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Innovation & Design

Keep It Simple

So lately we've been swinging back toward thinking about games as a medium of expression. It's not a new concept; way back in the early '80s, companies like Activision and EA put all their energy behind publicizing game designers like rock stars – or better yet, like book authors – and their games as unique works by your favorite authors. This all happened just after figures like Ed Logg and Toshihiro Nishikado started to extrapolate Pong and Spacewar!, incorporating more overt narrative frameworks and exploring more elaborate ways of interacting with the gameworld. From this initial explosion of creativity came Steve Wozniak and the Apple II, providing an easy platform for all of the early Richard Garriotts and Roberta Williamses and Dan Buntens to come.

Then stuff happened, particularly though not specifically the crash; the industry changed in focus. On the one hand we had ultra-secretive Japanese companies that – like Atari before them – usually didn't credit their staff for fear of sniping and for the benefit of greater brand identity; on the other, what US companies remained tended to inflate beyond the point where small, expressive, intimate games were economically feasible. And then there's just the issue that, as technology grew more complex, design teams grew larger and larger, making it harder for any one voice to stand out, leading to more of a committee-driven approach.


Furthermore, as videogame talent became more faceless, more nameless; as the variety of approaches to design began to be whittled down to a couple of tight schools with their own particular doctrines; as the outlets and encouragement for original ideas became fewer and narrower; as the medium became stripped down and simplified, videogames found a kind of mass market acceptance unlike any they had previously experienced. The revolution apparently was over, and in its place was a kind of "fun" based in a fetishism for the ideas and theories and mechanisms that had been established as popularly successful. Thanks in part to Miyamoto, everyone seemingly got the idea that our job was done; that mass acceptance was ours, that videogames had been defined, that we knew what to do, and all we needed from now on to was follow the rules, fill in the blanks, giving the audience what they've already shown they wanted.

Likewise, videogames had become too big, too popular, to screw around anymore. Shareholders were impatient with slow growth and steady sales; the only thing that would impress them was massive blockbuster profits. Small, personal or experimental games were less likely to be visible or broadly entertaining, therefore were less likely to sell, therefore less worth bothering to produce. Thus, a focus on what Ernest Adams has described as "Wheeee!", dosed out in one of so-many prescribed genres: mass, populist entertainment, fine on its own right yet without much ambition to use the medium for anything more innately significant or interesting.

The Rubber Band Effect

Partially in reaction to the boredom and frustration that will result from such a narrow range of perspective, we've got our current wave back in the other direction – a sort of mass existential quandary about what on Earth we should do with this medium. It's a great medium, full of potential; we just haven't been spending much time, the last few decades, exploring how to take advantage of it. So now that we recognize there's a problem, and that maybe (speaking ultra-long-term) the future health of the industry is at stake if we can't figure out something more mature to do with its underlying form, we're stuck in something of a helpless position. We know something's wrong, and we've got a good general idea what; we just don't quite know how to address it. It feels like high school all over again, and isn't that just icky.

Most recently, in a stream of articles semi-initiated by the above-referenced Mr. Adams, we've seen rise the issue of "highbrow" games, a classification offered as a counterpoint to the mass market entertainment that makes up most of the rest of the industry. In the first such article on GamaSutra, Adams suggests Merchant Ivory as a model for what videogames need – not so much to innately improve the medium as to raise the public perception of the medium. Other articles have since observed that that – though it would be nice to be taken seriously – it's not so much what the New York Times thinks that's at issue here.

Life Ain't That Complex, People

Still, the article does reflect a common analysis – one that often manifests itself in our current "games as art" movement, and also seems embedded somewhere in the PC gamer subculture – that existing games, especially console games, are innately too simplistic – too broad – to challenge a person intellectually or emotionally. In particular, the console-centric focus on action (also seen in PC genres spun off of them, like first-person shooters) is perceived as juvenile and shallow. Japanese games in particular (with their tendency toward limiting player action for narrative focus) are seen as too restrictive, while the future lies in the complex, in the procedural – in making games so elaborate that anything can happen. As such, talents like Will Wright, Sid Meier, and the Rockstar North gang are held up as our beacons of hope. Anyone who can provide a simulation that allows the user to build his own order out of apparent chaos (SPORE! SPORE!) is moved to the top of every list we're discussing: the "games as art" list; the ludological hit list; the list of games sufficiently "highbrow" that you wouldn't be altogether embarrassed to be caught playing on your lunch hour.

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