At coffee this morning Rilla was talking about how she wants to write beautiful programs, in the sense of complex code that makes beautiful things happen systematically (she’s teaching an advanced programming course in our department, so this of course is a very reasonable thing to be thinking about right now). And it was interesting to me how instantaneously my mind bounced off that as an approach to making from my own perspective. I very clearly see how great that kind of programming is, and it yields things I perpetually amazed by, but apparently my mind just doesn’t work that way? (Or, presumably more likely, I just have gone in another direction and my mind isn’t trained to think that way.)
Rilla proposed a difference between us in terms of our interest in where the play of a game is ‘located’, which is an interesting way of putting. I guess I think it’s maybe more about the ‘ideas’ of the game, but that probably tips my hand in a sense. When I look at the kind of stuff I make (and especially after the first year or two), it’s very much a case of (relatively) simple programming (rarely even something you could call ‘systems’) that are attempting to convey or trigger more complex ideas (complex in the sense of conceptual). So something like It is as if you were playing chess, for instance, is ludicrous simple code-wise – just dragging circles and replaying the positions of chess games – but is “about” much more than that (the idea of play as physical performance, the idea of expertise, the idea of play as a form of labour, etc.).
In fact I wonder if locating the complexity in the mind or in the code (or perhaps also separately in the aesthetics?) is something where you need to just choose? I wonder if making a conceptually complex game that is also very complex programatically just starts to be too complex? Maybe this is a problem some people have when they’re designing weird (and wonderful, surely) magnum opuses that are just so complicated on so many levels that they’re kind of impossible to finish or, if finished, kind of impossible to play and “get”? I don’t know, this is just a thought. Maybe you need simplicity in the “other” aspects of a game (or any interactive thing – or any artwork?) in order to sustain the complexity of one particular part of it.
And of course it’s not the case the “simple” parts are therefore easy to work with – creating simplicity is incredibly difficult. v r 3 is killing me on the implementation despite being technically very, very ordinary (make a space, put some water in it), despite ultimately being a game that is more about thinking and looking than about anything complex development-wise. And I assume it may well be similar for a really complicated piece of programming – say a procedurally generated game. The conceptual layer may well be quite simple compared to the code, but I’m willing to believe there might be a huge amount of (conceptual) grappling needed to work out the kind of simplicity that can sit atop the complex systems beneath in order for the game to be at all accessible to a player.
Or maybe it’s possible to make an insanely complex game in concept, aesthetics, and mechanics. How the hell would I know? I’m just sitting here doing my thing, man.
Back to work.
Finished reading Night Studio: A Memoir of Philip Guston by Musa Mayer this morning. Mayer is the painter Philip Guston’s daughter, so the book is this kind of incredible story of his life from her perspective. I’ve been a fan of Guston’s painting since I was kid trying to redraw some of his klansman works, so it was interesting to learn something about his actual life. The book itself is unusual because it’s not a straight story of Guston so much as a daughter coming to terms with her relationship with her father who happens to be Philip Guston. So there’s quite a lot of Mayer getting insight into her father on those sorts of terms. Certainly it’s worth reading for that angle alone.
But the thing it most makes me think of is the act of looking at a painting and how difficult that is to do. Or, rather, how difficult it can be to “get something” out of that act. When I’ve looked at Guston’s work in the past it’s been pretty much exclusively a surface level view of enjoying the cartoonish imagery (of his late work), which I found accessible when I was young – you could tell what you were looking at for example, rather than something from the world of abstraction or abstract expressionism etc. They’re just enjoyable pictures to look at.
But reading the memoir means that I have all of this extra knowledge (or perhaps perspective is a better word) about Guston’s life, his preoccupations, his additions, and on and on. And those things are in his paintings, rather literally (e.g. bottles of alcohol, cigarettes, …). When you know that alcoholism was (possibly) something the painter was coping with, a big painting of a figure staring hard at a bottle means a lot more than it would otherwise, right? And alongside that the memoir just gives such a sense of personality, but also of having moved and struggled through different approaches and understandings of painting, that any individual painting doesn’t come across as just an image, but as something part of a history and of a grappling with the idea of painting itself.
This is completely aside from broader ideas around knowledge of painting movements or the material involved – just the raw fact of a person behind the painting helps that painting to be more than it would be on its own. And I really appreciate that – I’m less sold on the whole idea of having a deep art historical knowledge (and even less sold on the language), but I do like the idea of knowing more about the person and their life.
It actually connects me a bit to work by Doug Wilson on the idea of “dialogic game design” – the idea that games can be created as conversations between player and design (the game itself, rather than being a focal point, it merely a communications medium). And probably some version of these ideas are true of “personal games” as well, but there’s something I maybe prefer about some ambiguity in the work itself, some work left for the viewer to make connections to the creator – where personal games perhaps tell us more explicitly about the person behind them?
I’m rambling now I think and not sure of what on earth I’m talking about. Read Night Studio. Appreciate Philip Guston. Think about how playing a game is changed by knowing the creator personally. Night.