Games, Art, and Precious Little Snowflakes

I recently read a thoughtfully researched and intelligently written review of the PS3 game Journey (by Ian Bogost for the Atlantic). It reaches farther than most critical analysis of games and reads more on the level of literary criticism. Go read it here. It’s good stuff.

Are you back? Great because now I’m going to nitpick it.

In some respects this is tenuous ground for me. The game industry is so tight and incestuous that our family tree has no visible forks, and as such expressing my opinions about games I like and don’t like is a tricky endeavor. The basic right of bitching on the Internet, afforded to embittered 11 year-olds the world over, is not something I can do without a little forethought. However, this is further complicated because as a professional game developer I find responding directly to reviews or public game criticism to be awkward at best and inappropriate at worst. As a creator I feel like entering the dialog of critique muddies the free exchange of ideas. I think of it as a roundabout form of the fallacy of authorial intent.

Or whatever. The point is it feels weird for me. And nowhere does this feel more relevant than in Bogost’s high minded, formally written piece. I’m going to go there anyway, but bear with me. I have a point to make.

Specifically my gripe is the opening segment where Bogost makes a clever point about the studio That Game Company‘s PS3 exclusivity. For those that skipped the article (for shame) he insinuates that the studio is an interesting case study because their first three games are exclusive to a single platform, making the chart of their artistic progress more comprehensible. This is a valid point, but he goes further by comparing this to the “old world” of artistic expression, comparing this unique situation to that of novel writers only having one way to print a book over their entire careers, and artists having one way to mix and apply paints. He even trots out M. Night Shyamalan’s career in respect to the technology of film. In my opinion this is a pretty big misstep, and one potentially detrimental to the game industry at large. Again, bear with me.

It’s a gross oversimplification to say that the “technology” involved in experimental novel writing is the format of the book, or that a painter’s technological medium is canvas and pigment. I could go further and say that video game technology has been fixed for the last 20 years because by and large they all use silicon imprinted with conductive material. In Bogost’s novel writing example the writer’s shifting technological reference point is language itself, and in the example of the painter he is working against public perception of what art should be. In that traditional art forms surf and buck human memes, isolating their distribution model as a fixed variable against their growth (pigment on canvas or offset print on paper) misses the forest for the trees. It’s even more apparent in the example of film, pointing out that all movies are essentially printed celluloid. Sure, the delivery mechanism of film is relevant, but movie making requires an enormous slew of other technological tools to do what it does, and the landscape of film itself has clearly changed in every conceivable metric over the last 15 years.

Now I want to reiterate that I appreciate the main point made about That Game Company‘s exclusivity, and the analogies that follow it paint a lovely picture. It’s certainly refreshing to have well crafted criticism put a video game in the company of legitimate artists. And his followup summary, comparing game art to better established forms of art, has some truth to be sure:

In videogames, it’s far less common to see a creator’s work evolve in this way. In part, this is because game makers tend to have less longevity than other sorts of artists. In part, it’s because games are more highly industrialized even than film, and aesthetic headway is often curtailed by commercial necessity. And in part, it’s because games are so tightly coupled to consumer electronics that technical progress outstrips aesthetic progress in the public imagination.

However, while it’s not inappropriate to put games like Journey in the company of great works of art from the past, I do think it’s inappropriate to elevate them higher. And although I don’t think that’s the purpose of Bogost’s piece, I think it inadvertently does just that by calling out the fast changing landscape of game technology as a unique hurdle. This is also true of “aesthetic headway… [being] curtailed by commercial necessity”. A valid point to be sure, but hardly unique to the art of making games. There’s a reason that we have the archetype of the starving artist: whether it’s cordoned off by the search for mass market appeal or the approval of a narrow minded benefactor, it has always been difficult making a livelihood out of challenging and extending the boundaries of the norm.

This is essentially the heart of my objection. Although I think Bogost’s article is genuinely concerned with no more than objective analysis and thoughtful juxtaposition, the dialog that “making artistic games is uniquely hard” is one that I hear on the inside of the industry far too often. It’s a grand kind of apology that serves a myriad of uses. It can be used to water down daring ideas just as easily as it can challenge paradigm breaking changes in tools and pipeline.

As it has always been, it’s far easier to follow the status quo than to break new ground. The frustrating thing is that the recent successes of the game industry are being used in this context as justification for treading no further. Newer, ever more accessible engines, distribution models, and flexible technologies make experimental game making easier rather than harder. And some independent developers are making those tenuous, often perilous steps onward, often at the risk of their financial security and (in the U.S. thanks to a healthcare model that penalizes individuals over corporations) their health. However, in the industry proper we are hampered by outmoded content creation pipelines that necessitate games of any scale use copious outsourcing and lumbering, teetering infrastructure. Rather than recognizing this as a failure of old thinking and an opportunity for change, we are waived off with excuses. “Yeah, making games is hard.”

A coworker of mine uses a phrase to describe spoiled children: “precious little snowflake syndrome”. It describes the situation where a child is brought up to believe that everything they are and everything they do is indescribably and breathtakingly unique. In many respects this is indeed true, but for practical purposes essentially irrelevant, as bemoaned for 5 continuous minutes by David Mitchel in an Internet video rant.

True accomplishment comes not from inherent uniqueness, but from distinction in action. And a call to inaction because of a “uniquely” difficult situation feels similar to that special mix of arrogance and stunted development that comes from precious little snowflakes.

There are some that may be discouraged by the kind of talk that says that the challenges of making games aren’t inherently unique. This could be misconstrued as saying that we aren’t in a situation to do exciting things and participate in something special. On the contrary, by slaying precious little snowflake syndrome in the industry we put ourselves in the enviable position of innumerable people that came before us.

We get the opportunity to, as the saying goes, stand “on the shoulders of giants”, leave our egos and irrational fears behind, and reach much farther than any of our ancestors even dreamed before.

Not too shabby. I’m just sayin’.