Saturday, January 16, 2010

So... What Does a Non-Interactive Video Game Look Like?

I want to say one word to you. Just one word. Are you listening? Hypertext.

But first, let's back up here: Lewis Denby issued his response in what Kieron Gillen termed an "experimental modder knife fight" -- and now, by virtue of being American and having been indoctrinated by a national myth that idolizes the "underdog," I too am also interested in side-stepping the debate of who's better because I've already won, so now I'm wondering about the same question that Denby's wondering: how can you have video game-like elements without incurring all those pesky expectations of a video game?

In discussing Increpare's "Home" and Tale of Tales' "The Graveyard," the always eloquent Emily Short analyzes such "non-interactive" art games...
... "There is a tendency in some art games to derive the artistic impact from refusing to let the player change things, from the conflict between what the player wants to achieve (and thinks he might be able to achieve) and what the designer has chosen to allow. At its simplest, the gimmick is to get the player to try to do something impossible, and then wait for him to give up. [...] But the more art games do this, the less effective the technique is -- especially in works that identify themselves formally with an art game movement. [...] The Graveyard is less derivative, but still suffers from the non-surprise of its constraints and limitations."
Of course, Short is talking about games that intentionally present the illusion of interactivity -- yet I'd argue that Denby's "brave new genre" is preceded by an older game like "The Graveyard" where interactivity is limited to movement and camera control and you're largely left to derive meaning yourself.

Short argues that "The Graveyard" is unsatisfying because there's an implicit promise of interactivity when it exists through the medium of a game, even if we know we're supposed to approach it differently. (What about a book that doesn't use words? Or a film that doesn't use pictures? Are those possible? Are those desirable? Are those interesting? Or am I equivocating here?)

When you mod a game, you place your mod directly in the context of (a) the original game, and (b) other mods. The re-use of assets, textures, architecture, enemies, design tropes -- players generally expect the mod to function in some manner related to the original game. At its root, this implies a promise of interactivity beyond moving and looking. When "Dear Esther" did it, the effect was fresh, but I don't think a whole genre of these FPS games is sustainable.

(Increpare / Terry Cavanagh's collaboration "Judith" is notable for a similar twist with non-agency (SPOILER): as you approach the final door after witnessing all these atrocities, you're expecting something horrible to happen to your player character, yet you're powerless to turn around -- but then it turns out to be nothing and everything's fine. )

Now there are games like "Miner Distraction" getting assaulted on TIG Source because they don't do anything. Because Miner Distraction was working with the genre convention of a 2D platformer, and perhaps the designer mistook a lack of difficulty and additional mechanics as something interesting within that genre. Or maybe it wasn't a mistake, and we're all philistines. Whatever.

But even a game that goes out of its way to not be a "game" has a difficult time of it. A few years ago, I "played" something at the Centre Pompidou -- it was a gallery station with a trackball and screen, featuring a poorly constructed model of an affiliate museum in the Quake 3 engine. It was a first person architectural walkthrough, with clearly no expectation of game mechanics, especially in a public gallery setting. And what did most of the gallery viewers do, those who were engaged for more than a few minutes?

They tried to jump and climb to the top of the building, almost without fail. The game was so boring that they had to invent their own rules and goals. "But it wasn't intending to be a game!" -- well, too late. It's in the Quake 3 engine. You control an avatar with an (awkward) trackball setup. We're going to judge it as a game, and a poorly designed one at that.

In the context of my previous post about the "implied player," who was the implied museum-goer here? The one who patiently walks around the map, admiring the craftsmanship, contemplating an individual's relationship to the built environment of a museum, in awe of the importance of museums in the digital age? What's the probability of that happening?

I think it's safe to assume that anyone who sees a controllable camera view on a screen will assume some sort of video game-like function from it, along with the related assumptions of basic player agency, and that assumption is both cultural and irreversible. So we have two options here: (1) change this increasingly dominant public assumption somehow, perhaps through television commercials and an extensive print advertisement campaign; (2) change the medium somehow. I'm assume the latter.

If you read some of the older theory and criticism about the future convergence of literature and technology, these writers go absolutely ape-shit over this concept of "hypertext" -- but this was back in the 70s, 80s, and early 90s when words like "cyberspace" didn't sound so laughable and antiquated. The idea of "hypertext" is that text can go "hyper" -- that text can signify more than what it is, and be consumed non-linearly. Right now, it exists in the form of this thing we called the "Internet", or perhaps it exists as Wikipedia if you want to consider a more cohesive system.

But what's more relevant is how a new genre / medium / genre-dium called "hypertext fiction" emerged. Here, we have all the benefits of free exploration and self-pacing without any expectation of agency -- because you're "reading," not playing. Wow, this sounds like exactly what we want with stuff like "Dear Esther" and "Post-Script," let's sign up.

So what happened to it? It forked.

To the left, it became "interactive fiction," where now the most popular recent works privilege interaction and user agency above everything, almost like a gam-... Oops, we don't want to go there. Back up...

To the right, it stayed "hypertext fiction," today a relatively defunct literary genre / medium that no one really gives a shit about, unless you're a desperate Ph.D candidate who needs to cite some research for your paper on modernist gender modes as represented throughout the Final Fantasy series. (Or maybe it thrives today as our modern understanding of "fan fiction," some kind of literary universe existing through quantum mechanics, disseminated and edited over the internet?)

So here's how I'm interpreting history: 15-20 years ago, we had this newly emerging genre of non-linear narrative that promised everything you'd want with a "non-interactive art game" -- a genre that didn't care about the extent of the reader's agency, with works that presented narrative as post-modernist fragments to be analyzed thoughtfully... but it didn't take off because no one cared.

... So now what? I don't know.