On those people who work with the invisible
There is something that keeps being said that I want to counter right now. You would have heard it in the description of an interactive writing event pitched to screenwriters and novelists. You would have heard it at interactive, game, and VR panels at film, TV, and documentary events. You would have heard it in classrooms, when teachers explain what games are. You would have heard it from academics, when they explain what games are. It is always the same: games are different, games are not the same as other media. Interactivity is so different, you must abandon what you know already. There is no way you will be able understand interactivity from where you are standing. You can’t use what you already know. Games — interactivity — are outside of the art you know, are outside of art, are outside of you.
Codswallop. Now I say this with fondness, because I used to claim these things too. In the early days of transmedia, I spent many years researching and explaining how it is different. Every time someone said it was like something that already exists, I would get frustrated. So much so that I would dive through history and semantics and find lots of ways to explain just how it is different. But in the process of doing that, something happens. We’re so worried that people won’t understand the difference, that we end up mutating what is actually is. We’re so scared that people won’t see what we see, that in the end they won’t understand or recognise us. So we make sure they know how unique we are. We do this at the expense of the artform.
I watched this happen in games too. The great semantic battles of the early days have left wounds. But it isn’t the fault of a small few that took the time to research and eloquently argue what games are. No, it is everywhere. It happens at every industry event, in classrooms, and in kitchens. We all try and explain something that we find new by cancelling out what people already know. VR is not film. Games are not stories. (I just had an essay published on this, where I offer solutions too). We think we win a moment of understanding, a career, and an industry, but what we gain is a temporary business model based on scarcity of knowledge. The catch is, the industry ultimately falters because you need great projects that move people to have an industry. These new things have to deliver, after interest there needs to be affect. And great projects don’t happen when you exclude everything that happened before.
That exclusionary thinking is hinged on a fundamental illusion: that artforms have boundaries. We think that because a book is so different to a button, that the creation experiences are diametrically opposed. I’ll cut to the final scene: they’re not. Stories and games are not complete opposites. You can draw on both to create great works. You can use your storytelling skills in games. Don’t let someone tell you what you’re allowed to create with. Every f‘n project is made up of lots of great moments developed through time. They are the sum of the lives of the artists involved, and the sum of the experiences of the players. A sequestered “difference” engine is without soul.
Whenever we separate in the name of identity, we end up siloing knowledge. We cut out anything that is recognisable until we have a strange, shiny, and sharp object in front of us. We say that extraneous bits should only be added, if at all, after everything else. They’re not an element of it, they’re wrapping. We teach new game designers that what they do has nothing to do with narrative. We create departments where they work separately, and preferably don’t interact until the last second. We relegate narrative tasks to databases of dialogue entries, in-game artifacts, tutorial prompts, and marketing blurbs. Whatever can be seen. Words are narrative, and sometimes, goddamn it, we still need them.
But then roles like a “narrative designer” emerged, and you see people being responsible for making sure the narrative and game elements work together. A single person. This is a big step. But now this event is about making more of these people.
You see, it’s all a lie. The separation of artforms is artificial. The best of any artform is in all artforms. The most effective techniques, processes, and approaches, are recognisable. A painter nods when a filmmaker describes their process, and a playwright nods when a gamemaker describes theirs. Despite the apparent incompatibility of our chosen expressions, we often enjoy the same works, and share the same audiences.
We come together in the intangible.
It is hard for some see the invisible. Players, non-designers, non-writers, and non-creatives find it easier to grasp objects. They understand art, and actors, music, and explosions. Business people can get closer though. They work backwards (which is a fine direction). They can’t see it, but they can know it’s presence through the smudges left on accounting sheets. Game mechanics elude them, but they make money. Now they are recognisable. I ka-ching, therefore I am.
This is why this event is also about different structures for different outcomes. What also could we do besides making money? How do we design better behaviours? How do we reflect back the best of people? How do we design arcs that do not rely on the worst parts of humanity to make it interesting? We’re designers, if we see wrongdoing then we have a moral obligation to design it out.
I’m one of those people. I love the feel of beautiful objects, I love the outline of a garment and a lush mountain poking the sun, I love colours and light, sounds and kinetics. But I am called to work with the stuff you can’t see. For a world I don’t see, but I know exists. And I’ll use all my invisible tools (the ones some don’t think exist) to make it real.
I’ll craft the intangible.
And I’m not the only one. Check out what these speakers have to say.