What follows is my short talk from the microtalks session at last week’s Game Developers Conference. The format was a modified pecha kucha, with 20 slides advancing automatically every 16 seconds. The theme provided by organizer Rich Lemarchand was simply, “Play with Us.” I chose to explore the relationship between developers and their audiences.
This is a very famous poem by Ezra Pound:
It is a classic example of Imagism, a poetic movement characterized by condensation and precision.
Notice that the poem doesn’t tell a story of any kind. Instead, it presents two sets of very clear, yet unrelated images: faces and crowd, petals and bough. The poem creates an equivalence between these two images, but performs no synthesis. It is up to the reader to reconcile them.
Here’s another example of Imagism, by William Carlos Williams:
The poem is written as if it were a note left on the fridge. The image is clear enough, but the matter of forgiveness and expectation is remaindered. Is this act one of contrition following accident, or the latest squabble in an ongoing quarrel? Is it playful or is it pernicious? It’s hard to say.
A similar thing can be seen Williams’s most famous poem, “The Red Wheelbarrow”:
The poem is at once incredibly precise and horrifyingly vague.
What, precisely, depends on the wheelbarrow, and why so much? Instead of explaining, the poem offers such a clear prototype that one can’t help but be overrun with possible implementations. The answer is left ambiguous, abstracted from the author and offloaded onto the reader.
Among game designers, it is Will Wright who has most embraced the offloading of simulation into the minds of players.
Wright talks here about characters, but this offloading happens in all simulations. Players blend a game’s behaviors with expectations that never appear on-screen.
In Imagist poetry and in Wright’s design philosophy, we do not find an abdication of authorship. Instead, we see very strong authorship, but of a different kind. This is an authorship that sets up situations with behaviors. It is one of made of abstractions rather than specifics.
Meaning comes not from the fixity of an author’s idea, but from the free play amidst things that author left behind.
That’s often how we describe games. How could it be the case for a poem of a dozen words? Good games, like good poems, are provocation machines.
Despite the name “Imagism,” the stuff of provocation in poems and in games are the same: the behavior of artifacts.
When you play Braid, you enter into a relationship with its creator not by virtue of the “story” being told to you through fragments, nor by the puzzles that comprise its levels.
Rather, allegorical themes emerge from the game’s temporal dynamics, each of which answers the question, “what if I could do it over again?”
Pound’s poem and Blow’s game are clearly driven by specific, personal experiences. But what those experiences “really are” matters less than the evocative residue they leave.
Just like Pound’s moment on the Paris metro platform, Blow’s meditation on regret is particular enough to become productively evocative. It offers me a set of distortions with which to consider my own regrets symbolically: what if I could do that one thing again but hold this other thing constant?
This isn’t a process of getting out of the player’s way, in the sense that Clint Hocking and others have proposed. The author remains, like a shade.
The player encounters the machine its creator fashioned, and that designed configuration inspires the player to consider what means that its gears mesh.
It’s not authorship that creates this experience. It’s the residue of configuration.
When I manipulate a system, what does its operation invite me to conclude about myself? Yet, this is not a free-for-all either. I subject myself to a situation set up by a creator, who promises evocativeness.
The Imagist poems show us how an abundance of meaning can emerge from tightly crafted, specific components, not from enormous expanses of possibility.
Pound’s poem leaves enough room to see the Metro riders as the doleful subjects of labor, or as glistening Venuses amidst the iron.
The reader does not “receive” the message of the poem, but excavates its images and uses those to craft relevance.
The relationship of player to game is like that of the archaeologist to the ruin. A game is a remnant of something fashioned and disposed by its creator.
When we play, we excavate.
We find rusted yokes, shards of vessels, inscriptions of rites. We find systems that symbolize. We find evidence of utterly lost civilizations that we can never fully understand. They exist to summon wonder instead of clarity.
This is an intimate relationship, too. Once, someone used that implement. That strategem put a piece of a puzzle within reach. There, someone prayed some alien prayer. Overcoats clutched passengers. Rain doused lawn equipment. Men fantasized about mistakes undone.
The author has by no means resigned. Yet, he has also not sent a message to be received. Players unearth the operation of thought, of knowledge, of ritual, of behavior from the fragments of systems left behind. We fiddle so that we might understand ourselves through another’s implements.
A player is the archaeologist of the lost civilization that is a game’s creator.
Play is excavation.
To play with the makers of our games is to play with the ghosts that once animated the systems they leave us, whether they be temporal vortexes, or petals, or plums.