November 9, 2010 12:00 PM | Simon Carless
[In his MIGS 2010 keynote, attended by our own Christian Nutt, former Xbox exec Ed Fries recapped the development of Halo 2600, explained how constraints make for beautiful art -- and how games may move forward as a medium by working within them.]
At the first day of the Montreal International Game Summit, entrepreneur, former Microsoft exec and hobbyist Atari 2600 developer Ed Fries argued that imposing artistic constraints may be the way forward for an industry currently producing far too much me-too product.
Fries opened up by saying, "If we want to make the video game business an art form, if we want to make art, it follows that we have to figure out something about beauty. I had this close encounter with beauty recently."
He had that encounter while working on Halo 2600, an adaptation of the popular shooter as a game for the Atari 2600. Unveiled at this year's Classic Gaming Expo, it's fully functional and has even had a limited production run on cartridges.
Joking, Fries asked, "How many of the audence are programmers? Oh good, we've got a lot. I'm sorry, to the rest of you."
Originally, Fries read Nick Montfort and Ian Bogost's Racing the Beam, a book on the Atari 2600. It got Fries "really excited" to try programming for the system, as he'd coded games for the Atari 400/800 computer system in high school and college.
"On working on [Halo 2600], I had a weird encounter with beauty and it made me want to talk about it with other people," said Fries. This encounter was with the elegance required in programming to the system's incredibly limited capabilities.
Released originally in 1977, the Atari 2600 was created to replicate Pong and Combat, and is incredibly constrained. "Part of my talk is to talk about constraint, and if you're a programmer and you want to work on a machine with some constraints, this is a great one to work on," said Fries of the system.
Fries related these constraints to art history -- particularly Greek vases, another of his interests. Vases created during "the pinnacle of Greek culture" are beautiful in their simplicity. Though later artisans created more complex techniques which allowed for more color, Fries showed two examples, earlier and later, and asked the audience "I have to ask you which is more beautiful -- this, or this?"
His clear choice was the vase created earlier, but with the tighter constraint of highly refined monochrome art.
The Atari 2600, meanwhile, forces the entire program to fit in 4K of ROM, can only display four colors at a time, and can only execute 76 instructions per line it draws on screen -- meaning all updates have to happen in a short span of time.
Fries took the audience through the process by which he used trickery in code to reduce instructions and create simple, elegant instructions. He called his original impulses the "dumb way" of doing things; the evolved one the "Atari way." "Look how beautiful that code is ... it has that nice, i don't know, purity to it," he said.
Even with these constraints, Halo 2600 is complex. "You fight multiple bad guys, you go into the land of the giants where everything is big, you go through 64 levels, and you fight the boss."
The boss is much larger than Master Chief, and was barely possible given the system's limitations. "If we hadn't saved cycles here, and if we hadn't saved cycles here, this whole scene would not have been possible. I could not have done the boss the way I wanted to -- if I didn't have this beautiful code."
Said Fries, of working on the 2600, "I have to do beautiful work or I can't do work at all."
He looked at one of Bach's fugues -- a highly constrained form of composition. "Why would he put himself in such a constrained environment? It got me thinking about this idea of constraint and art. Why do artists in other forms put constraints on themselves? The last 30 years of gaming have been about taking away constraints. As we saw from those Greek vases, progress is a funny thing, but progress and art don't necessarily go hand-in-hand."
Fries showed the audience a slide of a paper dragon -- and then revealed the complex figure had been created by folding a single sheet. "Something really weird happened there," he said. "I told you it was a paper dragon and you were like 'Oh, okay,' and then i told you the constraint, and it became more beautiful in some way."
Said Fries, "In other artforms, people are putting these artificial constraints on themselves. The origami guys are working with one sheet of paper, poets are using meter and rhyme..."
In painting, he said, after hundreds of years of refinement, "the artists got to the point where they could do whatever they wanted, and paint whatever they wanted. What happened? In a way, art got really boring. When everybody can paint reality, everybody could paint the same thing."
In art, realistic still lifes gave way to forms like impressionism, post-impressionism, cubism, abstract expressionism. And in games, he says, today developers are all creating the same thing -- hyperrealistic shooters that all refer to one another in form and content.
It's time for a breakthrough, he argued -- and imposing constraint could be the key. "As a way to go forward, as a way to avoid the sameness that is happening to our games. I think that in some ways some teams are starting to do this, even if they aren't thinking about this the way I am thinking about this."
Important Opportunities Ahead
Three recent examples Fries ponted to are Kirby: Epic Yarn, in which the entire world is built of yarn and fabric, Minecraft, which is made entirely of blocks, and MadWorld, which only used black, white, and red as colors for its graphics.
"Maybe we've had it wrong. Maybe we've been in this rush to get rid of these constraints that we thought were so limiting to our progress going forward in the gaming business. Maybe there's something to be said for constraint," he concluded.
"If you get rid of the constraints it's kind of boring." He also noted that, as platforms improve, "We have to put artificial constraints on our work because we're losing the real ones." And he advised developers to pick a constraint that gives "a unique look in the marketplace."
There are three key opportunities which Fries suggested constraints can enhance when making games:
1. "They can create an environment in which things can be done really well." This goes back to his experience creating code for the 2600 -- his final code, after many revisions, was much, much more efficient than what he'd programmed at the outset. "Once you have the constraint on the code you can create code that really matters," said Fries.
2. "This creativity you don't get otherwise. The constraint forces you to make decisions you would not have otherwise made," he said.
3. "It can leave space in your work, leave room for interpretation in your work," he said. Poetry leaves much unsaid, and the same can be said for other constrained forms, he argued. If someone were to make a game with only two colors, he said, "then maybe we could make something as beautiful as the Greeks made 2500 years ago."
"Constraint is happening in some ways already. People are doing these 24 hour game jams -- that's a great example of putting an artificial constraint on themselves," said Fries. A student told him recently that his best idea had been born in a game jam project, he noted.
An audience member asked if the ultimate constraint for games is interactivity. "I think that it's true that making games is harder than any other medium really, because the player has control. But I think we're getting good at it too. My thesis is that we're getting to the point where artists got to, that it started to get sort of blah -- because everything started to look the same. I think maybe constraint can lead us away from the blahness."