Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Trunk Full of Bass

I have returned from what was, without a doubt, the best GDC. Not the best I've ever been to, the best there has ever been. That last bit might be hyperbole, but only slightly. I met up with a legion of awesome, brilliant people, old friends and new, and had my grey matter hosed down with learning by some of the brightest folks in the industry.

Possibly best of all was an observation Michael made on his audio diary of day one. After having dinner with Michael, Chris, Ryan and Gus one night, Michael remarked that I seem tremendously happy with what I'm doing at Klei. While I certainly have been feeling that way, I guess I just hadn't realized to what extent. Michael's remark made me recognize how incredibly fortunate I am, to be able to do this with such excellent people, both at Klei itself and with colleagues both in and outside the industry. So bloody fortunate.

Now to cease the touchy-feely stuff, and on to unverifiable claims!

There was a lot of discussion at GDC about how games create meaning and what kind of meaning designers should be exploring more thoughtfully. And I certainly do not disagree, these are tremendously important ideas to explore. They're ideas I want to explore in my current project.

But at the same time, we wring our hands about the lack of substance in mainstream games. We malign their shallowness, question what schizophrenic meaning could possibly be embedded in their incoherent narratives. But there's another tremendously prevalent form of culture that suffers from being similarly empty, yet far less concern is heaped about it. I contend mainstream games have much in common with pop music.

Listening to most pop music and asking "What is this really about? What does it mean?" will lead you to draw some truly tragic conclusions about modern culture. The meaning of most popular music, where it even exists at all, is pretty dumb. Sometimes, fantastically dumb. A random sampling of the current Billboard Top 10 yields such lyrical gems as, "Mad woman, bad woman, That's just what you are, yeah, You’ll smile in my face then rip the brakes out my car" or "Sex in the air, I don’t care, I love the smell of it, Sticks and stones may break my bones, But chains and whips excite me." This I will simply present unaltered and without further comment:

I’m loose
And everybody knows I get off the train
Baby it’s the truth
I’m like inception I play with your brain
So I don’t sleep I snooze
I don’t play no games so don’t get it confused no
Cos you will lose yeah
Now pump it up
And back it up like a Tonka truck
That badonka donk is like a trunk full of bass on an old school Chevy
All I need is some vodka and some chunka coke
And watch a chick get donkey konged

But the thing is, for the majority of popular music, it doesn't matter. The joy of the experience isn't derived from the lyrics or the meaning, it's from the composition or the beat or the mere dance-ability.

I imagine there are a great deal of people that derive a similar joy from shallow popular games. If the mechanics are solid, the flow tight, what the game may or may not be saying is quite possibly irrelevant. There are plenty of games I've enjoyed simply because they're a tremendous joy to play, not because there was some thought-provoking underpinning that kept the gears of my mind spinning after the game was done.

The vast majority of viewers experience film/TV exclusively through its narrative content. I suppose it would be possible to appreciate the pure cinematography, composition of shots, etc. But most people see only the narrative and evaluate a work solely on those merits. With games, and with music, that's not the only source of engagement. As we've said, for popular games/music, it's not likely to be so either.

And I am actually fine with this. I think the lack of depth in games does sting sharper because there isn't exactly the volume of alternatives as there is to pop music. But every year, the independent games scene (and some larger studios) provide games with more substance and thought. Inroads are made, progress is blooming and every year we see more fruit borne from these labours. Given the spirit, diversity and vigor I saw amongst independent developers at GDC, I'm not particularly worried that we'll be giving up the quest any time soon.

It's important to note though that I'm just talking about a game's meaning, not its mechanics. There are still distressing trends in design that conspire to steal away greater and greater portions of players' agency, which is at best a dead end and worse, actually detrimental to games as a medium. It's only with a little exaggeration that I say those designs really do rob the soul of what makes games interesting.

By all means, please seek out and support the games you like. But I think it's not the best use of our time to malign those games we fine shallow. Honestly, deep down, we know some of them can be really enjoyable at times. We can be okay with that, while still acknowledging that we want more diverse offerings as well. And come on, who doesn't have a handful of guilty pleasure bands? Those acts we know are terrible and braindead, but can't help but smile when they slide into iTunes.

It's okay to have a few gaming guilty pleasures too. And for the stuff we can't stand, it's fine to avoid it. But we're probably better using our energies to seek out interesting new games ripe with substance than howl about the absence of the game in popular games. No more can we make auto-tuned "in da club" beats disappear by listening to indie bands nobody has ever heard of than can we make über-bro games disappear by playing 2D sidescrollers rich with harpsichord score. But we can at least make the latter financially viable for its creators.

As an aside, if you are interested in some music with substance, my good friend Kirk Hamilton has made his album The Exited Door half off this week. You can stream the album free and drop $5 (or more, and it's worth far more!) his way if you dig it. Give it a listen, it's absolutely fantastic stuff and makes me absurdly jealous of Kirk's talent.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have some dudes to stab.

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Blogger Unknown said...

Really great post! I really liked the way you compared games to music. Although, I'm still trying to figure out the meaning behind the picture.

March 8, 2011 at 10:58 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Now if you'll excuse me, I have some dudes to stab."

stealth marketing achievement missed:
"Now if you'll excuse me, I have some dudes to shank."

March 8, 2011 at 11:10 AM  
Blogger Paul Bauman said...

I think critical thinkers are worried about shallowness because, as you said, the variety isn't quite there to balance out the overwhelming volume of cultural fluff.

To stretch your analogy though, it's similar to the unease I would feel if pop music were in the process of placing boundaries on music itself before the medium had a chance to develop into a spectrum that pop is a part of.

It would be like rock n' roll jumping onto the scene and driving the medium before jazz or blues had reached the stages they had. We might have been the poorer for it.

That's what makes me uneasy with the current development of gaming... that huge gravitational pull toward a certain cultural laissez faire in AAA that sort of shapes the perception of what is "successful" in games at a pretty early stage. I'm obviously overstating a bit, but I'm actually okay with the hand-wringing we're seeing in criticism because of this.

March 8, 2011 at 12:00 PM  
Blogger Jacob Clark said...

I grew up a Punk in highschool, had the mohawk, black jeans, and band t-shirts. I never thought I would in my entire life like pop but now as I am getting older I have a found a liking for pop as you point out in the motivation rather than the lyrics. A lot of the stuff that comes out of Pop is bad but there are always some great stuff that comes from time to time such as the Beatles. The other thing about pop music is that it adpapts genres for the worse at times as well. Punk which was once on the edge of music is now in the mainstream as Pop Punk. Indie Rock has even made its way into pop music as well.

When I think of Pop in video games mainly I am drawn to my favorite game Rock Band. The story mode is nothing great but the gameplay mechanics are there to get the party going.

I won't waste a blog post on fully on rock band because as you point out they don't need the energy from me to sell games. I'll keep my focus on games that people might not know about but still i'll find myself taping my foot in the backround to a Kayne West song.

March 9, 2011 at 12:57 AM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@Alli893 Thanks! Here's a bit of a hint.

@juv3nal Hehe, I was actually talking about Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood. I've been playing a lot of that lately (especially the multiplayer) and it's an experience wherein a truly legendary number of dudes are stabbed.

@Paul That's totally true. I just wonder if sometimes there's a little too much pointing at the shallow stuff and saying "We don't want everything to be this" and not enough pointing at/supporting the stuff we do want to see more of.

@Gaming in Public Yeah, that's it, I think. The last thing AAA games need to worry about is getting enough coverage. It's definitely the small folks that really, really need any eyeballs they can get.

March 9, 2011 at 11:16 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

@Nels Anderson Ahhh it ties back to the pop music... clever =)

March 10, 2011 at 6:00 AM  

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