Challenging Art

Here's a quote from a book I read by Spelunky Creator Derek Yu called, not-surprisingly: Spelunky.  In it, he's talking about the first Zelda game vs. the rest of the Zelda franchise.  He's quoting Tevis Thompson's 2012 essay "Saving Zelda".

"Hyrule must become more indifferent to the player.  It must aspire to ignore Link.  Zelda has so far resisted the urge to lavish choice on the player and respond to his every whim, but it follows a similar spirit of indulgence in its loving details, its carefully crafted adventure that reeks of quality and just-for-you-ness.  But a world is not for you.  A world needs a substance, and independence, a sense that it doesn't just disappear when you turn around (even though it kinda does). It needs architecture, not level design with themed wallpaper, and environments with their own ecosystems (which were doing just fine before you showed up).  Every location can't be plagued with false crises only you can solve, grist for the storymill."

Derek then comments:

"It's easy to mistake Thompson's assertion that "Hyrule must become more indifferent to the player" for an assertion that game developers shouldn't care about the player or shouldn't guide the player towards their ultimate vision.  What it means is that the guides must be a natural part of the world, and that world, like Miyamoto's cave, must simply exist.  If a world is independent and self-sufficient, so are its inhabitants.  If every part of the world exists only for the player, both the world and the hero will feel artificial."

And later in the book:

"I may not enjoy the new Zelda games as much as the older ones, but I still credit the series for giving me one of my best and earliest lessons in game design.  Nintendo was so influential to me that even when I criticize their games, it's often by standards that they themselves have set.  My worry is that as players we've grown too comfortable with being comfortable.  We revel in being consumers of products, rather than contributors to a rapidly-evolving art form.... We've gone from asking "How does this game play?" to asking, "Does this game play the way I want it to play?"
We can't have everything that we want all at once, though.  We can't know what to expect and also be surprised.  We can't be free from frustration and also be challenged.  We can't go unchallenged and also feel satisfied with our accomplishments.  Mystery, surprise, tension, challenge, and a real sense of accomplishment always come at the cost of feeling uncomfortable.  Given the opportunity, many of us would rather take the easier road, but that's usually the less rewarding one.
The best games come out of a mutual respect between the creator and the player.  The player does not demand a certain experience from the creator because they trust in the creator's expertise and because they want to be surprised.  A personal creative vision cannot bloom without the freedom afforded by that trust.  At the same time, creators must trust in the curiosity and abilities of their players.  Continuously interrupting play to steer players with direct text messages and other obvious hints not only infantilizes them, but it also reveals the creator's insecurity in their ability to design games."

There’s a lot to think about here.  And not just about games, but modern pop-art in general.  I think of the summer blockbuster films and how they are all designed by committee, narrowing in on a framework of proven data points.  Pop music is the same.  But my chosen profession is games, and that’s where I think I can comment most meaningfully.  I’ve complained before about the Zelda franchise and how it has become more and more artificial feeling.  Mostly because there’s always exactly one way to do a thing or get to a place, and exactly one character who sells or owns the thing you need.  And while those characters are always interesting and artistically well-done, it completely kills the illusion that the world has any substance or depth.  To me, it’d be like a movie where there are no background extras, ONLY characters who the protagonist needs to talk to to progress the plot.  

So while I agree with the sentiment of all these quotes I’ve shared, I have to step back and acknowledge that it’s more complicated than that.  Games don’t HAVE to be about mastering skills and feeling the accomplishment of doing so.  The PROBLEM that I see is that as games have become more and more expensive to make they are falling into the same trap as the Hollywood Summer Blockbuster.  They are designed by Big Data to appeal to the most people in the broadest way possible.  And for games, that means stripping away most of the skill mastery elements and any ambiguity that could lead to frustrating lulls in the meticulously crafted narrative arc.  And while doing that works for the goal of mass appeal, it also damages the ability of any other games to do otherwise.  Just like it’s hard for a Summer Blockbuster to NOT have the world imperiled and involve a city getting demolished; it’s hard for a game to get greenlit that requires a player to master skills to progress.  (I see the Souls games as the exception that proves the rule)  

I think the fundamental issue driving these changes is a fundamental lack of respect or trust for creators in favor of respect and trust in data.  And while I’m definitely NOT anti-data, I think the entertainment industry en masse is doing what always happens when a new invention or technique is discovered: over-using it.  And I’m sure it’s giving the money-people the short-term gains they expect which then becomes entrenched dogma.  However, as far as I can tell, what this data is doing is pushing media towards a singularity.  After all, what it’s doing is simply representing an aggregate human psychological model, exposing the gears and levers for the producers to command the artists to pull.  The biggest practical problem (besides being a crime against art) is that a person really enjoys getting a particular lever pulled only so many times.  Eventually they become bored with experiencing the same thing over and over but in a different color outfit.  

That’s where the indies and underground artists have the advantage.  But since they generally lack the budget (since the people with the money all want their artists to follow the data) they can only be cool in a limited number of ways.  For example, if you want to set your film in a fantasy, historical or sci-fi world, most of your budget is going to be used up creating the world, leaving little for getting quality actors and film/sound equipment.  The equivalent in games is that if you want to make a photoreal game then most of your tiny budget is blown very quickly creating or purchasing those photoreal assets.  That’s why so many indie games are pixel art or paper craft, or some other simpler visual language.  And it’s not that there’s anything wrong with those styles.  What I find distressing is  the fact that you can’t choose other ones IF you want to make risky art.

Since a big part of my Big Dream involves making very high quality, very risky films and games, this is of utmost concern to me.  But I do see a potential light at the end of this tunnel.  (Hopefully it’s not a train.)  And that is procedural tools for asset creation and customization.  It’s basically leveraging algorithms to assist in creating things like terrain, trees, spaceships, outfits, etc. for virtual worlds.  It’s been used in limited ways in the game and film industry for quite a while.  For instance, every time you see a building collapsing in a movie, that’s the result of a physics simulation running on the the virtual pieces.  It’s not an animator who meticulously moved all those hundreds of thousands of parts around.  And in most games, the foliage is placed by virtually seeding the ground and the placement of the trees, grass and small rocks are randomly chosen so we environment artists don’t have to spend months hand-placing each blade of grass.  

There have been attempts to bring these procedural systems to the foreground.  The most recent was a debacle of a game called No Man’s Sky, which presents players with an entire universe of planets to explore, each with semi-unique flora and fauna, as well as different terrain types and atmospheres, etc.  Unfortunately, it took so much focus to get the algorithms working well enough that the team failed to execute a compelling game on top of it.  But more importantly for my concern, they demonstrated a lot of ways that procedural systems can fail to make quality assets. Failure is an absolute requirement for progress.  I think it will take several more attempts at this scale before we can crack this nut.  But I think it will be done.

If we CAN pull it off, and artists have access to near Holodeck levels of freedom of creation, then the data-crunching money overlords won’t be curtailing the vision and output of the truly creative people out there.  That’s why I’m really glad that people like James Cameron are pushing those boundaries in film.  (even though I don’t think Avatar worked very well as a movie) and No Man’s Sky is pushing it in games. (even though I don’t think it worked very well as a game)  I think they are laying the foundations for future generations to have both the full range of artistic expression AND be able to do so in whatever medium and style they like.  


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