Friday, June 21, 2013

Disjoints as Art

So, every kind of medium has certain kinds of disjoints in it. The way it presents the viewer with its contents varies from default human experience in some way. Most mediums make good use of those, and it is what sets that medium apart in terms of how it conveys messages.

That sounds complicated and intangible, but it's pretty easy to understand when I give examples.

In a TV show, the camera angle is constantly changing, the scenes are constantly moving from place to place, person to person. Obviously, this is not something that happens in our daily lives: we don't suddenly teleport across the room, or have our head tossed into the sky for a crane shot. But we aren't usually confused by the camera and scene changes - we stitch it together seamlessly in our head. That's because there's a language to it, a complex set of rules and expectations that let us put together the pieces flawlessly. However, the language doesn't exist to hide the camerawork: it exists to free the camerawork. Camerawork is a very important part of TV shows, and using your camera wisely allows you to present the audience with extremely nuanced information. Long establishing shots, closeups of someone's face as a single tear rolls down their eye, a newspaper tumbling past a desolate street, or even just the work-a-day camera flicking to make it clear who's talking in a conversation.

TV shows take advantage of their disjoints to give the audience an experience unique to video. The point isn't to take "realistic" shots that are all at eye height and never cut. The point is to use the camera as best you can, and the language has evolved to allow us to do that.

On the other hand, in a book the author frequently takes it upon themselves to tell you what characters are thinking or feeling, or throw in phrases that establish the background and history of a situation in one or two sentences. "...And there was Jayne, standing under a street light, holding the same damn rifle he held ten years ago on the smuggler's moon..."

Giving the audience insight into things they couldn't possibly have insight into is a powerful tool which sets books apart from other mediums. We've got a language of meta-writing to allow for it: we have lots of shorthand, best-practices, invisible padding words (like "said"), and so on. These all allow writers to quickly leverage the disjoint inherent in text and tell the audience things.

But books sometimes try to use movie conventions, and movies try to use book conventions. This almost always ends up shitty. Remember the original Dune movie? All those actors whispering all the time, all that narration? That's what happened in the book, but in the book it was completely transparent, because in the medium of a book is suitable to say things about what characters know or think.

In games, we more or less inherit all our stuff from other mediums. AAA games tend to inherit from movies, with cutscenes and static progression. Indie games tend to inherit from comics, with moment-chunk dialogues and the ability to flip to whatever "page" you want after you've gotten through it once.

But like the original Dune movie, both methods end up feeling heavy-handed and clumsy.

Like the early change from just filming plays to actually filming movies, it's time for games to stop being interactive movies (or comics) and start being games.

The question is: what kinds of features go games have, as a medium, that can be used to set games apart?

Well, in all the other mediums, the things that they can leverage are also the weaknesses that keep them from being ideal. You have to tell the audience everything in books... but in turn you can tell them ANYTHING. The audience is stuck looking through your camera in a TV show, unable to move their head or shift their attention... but in turn you can move their head and shift their attention in any way you want. The audience is forced to assemble a narrative from standalone moments in comics... but in turn you can make those standalone moments stretch and contain things no real moment could ever contain.

What do games offer?

Well, games offer a level of control over our actions inside that game world. Unlike passive mediums, we have control. However, beneath that is the weakness that the game worlds are limited. Some are very limited - in Tetris, your control is limited to moving a brick slightly. The limits of the world we interact with are our disjoint, our weakness.

And our strength.

Our world has to be built out of concrete interactions... but in turn we can make those concrete interactions contain more meaning (or way different meaning) than the same actions would in real life.

For example, one of the emergent things you could do in Halo was grenade-launching your Warthog using sticky bombs. How high could you launch it? How long could you keep it aloft? While the interaction is pointless - the Warthog suffers no damage, no points are gained - the constraints that the world put around the situation gave the situation value. An action which was objectively valueless from every conceivable angle became a fun fad because the way the world was assembled.

This is just one small example. Every game contains these kinds of situations. The values in the world are constructed not just out of context imported from the real world, but also from context internal to the game. Obviously, this is possible in every medium, just as you can say what someone is thinking within a movie, or describe the details of someone's facial expressions in a book. But games are the best at it, because games allow players to rapidly explore and construct context as a core part of their experience.

In most games, the context is limited to skill challenges. We appreciate combos, trick jumps, speed-runs, and high scores because we know how hard they are to achieve. Similarly, we prize glitches and bugs because we understand how unusual they are and how difficult they are to uncover. Games are entering a more social era in no small part because skill challenges like these are best when someone else can stare in awe.

However, with that in mind, let's think about how we can leverage this kind of rapid, fine-grained contextual construction in other ways.




Ellipsis said...

Haha, that's exactly how I feel - like we've got all the build up here but no punch line. Does that mean that we should strive for games with more emergent, procedural content? Or does it mean that we need narrowly crafted rules that make the emergent content rarer and more meaningful? Or does it mean something else?

I does seem clear at the very least that games should, first and foremost, be games, especially if they are art. I remember in the big Roger Ebert "games can't be art" debate a lot of his opponents had arguments like "Sure, chess isn't art, but new games these days with fancier graphics, like Flower, can be." This always seemed backward to me - if you want to explore games as art you have to start with the assumption that chess is art and figure out what it has to say. If it has nothing to say then adding more icing on top won't make the medium art.

Craig Perko said...

I agree, but on the other hand, I think Flower is worthwhile as an artistic pursuit. Graphics, sound, pacing, and so on are all part of the interactions we have with game worlds, and they all help us to rapidly build meaningful and nuanced context.

It's occasionally worth thinking about video games as a completely different kind of thing from board games as well, just to shake off some cobwebs. After all, plays and movies are quite different.

Isaac said...

I think that the material expression of the game--what it looks like and how the interface works--is as much a part of the game as any of the other rules. Sure, some of it is superficial theming that you look through to find the deeper systems, but even that changes how the player initially approaches the game. And on the micro level, changing the pixels being displayed or the input scheme can have a huge effect on the feel of the game.

Assigning meaning to a system through inference and metaphor from the interaction of other systems is definitely one of the strengths of video games. It's not strictly limited to emergence, but emergent effects are one of the most obvious expressions of this. The player becomes a part of the system in a way that we can't quite experience in most of real life.

Craig Perko said...

Yeah. The question is, how do we use that in a more powerful way?