Like a Rolling Stone

June 18, 2009

Well, pleasant dreamers, I was going to write this article as part of my E3 meditations, but since so much time has passed since then, it might as well stand on its own. I’d feel bad about making you wait (if any of you were still out there reading, anyway), but as it stands, it’s nice enough to publish a piece like this around Bloomsday (although I missed that by a day, too). Suffice to say, however, that the continuing thoughts I’ve had following the trailer-debut of Fumito Ueda’s The Last Guardian are broad enough to stand without any glint of superficial timeliness. Furthermore, while I’ve been away at revising and reworking my game Limbo (which happens to be the main reason I haven’t posted since last week) those thoughts have arrive somewhat refined and revised as well, as though the act of game-design itself has helped clarify my feelings about a certain gaming trope I’ve been noticing lately.

But before I talk about Ueda’s game, my own game, or even the yearly festivities of Bloomsday, I want to talk about something else entirely: The Come Out & Play festival, and what it has to do with the difference between games & sports, and what that difference has to do with the social atmosphere of gaming in general.

Now, like E3 and Bloomsday, this year’s CO&P has already come and gone over last weekend. Last year I was actually involved in the festivities myself, working with Charley Miller on an espionage-themed game called Ministry of Silence. While I considered cooking up some ideas for an outdoor activity of some type, I was far more concerned with honing my skills with Flash, and while the platformer I’ve come up with is hardly in the same league as many other indie-productions, I’m at the very least pleased with the progress I’ve made. Furthermore, it’s far closer to the type of game design I’m interested in– while many of my NYU brethren swoon to the ludological fancy of Big Games, Alternate Reality experiences and non-traditional design of all forms, I have to admit that I’m not.

Why am I interested in game design? Because of video-games. That’s what I want to make. Not that they necessarily have to be on a console– with the rise of indie-game production with Flash, Game Maker and new stuff like Flixel, the designation between video-and-computer gaming is becoming more and more irrelevant, especially since many flagship console titles are now regularly released on PC’s, and vice-versa. But non-digital games? I’m interested in them to an extent, sure, but not heavily. I could get excited about working on a board game, perhaps, but not as much as I could about working on a Zelda-clone. It’s just my nature.

Now, the reason for this is obvious– all my life I’ve played video-games. Growing up with asthma, I could never really get into more athletic activities like baseball, football or basketball. Whenever I tried to play the ones that interested me– basketball, especially– I was never good enough to excel in a team environment. So after a while I gave up, and stuck with video-games.

Granted, this isn’t the only reason that digital games appeal to me– there’s also the narrative ones, the way they play directly into wish-fulfillment, not to mention a large amount of just-plain unexplainable fascination and fun. But it’s a major contributing one, and has a lot to do with what I find compelling about games in the first place. See, video-games are great, for the most part, because you can play them by yourself. Many games have– and sometimes are defined by– popular multiplayer modes, but that’s largely a side element. A spin-off. By and large, gaming on a console or computer is a single-player affair. It’s a realm for the individual to experience something, and not a group of people. You don’t need team-members, competitors or even friends to enjoy a video-game. The same can be said for certain card-games, board-games and outdoor games, like basketball or golf– they can all be very worthwhile solitary affairs.

While it’s not one of the widely recognized characteristics most commentators look to when coming up with a clinical definition for games, I think this solitary nature is a pretty crucial one, not only to understand what makes certain games so effective, but also to understand what makes games different from sports. A game can be played with a single player, or at the very least between two or more competing players. A sport, however, can only be played by teams. Granted, many will rightly point out that games like tennis are most widely played between competing individuals, and are universally considered sports– that in fact, a sport is defined more by its competitive or professional natures, rather than its social ones. But for the purposes of this piece, that’s the distinction I’m drawing– games are solitary, sports are team-based.

And this is the main reason why I avoided sports, honestly. I’ve always enjoyed shooting hoops every now and again, but I was never good enough at it to excel in a team. I could’ve gotten better, obviously, but even then, what’s the fun in passing a ball to the guy who’s going to score a point instead of taking it yourself? I can be a team-player when it comes to working on something seriously or professionally– but when it comes to my recreation time, I just want to have fun. I don’t want to settle for helping somebody else have fun. This is one of the ways that the team-nature of sports gets in the way of its game-ness– in a game, the drive to win and the drive to have fun are one and the same. In a sport, you often have to repress the fun-drive in order to win– passing the ball to the better shot instead of taking it yourself.

In sports, the individual often must make sacrifices for the good of the team. In pure games, on the other hand, you’re on your own. How does it feel? It’s a question that the best games answer, a feeling the best designers articulate, as expertly as their gameplay is able to muster.

In Super Mario Bros. there’s a carefree independence to every leap and bound the player makes, while in Legend of Zelda an awesome sense of discovery just around every corner that’s made all the more personal due to the player’s solitary achievements– Miyamoto articulates freedom and independence.

On the other hand, there’s Metal Gear, where the player remains constantly surrounded by enemies, with only the most cursory of backup from suspicious allies, and the most important thing is to remain as isolated and invisible on the battlefield as possible– Kojima articulates alienation and paranoia.

Then there’s games like Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, where the player’s subtle, dynamic symbiosis with lone companions helps make the hostile, barren environments that much easier to navigate, cultivating emotionally resonant relationships, not in spite of a level of dependency, but because of it– Ueda articulates love and friendship.

These are some of the best examples of the expressive potential when game-designers recognize the solitary nature of video-games. Plenty of other games have done interesting things with the player’s independent nature as well– Grand Theft Auto expresses a rather Crowley-esque approach to morality in its open-world climate, where “do what thou wilt” does indeed appear to be the whole of the law so long as you don’t get caught. Braid and Portal expresse the freedom of becoming unstuck from the time-space continuum, only to find the emptiness of linear existence at its core. But socially, far more is said by Miyamoto, Kojima and Ueda in their games than the vast majority of other designers, no matter how much their work is sometimes hampered by aesthetics and narrative acoutrements.

It’s the kind of ludic poetry I look for in games and aim for in my own, and it’s something I rarely find in alternative-media games– Big Games especially, and even more so at the few games I saw at Come Out & Play.

Now, I only saw a handful of games this year at the festival, and only in Central Park, so therefore I’m obviously only dealing with the more sports-like activities from the fest, rather than some of the more abstract entries like Charley Miller’s Heartbreakers. On my Saturday free in the Park the game I saw the most in-depth was Circle Rule Football, which might’ve made sense to me if I was playing it, but as an observer, looked to me nothing more than a massive clusterfuck of “Calvinball” proportions. Largely it’s because I can’t get into sports in general, thanks to the team-driven aspect– when I play a game, I want to enjoy myself individually, not collectively. So I’m therefore going to be far less inclined to study the rules and strategy of a team-oriented game that’s even more complicated than most others are already. It feels like being forced to suffer through a massive bureaucracy for the sake of others, at the expense of your own self-interest.

It’s in team-based sports and games where I see the dark side of communism– the individual forced to conform for the sake of the masses. I can’t really see the camaraderie and unity that others see in it, just as I can’t really see the desperate isolation that plenty others see in single-player gaming (or at least when I do see it, I can appreciate its context). Perhaps it’s because the competitive nature of games can very easily spill out beyond its prescribed borders– players on a team not only compete against members of an opposing team but between themselves, as well, each individual striving to score the points themselves rather than being forced to let somebody else have the glory.

I tend to see all interpersonal relationships through the prism of some kind of contest– we all have our own private wants and desires, and it’s when those desires oppose one another that we experience conflict. There’s win-and-loss conditions in every negotiation and exchange we go through, every day. It’s why I articulate interactive-dialogue in my games as turn-based combat– after all, what is any conversation but a battle-of-wits, a duel of words? And it’s why in this most recent revision in my game, Limbo, that I decided to make those battles as optional as possible, because the value of solitary-play runs both ways. Personal exchanges, real or imaginary, best occur as responsibilities, rather than obligations. If we are free to ignore others around us (to a point) then those moments we choose to interact with them become all the more meaningful.

According to some girl who sang the blues, freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose. Well, winning and losing only means something if it was based on free will, to begin with. Liberty, both in the social and ludological sense, is only possible when a person is willing to see themselves apart from the rest of society at large. That’s a frightening concept– it’s why teams, parties, armies and governments of all kinds are so attractive (and necessary, for basic reasons). We feel safety in numbers, or at least numbers larger than one. But when one can achieve everything they want inspite of being outnumbered, or worse, being alone, we can celebrate something far greater than efficiency, security or even victory itself.

When we see a lone man or woman win, against all odds, for whatever reasons, we call them a hero. And if loneliness is the price a hero pays– so be it. They enjoy a freedom the rest of us mere mortals can never know, or even appreciate. Except, of course, when we play a video-game.

Anyway, I’m looking forward to The Last Guardian— like Ueda’s other works, it looks like a game which expresses the value of mutual co-dependency within the context of freedom. What made Yorda so precious was the fact that you weren’t tied to her all the time– holding her hand was a choice, and your care for her therefore a responsibility, not an obligation. Those moments you found yourself separated from her became all the more suspenseful and rending because of the danger you yourself were in because of it. If this new game accomplishes half of what Ico did before it, we’re bound to see something genuinely heroic in game-design, and I can’t wait.

That’ll be all for now, and I hope to return again soon. Until next time, pleasant dreamers, ask yourself how it feels, to be on your own and completely unknown…

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