Monday, January 30, 2012

Games as Diaries or Why Creatures is "Magic"

I just ran across this piece on Unwinnable about the game Creatures, something of akin to an ant farm simulator/behavioral modeling machine. The game has no true goal, but its mechanics are incredibly complex. The purpose of the game was to recreate the phenomenon of life in a basic, algorithmic form such that the beings within could run their course from birth to death, all while allowing the player to influence their actions both directly (by giving them direct orders) and indirectly (by way of providing materials and some pavlovian operant conditioning).

What could result were carefully crafted beings with a semblance of personality, but what also happened were spontaneous unscripted, unprogrammed behaviors that arose from these various permutations; ghosts in the machine. It was...pretty awesome.

But it was primitive. It lacked polish, suffered from graphical limitations, and sported a childish style. Of course, none of this is spoken about in the aforementioned piece. Instead, we're given nostalgia, cultural context, and anecdotal whimsy tossed about in a non-stick pan of humanist navel-gazing. Very little of this article is about the game.

This is part of the reason why I hate new games journalism (which is a topic for another time), but its also part of the reason why I think games writing and reporting these days kind This piece (and many others) is about the human experience, not the creation of such. The power of this experience comes not from the game, nor does any insight gained about the game from this experience add any useful information to furthering the medium. It is pure self-indulgence. It is pure pointless navel-gazing.

You may not believe me, fine. But if you do not understand then allow me to persuade you: replace the game in her article with a diary.

Imagine that instead of playing this game for her entire 14th year of life, she kept a diary. In it she wrote a poem on one day, perhaps. On another she took a picture and pasted it there with a funny caption. On another she wrote a semi-fictional story about her future, about her friends and the good times they will have raising their children. On another she wrote the name of a boy she likes, and alongside it her own name with his last name neatly penned there. Over time, this diary fills up, the habit is lost, and it is placed back in its usual place, but then promptly forgotten.

A few years later, she returns to her childhood home, older, wiser, less naive. Learned of the world, she hides no thoughts of ideal BFFs, idolizes the unknown cynic, and has a crystallized understanding of the burdens of motherhood. She chats up her own mother, couching her disdain inexpertly with curt sentences and individualist platitudes. Her mother smiles and nods. Her father has passed away, probably.

She goes on and on about her younger days, how naive she was, how whimsical! All of those things are gone now. She is a woman, unafraid of destiny and unwilling to prepare for failure.Unwilling to remember the true nature of her naivete, the depth of her whimsy. Her mother gently ushers her back to her old room, nodding in step with each adult epiphany. Beneath her nods, the crack of a smile.

Upon entering she falls silent. Her mother slinks away, her task completed with maternal subtlety, and as she turns her success is confirmed by a short gasp followed by a deep sigh. Her daughter is her own again, at least for now.

A strange spiritual magnetism grasps her hand. Slowly, it is moved back to that place long-forgotten. It is not sudden, but it is determined; there is nothing holding it back. It firmly pushes away book after book, and a plush bear or two, and there, in that place, that place she had forgotten so long ago, lies her diary. Then, the remembrance is all too sudden.

On one page there is a poem. On another, a picture with a funny caption. On another, a list of BFFs. And on the last, the name of a boy she liked, and beside it her own, with his last named neatly penned there.

The "magic" of Creatures, the possibility that this game could evoke such feeling, reflection, or epiphany is not locked within the game. It is not even specific to the game itself. It is a byproduct of this individual's lack of self-renewal, lack of actualization, and lack of contrapathological courage to overcome the underlying unspoken fear that resided within. This game, in the truth of the outside world, means nothing. It is amoral, it is naturalistic, it is inhuman. It is a slate upon which this poor girl happened to imprint herself at a time when she hadn't the awareness to know what she was doing. And this piece is simply the result of her finding herself again. It's not about games.

What it does say about games is this: if you want to make a game that people will remember, make it really, really easy to save.