I spoke about Enemy of Chaos at an annual games industry conference called Playful yesterday. It was a pleasure to be asked – although I wish I had been able to think of something cleverer to say really. I just talked about how EOC is about entropy, disorder and cryogenics, and therefore death. Not sure how it went down (hard to judge when you’re looking out into a sea of blank faces and laptops) – and I was almost sick with the nerves of it – but Twitter response seemed quite good at least. (I uploaded a few photos here. I’ll write more about the other speakers soon…)
How great just to be there, though. Everyone in that room was super-smart and many of the presentations were genuinely inspiring. I LOVED Russell Davies’s thoughts on playing-as-pretending. What else is play if not pretending? And he’s right, we forget this. Gaming has become too big for its boots. Alongside Russell, in my head, I’m running Duncan Gough’s talk about “Playing a game of Kes” – harnessing that same impulse that made you want to be in his world, to want to be the kid in Kes. Gough talked about how to render and realise a fictive world so perfectly absorbing that it feels like it’s carrying on around you, even if you stop playing. My brain was bent.
I suppose the really stimulating question to come out from all this is: “What is a game?” It’s a metaphor. It’s an interactive simulation. It’s a thing that might be competitive, could be fun. It’s often little more than a set of arbitrary rules, but clearly there’s pleasure to be had from rule-obeying too, for many gamers.
Yesterday really opened my mind to new possibilities for my next project too. Until now, I’d been thinking in terms of accurate renderings of a world, but it doesn’t come naturally to me – and doesn’t particularly interest me. A world gives you scope for characters and a story, but these are the very things I find so difficult. I’m interested in the sketches, the moments, the Braid-like simultaneity of time.
But for good exchanges you need people, real or fictional. And people like talking to other REAL people far more than they like talking to computers. So Second Life is halfway there, but there’s something about those polygons and that approach to social gaming that seems naive to me now. Let’s try to make a version of the real world, they seem to say, where people are brave enough to talk to strangers. Oh and, like, you can fly. But it’s an 80s-sci-fi-movie dream of the future of gaming. It’s a pastichey metaphor for utopia based on a knee-jerk response. It’s a 21st century chat room.
With Mario Galaxy’s oceans and Pixar’s skies, however beautiful they may look, I can’t help feeling they’ll never be as beautiful as the actual world. And that makes me feel sad somehow. Sure, given the glorious success of these things I must be in the minority, but, well… I’m getting used to being in the minority.
Games seem to be moving on from the obsessive rendering of reality and dystopian post-apocalptic killing to hyper-real, better-than-life beautifulness that nevertheless exists solely as a backdrop to basic gameplay challenges and sandbox fun. I wonder whether the gorgeousness is sometimes a distraction or diversion from the fact the game isn’t, in fact, offering anything we can’t get from physical reality. Perhaps that’s what Gough was talking about with games of Kes and Press Gang. The challenge to imagine playing a game in a coherent world where everything counts, embraces you, and nothing’s just scenery. The challenge to find the most unlikely game. What’s the game we can’t really get into through anything else? Has the ultimate goal of the ultimate game become elusiveness itself?
I’m inclined to agree with Joshua that the only way to win is not to play. I’d like to do something wordy. Abstract. Metaphorical. Something with worm-holes and links and pathways, where you pretend, but the game doesn’t. Something that’s austerely funny and hard and useless, and not cool or fashionable or beautiful or joyful. At all.