Monday, May 23, 2011

the state of the industry, part III: Authenticity

This week, I’m focusing on Authenticity, but first allow me to digress a bit.

No? I’m not allowed to digress? Oh. Okay. Well, um. Okay then.

So far this series has gone over two aspects of gaming and design that, in my opinion, have been misinterpreted, and as a result become distorted, detracting from the overall quality, craftsmanship, and enjoyment of gaming. I think it’s happened on both sides, too. Consumers and producers of this medium have gotten the wrong idea about what these words mean and what they look like in practice. All I’m trying to do is figure out how to bring everything back to the “core values” of gaming.
As a matter of course I feel it’s appropriate to post the list again to recalibrate this whole discussion before proceeding:

What exactly is Authenticity? Allow me to attempt a definition while I resist the urge to link Wikipedia…

Alright, here:
When you’re hungry, you want something that satisfies your hunger. At the biological level, it’s about calories and nutrients; getting what your body needs to keep working. But not everything you might choose to eat will give you what your body needs. Of course, those Coco Puffs never did you wrong before, but for some reason you’re still so hungry after eating that whole bowl. What did I just eat?

Let’s abstractify that once. Once in awhile (not as often as one gets hungry, I hope) you would like to experience a good story. Something with a moral, something with a definition, with substance. Then you watch Salt and…what, you don’t want to watch Salt? That’s understandable. Good choice.

Okay. One more time, with feeling. I love Chrono Trigger. Alright? I love that game. I loved that game so much, I cried when I found out I wouldn’t be able to get it the day it came out because it was too late to pre-order it. I loved it before I knew what it was! That’s like prenatal fetus love right there. I hungered for it, I wanted to experience it, I wanted to dive into it and let it show me what it had to say to me. And I eventually got my hands on it. And it was good. It was a story, a game, a series of events, a cast of characters, a group of friends, a tale of triumph, a million possibilities, and a hundred whispered prayers answered. It was pure soul. It was authentic. You could see the care taken in crafting the world, the characters, the story, and the gameplay. I played to play more, and I played more to know more. The game was pure Being. It was alive and real, as though an actual Person had made it. And I experienced that Person through it.

Authenticity is that essence, that zoe of a creator that can be seen and felt and played in a game. Some people think of it as “genius” or “immersion”, but I like to think of it as sublime. If any word describes the feeling of authenticity in a game, it is the word sublime. An authentic game will sublimate anything and everything that comes in contact with it. We don’t get many of these games anymore.

Alright, get a grip. GET A GRIP. Why don’t we get games like this anymore? Hironobu Sakaguchi is still alive. He’s still making games too. Yasunori Mitsuda isn’t making much game music, but he’s still around. We’ve still got John Carmack and Cliff Bleszinski pumping out new ideas all the time. Why don’t I experience these guys anymore? Maybe…

  1. Games aren’t about games anymore. Sure, developers are still interested in crafting an “experience” or an “entertainment media”, but the focus has drifted away from investible ones. Publishers are especially loath to support this type of focus. Investible games are games that encourage identification, incubation, mental participation, ideological wrestling, and real perspectives. I’m trying to stay away from words like “realistic” or “immersive” because they have definitions that are too far from my point (so I’m forced to make up words like “investible”). No one wants to make games worth investing in except in a monetary sense. The rise of MP gaming (which began in the 90s) panicked everybody; they saw the potential for multiplayer modes to hook gamers for theretofore unheard of amounts of time (and hence money and support). As a result they confused this type of temporal dedication (which tends to produce entitled, shallow, and self-serving customers) with actual, moral, emotional dedication (which is the kind that creates thoughtful, happy, purchasing ones).
  2. Once you go Black Ops, you can’t go Back Ops. Developers are always in the difficult position of having the passion, the motivation, the creativity, and the gall to make a really rockin’ game. The one thing they lack is the cash. This puts them in the pocket of a publisher, who has one of two options: let the developer make the game they wanted to make, or make the developer make the game they let them make.

    Ok wait, that sentence was weird. 
Two options: Developer Control vs. Publisher Control 
Okay, better. Since the publisher is in the more enviable position of “has the cash”, and as a result is spending said cash, they have a vested interest in seeing as large a possible return on said cash. You can’t blame them. After all, you gotta spend money to make money. Unfortunately this creates the commonly cited “I did it for cash” mentality, which is the antithesis to Queen’s “I did it for love” mentality. Freddie Mercury disapproves.

The real reason why we don’t get those kinds of games anymore isn’t because they don’t make them anymore. It’s because we don’t want them. I can’t speak for individuals, I know. But what is irrefutable about this statement is the sound of millions of dollars sloshing about in the coffers of those ever-slavering publishers. We must take a good hard look at where we’re putting our money. What kind of development atmosphere are WE, the consumers, fostering? Shorter turnaround times? Bite-sized gameplay experiences? Cinematic “feelings” and interactive movies? “Intuitive” (in actuality simplified) controls? To be fair, none of these desires are bad, inherently evil things. But it is admittedly difficult then for a developer to find the balance of time spent on fulfilling these criteria vs. actually creating a game.  We’ve all played tabletop (or board games, in my case) with friends before. These games are fun, but we often miss why. It’s nice to have beautiful artwork, elaborate sets, and thoughtfully planned encounters, but it’s engaging, immersive, and authentic, in a word, fun, to have a clearly invested dungeon master who’s many more times excited about what you’re about to experience than you could ever be, because it means that there’s real depth there if you want it. And that scares people sometimes, but for those of us brave enough to ask, in probing those depths we often come up with nothing but pure gold.

The Solution: Patience and Vigilance. My outlook is bleak, I know, but there are many many recent examples that fall into the Freddie Mercury-approved category of games (Terraria and Minecraft certainly do). These games, and these designers, exist. (oh and also Demon's Souls!) In the meantime, vote with your wallet, and with your voice. But don’t be fascistic or controversial about it. My goal, as always, has been about rapport, discussion, and open-mindedness. It’s the only way to see what’s really behind that curtain.

“It's a long hard fight
But I'll always live for tomorrow
I'll look back on myself and
say I did it for love
Yes I did it for love
for love
oh I did it for love.”– Freddie Mercury

PS: some other cool indie devs to be on the lookout for:

QCF design - desktop dungeons! Nethack distilled. 1 part puzzle, 1 part RPG, all parts fun!
George Moromisato - Transcendence. You've played this game before. Just not like this. Not like this. *unplug*
VLambeer - Super Crate Box! Serious Sam! Karate! Need I say more?
Nitrome - Steamlands. Also, Knight Trap. The best flash games you'll ever play. And the ones your friends never have.