Our story begins on October 8th, 2014, on a very special episode of the Late Show with David Letterman. He was ending that episode with a musical guest from Japan -- a holographic vocaloid named Hatsune Miku. Pay attention to Letterman's barely-veiled incredulity as he introduces her. He can't believe the words coming out of his mouth:
But what really makes this moment is the ending, after the performance. Letterman doesn't even know what to say, and he knows he doesn't know what to say. The experience was completely overwhelming, so Letterman has to somehow pivot back to interpret it for his audience (mostly moms and dads from Milwaukee) and all he can muster is a facile comparison to "being on Willie Nelson's bus." (Willie Nelson, if you're not familiar, is a celebrity notorious for his drug use, among other things.)
The meaning is both clear and agreeable: Hatsune Miku is drugs.
... which means we are all also drugs.
|"Modern Rhapsody" (1957), by Salvador Dali; earliest painted depiction of a "video game"|
Both artists are known for being "trippy", yet from their perspective, they were just being artistic. Saying art is a metaphor for drugs is getting it the wrong way around -- rather, drugs are a metaphor for art. If we too become artists, then we too will be drugs, part of Paik's participatory culture.
Game culture has trouble reconciling the auteur-developer identity with the demands of industrial technocapitalism. Games are beautiful subtle works of art, except when We Demand Some Goddamn Service Here, and now artists are supposed to be factory managers. Imagine telling Salvador Dali he wasn't painting fast enough. (He would've laughed at you and told you to fuck off.) When this does happen (often) in art, we understand it as a craven and unethical practice. But in games, productivity-worship is the norm: Unity will enable the perfect realization of our intentions! Now with more control than ever before, 200% more innovation!
Our mistake, as video game artists, is assuming that this is the best way, or worse, that this is the only way. It is not. Sometimes you need a break from the relentless pressures of making a buck, you know? This is why we need speculative development tools, or "drugs" as I'd like to call them right now:
* * *
All of these programs are useful for making "real" assets in "real" games. It's great if you end up doing that, but it's also not necessarily the point of speculative development. Much like speculative fiction or speculative architecture, the idea behind speculative dev is that feasibility and pragmatism can often limit our expression and ways of making. Here, the point is not the product, the point is the process -- the process of using these tools and feeling their grains and contours and suddenly wondering, "why can't Unity let me paint just by looking at stuff?" or "why can't I tell Maya to make these meshes fuck and have children and then selectively breed their offspring?" or "why can't I sculpt a gameplay mechanic?"
Too often in game development, we forget that this is supposed to be fun. To use these programs, I didn't take a class or buy a book. I just downloaded it and started using it. So many traditions of art-making like music, painting, or carpentry, all involve some sense of rejecting formalist intellectualizing in favor of just... "doing." Try to take joy in doing, collaborate with your computer, embrace messiness.
And if you do that, then the things you make will be intrinsically valuable, because they will be yours.
Thanks for listening.
This is an essay form of a talk I delivered at Indiecade East 2015 in New York City.