Interactivity wants to be free!

Point 6 of our Realtime Art Manifesto says Don’t make games and The rule-based structure and competitive elements in traditional game design stand in the way of expressiveness and summarizes with Express yourself through interactivity. While this has always been more of a guideline and a desire than a factual truth, we have recently found proof for this claim from an unexpected place.

Rod Humble, an executive producer at Electronic Arts, has made a game. Or more to the point, he has constructed a work of art with game rules. It’s a very simple game but is has captured the imaginations of at least half a dozen bloggers ( Arthouse Games, Joystiq, Indygamer, TIG Source, Man Bytes Blog, Raph Koster, Jonathan Blow ). Probably precisely because of its explicit purpose of trying to express something -a story, a set of opinions- through game rules only, and its apparent success at doing just that.

I, however, beg to differ.

The first response we had here was to feel pity for Rod’s wife. In his game, she is represented as a pink square that gets bigger when she collides with her husband while the latter gets smaller. This may be a naughty reference to human sexuality but nevertheless, it made us worry about their marriage. Later this was confirmed by Raph Koster saying that “He did report that his wife didn’t like the rules.” I bet she didn’t. He just made her look like a self inflating idiot in front of the whole world!

I’m sure that’s not what he meant. And this is the core of the problem.
Game rules, by their very nature, live on a very abstract plain. They are mathematical expressions of relationships between objects. These relationships are completely and utterly logical. They have to be. Otherwise the game breaks. This severe logic is detrimental when trying to express something about the human condition with its inherent messiness, contradictions and ambiguity. As a result, game rules are only capable of expressing a very specific story, a story without layers of meaning or freedom of interpretation.
And it gets worse. Because of their extreme abstraction, game rules are only capable of telling this very specific story in very general terms. When you do that, all poetry gets lost and with it all depth and aspiration to universality.

That being said, I applaud the attempt. I want to see it as one step in the right direction. The direction of telling stories through interactivity. And I hope that the failure of The Marriage (which is the name of this game) to express anything but a banal generalisation of something that is obviously of very deep concern to the author, stimulates us to take the next step. To abandon this strange obsession with games and their rules.

Interactivity is capable of so much more than games. New media artists like Lia and Dextro have been working with this for years. And while they share a formal language with Rod Humble to some extent, the work of these internationally renowned artists provokes a lot more rich and diverse emotions.

Not that I am advocating any kind of puritanism in art. I don’t think laying bare the very concepts of art and limiting art to its very core is a good idea. The computer gives us a an unprecented array of media that we can all use simultaneously to express things in the most sensuous and spectacular ways ever imagined. Why limit ourselves with this wealth at our disposal?

So as a final example, I want to leave you with the work of Alex Mayhew. Way back in 1997 already, he made a CD Rom in Peter Gabriel’s Realworld Studios called “Ceremony of Innocence“. Like The Marriage, it uses interaction as a form of expression to talk about a relationship. However, it does not limit itself to the mechanics but touches all your senses at once. Ceremony of Innocence does not limit itself to gameplay either. It allows interactivity to be free. Playful interactions that express so much more than strict game rules can. Alex is still very active today. Visit his website for more information and some beautiful little experiments with interactivity.

10 thoughts on “Interactivity wants to be free!”

  1. I still have some doubts about The Marriage. Perhaps you can help clear them up. I consider The Marriage as a failure to express anything deep and I like to attribute this to the limitations of the chosen medium (game rules). But of course it is also possible that Mr. Humble doesn’t have sufficient skill (yet) to make it work. After all, the painter always makes much more of a difference than the brush. And it’s not like any of us had any training in telling strories through interactivity.

  2. I feel sorry for his wife because of how Rod presents himself! While interaction with her husband increases her ego (to my mind, not a bad thing within reason) and makes her more present in the relationship, his ego diminishes and he becomes less present in the relationship. Hopefully, if he has enough insight to present his views in the game, he has enough insight that they’re working on their relationship. *nirg*

    The primary reason I leapt upon The Marriage was that for some time I’ve been talking about using metaphor as a means of coaxing story out of your audience, or presenting your own story, through interaction with a game narrative. The Marriage is exactly that — gameplay as metaphor.

    Is it a particularly good game? No. Is it a particularly good story? No, absolutely not. But someone else, an EA employee no less, is trying and I appreciate that.

    I now want to ramble on and on in depth about this, so I think I’ll take it over to my own blog.

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  4. I agree that The Marriage isn’t very good, but I don’t think it’s because it uses rules, it’s because those rules are stupid. Marriage can’t be reduced to a handful of rules, for it to be accurately portrayed with rules (if it’s possible to do that) would take thousands upon thousands of rules, not five or six. And yes, I realize you’ll that last sentence funny, but I don’t mind 😀

  5. typo: it should be ‘that you’ll find the last sentence funny’

    Anyway, I didn’t mean to imply that we should *simulate* marriage with thousands of rules, rather that one could portray marriage in aesthetic terms via thousands of rules. This guy took an incredibly complex subject and attempted to portray it with a few simple rules, of course it’s going to fail. It’s like trying to paint a great painting with three or four brush strokes.

  6. Maybe his ego shrinks because he’s “Humble”.

    I don’t agree with the Real-time Art Manifesto, but I don’t disagree with it. Its just two schools. Furthermore, you can synthesize the two. For instance, I’m going to do a storyworld with Storytron, a very-much rules as art oriented system, which totally fucks any notion of cohesive composition in that frame, rather reveling in real-time art.

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