The problem of solving problems

There’s two nagging issues in the games industry that keep coming up: the desire to create more artistic games and the desire to access a broader market. Some would say these issues are related. They certainly are when we consider how the industry tries to solve them: by analysing the “problem” and then coming up with logical constructions that will lead to the desired result. In other words: they try to program the solution.

This should come as no surprise given that many leading positions in the games industry are filled by programmers. Programmers are very creative people. They can deal with immense problems, chop them down to little pieces, solve each one seperately and when they’re done a fully working product comes out. It’s almost like magic. I think they like doing this. It must be very satisfying. I think they like it so much that they see problems everywhere: problems they can solve.

But what if something is not a problem?

20th Century artist Marcel Duchamp is famous for saying “Il n’y a pas de solution parce qu’il n’y a pas de problème” (there is no solution because there is no problem). There is a lot of truth to be found in this enigma. For one thing, it tells us that if we can stop seeing an issue as a problem, there is no need to solve it. Programmers don’t like this. Because they love solving problems. Artists, on the other hand, are very good at looking at things from different angles. In other words: things that are a problem to some are an opportunity to others.

In the concrete case of there being too little art in games, the programmer’s solution is to develop constructions with all the ingredients of art put in their proper relationships that if set in motion cannot do anything but produce art. In other words: they attempt to create art-producing machines. Amazing! Except that what these machine bring forth, can only be considered artistically interesting by a very generous audience (preferably consisting of peers).

If we stop looking at this issue as a problem, however, and start seeing it as an opportunity, the “solution” is very simple. We don’t need to create art-producing machines. We already have art-producing humans! All we need to do is to ensure that more artists can make games. The same applies to broadening the market: ensure that more women can make games. Just let them in and give them the proper tools and we don’t need to worry our pretty little oh-so-smart programmers’ heads about it no more.

4 thoughts on “The problem of solving problems”

  1. I have some questions.

    Essentially what you’re talking about seems to be infinite games where the artists are encouraged to build their own worlds or to develop plotlines or loops – is that a correct understanding? Like SIMS with a central story line (i am not a game developer – apologies for newbie style rambling)

    In this sense something like the Odyssey or the Illiad can be created amongst many parties even where the original story thread is credited to the game (or Homer etc) Epics are born not made. If so then you are talking about something I’ve been wanting to see for years (er, ever since I used to play Elite with its infinite worlds in the galaxy).

    However one thing that has always seemed a problem to me is that looping in games always brings you back to the same thread and you diverge from the inital thread without possible progress – or should i say necessary progress – in terms of character and plot development.

    In my dream game in fact the central thread is the conventional “W” plot – and the looping mechanisms describe ajascent parabalas which while differing from the main thread, draw the protagonist back into a section of the story further down the line. It’s confusing talk so an example helps. Rocky begins his story as a man struggling to make ends meet, additional parabalas cover his succumbing to drugs, or lonliness and hopelessness at finding a mate, before he find boxing. So the boxing moment of clarity is the first lowest point in the first section of the “W” but the way re reach it may differ. Then the story moves forward from that point no matter how you reached it.

    So my questions are:

    How do you ensure people find their way back to the central thread.

    Isn’t each area of the game dictated in sophistication by the number of people who pass through it (which equals a re-telling and additional development by the user).

    Why isn’t Yuri Norstein credited somewhere on the front page? His is my favorite piece of cinema and I am sure did much to inspire your movement?

  2. I don’t know how you got all that out of my post. But you did touch on some issues that we have dealt with before and probably will again at some point. In short, our approach to story in interactive pieces is to let go of plot. We create virtual worlds without any expectations of a linear structure. We don’t believe in Drama Managers (sorry, Michael 😉 ).

    As for Norstein, it was only after we named our company that somebody pointed us to his film. Tale of Tales is part of the title of a medieval book by Giovanni Batiste Basile that contains, among others, a version of Sleeping Beauty that we liked when we were working on 8.

  3. As an artist, it makes a lot of sense to work with the materials at hand, instead of spending a lot of time and effort inventing new technologies that may or may not help you produce good art.

    Regarding interactive art, including narrative-ish art with characters, certainly the possibilities of what can be built has plenty of room for further exploration, as you are doing.

    You wrote: “We don’t need to create art-producing machines. We already have art-producing humans! All we need to do is to ensure that more artists can make games.”

    The problem with your argument is that, there are certain types of experiences that we, as artists, wish to experience, and wish others to experience. They’re the kinds of experiences that only an art-producing entity can perform for a player, in real-time — for example, the ability to have a meaningful language-based conversation with a character that is actually listening to you and responding.

    An art-producing human could puppeteer such a conversation, live, like “the man behind the curtain” in the Wizard of Oz. But if you want to distribute this experience to millions of people, there’s no way to achieve this without creating an artificial man behind the curtain.

    Your take, I believe, is don’t bother wishing for what requires so much work, that may not succeed. Go for what’s at hand. That’s all well and good; to take the analogy of exploration, for example, there’s lots of our own planet to explore and discover, why go through so much effort to build a rocket to the moon? Well, because, walking on the moon would be an extremely compelling and a mind-expanding experience.

    While I’m an engineer (as well as designer and artist), I for one don’t get much joy out of engineering for engineering’s sake. The reason I slave away is to enable the art itself and the experience for the player.

    I agree there are many programmers who do get most of their pleasure from the engineering itself, and it can lead to over-engineered products that don’t focus on the experience for the player.

    You wrote: “We don’t believe in Drama Managers (sorry, Michael 😉 ).”

    The drama management work we do (and all of the technology and AI) is a joint effort, developed together over the years, so you’ll need to apologize to us both, I’m afraid 😉

  4. First of all, you’re right: I think we should stay off the moon. We have no business there. Mankind has ruined enough by exploring its own planet already. There’s no need to export that behaviour into the galaxy.

    But to continue the analogy, I see the rocket that you speak of as a piece of technology and walking on the moon as the artistic experience. As such, I think engineers should be building the rocket that enables artists to go and walk on the moon. Artists won’t be very good at building rockets and engineer suck at walking on moons.

    I understand your position, though, where the technology to do what you want to do is not available and so you need to build it yourself. I think it is a mistake to think that this technology is an artwork or that it produces art all by itself. But I’d love to be proven wrong!

    I apologize to you as well, Andrew, for the Drama Manager thing. I know you guys work together but Michael was the one who had expressed discomfort with our statement about the subject.

    Don’t get me wrong: I love what you are doing, I think Façade is a great achievement with interesting artistic moments. I’m really looking forward to what you will come up with next. I really would not want you to change course. I believe that it may lead somewhere.

    But I also believe that our own theories may lead somewhere. And I want to follow that path for a while. I refuse to believe that there is only one solution for interactive art -to engineer it. There’s another way as well. And other things to do. We don’t all have to be working on meaningful conversations with artificial characters. There’s plenty more stuff that can be done with these machines.

    I just hope that some engineers find it in their heart to develop software for us, artists, instead of trying to make art themselves and continuing the endless debate. Games will be valued as art as soon as they are undeniably experienced as such, without requiring statements or theories.

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