My research into the rapid production of games currently has two threads, with an auxiliary third thread currently important, but as of now detached from my main practice. The first thread is the aforementioned approach of rapid game design. Second, I am exploring experimental forms of narrative within videogames. The third research thread I’m currently engaged in concerns alternative inputs for gaming, using prosthetics and electronics to create untraditional controllers. For now, I am focusing my research on the first two ideas, which when combined form the concept of rapid production of experimental narrative games.
During my visit to Indiecade 2014, I was able to cement more of the ideas of what I am doing for my thesis. Beforehand I was only set on the idea of rapid production, but was unsure of what that production was going towards and whether the resulting games were a means to an end or if the works consisted of “ends” in and of themselves. I’ve come up with a hybrid of sorts. Each game I create is its own piece, containing a small, poetic (hopefully) narrative - I’m appropriating the literary term “vignette” to describe them. A vignette, as far as the dictionary definition goes, is a brief evocative description, account, or episode. Perhaps contradictory, I aim for these individual works to also function as a whole. The pieces are videogame vignettes, small pieces of poetic narrative, but when viewed and examined together, they form a larger, not necessarily cohesive, narrative. To provide a similar reference point from literature, I use Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles as an example. It is a collection of short stories that are loosely related to weave a larger story of Martian colonization. Bradbury himself describes it as “a book of stories pretending to be a novel.” I do have a loose storyboard I’m following as I produce these vignettes, but that structure is intentionally unclear and even seemingly contradictory. I’m trying to relate this method of narrative to the archetype of the storyteller, simultaneously revealing much and little at the same time, telling tales that may not be clear until other tales are told.
In introducing my research topics with a couple of texts concerning rapid prototyping - in this case, the research concerning the “how”, followed by my research into experimental videogame topics - the research informing the content.
Story Games Research Focus
In my practice, I am exploring creating short games on a short, regular timetable, and exploring how this practice is a form of research. Practicing rapid game design as a research model has led me to a number of texts concerning prototyping as research as well as a few important texts detailing artistic practice as a form of research on its own. Three major texts in my research are Eric Zimmerman’s Iterative Design, Cynthia Lawson’s Practice Led Research, and Daniel Pinchbeck (of the game studio thechineseroom) presentation on Development Led Research in Design.
Zimmerman’s essay Iterative Design, he develops a cyclical method of production and research into design. The steps are: design, test, analyze; repeat. Zimmerman stresses the importance of this process as a way to experiment with technique and mechanics in small projects rather than develop as a risky part of a larger project. He uses the rest of his essay on how this process led to final versions of three larger games he created.
Lawson’s essay, Practice Led Research, is another important text in my research, especially for its approach on artistic practice as research. From the abstract, “This paper explores how approaching technology from an artistic lens can result in unexpected and innovative applications, and how this process towards innovation constitutes “research”.” She further posits that many artists and designers practice research in the making of their work, though few classify it as research due to the academic context of the word.
And finally, Pinchbeck’s presentation on Development Led Research contends that an effective form of research into games is in the creation of games themselves. In order to explore and research concepts in game design, an effective and viable method is to create games with said concepts in mind. For example, as lead of the game studio, thechineseroom, in order to research the effects of an unreliable narrator (common in film, literature, but seldom present in games) they created Korsakovia, in which the player experiences conflicting instructions through two narrators.
There are a few other texts I am reading on rapid development, and an interesting commanality I’ve found is that is is usually for the purpose of prototyping larger ideas, and where I depart from these forms of rapid prototyping is in how I approach the small creations made this way. In Zimmerman’s essay on iterative design, the intent of the iterative process is to refine techniques and processes so that a later, usually larger, project may benefit from the experiments. Most forms of rapid prototyping take this form - experiment with small piece, then use results to inform the larger work in progress. For myself, the short games I am creating are designed to be finalized creations. I may learn things in the process of making them, but work is made to be the final work. For me, rapid design is not a means to an end, but a series of ends.
The next set of research texts focuses exclusively on videogames as a cultural medium. They are important both as reference material as well as providing an cultural and historic, as well as academic, framing in which my work, both written and artistic may reside in. Starting with a more academic lens, three important texts to this research are Brian Schrank’s Avant-Garde Videogames, Astrid Ensslin’s Literary Gaming, and Ian Bogost’s How To Do Things With Videogames. Not included here are other texts dealing with the role of videogames as cultural artifacts such as Anna Anthropy’s Rise of the Videogame Zinesters, as well as further writing concerned primarily as games criticism.
Brian Schrank situates a subsection of videogames within the history of the avant-garde movements within 20th century art, from the Italian Futurists to Fluxus and Situationist groups of the 1960’s. Belonging to a majority of these groups is an ideology concerned with dismantling the capital A in art. Schrank, rightly so, distinguishes between many forms of avant-garde videogames, and for my research I am particularly invested on his sections on narrative formalism and narrative politics.
Astrid Ensslin develops a spectrum in which to analyze the literary and ludic properties of literary games across form and genre. On one end of the spectrum are hypertext games using the formal structure of words as a playful environment, and on the other side of the spectrum are 3D immersive environments, providing literature through visual metaphor and gameplay. Her book allows me to use an existing framework to analyze my own work and place it within an existing academic thread on narrative in games.
How To Do Things With Videogames
Ian Bogost surveys different forms of gaming, and what those specific forms mean for the greater cultural game studies. Bogost examines broad ideas within gaming, in the context that games have become enmeshed in contemporary life, and its potential as an art form was limited until that was a reality.
Story Games Prehistories
When I think about the prehistories of my work, I approach it from the lens of games as narrative and less on the history of games themselves. The history of games and play is vast and it may be more productive for me to examine certain elements that I find particularly relevant to my praxis. Being interested in storytelling and narrative in games, the start of my prehistory research begins with oral tradition, through the archetype of the storyteller and through storytelling as a playful action. This is a new vein I found myself researching, so as of now my knowledge of the subject is limited, but I am exploring the act of storytelling as a game-like activity on its own. I am interested in the techniques of storytelling both in method and in performance, forwarding an idea I am playing with in videogames: the player as witness.
Moving forward in history, the Tarot is a particularly important prehistory that is informing my work, though in the execution of my work it may not have direct connections. The history of the Tarot and how it developed is interesting in how it took a device intending for gaming and turns into a system of interpretation. The Tarot evolved from the standard deck of cards first seen around Europe in the 14th century. In 1440, the Duke of Milan commissioned a special set of cards for a game that later became known as Triumph. It comprised of a standard set of cards (four suits, labeled 1-10 with a queen, king, knight, and page) but included a set of 22 illustrated cards, of which 21 were ‘trump cards.’ It was not until the latter part of the 1700’s that the occult in England and France assigned more importance to the 22 symbolic cards, and began to use them for interpretive purposes, mainly divination.
This shift from game mechanic to method of interpretation is large influence in how I think about games, and I often wonder how it could apply to videogames. Writer and game critic Mattie Brice has a series of essays in which she modifies the card game Netrunner (containing many rules and systems) with Tarot cards in an attempt to shift the play experience from that of systems to one of story. Due to the complexities of the Netrunner card game, this is the main lens in which I am thinking about interpretive play in videogames through.
Story Games and Imaginary Media.
Where I think about my work in the context of imaginary media, a couple things come to mind. The first is my desire to create alternative controllers for games, and thinking of methods of input that have not been explored yet. And through this new approach to input, I imagine that the contexts of the narratives and experiences I am developing will change greatly.