Sunday, March 21, 2004

Introducing insyn

Regular readers of this blog will be aware that I talk a lot about the artistic side of gaming, and not so much about the raw business side. This is with good reason. Business doesn't interest me nearly as much as art, and there are plenty of blogs and sites that talk about the business in great depth.

Yet the game/art front is generally less well served. There is much ado about nothing to be found in the likes of gamasutra all about the why's and wherefore's of applying philosophy to game design, or very long-winded and stale discussions of ludology and such to be found in all the ends of the web. But, at the heart of it, I always feel that these articles are always a combination of wishful thinking and wannabe academia. Which of course, particleblog has contributed to, in its own way.

Yet I like to think that particleblog represents a different point of view. I've said it several times, I don't believe that gameplay is really the be-all and end-all of games and gaming. I don't believe that the majority of game designers really know what they're talking about. I don't believe that what we call videogames really belong in the same headspace as boardgames, or sports. I don't believe that the primary entertainment in gaming comes from convoluted game mechanics, and I don't believe that most of the creative teams in the games industry really know where to turn any more.

Graphics, writing, controls, sound schemes, physics systems, voices, mechanics, music. All these are powerful tools, many of which we are still fully learning how to use. But all of them are worthless unless they are put to good use. There is no point, as I see it, in including any of the above unless the thing that you are creating serves the purpose that all the best games have managed:

What all the best games do is provide an interactive synthetic space for reflection.

Reflection (as in the quote "Art holds a mirror up to society") is what makes something special. At its most basic level, when you see, read, listen to or play something that reflects a thought, feeling or idea that you identify with, that is reflection. Reflection is what separates art from entertainment, for me, because when I see something of myself, something of the world around me, something that triggers something in my psyche, then that book, film, album or game has managed to access that special space called 'meaning'. It's the point where you feel that a painting is looking back at you, an actor is speaking directly to you, a song is all about your feelings, and a game is entrancing you. It's spooky.

There is no law under the sun that says reflection can't be entertaining as well.

At first, many articles ago, I thought that games were really best served described as depictive entertainment, but lately I've come to realise that depiction does not fully encompass what I mean when I say games can be art. Depiction is a useful term, but in the end of the day it can simply mean getting all the details of any old world right. The difference between GTA3 and Zelda is little in these terms. They both are wholly excellent depictions. But do they hold up a mirror?

I have also said before that I think part of the problem with games these days are issues of identity and confidence. It is inconceivable that games can be perceived as art, even by many of their contributors and creators, because everyone thinks of them as 'games'. Games are silly. For the kids. I said in a previous article that I thought that the root of that problem was located in the name "Videogame", because it was very possessed by other forms already.

'Videogame' is a slave name. Indeed, the modern videogames as seen in the charts are usually exactly that. Games of videos. Licenses of James Bond. Or, if not actually licenses, then games made "in the spirit of", stock genres and all the rest. 'Videogame' does not, on the whole, represent self-creative endeavour. And it precludes wholly the idea of reflecting anything by self-consciously robbing the form of its own voice. 'Computer game' is not much better.

The future of the 'videogame' is clearly written in stone. It is a future as mechanical as the games themselves, just as cynical as the people who make them, and always doomed to be the third string. Cinema/TV are the second string and books are the first string. Ideas mostly come from books, which then become 'a film of'. Which later become 'a game of'. So games are doomed to work with third-hand ideas, either literally or by association.

Personally, I don't feel this is such a happy future. It's a creative fate somewhere between blockbuster movie makers and the bad end of comics, perhaps only marginally more entertaining than designing toys. Maybe what I should do is cut my losses, get out while I still can, and go write novels for a living. I'm not joking. It touches a raw nerve whenever I get to talking about it. Especially if I'm drunk. I have to laugh to in self-horror when I realise at these times that I'm in danger of becoming the cynical old hack who wishes that things were better. I think that maybe I should simply get out completely, but that also leaves a bad taste. It's where I'm from, after all, and nobody likes a break-up.

And professionally, I don't think that many of the people that I work with are loving it too much either. But I'm not ready to give it all up just yet.

Instead, I'm going to try something new: A name change.


Insyn is derived from 'interactive synthesis' as a name. It means something wholly different. An insyn (plural: insyns) is an interactive electronic synthetic form of entertaining art (or artistic entertainment) that can be found on all your major consoles, handhelds and PCs today. You may have already played with many insyn over the years, although their insyn-qualities are still in the early stages of creation. There are so many tools (graphics, sound, physics etc listed above) that are still being brought to bear and understood that the capacity for insyn to reflect is still small. But the potential is huge.

Insyn might be born of the videogame business. It might come from an independent sector. It might live in a mod. It might succeed financially, or it might fail drastically. Origins are unimportant. What is important is the essential quality. The key difference between insyn and videogame is this: One reflects, where the other provides mere escapism.

It is my intention to turn particleblog into the 'insyn blog', as it were, in that this blog is going to talk exclusively about insyns, review releases based on the insynic view as opposed to the standard, discuss what makes an insyn interesting, and so forth. Change has to start somewhere, even if it comes from the scurvy end of the web.

Particleblog's comments have moved to The Play Room.

Friday, March 12, 2004

Welcome to Indietown

Independent games.

You hear the name bubbling up here and there across the internet. It's a concept that has even managed to get the likes of the IGDA to sponsor awards to honour. Reports from GDC are ever more interested in what the independent developers are up to.

And this is perhaps unsurprising in a risk-averse commercial climate. Many development and publishing staff will tell you that they privately wish for better times, when perhaps some measure of originality can be relied on to break through.

I mean, come on, we all got into gaming because it was very different, and well stayed there because it was consistently so for a long time. Games don't just divertingly amuse us (the good ones). They enthrall us. Or at least, they used to. No doubt a very few still do, from time to time, but the business is quite full up to the gills with commercial concerns and wags telling us that the bottom line is everything in game development. Forget originality. We want Def Jam Vendetta 5: Bikini Tour XXX2. Or something.

And that's where the indie idea takes root of course. Developers, ever keen to ape all the language of the cinema era, take a look at 'independent cinema', and appropriate wildly. The film people manage to have an indie sector, so why not us? Much fledgling effort is being expended to make it so, but indiegaming has several mountains to climb.

The games industry is not like the film industry. It is more like the film industry of 50 years ago. Two main points for this article are:

1. Games are now dominated by large companies peddling character/brand franchising. The film studios of 50 years ago had a similar system with actors on long-term contracts as matinee idols, making endless blah blah films to carry on their franchise.

2. Games are very expensive to make, and the technology to make them is largely controlled and over-priced. Hollywood studios of 50 years ago were in a similar position because film equipment was so expensive that they had de facto control. Ditto in both cases for distribution.

The combined effect of both climates is/was to create an averse culture. The prime difference between film of the 50s and the present day is that the whole film industry has gone through several cycles of crash and boom which have altered its climate drastically. One the one hand, the idea of star retainers has vanished, and everyone's a freelancer now. On the other hand, the access bar to get into the film has lowered hugely, to the point that independent film has become a reality. And thirdly, that independent movement has something of a market in that people who don't like Hollywood crap can find something worthwhile to watch. So both mainstream and indepedent fields exist.

In games, things are still in the 50s.

The games industry works in a retainer-driven culture. It has controlled formats that do not permit a whole host of titles to ever see the light of day. It is focussed on the mainstream market only, and is quite happy to cut customers adrift if they don't like the output. And there are no 'ins'.

The lack of in-roads is the thing that really stalls any supposed independent gaming movement. None of the console manufacturers wants to sponsor an independent label. None of the retailers believe that independent games will sell because they will look cheaper than 'proper' games. Among publishers, only Take Two operates anything like an independent label in the form of Rockstar, and calling that 'independent' is generous at best. Everybody thinks independence is bad for business.

What I would love to see is big publishers forming an 'indie' arm, like Miramax to Disney. The one thing that keeps a consumer like me coming back to the cinema is good films. I know that those films have probably been half funded by Home Alone 9, but that doesn't bother me, though. I'm quite happy to let the kids watch XMen 7 if it keeps them happy, just as long as I get to see 21 Grams.

Similarly, in games I would be as happy as Leisure Suit Larry if the games industry carried on making whatever license tosh it likes to make, on the proviso that there was a smaller side to it that produced innovative games. EA, for example, makes several trailer-trucks of money a minute. What do they plan to do with all that cash? Reinforce their franchises. Create new franchises. And what else?

Nothing, that's what else.

For a viable independent sector to exist, it needs to have a means of professional-level production and a means to market. Independent games have neither. The PC is not a viable platform because it is territorial and the standard of graphics etc push the price waaaaay up. The consoles are not a viable platform because they are closed. Handhelds are likewise. There is no retailer in the land that is interested in hosting an independent gaming section in its store, when space is at a premium and the stores are so directed toward kids anyway. The internet is proven time and again to be an uncertain means to market at best, rife with nothing so much as piracy.

There are no 'ins'.

And so independent gaming is doomed for the time being to a pipe-dream of mods and lonely awards that few even among the development community are even aware of. Is it a bad thing? Well do you want to play Def Jam Vendetta 5? Do you want to make it?

Particleblog's comments have moved to The Play Room.