No Time To Play

Quo vadis, game developer?

by on Dec.25, 2014, under Opinion

I was going to work on a game these days, both because change is good (I just finished writing a story) and in order to get an old promise out of the way. But sometimes things just don’t go the way we want them to. After a quote from my latest newsletter made the rounds on Twitter, I made the mistake of sharing a link to the whole thing. Given the controversial nature of what I wrote, guess it was a lucky thing that only Emily Short answered me, and her entire reaction to it was, I quote,


Fair enough. I owe you an explanation, Emily. Pun not intended at all.

You see, my recent rant is ostensibly about interactive fiction. But really, all I did was reiterate some points made over a year ago about the state of game development at large. Needless to say, I think the same points still apply. If this year I complained about interactive fiction specifically, it’s perhaps because I had much higher expectations from this particular genre.

For the past 20 years — to choose the first IFComp as an arbitrary landmark — interactive fiction has been massively advancing the state of the art in most fields of game design, without any reward or even acknowledgement. No seriously, the amount of research that went into Inform 7 alone would be deserving of a Nobel prize if there was one for computer science. All that while the game industry at large was focusing on graphics at the expense of everything else. (And look where it got us.) Now that interactive fiction is mainstream again, we should be able to wow the world with games of a depth and richness never before seen, like alchemists coming out of our labs with Philosopher’s Stones proudly held high for everyone to see.

Guess I should have set my sights lower. How about people being nicely surprised that the aforementioned competition isn’t just a bunch of amateurs fooling around?

In this business (for certain values of business), we love telling anyone who will listen that computer games can and do qualify as art. We don’t seem to be so good at proving it. In fact, those games that do often eschew many of the elements we usually associate with gaming.

So what exactly are we doing here, then? Does anyone have a clue yet?

Let me tell you a story. If you read blogs and other online sources dedicated to writers, you’ll find lots of advice about how to write, and what to write about, or not. Very strict advice too, as if writing was a religious ritual with precise rules you bend at your peril.

And it all misses the point. I often talk to aspiring writers who seem to get stuck a lot, and it’s never an issue of skill or ideas (especially not ideas; those are a dime a dozen). But I ask them, what is your story about? And they start telling me about this guy who goes to X, does Y, and Z happens to him.

“No no no,” I tell them, “I meant the theme. The point. Why are you telling this particular story? What you’re talking about is the plot.”

Turns out, they invariably have no clue.

Interestingly enough, Chris Crawford made the same point about games in his classic book The Art of Computer Game Design. A game featuring King Arthur, for example, might be about leadership. Whenever you’re not sure what should go in the game — be it story, mechanics, locations or whatever — fall back on what the game is about. On what it’s trying to convey. It can be a concept, a feeling, an experience… but it has to be something. A guiding line.

Think about it. How many games out there are made just for the sake of making a game?

The vast majority of them, isn’t it? Including my own.

Mind you, I didn’t always know this little secret. When I first started writing (and that was as soon as I could write), all I wanted was to tell more cool stories like those that had captured my imagination. Don’t all writers start that way? But sooner or later one should move on to the next stage, lest they remain all style and no substance.

Game developers never have. And that’s why the vast majority of games you play sooner or later blend into an amorphous mass you can barely remember. Most text adventures, too. And of those you do remember, how many impressed you through what they had to say, rather than the way they were put together?

Superior technique isn’t going to get us out of this one, folks. We already know better graphics aren’t helping (on the contrary). But neither does better narrative design.

How well can you tell a story about nothing?

You’d think I’d have figured out the parallels sooner, considering I’ve been writing with some success for three years now (as an amateur, mind you; and yes, that’s how long I needed to bloom). But as it turns out, in game development you can sort of wing it, bashing components together until they stick. If you’re successful, no-one will notice anyway — after all, everyone’s doing it.

If it sounds like I’m dismissing the technical accomplishments of the interactive fiction community, I apologize. Those are very real and important. After all, you can’t compose a symphony without having a great deal of technique. But if technique is all you have, don’t be surprised when the only people who care are other authors in the same medium.

Interactive fiction is the jazz of computer gaming. And at least it’s better off than the mainstream game industry, which just keeps making better pianos and cellos, then sells overly expensive tickets to tuning sessions.

It’s time we put purpose into our work, or else we’ll wish for another crash like in 1983. At least that would be proof somebody still cared.

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Quo vadis, computer games? by Felix Pleșoianu is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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4 Comments for this entry

  • Emily Short

    I’d actually read the piece before you linked it from Twitter; I just hadn’t replied, because I did understand what you meant to be a complaint about lack of artistic meaning, and it’s such a dire and wholesale indictment of everything I’ve been trying to do that I can’t really answer it without sounding defensive. I did have a thematic intent for the vast majority of what I’ve written, barring a few small finger-exercise pieces. If it didn’t come through, then that’s my failure.

    Leaving aside my own stuff, though, I disagree with the premise when it comes to other people’s work. I’d say that With Those We Love Alive is absolutely about something: the problem of ethics in community, and the challenge of extending empathy to people when community demands that certain types of people be cast out. Coloratura is about something: the total failure of communication even when both parties intend well. Venus Meets Venus is about something. Invisible Parties is about something. Endless, Nameless is pretty much an explicit message piece, and whether you agree with it or not, you can’t accuse Adam of not having something in mind. If anything, I think the recent increase of Twine work has meant more IF focused on a particular idea rather than a particular puzzle, but I also wouldn’t say that quality is unique to Twine stories or unique to the last couple of years.

    Sometimes we’re missing criticism that engages with games at the level of theme and content rather than at the level of construction. But some IF critics try for that too; Victor Gijsbers and Sam Ashwell come to mind here, and there’ve been some good reviews on Storycade. (And of course sometimes if the construction is poor enough, it’s too hard to understand the author’s intent to make any useful comments about the themes, so critique then has to drop back to that level. But it’s not inevitable.)

    • Felix

      Sure enough, Emily, your games are among the few I count as being about something. Some of them, anyway. And it’s not like I can’t enjoy a piece of pure entertainment for what it is. (Though in my opinion great entertainment succeeds precisely when the creators were humble enough to realize that’s the best they can aim for. Which brings us back to square one.)

      But look at any list of great IF — or great videogames — and you’ll always find the same double handful of titles. If you asked me to choose my top five books, or my top five movies, I’d be hard-pressed to decide. But with IF, it was dead easy. As for videogames, the best I can say is that certain titles I’ve played a lot. A few of them clearly are about something, but most of those arguably qualify as IF. Which brings us back to square one… again.

      We can get it right, and sometimes we do. But all too often we set out to make a game out of some nebulous notion that games are cool, and I’m not even talking about those games that really want to be movies. Pressing the buttons yourself is cool. But why is it cool? What are those things that can only be expressed through an interactive medium?

      We have a number of examples, sure. Like Photopia. Or, I hear, Rameses. Both of them, ironically, being about the pointlessness of agency.

      Do you suppose our medium is trying to tell us something?

  • Jason Dyer

    And of those you do remember, how many impressed you through what they had to say, rather than the way they were put together?

    Challenge accepted. (In some cases the gameplay really is dodgy, is some cases the gameplay is also impressive, but still not what impressed me most.)

    Trinity, A Mind Forever Voyaging, T-Zero, Shades of Grey, Babel, Jigsaw, The Gostak, Corruption, Horse Master, Counterfeit Monkey, Tapestry, Necrotic Drift, Guilty Bastards, With Those We Love Alive, Degeneracy, Photopia, Shade, Shrapnel, Galatea, The Cretan Chronicles, A Fine Day for Reaping, Robin & Orchid, The Moonlit Tower, All Roads.

    (Only off the top of my head, and there are some big ones I haven’t played of late like Coloratura.)

    • Felix

      Wow. Good work, Jason. At last, some titles you don’t see on every single Top 50… or any top for that matter. Maybe I should consider playing a few of them. But it’s been a long time since I was able to open a text adventure and not close it down at the first command prompt with a sinking feeling.

      I’ve recovered from writing burnout. I’ve even recovered from programming burnout, when I didn’t think it was ever going to happen again. But I’ve never recovered from IF burnout…

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