Monday, April 24, 2017

A survey of video game manifestos

I've written a few manifestos for making games -- Radiator 1 had a short "PIES" manifesto, and these days I also work off a loose "games as culture" not-manifesto and a more recent "Gay VR" utopian manifesto. To me, a manifesto is a funny thing because you're trying to predict what you're going to make over the next few years, and people will easily be able to judge you for it. (Well, Robert, did you actually achieve Full Gay VR, or did all that stuff fizzle out? I guess we'll see!) In this way, I think a manifesto is like a weird paradoxical show of strength as well as vulnerability. It's a bit of a risk.

There is, of course, a long history of manifestos, and any time you write a manifesto you're also participating in that history. The most famous manifesto is, perhaps, the Communist Manifesto. In art, we have a Futurist manifesto, a Dada manifesto, a Surrealist manifesto... in film, I've always admired the Dogma 95 manifesto... and in technology, there's the Hacker Manifesto. Most of these manifestos try to distill a complex ideology into a page or two of bullet points and prescriptions, and that's part of the fun of it. Discard relativism to the wind, and let's shape the world to our vision!

In games, we've had a variety of visions. Older industry folks often like referencing the Chris Crawford GDC 1992 "Dragon" speech or the Bruce Sterling AGDC 2008 keynote... but here I'm going to try to confine my discussion to stuff that explicitly says it's a manifesto, because I think the label matters. Let's start, shall we?...

Here's maybe one of the first manifestos in video games: the Scratchware Manifesto in 2000 was anonymously written by Greg Costikyan, who later went on to found the ahead-of-its-time indie game storefront Manifesto Games. At the time in 2000, the supposed shareware revolution of the 80s and early 90s had solidly gentrified into a hellscape of big publisher gatekeepers monopolizing brick and mortar retail, so I'd cut Costikyan some slack for what reads today like weird retail-inflected language focusing on quality and value:
What is scratchware? The phrase scratchware game essentially means a computer game, created by a microteam, with pro quality art, game design, programming and sound to be sold at paperback book store prices. A scratchware game can be played by virtually anyone who can reach a keyboard and read. Scratchware games are brief (possibly fifteen minutes to an hour or so), extremely replayable, satisfying, challenging, and entertaining.
Why the term scratchware? Scratch; chump change; nickles and dimes. Ware; warez; software.
Why do we need scratchware? We need scratchware because game programs cost too much for most people. Games are running $35 for last year's model and upwards of $55 retail for the latest title. Most aren't worth that much money. Consider the one-time-through linearity, lack of replayability and derivative gameplay that many games suffer from, then reconsider the price that the publishers of these games are demanding again and again and again... [...] the philosophy of scratchware embraces the idea of value; of worth. This philosophy provides for a new frontier of thoughtful ideas, reasonable design goals and careful and dedicated craftsmanship.
As you'll see later though, this idea that we must urgently change how games relate to money -- that urgency will persist for a long time, and continues to be a huge problem today.

Paolo Pedercini wrote a Molleindustria manifesto in 2003. It's very much about political conflict, whether in the field of video games, or more broadly against Capital with a C. To me, it reads like it's less about what video games should "be", and more about video games should "do" and how they should affect society:
What? Molleindustria is theory and practice of soft conflict – sneaky, viral, guerrillero, subliminal conflict – through and within videogames.
Where? Molleindustria was born in the soft core of Capital’s processes of valorization. She is daughter of cognitive labor, of shared information, of entertainment that becomes politics and vice versa.
How? Molleindustria advocates for the independence of games from the market’s domain and its radical transformation in media objects able to criticize the status quo.
How??? Understanding and subverting the deepest videogame mechanics without resorting to dull antagonistic translations or artsy self-referential divertissement.
Soft? Soft as the gray matter, a battleground contended by services and commodities; soft as the matter that swallows and produces: software.
Tale of Tales issued a Realtime Art Manifesto in 2006. It's very much about the sovereignty of the artist and a rejection of commercial trends, but it's also surprisingly prescriptive about what the medium and "interactivity" are, in a way that I think most gamers would actually agree with?
Realtime 3D is the most remarkable new creative technology since oil on canvas. It is much too important to be wasted on computer games alone. This manifesto is a call-to-arms for creative people (including, but not limited to, video game designers and fine artists) to embrace this new medium and start realizing its enormous potential. [...]
 1.  Realtime 3D is a medium for artistic expression.
 2.  Be an author.
 3.  Create a total experience.
 4.  Embed the user in the environment.
 5.  Reject dehumanisation: tell stories.
 6.  Interactivity wants to be free.
 7.  Don’t make modern art.
 8.  Reject conceptualism.
 9.  Embrace technology.
10. Develop a punk economy.
(Obviously, I strongly disagree with number 8!)

The Arcane Kids Manife$to is a circa 2012 (?) manifesto with text that, brilliantly, I can't even copy and paste, since it's a Photoshopped image of the Steam OS X interface. I also really like how Tale of Tales' RAM argues for a "punk economy" above, but down here, the AxK M$ warns, "do NOT call us punk." It's like these manifestos are in conversation. I also like how the declaration "fuck formalism" might contradict "play with structure", maybe a manifesto is supposed to be in conflict / in flux with itself:

More recently in 2016, Pietro Righi Riva argues for rejecta, a "nontraditional playable media manifesto" that seems to be very much about the shape and process of the game: how long it should be, how long it should take to make, how much it should cost. That focus on production and quality is very timely in the "indiepocalypse era" of 2016, and the use of *specific numbers* evokes the Scratchware Manifesto's prescriptions:
1) The game must flow like a river, time must exist beyond player’s action [...]
2) Setting must be strictly instrumental to content and meaning [...]
3) Source material and collaborations must be found outside of games and related subcultures [...]
4) No game should last more than two hours [...]
5) No game should take more than six months to produce [...]
6) Human condition must be the topic, genre games are not acceptable [...]
7) All video game tradition in form, style, and content must be rejected [...]
8) Acting and performance must be central assets and affecting gameplay [...]
a) Rehearse, don’t test, reject full control as a creator [...]
10) The game must be socially accessible, aim for minimum sustainable price, maximum reach [...]
And lastly I want to highlight Llaura Dreamfeel's brief for the "FLATGAME" jam -- I'm not sure whether she'd call  #flatgames a manifesto, but to me, her jam instructions really read like a manifesto to me, so I'm going to break my own rules about only talking about stuff that labels itself a manifesto. Or, I guess you'll be the judge:
1. Create works where you only control/play with movement of pieces around the screen (the player or anything else) and no further interaction, or even collisions. [...]
2. Make art physically, and try to complete it in under an hour or so. [...]
3. No sound effects, just a single track of ambience/music/background. [...]
4. Release it! The idea is to aim to make the game in an hour or two, and to actually do it in half a day. [...]
(Bonus 0. Flat games should be inspired by or recreate real events and places. Feel free to exaggerate/reinterpret and fictionalize. [...] Space as time. art as time. time as time!)
* * *

It's all so exciting, isn't it?

Maybe we should all just write manifestos? A #GameManifestoJam?

In that spirit, feel free to link to other manifestos / your own manifestos in the comments.