A very long-running debate about games has gone something like this:
A: Games are the next evolution of storytelling.
B: Games are just games. If I want a story, I’ll read a book.
A: Games are storytelling because of the branches of possibility they offer.
B: No, games are all about gameplay.
A: My game story experience is unique. I build my own narrative.
B: Tetris does not need a story, you are talking nonsense.
I call them narrativism and tetrism. Is either right?
Narrativism is in love with the idea that games will one day become a dramatic form surpassing film and book because of their interactivity. Tetrism insists that Tetris is an example of a perfect game, all games should be as elegant as Tetris, and (usually) games are not an art.
While I have will much to say on where narrativism is wrong (and it is, deeply so) What Games Are does not advocate the ideal that games’ best days happened in 1984. Nor that games are simply mechanical bulls. Narrativists are trying to say that there is an emotional quality about games, which does not come in a neat package of rules and objects. However they lack the confidence to express that in their own language, and have become lost trying to justify the magic of games in terms that are borrowed from other arts.
At least they’re trying though. Tetrism, on the other hand, is gaming fundamentalism.
It’s not hard to see why Tetris seems perfect. It has a low adoption curve, but a high maximum mastery. It is extremely elegant in how it’s constructed, to the point of being beautiful. And there is something intrinsically compelling about the game dynamic of sorting oddly shaped blocks into neat rows on a recurring loop. It is thus pure.
The tetrist wants to return to a time of yore when things were perfect. They are driven by the idea of purity, that perhaps at some point the games industry got lost, bedazzled by Hollywood and fast cars, and they find many modern games unsatisfying.
When tetrists say "games are not an art", what they actually mean is that games should not be a "decadent real-world art" ridden with corporate bull and fakery. They have a very dim view of art in general, and tend to be of the "all modern art is rubbish" school of thought.
But actually they are artists in their own way. The indie game movement has a large strain of this sort of purism running through it, as seen in such interesting games as Canabalt. Indies are motivated by a will to creatively self-determine and be accepted.
To the tetrist, games should remain as simple and pure as Mondrian:
Tetrists are thus obsessed with being worthy. Like portrait painters standing in the shadow of Da Vinci tetrists have a real problem in wondering whether they measure up. They see Tetris and some other games from the Golden Age (Pong to Doom) as masterworks, and wish that they could invent something as profound.
This is a self-constructed trap.
The Marketing Fantasy
Just as art cannot stand still and only ever paint in one style, there isn’t really a market for a Tetris 2 or a Super Tetris World. There is also only nostalgia for Tetris in brief intervals, as iPhone apps or interactive TV editions (having produced one of these and seen the figures, I know of what I speak here). The gaming world of players and developers has learned the lesson from Tetris and moved on. There’s no real value to be had in going back, but tetrists still struggle with that to this day.
Where tetrism is wrong is in discounting the importance of fantasy. While a game is not an exercise in storytelling, it is not enough for the player to sort coloured blocks forever. Regardless of how beautiful it may be, any game dynamic eventually becomes repetitive if there is nothing with which the imagination can engage.
The tetrist often mistakes this for marketing. He thinks that the outward shell of the game is just advertising and pizazz to draw in customers, of no relevance beyond that. But in doing so he misunderstands the relationship between player and game. Like any kind of fundamentalist, he then quickly moves on to thinking that most players are sheep held in the grasp of evil marketing and television.
Indie developers in particular often harbour deep frustration with what they see as the corporate conglomerates bewitching the gaming masses and fooling them. Yet as many experts will tell you, that view of how marketing works in the 21st century is nothing short of quaint.
We don’t really live in the broadcast economy any more, which is why old school media has to work much harder (for example, with talent shows like the X-Factor) to hold onto some semblance of its former power. The Long Tail, the Purple Cow and other concepts of oversupply of content choice tell us that the 21st century is a viral landscape, not a broadcast one.
Tetrists are just as much in love with the fantasy of games as everyone else. The only difference is that their cultural bias is deeply rooted in the past. One of the reasons why Minecraft is such a hit is its deliberate retro styling, for example. The tetrist loves that small-textured 8-bit sensibility because it speaks to an emotional part of him. He wants to believe that games exist in an idyllic state, are not over-run with fashion-ability, and so childhood can exist in a permanent state forever.
Tetris and many other games from the early days are not really masterworks. They are founderworks.
In every art there are the early innovators who create the foundation from which all else flows. The Greeks are notable for having founded the conventions of what we consider theatre, for example, and plays such as the Theban Plays set the tone for everything else that follows. What Sophocles, and later Shakespeare and many others, did was to discover many of the major innovations and creative constants of their craft.
It’s a similar situation for games. The challenge that all worldmakers face is that they are not founders. It could be argued (and I do) that all the major constraints of games have been discovered, and so like the theatrical play there is now a fairly comprehensive set of rules by which they operate.
This leaves three choices.
- Regard yourself as a failure, or unlucky, who will never get the chance to make anything as fundamental as Tetris
- Kick against the idea of constraints, get angry and attempt to create the gaming equivalent of free jazz
- Accept the constraints, but not become complacent, and use them to make great games
The first is the position of the tetrist. I believe in their hearts that they just feel inadequate or unfortunate not to have come up through games in 1975-1985 when all the big discoveries were being made. Unfortunately, this makes the tetrist full of regret. The past is not coming back any time soon, and they know it, but still a great deal of games try to recapture those retro sensibilities and ideals of a simpler time. Meanwhile the audience for games has somewhat moved on, to the point that platform shift is actually starting to make indie gaming seem Palaeolithic.
The second position on that list is the narrativists, people who get all tied up in curio experiments of interactive fiction. Just as misdirected, but fuelled by a different kind of idealism, narrativists are likewise trapped in a negative psychology of their own making. I’ll talk more about this post-Christmas.
The third position is the position of the worldmaker. He is the person who realises what games are and decides to make great games, forgetting drama and fundamentalism and instead embracing dynamics, thauma and artistry.
On that I will be speaking a great deal, because the future belongs to the worldmaker.
(Thanks for reading this. You can stay up to date with this debate by following the What Games Are account on Twitter.)