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EDITORIAL: Jam Together — Thinking Inside the Box

sour_gummimix A medium goes through its phases. Generally it starts off piecemeal, little snippets of ideas that stand alone, each studying the nature of the medium. What’s possible? How do things look? How do people respond? Later the ideas coalesce into short subjects, often delivered through a reservation in some passing medium. Periodicals set aside pages for short stories. Networks set aside airtime for TV episodes.

Later, as the public becomes accustomed to format and language of the medium and as its authors start to understand its implications and potential, the ideas will get more complex and demand more room to develop. That extra room in turn demands new methods and understanding of the changed space and its implications for communicating. Thus we have long-form subjects — your novel and your Sistine Chapel and feature film and television serial.

Although videogames have been around for a few decades, they have spent about half of their active life spinning their wheels. Part of the problem, I think, is in the eagerness about twenty years ago to move on to long-form subjects before anyone really mastered the short form. If we’re to look to any model for a healthy development of what we now know about game design, that model might be the golden era of television.

The Other Video Mode

It’s only since the late 1990s that television has come unto its own as a mature long-form medium. Self-contained shows like The Sopranos and The Wire, or even Lost or the re-envisioned Battlestar Galactica, would have been if not impossible then highly improbable under earlier conditions. Previously the vagaries of syndication hindered long-term plotting and character development, and a focus on monocultural event programming discouraged nuanced or unconventional storytelling. Later, as the information spectrum exploded and simultaneous audiences plummeted, networks largely turned to DVD retail in place of syndication and premium channels saw a way to lure in dedicated subscribers in place of ad revenue. Both systems to a larger extent put the end user, or customer, or audience, as the arbiter of value — as opposed to advertisers or distributors — at just around the time that audience sophistication and expectations had reached a mature point.

TV’s previous golden era was back in the late 1950s, in the heyday of anthology programming. These are the evenings when The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Outer Limits were appointment viewing. These were reserved hunks of the schedule, devoted not so much to a particular story as to a theme. It wasn’t enough to think up a new adventure for a familiar cast of characters in a familiar set of locations; each week a new writer — often a highly-regarded short story author — had to establish an original, clever spin on the show’s premise, develop it, and wrap it up in about 25 minutes. Back then shows often ran 52 weeks a year, meaning a huge turnover in scripts and so a formidable effort to avoid the duplication of ideas. Almost from the start the format forced an extreme exploration of the nature, limitations, and possibilities of television writing and production. The shows of this era developed reputations for their their thoroughness and imagination in milking their topics, and remain to this day some of the most most distinctive and essential programming ever to air.

Expressively, this is kind of where we are now. Or, rather, where we could be.

Jumping the Gun

Through the early ’80s, videogames could best be compared to Fred Ott’s “The Sneeze”; the designer would throw a single, simple idea at the player, and see what happened. Even games as complex as Pac-Man can be summed up by their mission statements. In that case it’s a game about eating and fashion, created to lure women into video arcades. Eat dots, avoid being eaten, and move on to the next (identical) stage. As women’s literature goes, this ain’t Jane Eyre.

Later Miyamoto grabbed onto and expanded Pac-Man‘s linear story and distinct character elements into a framework for his own fairy tales, which the rest of the development community then latched onto and top-loaded with its own flashy stories and characters and gimmicks without quite understanding why Miyamoto did what he did or just how thin they were spreading his ideas.

Although the odd developer or the odd game transcends 1987 — usually either Valve or indie developers — if we’re talking about a snapshot of the medium and everything it has to say to its audience, the last original videogame was The Legend of Zelda. It was a good — actually, brilliant — rough draft for a long-form videogame, extrapolated from Miyamoto’s earlier ideas. We can think of it as, I don’t know, Gulliver’s Travels. The thing is, over the next century and a half people kept hacking away at the short story and refining the form and goal of the novel. By the time we get to the mid twentieth century and authors like Joseph Heller and Kafka and Nabokov, the novel has evolved from a sensationalistic fictionalized travelogue (as further novels were, for a time) to a complex and individual perspective on life. Of course there’s always pulp, that pays more attention to the form than the content. Yet there is room for literature, and it is the literature that persists.

The status quo of videogames would do well to dial down. Although perhaps we don’t have the grammar and the understanding to do lots with long-form designs, the last half-decade or so has proved a wealth of advancement in smaller-scale development. Likewise, one of the frequent complaints you hear from mainstream developers is the lack of a sliding scale for pricing and pitching. To sell in a store, these days every game has to be a major, top-shelf, triple-A release, whatever that means, so there’s no room and no budget to develop small ideas. Xbox Live Arcade has been a small relief, providing an excuse for games like Pac-Man Championship Edition and Geometry Wars. Distribution systems like Steam have opened a worldwide market and deregulated scale and pricing for PC developers. And then there’s the indie scene, which generally does what it wants without much concern for market pressures and is all the healthier for it.

This is all and well, and we seem to be entering an era where distribution can be equated to periodicals or broadcast TV — which brings me to my central argument: that anthologies are, if not the way to the future, then potentially a very powerful tool for sharpening both the art and craft of game design and public perception and expectations of the medium.

Building a Bottle

We don’t have a lot of precedent for game anthologies. Oh, there are the retro compilations, many of which are excellent in their own right. So long as Digital Eclipse went nowhere near them. Valve again rears its head with The Orange Box, which was not so much a thematic compilation as it was… well, it kind of was a thematic compilation. You got the entire Half-Life 2 experience to date, plus a spin-off that focused on and refined the macho shooter side of the series to a level of near epiphany, and another spin-off that focused and refined the gentler, progressive puzzle-adventure side of Half-Life to its own kind of epiphany. The one game has all male characters, and the other all female. Considering that Half-Life is a deliberate cross between Doom and Myst, this all is fascinating stuff.

That anthology made a huge impression on both the industry and the public. It also gave both Portal and Team Fortress 2 an audience far beyond what either would have achieved as a stand-alone product, without the need to artificially expand either game to fit famliar retail models. Yet it continues to be a relative anomaly.

Recently Sabarasa announced an anthology of art game darling Jason Rohrer’s games for DSiWare. As a package, Alt-Play is closing in on exactly the kind of thing this industry needs. It’s a selection of short subjects, all by the same author, all musing about some aspect of love and life and family. As a distribution platform, I’m unsure how DSiWare compares even to Xbox Live or WiiWare. I doubt it’s absolutely ideal. It’s as if David Sedaris put out a book exclusively for download on the Android platform — before everyone knew who David Sedaris was. Maybe not the best way to make an impact, even if I’m sure Rohrer can stretch his royalties to buy vegetable seeds for the next twenty years.

Game jams hit close to the mark, challenging a handful of authors to craft their own take on a theme within certain time and often technical constraints. Some problems are that the results are rarely compiled and promoted and that often the incentive to finish and hone the projects is fairly small. Let’s say twenty game artists of various levels spend twenty-four hours to design a game about ice. Three or four of the games might be polished yet empty. Another four or five might be brilliant yet devoid of style or grace. Another three might be a good start, then simply end for lack of development time. And then the rest might involve a square moving against a green background. Game jams are a wonderful exercise. It’s just a shame that they’re rarely more than an exercise.

A Common Voice

What I would like to see is a mainstream editorial construct to arrange bite-sized games around a central conceit, thereby building something like a comprehensive perspective on that conceit. You do get a bit of this with old-fashioned sequels like Simon’s Quest and The Adventure of Link, that take the same basic premise from the original game and then approach it from a different direction. Imagine if every four to six months some publisher were to release a disc with six perspectives from major game developers on a single theme. Let’s say the June 2011 volume is called Sour, and it contains short games by Tetsuya Mizuguchi, Kenji Eno, Peter Molyneux, Cactus, Kenta Cho, and (of all people) Ed Logg. And let’s say it costs, oh, twenty bucks.

People would buy Sour on the basis of the big-name designers, and thus would be introduced both to the indie designers and the work of an old master. Players would be able to cross reference all the perspectives and see the many different ways that the medium can be used to communicate a simple theme. If there were a certain prestige around this publication — if it were to become the “in” thing for a developer to contribute to, to show that he knew what he was doing or to spread awareness for her work, then it could take off without having to pay the big developers huge fees. Everyone would get perhaps a small flat rate and then a percentage of the royalties.

And then four to six months later, we’d have another volume. Let’s call it Ancient. Then another four to six months, and we’d have Awkward. Maybe their spines would match. Maybe they’d be numbered. For people who came in late, it would be a big deal to collect the back issues and build a complete collection. Eventually your or my favorite designer would have a shot, and we would be forced to take a dip and see what the fuss was about. People would get hooked; word would spread.

This is just an example, but it is exactly what the industry needs. Right now. And after five years of talking about it, I’m still waiting for it to happen.


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Alt-Play: Jason Rohrer Anthology announced for DSiWare

gravitationSo continues the slow drift of indie games to the mainstream download channels. Following the high-profile Wii ports of indie heavyweights such as Cave Story and La Mulana (and indeed the announcement of Diamond Trust of London for DS, several of Jason Rohrer’s early opuses will soon be bundled for play on the Nintendo DSi.

The Latin America based Sabarasa is publishing an anthology of 2007′s influential-yet-controversial Passage, forced-cooperation game Between, and Passage semi-follow-up Gravitation, the latter two both from 2008. Available separately will be Primrose, his iPhone puzzle game from last year.

To editorialize a bit, anthology releases like this, rather like a collection of short stories or short subject films, may soon be an important consumer model for showcasing unusual design concepts. Witness the success of Valve’s Portal, a critical darling (itself based on an indie game project) that many would have overlooked if not for its inclusion in Valve’s Orange Box. With the strict pricing models and content expectations of the commercial market, it’s hard for a small, original title to hold its own. But arrange several games around a theme, or an individual voice such as Jason Rohrer, and you’ve got the basics of an intriguing package.

Sabarasa has yet to confirm a release date; for now the Anthology is simply listed as “upcoming”.