of a co-storyteller.

    And again, I think this is important because it puts all the responsibility on the author (the game designer) to provide depth and meaning. Sure, the player also has responsibility, more than in most other media, to try and immerse him-/herself as much as possible in the experience. But doing so, they can only get as much out of the experience as put in by author.

    Yeah, very fun that decided to respond! I have gotten some more stuff to think about for sure. And no problem if you repost this at the escapist.

  31. Video games are actually very similar to other forms of media like music and books. For the designer to cater to the audience is no different than popular culture music catering to the mass. Rebecca Black and her Friday song was horrid, but believe it or not it made many sales through iTunes. Does that make it a good song? It was not good, but because it sold, others tried to follow the same example. That is the last thing I hope Frictional Games would do, cater to the masses and make generic games.

    Game studies and developers, should make games in what they are good at and explore new areas in their art. Similar to like writing a book, I find that good books are the ones that know when to end rather than making a sequel after a sequel. Harry Potter may cater to the audience and have many books, similar to your modern CoD4 rehash or Pirates of the Carribean, but many Stephen King books are short and provide a unique experience. I'd really like to see Frictional Games experiment with different forms of gameplay, graphics and storytelling. A game does not even need to have the best graphics to give the scare, I'm sure in some cases shoddier graphics (like the Legend of Zelda Shadow Temple) work quite well.

    Some of the best twists in stories include the Sixth Sense and especially Stephen King's "The Dead Zone." I'd really like to see these kinds of stories mixed into a horror game. There is always the psychological movies to study as mediums and implement into video games. I would recommend them to read and come up with newer ideas that have no been explored and see how far it could take them. Perhaps the audience may not enjoy it, but at least it will be fun and creative for the designer. If it's good, it will eventually be noticed.

  32. @Thomas
    My fault entirely. I was trying to respond on my phone while running between meetings ; )

    I totally missed a few posts scrolling up and down on my 3 inch display.

    Onto the heart of the matter!

    Well put! I'm willing to agree with the idea that the player is part of the narrative crafting but that they may not be replicating the exact experience of the storyteller. In fact I think you're right on, I think they're doing something unique for our medium, but I think the closest analog is the storyteller and that we, as game designers, are remiss if we concentrate only on our part of the narrative crafting without regards to this player act.

    Re Tetris:
    Concession, the analogy is flawed, you're totally right. I wasn't really trying to draw the direct analogy, I was just saying that games are about distilling the most engaging parts of an experience and I feel as though they do that with narrative crafting as well.

    As to the last part:
    Here I still have to disagree, but such is the great thing about theory...

    I don't think we can think any longer about presenting our narrative to an audience, but rather about exploring a narrative with a player. No matter how constricted, we are laying out a space of possibility rather than a conventional narrative, and no matter how linear we make our games there are details that the player must fill in.

    If we try to do otherwise, we simply draw closer and closer to emulating film. And the world does not need a lesser form of film (because we will always be worse at providing a filmlike experience than cinema).

    To me we must even rethink the word "audience" because it implies that one is merely audient rather than participatory - that one observes rather than interacts - and this is not the player at all.

    James Portnow

    P.S. This was a great. It was really interesting to me because in most cases when talking design with designers, we talk it through, hash it out and then come away with a revised and hopefully improved set of ideas, but since this was really a discussion about how to conceptualize the player I'm not sure there is as clear a line. I respect everything you said, and it certainly made me tighten my thinking/drill down on some of the ideas, but fundamentally I think they're just two fundamentally different, but perhaps equally valid ways to understand the player from the designer's perspective.

    I'm going to pass this to the escapist guys, but if there's anything you want to add, just throw it on or jump in the forums when it's up!

  33. "but rather about exploring a narrative with a player. No matter how constricted, we are laying out a space of possibility rather than a conventional narrative, and no matter how linear we make our games there are details that the player must fill in."

    100% agree with this. Especially with the first sentence. A game is more of an exploration of a narrative space and the more we realize this the better narratives we can have in game.

    I think our biggest disagreement lies in how to approach this. I think that we can learn a lot from other media, not be replicating what they do, but by looking "under the hood" of the audience and see how that can be expanded. I argue that people watching movies, reading books are already doing substantial work and that we can simply take this to the level (again, not be the kind of "cinematic" games or whatnot that is common in the mainstream).

    You seem to think that approaching the process of an author is the way to go as the work the player is doing is essentially a distilled version of telling a story. This is something I still disagree with, but you have made me think a lot more about it. Also, I am might be terribly wrong about this, so I think it is very good that you explore another as path. As you said, right now all this is just theory.

  34. A slight correction:
    Quote: "As you said, right now all this is just theory." (Thomas)

    If you wanna go down the scientific path - here meaning a methodical, exploration-based approach towards knowledge and deep understanding:
    all is just a hypothesis - there's no such thing as "just a theory" in science. There is nothing above theory in science - it is the end goal. Scientific use of the word "theory" is not the same as in a colloquial setting.

  35. Anonymous:
    Ah yeah sorry :)
    I actually DO use hypothesis in pretty much all blog posts :)

    Although, one could also argue that we were just using it in the casual sense, in which I think it is fitting. Comments are not academic papers after all ;)

  36. :D
    Words are means to meaning.
    Well, yeah, OK - but people generally tend to throw that word around, twisting it as they please - so academic paper or not, when someone actually starts talking about science/research in terms of a well established theory, your average layman dismisses all of the profound implications of the study, just because of their (miss)interpretation that word. Or even worse, when politics/religion/pseudoscience/what-not starts to exploit this tendency - like when creationists say the evolution is "just a theory", hoping to portray something that has central role in many modern life sciences, and even in our lives (trust me, it does - if you ever got sick, for example), as something not even marginally well established.
    Well, people - Newton's theory of gravitation, the one that makes your house/building stable, or that makes satellites possible, is "just a theory". It's a model of reality. As such, it applies only if certain conditions hold. It can't explain every gravitation-related phenomena. There's a beter, more recent, encompassing theory that does that - ask Einstein :D.
    And even that theory blows up in certain places. Like in the center of a black hole...
    We don't know everything, but theories - models of reality - that we make, have a well defined domain. These are constantly questioned and improved upon, and are asked to endure the test of time.

    P.S. Whatever they post at the Escapist, could you (or someone) post the link here?

  37. This was incredibly difficult to read due to a number of errors or wording that doesn't flow well. Specifically in the second paragraph of the conclusion.

    "... shape the direction we choose we take the design of videogames."
    "... we should not think of the activity of experiencing it..."
    "If we want make games..."

    It really detracts from what you're saying when your audience needs to keep stopping to try figure out what you're saying.

    That being said, you have good points and it was interesting.


    The article is up.

    James Portnow

  39. Your comments are 100% spot on. As for Extra Credits, when they started on Youtube (kirithem) they were excellent. When they went on to the Escapist they started getting gradually worse. This video on "the player as artist" is (so far) the culminating example of how they follow whatever "new" theory is said at the GDC that has already been considered and debunked by videogame thinkers 5 or more years prior.
    - Q

  40. "...if we do not take care and use the words properly they will start to loose meaning"

    Oh the irony. So very much irony.

  41. Other than the unnecessary, uncalled-for trolling, what is the point of that last comment?

  42. "When they went on to the Escapist they [ExtraCredits] started getting gradually worse."

    I disagree. Maybe you are biased :P
    In any case, their ideas may seem a bit abstract at times, but they present valid points, striving to get you to think about various game-dev topics. They never claim they are The All-knowing Gods of Game Development.
    I think what they are doing is very valuable.

  43. I Think I am partially with you.
    Whereas they may not be artists by experiencing a situation as in a game or a path through the forest they are still an integral part of the experience, for if a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it does it make a sound?

    If we are not to think of them as artists we must instead consider them the paint. The developer must manipulate the player to create the experience they want the audience to have.
    A perfect example is in Half-life 2: episode one.
    During the opening act of the game you step out onto a walkway. Subsequently you are shot by a combine soldier and you turn to face him. with expert timing a dropship lifts off in front of you and you watch it fly away as the combine soldier has now disappeared.
    This manipulation of the player has led to the experience that the developer had hoped to achieve. And it is in this way that we think of the player as integral to the art as a storyteller and the paint on a canvas.

  44. " [...] for if a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it does it make a sound?"
    Hell yeah! It does. :D
    That's just the typical egocentric standpoint our species is so keen to take. We believe that the world begins and ends with us...
    But, you're right: an experience is meant for an audience.
    So in that context, I agree...

    "If we are not to think of them as artists we must instead consider them the paint."

    That's actually pretty well put.
    But a developer must not forget that this is the kind of paint that might misbehave, and add it's own touch to the painting. It is important to conceptualize the project with this in mind from the start - and I think that's the mid-line between the two opposing views; it's also worth noting that neither one of these views is too far from that line.

  45. I think you need to go more into what being an artist is. Drawing a sword is not, inherently, a form of art. It is just pulling a piece of sharp steel out of a sheath - but put that same steel and sheath in the hands of an Iado master and you will see something beautiful and artistic to drawing a sword.
    By the same token, you could take any action and say it is not artistic - but the way in which someone does the thing and the finely honed skill involved can make it a thing of artistic beauty.
    In the StarCraft II example someone mentioned in the comments - there are people who play the game, then there are people like TLO and WhiteRa who make an art of the game just as much as any martial artist makes an art of their pursuit of understanding and mastering conflict resolution.
    Not everyone who draws on paper or slaps paint on a canvas is creating art or is an artist - art requires a level of passion and mastery and a player who achieves both and who contributes to the whole of the experience (how many people tried mass raven build after seeing TLO do it, or started incorporating Warp Gates in every match having watch Husky's videos?) is, IMHO, most certainly an artist.

  46. "then there are people like TLO and WhiteRa who make an art of the game just as much as any martial artist makes an art of their pursuit of understanding and mastering conflict resolution."

    But this is a different kind of art - not the art of creating a story-rich, emotionally engaging game.
    Their art takes the game as a tool, and does something new and compelling and unexpected with it. But, if an artist is inspired, you can get artworks made using the most mundane things - like, I don't know, just household items, or some junk.

    Is everyone who uses these things an artist? No.

    Are these things made with the intention of being a part of an art-piece? No.

    Are the artist that designed a poster, and the artist that decided to use that poster in his own artwork co-creators?
    What about that vine bottle the other guy used? Or that picture frame he decided to put into his composition?
    Does this makes them co-creators?
    Not really - because their intentions were completely different and unrelated.

    Should games be made to require this kind of artistic approach in order to play? No - because then only, like, 2% of the world population could truly enjoy a game.

    Games aren't tools, they are virtual, interactive adventures.
    I mean, you can take a book, and create performance of it, have an actor read it out loud, you can set up a big screen with inspiring animations and awesome atmospheric music, and enjoy it yourself along with other audience, but this is not that book anymore, this is something else. The book was not meant for this, you don't write a book so that it could be made into a movie or a theatrical performance - your primary intention is to tell a story. Otherwise, why choose a book as a medium in the first place.
    Similarly, you don't make games so that someone could perfect their gameplay skills into a work of art - your primary goal is different. And if some player does that, nothing is changed, and this is no longer the same art.

  47. Great discussion opener. I am currently writing my IRP on the same topic. The ludology vs narratology discussion is fascinating, and I do not believe we can accept some of the Extra Credits analysis of other mediums in opposition to videogames. Plainly speaking, a book, once created, has no need for a reader: the text cannot exist without a reader. Fine it can in its material form, but it needs the reader to be complete as much as the game needs the player. Both mediums (and this can incorporate cinema) are a form of controlled interactivity. The text I read will never change in its material, but what I take from it, how I interpret it, how I read it (do i skip, do i meticulously read every word, what I choose to assign meaning to, what I read between the lines, what allusions I pick out) will always be different from how others read it, different also in the sense that I may assign a message or meaning that the author never intended to be there. This interactivity passes over to videogames. My choice is an illusion, sure I can choose different approaches to how I play the game, but this is not inexhaustible. My choices are only such because the game allows me to do something, I am still controlled by the game, controlled by my avatar. Sonic needs me to complete the game, I am under his control, he desires to get to the end and I have to comply with his wishes and get him there...and if I idle, he will look at me and remind me that I need to play. We buy games to play them, but once we acknowledge the game when we press start, the game plays us (press start to play is a command, not a choice, if we wish to play the game).


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