Even 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).
Are 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”.
If 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.