Triple A Grade Curve: Professor Richard Lemarchand
The ex-Naughty Dog lead on art, learning and his new game
When you're young, it's easy to dismiss the expertise of teachers. After all, if they're so good at what they're talking about, how come they choose to spend every day being overworked and underpaid in a room full of obnoxious 14 year-olds? However, for most of us, there's at least one educator in our pasts which had that special spark: that passion for improvement, backed up by knowledge, which somehow opened up a whole new way of thinking.
I suspect that Richard Lemarchand is this kind of teacher. Already animated and affable, he lights up when discussing education - clearly relishing the challenging two-way street of teaching. Plus, having the Uncharted series on your CV is probably going to pull a bit of respect in the lecture theatre.
He's done pretty well in his first year as an educator. Several awards for his work have accelerated his teaching career (something he feels "incredibly grateful to everyone at Naughty Dog" for), meaning that he sports a freshly minted tenure at the University of Southern California's Interactive Media and Games division after just one year. Lemarchand is already a big man on campus, then, but how does it compare to life at the coal face?
"I never really shook the education of philosophy that I got at university"
"I've always had a passion for games and the life of the mind, as I see it," he tells me at Nordic Game 2013, where he's about to speak on the journey from developer to lecturer. "I never really shook the education of philosophy that I got at university. I always like to think about games in terms of looking at them from many different angles. I guess in the course of the speaking I was able to do at GDC about Naughty Dog's games, being involved in things like Indiecade and volunteering at USC since 2005; all of that gave me a sense that I was really going to enjoy being a full-time professor.
"For me now it's like GDC and Indiecade every day. Talking about games philosophically, talking about them, interrogating them as art-works. I've only been teaching a year now but even in that year, I've been able to see the ways that some of my students have grown as game designers. It's really rewarding."
Far from just teaching the nuts and bolts of putting a game together, though, Lemarchand has been able to indulge his long term fascination with experimental development, as well as teaching students to look at games - including the work they are producing as they learn - are cultural artefacts. He makes it clear that he falls very firmly on the positive side of the 'are games art' debate.
"I think so," he reflects when I ask him whether he teaches his students that games have cultural value. "Art has many different roles in society and culture. One of those roles is to reflect on culture in a way that it often isn't possible otherwise. That's the role of satire - to poke fun or shed light in places where it can otherwise be hard to get to grips with what's going on under the surface. Games like Spec Ops: The Line are a real testament to the fact that games have a real opportunity to do that.
"I think if we think more inclusively about what counts as art; for me, Steven Spielberg could be considered an art film maker. I don't think art has to be rarefied and high-minded to have a real impact on people's lives. I think, also, if we look back at the history of games we can find a lot of games which have been doing this sort of thing for some time. For example, a game like Beyond Good and Evil, if read in a certain way, can be seen as a commentary on games or society at large.
"Many game narratives are genre narratives, sci-fi or fantasy or crime fiction, genre has always done this. William Gibson famously said that Neuromancer was not supposed to be about the future but the present day. The way that information technology was impacting society in the mid '80s."
This sort of cross-discipline view of games as a part of the cultural ecosystem seems to be endemic of his teaching methods. He smatters the conversation with references to wildly disparate historical figures and cultural references, happily congregating twentieth century American academics with Norse lore.
"the cultural artefacts that we make are a reflection of our values as much as promoting them"
"I suppose that with every complex system, there's an element of Ouroboros to it; the snake that eats its own tail," Lemarchand muses when I ask him about the recursive nature of modern art and culture. "It's hard to trace the roots of it. Being here at Nordic Game, looking at the interesting interplay between the business and creative world here, I'm not really sure where you start to unpick it. There's a great saying, by the American philosopher and writer Charles Fort, that one measures a circle by beginning anywhere.
"I'm a big believer in that: that the cultural artefacts that we make are a reflection of our values as much as promoting them."
For all we've heard about the dearth of hard science graduates coming to the industry, of how we're so short of mathematicians, physicists and system engineers, this sort of cross-cultural integration seems like something that a budding developer would need to take a game-specific course to be exposed to. Not every institution can provide the sort of standards offered by USC (Danny Bilson teaches on the same course and alumni include Kellee Santiago and Jenova Chen.) but should students be looking at holistic courses rather than science and maths?
"I always think it's very important for a young person heading into higher education to consider what their short and long term goals are. I think that if, at 17, you know with 100 per cent certainty that you want to be a game designer, then an undergraduate course in game design and development is a good choice for you. In the same way that if you're Steven Spielberg or George Lucas and you know that you're a dyed in the wool film-maker, then going to film school is a good choice.
"At the same time, I'm someone without any academic qualifications in game making. I've got a physics and philosophy degree. While I'd been interested in games in my early teens it wasn't until I was at college that I became interested in games again and decided that it was what I really wanted to do with my life. I do think that it's important that you gain the skills at that stage of your education that you're most certain will stand you in good stead in the future.
"I was delighted by the Livingstone/Hope report and the renewed emphasis that it put on teaching computer science in secondary education, because that's something that I thought was missing from the way in which we prepare young people for the world. I think we still have a lot to learn about it, but I'm very glad that we're having the discussion.
"it's important that you gain the skills at that stage of your education that you're most certain will stand you in good stead in the future"
"There are brilliant games designers that I've worked with who have pure CS degrees rather than games CS degrees, or degrees in completely different subjects. Like most game developers I see development as strongly interdisciplinary and collaborative. So it takes many different sorts of people to make a great game. I think that means that whatever your educational background, it's probably useful in some degree to game development. The most important thing is to work hard and be a knowledge hoover, to soak up as much information from whatever you're doing and to apply that."
Although he's clearly trying to be non-partisan, stressing that some might benefit more from a pure sciences degree, he also tells me that "a broader education can offer the opportunity not just to learn skills which will help you to fit into an existing team, but also to create real change, real innovation in the industry. It's important to work out which of those you want.
"I'm very much a believer that graduates from a course like ours won't just go on to work in the games industry. There are many different industries now who are interested in people with a game designer's skill set. A strong understanding of games and play can stand you in really good stead in many different aspects of life. Architects, for example, are increasingly interested in playful ways of being, because that can inform the spaces that they design. Social scientists, city planners, are interested in using games to make the cities that we live in more liveable."
I decide to test him on another area where he might find it hard to sit on the fence: the recent reveals of the forthcoming eighth generation of consoles. Who does he think is winning in the war of words?
"I've been reluctant to publicly comment about either reveal," he tells me with a slightly coy grin. "I couldn't help myself tweeting excitedly in Neal Brown's talk on the PS4 yesterday (at Nordic Game). It's still very exciting to me, even though I'd known about some of this stuff for some time, via Naughty Dog. I do think that the PS4 is an amazing piece of kit. I think that many of the things that the graphics programmers at Naughty Dog had to work incredibly hard to do on PS3 are much easier on PS4 because of that GPU - which my friend Ricky Haggert said a friend had described as a 'graphics programmer's dream come true.'
"A piece of hardware is only a piece of hardware, it's what you do with it that's important"
"I'm someone who really enjoys high production values in console games, so I think that's very exciting. To me, at the end of the day, all of these new consoles mean more awesome video games, so that's something that I appreciate no matter where it's coming from. It'll be down to developers to do amazing things with them. A piece of hardware is only a piece of hardware, it's what you do with it that's important - the experiences you create for players which can be transformative, that can teach us more about the world around us and the other people in it. Those, for me, are the most important things."
Diplomatic and completely lacking in venom - not always the answer a journalist is looking for. I push him a little on Sony's handheld, asking whether the impressive sounding integration with PS4 will be enough to pull it out of the retail doldrums.
"I really enjoy my Vita and I do think that integration we'll see with PS4 will allow designers to do some really interesting stuff," he answers. "I've been a fan of private information games for a long time, going back to the VMU on the Dreamcast and the way you could plug the Gameboy advance into the Gamecube. That lets you do all sorts of interesting things that we're used to in other kinds of games, card games for example, or board games. So yeah, I think the Vita has a long and healthy life."
There's one more thing I want to ask, something I noticed on Lemarchand's personal site. He's already working on a new game with one of his students, Julian Kantor.
"I've wanted to make an experimental game for some time. I've tried to do it a few times, but it's just so hard when you're working all day on a game to then come home and make something in the evening and weekends."
"I've wanted to make an experimental game for some time. I've tried to do it a few times, but it's just so hard when you're working all day"
He looks like he's about to elaborate. The spark in his eye says there's still more than a little of the eager developer behind the fašade of measured professor, but he's not about to be hurried into a reveal today.
"It's really too early to talk about in any detail, yet," he tells me. "Julian is an incredibly talented designer in his own right as well as being a student. We've been working on it on and off over the course of the year. I now have a bunch of stuff to do over the summer, working on the flow and layout of the levels, so hopefully we'll have something to show by the end of the year. My feeling is that, because it's part of design research, that it'll be a non-commercial release - which is good because it means that we're free from the commercial restraints that you encounter when you make a commercial game and we can really go for broke."
Not a bad piece of homework for Kantor, then - who seems likely to be a name to watch, especially if he's under the personal tutelage of Lemarchand. Sometimes though who can, teach.