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Thoughts on how video games will mature into the primary artform of the 21st century.

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A young man named Ienas Sarandas

For my first journal entry, I'd like to share with everyone the experience I had that introduced me to the potential of this new medium. It happened several years ago - 2002 if I remember correctly - when I was playing the PC game The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind.

The game, for those of you who aren't familiar, is a first person 3D role-playing game set in a high fantasy world. The style of the game is called "sandbox," which means the game is non-linear. It's basically another world to explore, with its own unique culture, history, and landscape.

The character I was playing - of my own invention, was a rogue-type, lawless and violent, with no moral code to speak of. You know, the sort of character it's fun and different to "role-play" for awhile. His name was Myshkin.

I entered a strange town with buildings that looked like the larvae of some giant insect. As I explored the town, I heard complaints of a young man in the town named Ienas Sarandas. His parents had died recently and left him alone to care for their estate, but he was abusing his new fortune and causing trouble at the local pub and gambling establishment. He also had several outstanding debts with the local merchants in the town and it was from them I received work to go collect the money owed. After some searching, I found his home - or rather his parent's home - tucked away in a corner of the town.

When I walked inside, there was Ienas - staring me down. He was wearing extravagant clothes and shiny new shoes. These were undoubtedly the goods he had bought and not paid for. I approached Ienas and asked him about his clothes. Then I mentioned I knew about his many debts and was in fact there to collect the money, one way or another. This made him angry, to say the least. My in-game disposition meter went all the way to zero. Obviously Ienas would never now just give me the money.

Since I was playing a rogue character, I pulled out my sword, ready to kill him and take the money in order to collect the bounty. I don't know why, but I hesitated and thought I'd explore the house a little first. The game is constructed in such a way that a conflict such as the one I was in can wait until you are ready. So I had a look around.

Immediately on the floor, next to the bed, I discovered a book. It was called "The Doors of the Spirit." I took a peek inside, because sometimes in Morrowind you gain useful experience from reading random books. Normally I just skimmed through them to get the gist of what they were about. Here my eyes instantly fell on a passage which read, "The ancestors are not departed. The dead are not under the earth. Their spirits are in the restless wind, in the fire's voice, in the foot-smoothed step. Pay heed to these things, and you will know your absent kin."

At that moment some remarkable things happened. First, I no longer saw Ienas Sarandas as an arrogant idler, squandering away his parent's fortune. He was just a boy who was lost in grief, trying to find some way of compensating for the void left by his parents' death. Second, despite the obvious reality, I no longer saw Ienas Sarandas as a computer-generated object at all, but instead as a fellow creature with a soul. Last, I ceased to play the game in-character. I was no longer Myshkin, the rogue-murderer, but was in fact myself. Consequently, what followed was an action that proceeded from my own inner impulse and not as an action sprung from being projected into a role I had invented for myself.

What happened you ask?


After this brief experience, lasting no more than a few seconds, I could not bring myself to murder Ienas Sarandas. I left him there in peace, and went on my way.

This experience was something new to me. And for the longest time I couldn't understand what had affected me so strongly by my encounter with Ienas Sarandas. It was something like how Emily Dickinson described poetry, "If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry." Yet it was not poetry, it was not Art with a capital "A." It was just a video game. It was something like the experience of art, but I was participating in it, and more than that even. In fact, without me the experience could not have happened at all. In some strange way I was the missing piece to a puzzle.

In the years since then I've done a lot of thinking about it, and have come to some conclusions:

1. Morrowind is not a work of interactive art. Even though it contains an experience which was for me something like the experience of art, the work as a whole does not provide that experience. In other words, the work must have a unity. For example, imagine my encounter with Ienas being the focus of a work, and not ancillary.

2. Interactive art will come from a foundation of moral decision-making. I will have lots more to say about this later, just know I don't mean simple moralizing.

3. The participant's choices must be his own choices, and not choices made "in character."

4. Only digitally re-created worlds can truly provide the context for interactive art - the closest model we have now are modern video games. Installation interactive art and other modes of interactive art can only provide an approximation.

- Daniel Stepp




THOUGHTS: Public Displays of Emotion

Today I saw the newest trailer for Grand Theft Auto IV, a game which is being hyped as bringing interactive storytelling to new heights. In a brief interview with the developers (concerning the trailer), they pointed out the complex range of emotions the main character goes through during the game - as evidenced by cut-scene shots of the character looking frightened, smug, outraged, happy...etc.

This is a mistake.

The interactive world should never dictate to the participant what emotional state he should be in at any given time. Instead, it should elicit emotion through world context alone.

Doing otherwise will cause an eventual disconnect between the participant and the participant's avatar (when the emotion on display does not correspond with the emotional state of the participant, which is bound to happen) - and disconnect between participant and avatar is by far the most fatal mistake to make where interactive art is concerned, as the only connection the participant has to the interactive world comes through his avatar.

The most immersive interactive worlds I've experienced are those where the avatar you're playing has no defined personality at all. The Half Life games (including Portal) spring to mind - also RPGs like The Elder Scrolls series - but these are rare examples.

The way I see it, developers are still in a rut when it comes to interactive storytelling. They just don't want to let go of the old tricks. Primarily, they don't want to release control to the participant and in my opinion its strangling the development of this medium.




THOUGHTS: Artforms Evolve With Technology

The development of artforms has always coincided with technology. Keep in mind this is not to say that art has "improved" over time, but that its form and subject matter has evolved and been informed by the technology.

For example, the novel would not have been possible as an artform without the printing press. Photography and cinema as an artform would not have been possible without the camera and movie camera. Likewise, interactive art will be the artform which will arise out of the digital age, from computers. It's coming has been foreseen by artists for many decades now - mainly seen in attempts to graft its unique qualities clumsily onto other forms: interactive theatre, installation art, interactive paintings, hypertext literature...etc. I believe these types of work are all approximations, prophetic visions of what is to come.

Every medium of art has its own unique quality, something it does better than any other art form. Drama is best at exploring interpersonal relationships among people. The novel is best at exploring the mind and consciousness of a person. Cinema is best at exploring actions and the passage of time.

Likewise interactive art has its own unique quality, something it explores better than any other artform - that is choice.




THOUGHTS: Savegame/Loadgame Features Need to Go

I'm sure at some point all of you have wished you had a savegame/loadgame feature in your daily life - I know there's more than a few occassions where I put my foot in my mouth and wished immediately I could reload and try again, just like in a video game. Or even more seriously, when I did something morally wrong or hurt someone in some way and wished I could take it all back again. It seems like such a feature would be a wonderful tool to have.

At the same time I understand this: Having the knowledge that the decisions I make in life are forever brings a kind of vitality to life, even to the mundane details of life, that would be missing if I had multiple chances to "get it just right."

Can you imagine how detached and listless we would all become if our choices didn't mean much, if we could just simply try again if things didn't work out the way we expected? Life would cease to be life and become an experiment, clinical and dead.

So taking these thoughts into consideration I say, if you want to make only games then by all means allow such conventions as a savegame/loadgame feature. It works well for games. No harm done there.

But if you want to give your participant something more, something like the experience of life - with real vitality - then please throw all savegame/loadgame features right out the window.

Let every decision, every mundane choice, be forever in your created world.

If you want proof that this is the right path for interactive art to take, you only have to look at nature. Cezanne was telling the truth when he wrote, "Art is a harmony parallel to nature." Therefore, if you are ever in doubt as to the direction your work should take, just look at nature, look at your life, and you will find the best way.

And I promise you won't find any savegame/loadgame features there.



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