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.