Depth

 In art, Uncategorized

DepthEven if we agree that we want to make art of some variety, there is a very real question as to whether games can do the things we want to do. Jason Rohrer says he wants to make games with depth, which continue to speak to the audience over many playings and many years, in the same way that a significant piece of literature, theatre or visual art can. Even the best ‘art games’ do not achieve this; they generally don’t offer many different interpretations and replaying the game doesn’t often yield much in the way of additional insight (beyond, perhaps, a second playing).

Go boardAre there any example of “deep” games? Rohrer argues (from secondhand experience) that Go is such a game. It has a simple set of rules but a wealth of emergent gameplay which, it is said, provides ongoing insights into the meaning of life over many years of play. I’m not an initiate myself so I’m taking this claim under advisement, but it raises the question: What is it about Go that provides this depth? And, more importantly for the designers among us, can it be done again?

Go is usually cited as a classic example of emergence. A small set of simple rules govern the local interactions of pieces, but result in complex patterns at a higher level. Similar phenomena are recognised in the behaviour of covection cells, ant colonies, and international economics. I’ve been lookng for a while for a good book that provides some insight into this phenomenon but haven’t seen much of value yet, so I’ll reserve a discussion of the “how to” or emergence for another time but I am interested to consider what is means for designers as “authors”.

Sgt Peppers album coverIf Go provides insight into themes of life and death, was this depth designed or accidental? By its very name emergence is recognised as something mysterious that spontaneously arises from a set of rules. We can recognise it when it happens but deliberately creating it is an act of careful balancing. Can we as designers hope to deliberately create such depth and control what messages our game conveys? Should we? Post-modern critical theory would claim that such attempts are irrelevant and that meaning exists only in the mind of the reader. It is certainly true that people are adept at finding patterns and stories where none really exist. Brian Moriarty calls it Constellation — the ability to see pictures in the stars, or the death of a Beatle in backwards lyrics.

Is Constellation the force behind all ‘deep’ art? Can we design for constellation? Moriarty’s advice is to “Throw in some useless particulars.” but I think there is more to it than that. Deliberate ambiguity can often feel contrived. It seems to me that constellation is more powerful when a set of innocuous facts combine to yield a deeper meaning. Individually they hold no mystery, but the whole is stranger than the sum of the parts.

This leads me to ponder whether some strong connection could be made between post-modernism, pattern recognition and emergence. It’s an intriguing thought.

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Showing 12 comments
  • Simon Ferrari
    Reply

    Hey! I’m writing about Rohrer and Go right this moment. You were at GDX, but you didn’t meet up with L.B. Jeffries and I! Bummer! I didn’t even think to check if any Australians were coming.

    Anyhow, I’ll link it when I’m finished. Workin’ on finals right now.

  • Malcolm
    Reply

    @Simon: I see from your blog that you were at GATech for Jason’s talk also. A shame we didn’t get to meet. I look forward to reading your reactions. I find this whole area intriguing. Did you attend Ian Schreiber’s talk at GDX too?

  • Simon Ferrari
    Reply

    Hey Malcolm! My Internets went down for a few hours, so I got some email pings from you, learning enough to know that you were both at Tech and GDX. Right away I remembered the image of a dude with glasses and a goatee who was at both talks and who I didn’t recognize.

    I remember at one point at Tech you tried to speak up and then got squelched. You talked a bit after some of the lectures at GDX though, if I remember correctly.

    I had the worst luck that weekend. I didn’t get called on a single time I held my hand up. One time it saved me a lot of grief. I was about to rail on Lee Sheldon, but Jason raised his hand in front of me and asked all I wanted to ask: “So you’re saying the writer should always be the creative director on a game?” Sheldon said, “The God of the game! But seriously, yeah, I am saying that.” And Jason said, “Okay,” and sat down.

    I am wholly in agreement with your assessment of Jason’s definition of art. He wants folk art, home art, something that conveys simple truths. Sure there’s room for the high art folks, but I don’t think Cory Arcangel’s the answer on that branch.

    I only caught half of Ian Schrieber, but from what I heard of it… the poor guy needed to do some research before talking in front of such a large crowd. I remember at one point he claimed that Municipal Abortionist wasn’t abstract because… it was about abortion(?). Then he claimed that there weren’t schools or movements in film like there are in painting, which is patently untrue… and obvious to anyone who has spent about a week in a freshman-level film history course.

    Both Schrieber and the professor at my school, Dr. Bolter, needed to think a little more about essentialist thought before opening their mouths. Saying Clem Greenberg invented essentialism is like saying Barack Obama invented democracy. Aristotle, and before him Heraclitus, were already talking about essence ontologically, in art, and in technology.

  • Visitor
    Reply

    Why is this whole website in ALL CAPS? It seems like an interesting post but it hurts my eyes too much to read. Caps just aren’t meant for body text…

    • Malcolm
      Reply

      I think it is an issue with your browser. It isn’t it all caps for me on any of the different machines or browsers I use.

  • HG
    Reply

    Aaaah Go. such a wonderful game. I’m about 4 dan myself, though haven’t played it in over a year unfortunately.

    Finding your own meaning behind seemingly innocuous set of rules of Go, really only applies to novices who haven’t really studied the game. Yes there are many choices, but there are definite wrong moves as well as definite good moves. Though there may be multiple options, typically in the beginning parts of the game, the criterion for what makes a particular move good or bad is the same for all moves.

    Not all emergence is good for gameplay. Not all interpretations of a poem are valid interpretations. Not all perceived patterns are actually there or meant to be there. It is only when the intent of the author is pieced together, only when the grand story is unveiled, when there is purpose to every small and minute detail – that’s when things really get interesting.

    • Malcolm
      Reply

      Not all emergence is good for gameplay. Not all interpretations of a poem are valid interpretations. Not all perceived patterns are actually there or meant to be there. It is only when the intent of the author is pieced together, only when the grand story is unveiled, when there is purpose to every small and minute detail – that’s when things really get interesting.

      That is the point of view that Postmodernism attempts to contradict. They argue that the author’s intent is irrelevant to the interpretation of a work and that all interpretations are valid. Personally, I try to take a middle road. I think the author’s intent is real and important, but that other meanings can be found and enjoyed in a text that were not put there intentionally. If they are interesting for the reader to contemplate, why should we rule them ‘invalid’?

      In the same way, people have fun in our game engines in ways that we never attended as designers. I am reminded of my friend’s love of stunt-flying in Battlefield 1942 – flying upside down under a low bridge with soliders balanced on your wings. Was that part of the designer’s intent? I doubt it. Does that make it ‘invalid’?

      Of course I value truly purposeful depth in a work greatly. I’ve just been playing through Braid and I think it is the deepest viedo game I’ve ever seen. I don’t think that depth is in any way ‘accidental’ or emergent. It is valuable exactly because it is authored – because it communicates someone else’s vision. This is an important function of art, in my opinion, and one that I am reluctant to abandon.

      • Simon Ferrari
        Reply

        @HG: Also, the fact that there are good and bad choices doesn’t mean the gameplay isn’t emergent. The idea that somehow never playing the same game of Go could possibly be a bad thing is beyond absurd.

        On the other hand, FOB poetry is something that exists outside Maxine Hong Kingston books!? You’ve opened my eyes to wonderful new things! Time to go read Tripmaster Monkey again.

        @Malcolm: There aren’t enough people on the middle road, in my opinion. Is it because you have to be a recalcitrant bastard to survive in academia?

  • Malcolm
    Reply

    @Simon: I wanted to jump in on Sheldon’s talk too. I thought Jason was remarkably restrained in his question and “Oh, okay.” For me, those two words said it all.

    It was a shame really, because Sheldon did have a valuable point. In games where the writing it important, a skilled writer needs to be brought in early and have some long-term creative control on the project. Telling a good story IS more complex than it looks, and a designer-story is about as good as programmer-art.

    But Sheldon seemed to subordinate gameplay to story and it really peeved me when he left the designer out of his ‘triumvirate’ of game-makers.

    • Simon Ferrari
      Reply

      I’m writing a post on this as well, so I won’t say too much. But, yeah, I really wanted to stand up and say,

      “How dare you talk such utter bullshit in front of a room of game design students and Jason Rohrer? Do you think Gravitation could use a classical soap-opera-trained writer?”

  • Michael Abbott
    Reply

    I wonder if part of what we struggle with here is semantic. “Depth” is a very tricky word that’s highly subjective and experiential. I agree with Rohrer’s notion that games aren’t often designed to provoke long-term meaningful reflection, but some games do engage players in ways I would describe as deep.

    When I hear my students talk to each other about Fallout 1 or 2 as they play through it together, I hear them talking very much like we discuss films or novels (“What did you think of this part?”, etc.), but with the added dimension of personal individualized experience. So that conversation takes on more depth and variety as they discover the range of stories that emerge from their collective, but varied play sessions. Since then, some of them have re-played the game, engaging with it differently than they did the first time.

    When you add to this the empathetic, imaginative role-playing aspects of game play, it all adds up to something that looks and feels a lot like depth to me.

    Thanks for your thoughtful post.

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