Crispy Gamer

Keita Takahashi Drew My Picture

in

Jonathan Blow's "Experimental
Gameplay Sessions" today made one thing clear: Gaming's having its modernist
phase. Every game we saw attempted to deconstruct a gaming mechanic or trope. Examples:

The Unfinished Swan -- vision. FPS where
you have to feel your way blindly through the world by painting its invisible surfaces
black.

Where Is My Heart? -- visual coherence. 2D
platformer that splits your view of the level into fragments, like a bank of poorly
aimed and sometimes overlapping security camera feeds.

Shadow Physics -- dimensions. 2D
platformer whose surfaces are created by the shadows of 3D objects that you manipulate.

Miegakure -- physics. 4D platformer where the fourth dimension
is not time, but space (this one temporarily
shorted out my brain).

Spy Party -- perception. Spy/counterspy
sim where people's observed behaviors tell you how to proceed.

Today I Die -- reality. Puzzle game
centered on a poem that changes the world as you change its words. (His
previous game Fate screwed with
linear narrative, letting you see and manipulate the beginning and end of the
story.)

Achron -- cause-and-effect. RTS in which
you and your opponent continually send units back in time to turn the
constantly shifting tides of the battle that hasn't yet happened, with the help
of a timeline that shows when events happened.

Closure -- shadows. Puzzle-platformer
whose surfaces only exist if they're lit.

ROM.CHECK.FAIL -- signifiers. Retro-themed
mashup in which characters from different game worlds collide.

Spelunky -- death. Like all roguelikes, death
and rebirth in this game aren't necessarily failures, but part of the process
of exploration.

The level and
range of invention here is pretty staggering. But two other presentations stood
out to me: Flower and Noby Noby Boy (discussed in a separate panel
with Keita Takahashi). These are both games that push the boundaries of what we
consider games, and what we think they're capable of.

***

Flower, as you probably know, is a game in
which you're an incorporeal avatar that soars freely through vast outdoor
environments. According to Jenova Chen, the team started with one goal: make a
world of peace and harmony. Then Sony wanted depth and challenge, so they tried
out mechanics like blowing a seed to land in certain areas of the ground, giving
you the RPG-like ability to attain and use special powers, and having you deposit
petals in collection orbs that would fly to checkpoints. Then the designers
realized all this "hard fun" -- the challenges and rules of games --
were at odds with their original goals of peace and harmony. So they decided to
ditch them.

"Hard
fun" is a concept we're all familiar with, and it's the raw material that
the games listed above work with. In general, videogame challenges have either been
physical (reflexes in platformers and shooters) or tactical (inventory
management and battle in RPGs; things that Tom Chick plays) in nature. In these
new games, challenge is conceptual as
well: Can your mind piece together the world of Where Is My Heart? Can it work out the intricate dimensional folds of
Miegakure? Can it switch freely
between 2D and 3D in Shadow Physics?
Can it come to grips with the high probability of failure in a roguelike such
as Spelunky?

thatgamecompany decided
to forego these aspects completely in order to preserve the emotional tenor they'd
begun with. Traditional game challenges (and by extension, new conceptual
twists on those challenges), they concluded, couldn't be reconciled with a
feeling of peace. I can't blame them -- there's a recursive element to the way
games like Miegakure and Achron are offering new modes of
gameplay, questioning and reinventing only how past games (a couple used hacks of Super Mario Bros. to demonstrate new mechanics) have played. It's a
way of looking back in order to fill in the gaps in what can be explored. Flower doesn't have that kind of
self-consciousness. You don't need to know anything about the history of games
to understand why you should care about it (in contrast, I don't think I was
alone in wondering "would I really want to put myself through that?" about
the other Experimental games, even if I understood the appeal).

This is what I see
Flower doing:

Jenova and
company ditched gameplay and focused on feeling. I have to wonder if the
profundity of this move hasn't been a little overblown by a lot of people here.
They're basically making art -- if using the rational, iterative process of design
-- hanging on to an abstract emotion like any good musician or novelist or
painter might do. Jenova even showed a line graph that charted the player's
emotional response -- climbing tentatively upwards, then dipping low, then finishing
at a comfortably high notch -- as he progressed through the game's levels. It's
a refreshingly pure and clear-minded idea that you could apply to song, a book
or a painting.

***

There's an
ironically scientific bent to the way Jenova and co. systematically approached,
analyzed, and arrived at their very artistic game. I assume it's because
they're game designers at heart. Meanwhile, Keita Takahashi, who has a
background in fine art, approaches his games from a reckless outsider artist's
perspective, the polar opposite of thatgamecompany's methodical climbing out of
the box. He told us he'd been feeling increasingly constrained by the real world,
like he was only taking part in systems. He wanted an experience that was pure
in comparison. In making the chaotic and demented playground that is Noby Noby Boy, he said he wasn't attempting
to make a videogame (let alone a formally innovative videogame, or a newly
emotional videogame). He just wanted to make something fun. This is what I saw him
doing:

Takahashi showed
slides of gifts that he'd handmade and wanted to send to exceptional Noby Noby Boy players. If they tried to
resell the gifts on eBay, he'd buy them back and keep trying to find them a
permanent home. And he encouraged game-makers to ignore the industry AND the
players -- and make games that each of them, personally, would want to play. For
this artist, Takahashi's talk was inspiring and more than a little emotional.
See, for him, the whole world's the game. And we can enjoy it all.