November 22, 2008 4:00 PM | Simon Carless
[We're finishing up our selected highlights of Gamasutra's Montreal Games Summit coverage with this Mathew Kumar-penned summary of an interesting and important Jon Blow keynote on games and their intent.]
As the closing keynote of the 2008 Montreal Games Summit, independent game developer and thinker Jonathan Blow, previously a Game Developer magazine columnist and an IGF winner for his time-bending title Braid, offered a striking deconstruction of a major video game conceit: that they can offer profound experiences through traditional storytelling forms.
Blow argued that, in fact, the interactivity of gameplay -- and its requirements of "fun" and "challenge" among others -- is in fact directly contradictory to such a goal.
In Blow's introduction, he said that his goal as a developer has always been to try and "figure out how to make games that touch people and make them feel something real."
While the question of how to do that was "too big a question" for him to deal with in a mere hour, he explained that his talk at MIGS was aimed at exploring the things that video game developers and games themselves do to make that quest harder.
"As an industry, we have adopted practices that make things fake, unimportant and careless," he declared, arguing that these were all the antithesis to creating profundity.
Yet games actually have an advantage over other media in attempting to impart importance, in that there are two ways of doing so: one, through expressing it to the player, and the other through the player discovering it via their own activity -- and Blow concluded that games largely fell into one camp or the other.
Metal Gear Solid, for example, expresses its meaning to the player, while in something like Pac-Man, the meaning lies in the activity. According to Blow, games that attempt to impart meaning through story are inherently conflicted -- since gameplay structures that render stories fake or unimportant are so "deeply ingrained."
Though he felt that this was largely a single problem, he split his argument up into three sections in order to explore the different facets of the problem.
Conflict One: Story Meaning vs. Dynamic Meaning
The Marriage, created by EA's The Sims Studio head Rod Humble, for example, initially looks completely abstract -- but as the player decodes what the game mechanics are, they are also learning the meaning of those mechanics.
The "more accessible" Gravitation instead offers a limited number of quickly-grasped mechanics that can create a number of interesting situations that are open to interpretation.
"If you haven't played this game, please leave the lecture and play it right now," Blow urged.
Gravitation is a key example of the conflict between meaning and play, Blow said. The more additions and features a designer adds to make the game more "fun" and more "exciting", the more the meaning of the game becomes obscured and easier to misinterpret.
If, in one interpretation of Gravitation as it currently stands the concept of collecting stars to become ice blocks is a representation of ideas turning into concrete projects, for example, what would it mean if you added dots to collect? Would that represent when you clean up your house rather than working?
"The fact is, in the games industry we're not used to thinking about the interpretations, and actually, we make jokes about it," Blow said. "'Pac-Man is about taking drugs and going on a rampage' -- But that's a completely valid interpretation."
"In games, interpretation extends past the visual art -- the dynamic system communicates something to the player, whether that is intentional or not."
Admittedly, though Gravitation uses its dynamic meaning, it does not tell a story, whereas most designers aim so directly to create something fun that they forget the importance of the dynamic meaning -- a problem Blow argued other media "do not have."
"If a director is creating a film where a beloved character dies, he doesn't put happy circus music over the funeral scene just because it's more fun. If you were David Lynch, you might put it in to unsettle the viewer, but that's something else entirely."
"In the games industry, we put happy circus music over every one of our funerals," Blow continued. To flesh this declaration, he drew on several recent examples. He called BioShock's little sisters an example of a "supposed dilemma," one undone by an interest in game balance.
"This supposed moral quandary might have worked well in the marketing campaign, but will that stand up as a profound moment in video games in forty years? If it is, I hope I have nothing to do with games when we reach that point."
Other examples included Grand Theft Auto 4 making a story-critical character functionally useless (requiring large effort from the player with no reward) and Half-Life 2's attempts to make you form a relationship with Alyx while at the same time your intention is to keep progressing through the game.
"Alyx can't be talking to you while you're in the middle of a firefight or solving puzzles, so it's in the quiet moments between, when you're trying to get to the next section, that she plays the role of the 'character who has to unlock the door that will get you to the next arena'." said Blow.
"Of course, they want you to form a relationship with her, so she can't just unlock it, she has to be like, 'Aw man, this door is jammed. Anyway, did you hear that Dr. Kleiner just got a new girlfriend?' and all you can think is 'Shut up and get the door open so I can get to where I want to go.'"
In Blow's mind, these kind of conflicts are always going to exist -- alternatives are hard to conceptualize, such as AAA titles that offer themes, moods and "interesting mental stuff" without story; pointless, by removing all dynamic meaning (in which case "why bother making a game?"); or unfeasible, such as managing dynamic meaning to precisely match story, which would be as hard as "pressing bubbles out of wallpaper."
Conflict Two: Challenge vs. Progression
Even if it were possible to reconcile dynamic meaning with story, Blow suggested that it still couldn't be enough to make true profundity possible.
"For a story to be interesting, it has to occur from scene to scene in a linear and direct fashion," Blow said -- but, he added, the industry "does not know how to make games that don't challenge the player."
Challenge is the easiest way to communicate, however subconsciously, that the player's interaction is meaningful. Yet at the same time, challenge works as a "friction" against the progression of the story -- so no matter what, a story in a challenging game is structurally unsound.
Blow admitted certain studios have figured this out, and now offer a "dramatic presentation of non-difficulty," where the player feels as though they're in danger but aren't, and dynamic difficulty adjustment, where the bar will be continually lowered until they can walk over it.
Yet, no matter how hard they might try, "friction" must always still exist, because for there to be a portrayed value to the difficulty, there must be at least some, or else players will lose their suspension of disbelief in the game's value system.
From this, Blow felt that "faux challenge" was "unlikely to impact someone deeply or change their life," because it was by its very nature fake, which is (at least to Blow) directly contradictory to depth.
Alternatively, though it does little to help story as a form within games, Blow emphasized that challenge was, in fact, "very precious," as unlike other forms, games could offer this challenge in a direct fashion.
"It is our domain and we ought to understand that," he said, "because if we want to hold our place alongside other arts, we need to play to our strengths."
Conflict Three: Interactivity vs. Pre-Baked Delivery
As every comedian knows, timing is everything. A bad comedian can get booed off the stage, while a good one can receive a standing ovation for an identical set of jokes -- simply due to their method of delivery.
"Games sabotage the timing of their delivery," Blow said of game stories. "In a game, you cannot control where the player does, what he just did or what he'll do next; you can't pre-bake that."
"Chekov argued that if you introduce an idea, like a gun, into a story, you have to use it by the end," said Blow. "The idea is the economy of audience attention. If you put a gun on stage because you thought, 'Oh, I want this place to seem 'Old Westy,' then some people are going to sit there thinking, 'what's the deal with that gun?'"
The core concept of "Chekov's Gun" also has its positive aspects -- the potential for foreshadowing and justification -- but in a game, it is difficult, if not impossible, to manage that within the dynamic meaning.
"Some people say that if we ever have good enough AI to manage the stories we'll be fine. I don't believe that, because managing a problem like Chekov's Gun would require human-level AI to create what would be little more than a stage manager, and a stage manager is nothing without the human-written, pre-baked story."
"Dynamic stories are pretend stories, poorly structured, poorly delivered and they will always be an awkward second fiddle to linear medium," concluded Blow.
"If that is our core value proposition, then our core value proposition kind of sucks," he added.
"I may have come across all 'anti-story', and I personally would like to see if we can make games offer something without them, but I still don't know how to scale up Gravitation to something to MGS4 size," Blow said.
He concluded: "Perhaps the problem is that we so deeply rely on reference points like film, which require stories progressing over time, when we could be referring to things like sculpture or painting, which require no timescale and people find just as moving."
(UPDATE: Jonathan Blow noted in the comments to this article that he has made the audio and slides of his MIGS talk available on the Braid website's blog.)