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Hothead Rants Pt. 4: Naomi Clark

Hothead Rants Pt. 4: Naomi Clark

Wed 10 Apr 2013 9:00am GMT / 5:00am EDT / 2:00am PDT
PeopleDevelopmentGDC 2013

On why games should be striving to mean more

This is the fourth in our series of Hothead Rants from this year's GDC, coming from Naomi Clark. Frustrated by a medium full of potential for change and impact which is so rarely fulfilled, Clark drew an analogy to the social awakening of Hollywood cinema - a period which saw some directors discard many of the conservative attitudes which had restricted mainstream cinema to supervising the perpetuation of the status quo.

Why, says Clark, when games have so few restrictions on content and subject matter, has the industry not yet had this sort of widespread epiphany of social conscience?

Naomi Clark

I'm Naomi, and to break it down today I want to give a very cerebral talk about cinema envy. I'm mostly being facetious about this but there's just a particular era of American cinema that I want us to look at for inspiration; that's the New Hollywood or American New Wave period from the late '60s to the early '80s. (2)

This is when a lot of major filmmakers started rejecting classic Hollywood roles in order to make controversial films that took on hot-button social and political issues that were wracking the country back then - and you have to keep in mind this was all happening with the backing and distribution of major studios. You can still see the legacy of New Hollywood in this year's Oscar contenders, even if it's gotten a little more watered down. The successful interaction of politics and film left a permanent mark.

Meanwhile over here in games we're still busy cleaning up this adolescent, woman hating, sex object, boy's club bullshit that you just heard about. Seriously, the time for this is totally over now, we can't stand for it anymore, we have to put it to a hard stop because we have more important things to do.

"This is the kind of thing that you want to get in trouble for. Not for being potty mouthed pre-teens obsessed with boobs"

I mean look at what can happen if you just grow up a little bit. The Spook Who Sat By The Door is a film about a Black Panther who infiltrates the CIA and then uses what he's learned to raise a revolutionary anti-racist army against the US government, and this movie was distributed by United Artists. Then it was yanked out of the theatres by the FBI because they were so scared of it. This is the kind of thing that you want to get in trouble for. Not for being potty mouthed pre-teens obsessed with boobs.

Of course there are plenty of excuses not to do this, and I find myself making them too, so this is as much a rant against me as anyone else, but the excuse does not fly. Seriously, we have to claim our power and our role as pro-active shapers of culture, not just reactive profiteers. There are players of course who will complain that you mixed something political into their dopamine, but you do not need these players. There are plenty of other players that would be thrilled for games to go to new places and spoon feeding the same generic content to these guys year after year is clearly not a growth industry. We have to challenge players in new ways, and I don't just mean by mastering more game mechanics.

flow

I love this trend in recent years of unpacking the weirdness of our own genres and conventions to unsettle players, but I think we can actually do even more than this - we can look up from staring into our own belly buttons.

So what if you're one of those people who doesn't care about politics, you just want to make entertainment? Well I have a newsflash for you, as Nietzsche said: there is no such thing as neutral entertainment, it's all always already political. If you try to avoid politics all that happens is you're going to default to whatever the status quo message is and that's usually a pretty conservative message.

The default neutral politics expressed by games right now...if you guys add nothing of your own opinions, they're basically going to be about consumer object fetishism about getting bigger and better guns, cars and sim mansions. Wouldn't you rather think a little bit more about what else you have to say besides this?

Is this already happening? Well yes it is, and that's awesome. These games, like Unmanned, Train, Half the Sky and Keep Me Occupied - there could be more, obviously - they're leading the way. But seriously, this is everyone's responsibility, not just a handful of people. Real change doesn't flow from just one or two leaders, nor is it going to magically spring out of a foundation grant. It has to be a movement, a ground swell.

We do have a games for change model but I don't believe it's enough on its own, we need more creative angles on how to uniquely participate in political life. We need to experiment and screw up too, we need politics in indie games and AAA games and personal games, so are you still really not convinced by this?

blow

Well, do you want to continue being scapegoated for this kind of bullshit? This is only possible because in part we've advocated our own power to make meaningful contributions to public discourse. Ian Hogarth is right, political speech is supposed to be the bedrock of our freedom of expression and so you have to use it or lose it.

And so do you want this kind of treatment to continue where Apple is basically telling us that apps should not exercise political speech? Do you want us to keep getting treated like the immature adolescents of the media world? Jon Blow is also right in his quote, this would not have been possible if we had just been taking our own responsibilities seriously.

So how the hell do we really start doing this and taking it seriously? I don't know either, I'm not good at it. I'm ranting as much at myself remember, I just know we have to get there somehow without screwing up along the way. But look, there are so many more models for making games than there use to be, you can make games that are driven by profit motive traditionally, or you can make games that are funded by a foundation grant. And of course you can make games that are just fuelled by your own emotion.

"Look around you, find something in the world that pisses you off, injustice, oppression, a stupid bureaucracy, hydro-fracking, beverage laws, choose something"

Of course these models appear to get combined in all sorts of ways, so why don't we focus on breeding more strains more heavily into the mix. So here's my challenge to you, not games for anything but games from anger. First look around you, find something in the world that pisses you off, injustice, oppression, a stupid bureaucracy, hydro-fracking, beverage laws, choose something.

Get other people involved, learn about the systems that are affecting and regulating other people's lives every day and turn that into a compelling experience, we know how to do this part. Then you open it up with players, and that's the fucking magic that we have at our fingertips that nobody else in media can do. I genuinely believe that will lead to new strategies, reflections, inspirations and conversations, the ingredients of change. And where there's passion I also believe that smart business people can figure out how to keep it going so who's with me?

In the words of Howard Beale: "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore."

17 Comments

Paul Smith Dev

189 154 0.8
The number one priority for a game is its gameplay, everything else should be there to make the gameplay better if you going into development with the mentality of "I want to tell a story" then you should be making films or writing books instead.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Paul Smith on 10th April 2013 12:34pm

Posted:A year ago

#1

Eric Pallavicini Game Master, Kabam

298 199 0.7
if you going into development with the mentality of "I want to tell a story" then you should be making films or writing books instead..
What if the statement is "I want to tell an interactive story" instead ? Then games are the perfect medium. Now while your statement, Paul, is being very pragmatic, art has never been (fully or only) about pragmatism (or its related limits in terms of creativity).

If you take a game like Heavy Rain, which is a bit of a paradigm, gameplay would not make any sense there if it was not supported by narration. Why the hell would you have things like drawing a house or putting eyeliner on in a game you supposed to run after serial killer and protect the ones you love ? If it was not for the strong immersion in the storyline, those gameplay elements (much to been seen as a succession of mini-games) would make no real sense and taken alone would probably be deemed mediocre. But fact seems to be Heavy Rain is a fresh experiment that worked and the game has been acclaimed not for its gameplay, not for its story-line, not for its theme or technical prowess, but as a whole entertainment experience.

Edited 8 times. Last edit by Eric Pallavicini on 10th April 2013 2:14pm

Posted:A year ago

#2

Jakub Mikyska CEO, Grip Digital

202 1,107 5.5
Popular Comment
Just yesterday, I had a strange experience with BioShock Infinite. I got to a shanty town with a lot of poor people used for slave-like labor. They were begging for money, asking for medicine, chained to walls... I couldn't interact with them in any way. They were just a stage set. And then... after walking through the shanty town for like five minutes, the interaction finally came - two thugs tried to rob me and I HAD TO kill them.

This part of otherwise excellent game is a great example of why games are not perceived as a tool of expressing someone's views about sensitive topics (like poverty, in this example). The game could have given me the choice to give the poor some money, share some of my medicine, etc... and as a result to let me avoid the scene with the robbers... or I could have simply walked by, ignoring everybody and got robbed as a "reward". This could have been small, self-contained, mini-story that would let me think about poverty and the things I can do about it, a true message that would use all the advantages of interactive media. But instead I got two headshots.

Simple things like that make make all the difference.

Posted:A year ago

#3

Eric Pallavicini Game Master, Kabam

298 199 0.7
But instead I got two headshots.

Simple things like that make make all the difference.
And as a result I give you a "top comment" star, that's interactivity and sensitivity. Please don't headshot me. :D

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Eric Pallavicini on 10th April 2013 2:18pm

Posted:A year ago

#4

Paul Smith Dev

189 154 0.8
What if the statement is "I want to tell an interactive story" instead ?
Interactive stories aren't games, they are interactive stories. If the "interactive story" contains gameplay then its a game and no longer an interactive story and it will end up being a bad game because the gameplay was a 2nd thought.

Posted:A year ago

#5

Eric Pallavicini Game Master, Kabam

298 199 0.7
Interactive stories aren't games, they are interactive stories. If the "interactive story" contains gameplay then its a game and no longer an interactive story and it will end up being a bad game because the gameplay was a 2nd thought.
You're kidding right ?
So no Role Playing Game is actually a game, beside the fact hmm well there is "game" in the description ? They're interactive stories (with 2nd thought gameplay) ? Is that what your point is about ?

You're taking a dangerous and narrow path here, for a future designer I am telling you.
There are games which primarily centre on gameplay and that's totally fine and we should have those games, but as a medium we can and should have space for games that go down the story route - and they are still games.

Edited 3 times. Last edit by Eric Pallavicini on 10th April 2013 3:49pm

Posted:A year ago

#6

Paul Smith Dev

189 154 0.8
So no Role Playing Game is actually a game, beside the fact hmm well there is "game" in the description ? They're interactive stories (with 2nd thought gameplay) ? Is that what your point is about ?
no no no no, Im saying if a games puts its story before its gameplay its not gonna be as great of a game as it could of been. A game with a crap story (or no story at all) can be the best game ever made. A game with the best story in the world is still going to be a shit game if the gameplay is bad.
Are you saying there should be no story in games? or that it's ok to have watered down stories that barely hold the plot, as long as gameplay is fun?
Well of course its better to have both but if one has to take a hit it should always be the story, gameplay should never be sacrificed for anything. (except budget/time :))

Same goes for graphics.

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Paul Smith on 10th April 2013 4:37pm

Posted:A year ago

#7

Tiego François-Brosseau Programmer / Developer

1 3 3.0
no no no no, Im saying if a games puts its story before its gameplay its not gonna be as great of a game as it could of been.
"A game is a series of interesting choices." (Sid Meier)

I very much like this quote because it implicitly includes interactivity, while excluding no types of games.
From my point of view, visual novels where you make choices are "games" as much as a pure gameplay game like Tetris.

You can't systematically put gameplay over narrative in a hierarchy. You don't have that right.
I see where you are coming from. There is a "purist" trend in certain game design circles that promotes this way of thinking and it's easy to fall in that camp.

Maybe the problem is that we're still attached to the word "game", when it should really be "interactive art", or something alike.

Posted:A year ago

#8

Eric Pallavicini Game Master, Kabam

298 199 0.7
Maybe the problem is that we're still attached to the word "game", when it should really be "interactive art", or something alike.
@Tiego
It is only a problem if we exclude one or the other edges as being in the field of possible (or in terms of art, if we are scared to venture beyond the edge).

The quote from Sid Meier that you mentioned, yet simple, is general enough to allow diversity, any kind of diversity. As Andreas also mentioned it, a story, a lore, can manifest itself in many shapes and not only in terms of text or cut scenes. But it is unquestionable either that cut scenes also contribute to the gameplay in their very own way, as not only they provide information about the universe/lore, advance the storyline, but they are also seen as a reward and a milestone by the player and as such they are an element of motivation contributing to the gameplay, just like any "unlock". On the other hand, mini-games (which are more or less comparable to early games like Space Invaders, Pong, Tetris in the sense those were strictly gameplay oriented) can also add a lore value to any universe (i.e. being able to have a mini-game like poker in a mafia game, or play slots in the very same casino you are racketing, could definitely be an added value to the immersion - you could even think that those mini-games could be interrupted by the main gameplay, i.e. thugs interrupt the private poker game to rob everyone at gun point - yes I got that from the movie "Killing them softly").

But at the time "classical" games were made, I will simply say there was technological limitations. In our era, and in future era, more an more hybrid games will show up, siding with better graphics, better IA, better physics, better everything. Our creativity (well "our", talking about the industry, unfortunately I am not involved in such creative processes and I am just an observer) has to cope with a larger field of possibilities. And to make a parallel with a recent interview where Dr Zeschuk mentions that being part of EA gave Bioware a much larger scope, but then the challenge was to not lose focus. Many creative solutions are about overcoming limitations by thinking out of the box, that is one of the characteristic of arts. When you have nothing to challenge you because everything is there then you may loose your fertility and innovative capabilities. On the other side, if you are given 200 Lego Bricks and told "build me a starship" it may be actually much easier to make the most of them both than if you'd be given 2000 bricks and told the same where you would end up with a bigger and more impressive ship, but with many left overs and may unsatisfactory sections because you did not make the most of each brick features. Not only abundance of tools is overwhelming, but also abundance of possibilities. Therefore, it is a new type of challenge for the artist and the creative mind, and maybe what must be overcome then has nothing to do with the creation, but with the creator.

Edited 4 times. Last edit by Eric Pallavicini on 10th April 2013 6:21pm

Posted:A year ago

#9

Christopher Bowen Editor in Chief, Gaming Bus

451 715 1.6
@Paul - Depression Quest would like to have a word with you.

Posted:A year ago

#10

Paul Gheran Scrum Master

123 27 0.2
Emotion, opinions, beliefs, and attitude are all in your head.

Mechanics are forever. Where my headshots at?

Posted:A year ago

#11

Curt Sampson Sofware Developer

596 360 0.6
if a games puts its story before its gameplay its not gonna be as great of a game as it could of been.
One of the key things that makes for good gameplay is giving the player the ability to make meaningful choices.

All of the games in the Uncharted series have deliberately restricted this facet of gameplay in many ways, from giving a single, linear story story line with no choice as to how it proceeds to restricting your choices of equipment loadout. Compare the game mechanics of Uncharted 3 to something like Fallout New Vegas and you'll find a zillion ways in which they are putting story before gameplay.

So you're saying that Uncharted would have been a better game had it not done this?

I complete disagree. As in pretty much every other area of life, you can't pick one facet of something and say, "more of that is always better." The Uncharted series games are not RPGs, and thus they want a different balance of the various story, gameplay and other elements that go in to a game than an RPG would. And the series succeeds brilliantly at what it's trying to do.

Looking at other art forms, you could equally argue that Raymond Chandler would be a better writer if he were more literary, like Thomas Pynchon. But you'd be wrong there, too.

Posted:A year ago

#12

Paul Smith Dev

189 154 0.8
I think uncharted (1&2) would of been a better games if they had better gameplay.

Posted:A year ago

#13

Curt Sampson Sofware Developer

596 360 0.6
That's a silly comment. Any game would be better if it had better gameplay.

If you're really trying to say that Uncharted 1 and 2 would have been better with more development work done on gameplay traded for a worse story, well, there you'd be ripping the heart out of those games. They're all about the story, with the gameplay as an add-on.

I do hope you learn to understand that by the time you graduate, or your career in game design is going to be limited to some very specific types of games, and even there will be impoverished by not having an understanding of an enormous amount of the rest of the gaming world out there.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Curt Sampson on 13th April 2013 1:48am

Posted:A year ago

#14

Paul Smith Dev

189 154 0.8
They're all about the story, with the gameplay as an add-on.
That's why personally I didn't think they were all that great, Uncharted 3 was much better because they finally got round to thinking about the gameplay more then the story.

Posted:A year ago

#15

Curt Sampson Sofware Developer

596 360 0.6
That's why personally I didn't think [Uncharted 1 and 2] were all that great.
Which is fine, but not at all what we're talking about. You originally said:
A game with a crap story (or no story at all) can be the best game ever made. A game with the best story in the world is still going to be a shit game if the gameplay is bad.
By this standard, Uncharted 1 and 2 were bad games for everybody, not just you.

But clearly that's not true, since every bit of evidence (sales, reviews, customer response) points to those games as being great games.

Given how out of sync with the rest of the world you are, I think that you, as someone who wants to be a game designer, really need to sit down and revisit you opinion of what makes a good game or not. I'm not asking you to personally like story-driven games, I'm just saying that you need to understand that a lot of people do, and why.

Posted:A year ago

#16

Tim Carter Designer - Writer - Producer

574 317 0.6
Authorship is your answer. Without that, nothing serious is possible. Hundreds of years of authorship in the Western tradition of art cannot be ignored, and is not an accident.

Posted:A year ago

#17

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