Last Tuesday evening, I presented the following speech/rant/whatever at the Vancouver Indie Developers assemblage. I've tweaked the language slightly to make it flow better in written form, but otherwise, it's more or less as I presented it. As always, I welcome your thoughts and reactions.
Not to stand alone, this encouragement (it's honestly meant as encouragement and not critique) will be directed at the other agents of the gaming ecosystem over the next three weeks. Without further ado, here's why I believe what we do as game creators matters and why we should be better at acknowledging that:
Today, I wanted to talk to you all about something that's been on my mind quite a bit lately. Plus, it's the new year, a time for reflection as well as setting goals for the future.
Now those of you that know me know that I'm generally a pretty optimistic, positive guy. But for those that don't, as a preface don't take what I'm about to say as condemning. It's not, at all. I'm tremendously excited about what we get to do as game creators. But it's also important to realize we still have a lot of work to do. One of the things I've come to realize since I started making games professionally is that what we do matters. Like seriously, capital M matters. But we need to get better at acknowledging this fact and utilizing the opportunities this affords.
The truth is, as game creators and game enthusiasts, we're often our own worst enemy. We can be self-deprecating about the importance of what they make. When challenged, we're timid and meek as often as we are proud advocates. There's one phrase in particular that gets embarrassingly trotted out every time games start getting flogged publicly.
This ostensible defense of games can pop up anywhere, be it in response to the firestorm about Six Days in Fallujah or the "controversy" that seeing a little blue alien sideboob in Mass Effect is tantamount to peddling porn to children (for the recond, it's not and the people who think so are, frankly, idiots). So often, when anything negative is said about a game, the response will come, "It's just a game. Don't take it so seriously."
I think this is one of the most harmful and dismissive things anyone can say about games. Saying, "It's just a game" isn't a response to criticism, it's capitulation. This attitude relegates games to the status of paltry amusements, no more worthy of consideration than a Rubik's Cube. It denies games have the ability to communicate, to possess a message, to mean.
And this is what I mean when I say what we do as game creators matters. Like it or not, the games we make influence the people who play them. The currency of games is interaction, and the result of that is thought and feeling. Players may end up spending dozens of hours playing something we've made, and honestly, we should care about what they're thinking and feeling while they're playing it. And more importantly, and this is an area where I feel a lot of games are deficit, we should care about how they feel when they're done. I'm not content to be building merely the digital equivalent of junk food- satisfying while consumed but ultimately empty and forgettable.
Because even though the circumstances that generated that emotional response are fictitious, the feelings themselves are quite real. To inspire these emotions but not be thoughtful about why we're doing so seems at best a wasted opportunity. I know I'm going to be trying to be more considerate of this in the future, and I'd encourage you all to do the same. And I don't mean that every game has to be a morose, existential meditation on the true nature of the human condition. Presenting players with interesting, intellectual choices to make and affording them enough agency to meaningfully make them is a perfectly laudable goal. But if you really look at the number of games that offer players meaningful choices, and not just dressed-up optimization problems (especially these days), it's a lot rarer than you might think.
I'm not saying we should all turn into beret-wearing snobs or that games can't be fun. Although I do think the idea that games must be "fun" is totally bunk, but I'll save that tirade for another time. What I'm really saying is we should just be more conscientious. Consider the return that player will get on their time and money. Was it just a diversion to fill some empty hours or something more substantive? I think either can be fine, but it should be a conscious decision not a default state that only the most ambitious deviate from.
And as independents, we have this opportunity. We don't have endless bureaucracy or shareholders that only care about the next quarter's earnings. We can make decisions that might not be perfectly optimal for the bottom line, but they are absolutely optimal for the player's experience. We can talk directly to players and we can shape the conversation we have with them. We can encourage them to seek deeper meaning, both in our own games and games we know that have been created by others. Finally, and I think this might actually be the greatest advantage independent developers have, because we're working solo or on a small team, we can actually get every contributor on board with what we're trying to make. Everyone can buy in to what we're trying to create and say something personal with their contributions. This is something impossible on a team of dozens, let alone the teams of hundreds some game necessitate. This affords tremendous opportunity and we ought not squander it.
Ultimately, it's about respecting the player and the impact our game will have on them. And it's about respecting ourselves and our craft. When we behave as if our games cannot meaningfully impact those who play them, we're doing a tremendous disservice to what our games could be as well as the skill we possess as creators.
I'm going to finish with a personal anecdote because, well, that's what all this is really about. Affecting people. Creating meaningful personal experiences. And this is one of the most meaningful and memorable experiences I've had with games, so thanks for bearing with me.
So, back in 2008, I had just purchased an Xbox 360. I've always been, and remain, more of a PC guy, but I'd decided to finally pull the trigger on getting an HD console. And the first game I ever played on my 360 was Braid. And of course, I thought it was fantastic. But this isn't actually about my response to the game, it's about my wife's.
Now my wife, fiancée at the time, she's certainly familiar with games. She drives a mean Mario Kart, is our vocalist in Rock Band and was seriously hardcore about The Sims. But in general, games aren't a prominent past-time and I don't think she'd consider herself a "gamer." Anyway, I was playing Braid and she was next to me on the couch, reading a book or something and not really paying attention to the game. At least, I didn't think so. Unbeknownst to me, she'd actually stopped reading and was just watching me play. I didn't notice because, well, I was pretty entranced too.
Then something unusual happened, something that had never happened before. Sometime in the second world, during one of those vignettes before the level, she started crying. I heard her and didn't connect it to the game at first. I said, "Oh god, sweetheart, what's the matter?"
And she just looked at me and said, "I get it now. I get why you want to make these games. It's just ... so beautiful and so sad. The music, the way it looks, the time thing. It's like art. I get it." I swear to god, I'm not making any of that up. It's one of the most touching moments I've had with a game and still one of my fondest. Where all kinds of conversation and writing had been insufficient in explaining why I'm so passionate about games, Braid succeeded. Which I guess is rather fitting.
So if one game can inspire feelings like that in someone that isn't even really into games and wasn't even playing, it's undeniable that what we do has a real impact on people. And we owe it to ourselves, to our art and to our players to very carefully consider the experiences we're crafting and the emotions that inspires. Because what we do does really matter and I'd love 2011 to be the year when we really seize the opportunities this affords.
Labels: What We Do Matters