Monday, February 8, 2010

Haunted and Games

This is a portion of Chuck Palahniuk's afterword to his novel Haunted:

"My goal was just to write some new form of horror story, something based on the ordinary world. Without supernatural monsters or magic. This would be a book you wouldn't want to keep next to your bed. A book that would be a trapdoor down into some place dark. A place only you could go, alone, when you opened the cover.

Because only books have that power.

A motion picture, or music, or television, they have to maintain a certain decorum in order to be broadcast to a vast audience. Other forms of mass media cost too much to produce to risk reaching only a limited audience. Only one person. But a book ... A book is cheap to bind and print. A book is as private and consensual as sex. A book takes time and effort to consume - something that gives a reader every chance to walk away. Actually, so few people make the effort to read that it's difficult to call books a "mass medium." No one really gives a damn about books. No one has bothered to ban a book in decades.

But with the disregard comes the freedom that only books have. And if a storyteller is going to write novels instead of screenplays, that's a freedom you need to exploit. Otherwise, write a movie. That's where the big money's at. Write for television.

But, if you want the freedom to go anywhere, talk about anything, then write books. That's why I wrote "Guts." Just a three-act short story based on true-life anecdotes.

People write to say this story is the funniest they've ever heard. People write to say it's the saddest they've ever heard. And "Guts" is by no means the darkest or funniest or most-upsetting story from the novel Haunted. Some I didn't dare read in public.

These are the places only books can go.

This is the advantage that books stilll have. This is why I write."

Reading this, I couldn't help but think games straddle the gulf between the breadth of mass media and the intimacy of books. Or rather, there is space for both in a way that isn't as supported in film/TV. Just as Haunted sits just down the shelf from The Da Vinci Code, so does Braid sit next to Battlefield 1943 on XBLA and The Path is beside Dark Void on Steam.

While not as cheap as a book, independent games can still be quite inexpensive to create. They can be exacting, requiring time and effort from the player. But most importantly, they have the freedom to be about whatever the creator wants. We exploit this freedom far too rarely.

Single-player games are private like books, intimate in a way most other media is not. The movie theatre is a shared experience, as are concerts. TV is shared live with spouses/roommates, discussed with friends/co-workers (and canned laughter even provides faux company). But by their very nature, books can only be consumed alone. And while a single-player game can be a shared experience, most often, I would wager it is not.

There is a lot of time spent staring across the gulf. Small games want to be like AAA games, AAA games want to be like movies. But we can make games about a hunk of meat harried by a nefarious fetus, about the joy of floating on the wind, about a purgatory where colour is everything. We should not undervalue the freedom we have to do these things.

As Bruce Sterling said at the keynote of the Computer Game Developer's Conference way back in '91, "Follow your weird, ladies and gentlemen. Forget trying to pass for normal." I think Bruce and Chuck are on to something.

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Blogger Jordan Fehr said...

I wholeheartedly agree. And not just because you linked Super Meat Boy.

February 8, 2010 at 1:55 PM  
Blogger Evan said...

I think that the reality of indie development is that there isn't actually a choice - given the marketing and development budgets behind studio releases, there's just no way that indie games can compete on an equal footing. That's not a bad thing though; it means that for an indie game to be successful, they only need to do one thing in a new and novel way.

For Braid, it was time control. For The Path, it was emotional impact and implied interpretation. For Audiosurf, it was music library integration. For Osmos, it was about momentum. As a developer, I'd imagine that's tremendously empowering and terrifying; you can't necessarily rely on the overall experience to make your game successful.

February 8, 2010 at 5:26 PM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@8th Ronin Hey, when it comes to weird, it's hard to beat the Meat!

@Evan Those constraints (provided one embraces them instead of fighting them) can be tremendously powerful. The best work tends emerge from trying to find a way to execute within constraints. It pretty easy to see when folks deny the constraints and end up doing a dozen things poorly instead of a couple of things well.

February 8, 2010 at 8:18 PM  

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