Is There Anything Else Besides The Worlds?

I was thinking today about the smaller elements we all, as creative people of various kinds, use to make what we make. In particular, I was thinking about how for skilled artists, the basic elements they use are – relatively speaking – quite trivial and easy to put in practice. Great cartoonists can draw wonderful lines just because. Great writers can put together a lovely line of prose just because. Great movie-makers can frame an evocative shot just because. These things are (again, relatively speaking) a given.

So what are the elements when we talk about making video games? Obviously this is something I’m more interested since I’ve been trying a little more in earnest to make something (GuruQuest) myself. While the answer is in some ways more complex than for the other disciplines I mentioned, at least part of the answer must lie in the lines of code we write to make things happen. To a certain extent, all the graphics and sounds and so on are ultimately subservient to that ability.

So then the equivalent of being really able in this context maybe involves the ability to more or less effortlessly make things happen with a computer. Write a line of code (or ten or a hundred), without much strain, and see new things unfold on the screen that are unexpected or intended, but definitely interesting. Central, then, is the idea that the art is in leveraging these pieces of interactivity and “happening” in sophisticated ways that build a larger system/entity/thing, just as a drawing is built up out of the “effortless” lines that the artist draws, or a novel is built up out of the “effortless” sentences of the writer. (Obviously there are also dire struggles over tiny, individual elements, but that’s a universal creative struggle.)

Thus, it’s pretty weird how video games generally have played out. While, across artists, there seems to be insane freedom to draw/depict just about anything in any fashion; while, across film-makers, there seems to be similarly crazy freedom to make movies about just about anything that look like just about anything; in video games we’re seeing very, very similar creations. Centrally, there’s an with making little recognizable worlds, no matter how quirky (and usually they aren’t quirky at all). Additionally, there’s this drive toward ever increasing focus and detailing of the aesthetic elements (realistic or otherwise), but far less of that same form of energy directed at the actual element of interest, the “making things happen” magic of computers/systems.

Whenever I think of some vague game idea to try out something I think would be interesting, it is always phrased in terms of “there’s this little world, but [thing X] is different!” And that kind of annoys me about my thought process. Yes, of course we’re tied to representing things that we “know” in some sense, but is all we know about motion in 2D or 3D spaces combined with intensely primitive “actions” applied to other objects in the environment?

I find it very hard to believe that this is any kind of real limitation on what we can produce when we make these experiences. Which is not to say that making interesting worlds with these systems called games isn’t a deeply rewarding and rich direction, but it feels too much like it’s the only direction. An exception would be, again, the CPH Game Collective game Johann Sebastian Joust!, which focuses more on creating a physical context of action for real people, rather than a virtual world. But such exceptions read, to me, as exactly that: exceptions.

Maybe the well of amazing and interesting experiences in virtual worlds is simply too deep and, now that we’ve taken the trouble to dig it, we can’t stop going back for pail after pail of delicious, brain-delighting experiences. But someone should wander off with a dowsing rod, perhaps, and see what else we could be drinking.

Meanwhile, I hope you’ll excuse me while I get back to work on this little world I’m making right now…

26 March 2011
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