Snapping point

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This sometimes happens: I woke up mad at something I read a week ago. Today, it was Chris Bateman’s measured, interesting, informed article positing that a game has never – could never – make you cry. It’s not at all his fault. The distinction he makes between games as play, and games as systems is an interesting one, and his observation that games make people cry not through systems and rulesets and interactions themselves, but through the stories which are embedded within them, is sound.

What makes me angry – even in my sleep, it would seem –  is that we seem as incapable from moving on from the ‘can-we-make-people-cry’ debate as we are from the ‘are-games-art’ debate. I ranted about both before, in magazines and conference halls and pubs and railway sidings and on the internet, so I’ll try and keep it brief, but come on. Really? Can’t we leave it behind? The last group of people I encountered so dead set on making people cry were the boys in my class in primary two who had a dead frog in a matchbox they showed to all the girls. Can’t we aim a bit higher? Making people cry is not synonymous with high art, and it’s not synonymous with a deep and valuable emotional response.

I’ve been waiting all year to go to the Rothko exhibition at the Tate, and I’m not expecting it to make me cry. I am expecting to be ambushed by memories of things I thought or hoped forgotten. I am expecting to find solace and some strange kind of sustenance in the colours and contrasts that he painted. I am expecting the rhythms and patterns that I see to change how I think about the rhythms and patterns of my own life, and of my own thoughts. I am expecting to leave with a sense of wonder, melancholy and gratitude towards this man I never met, who died before I was born, who yet took the time to leave these treasures behind for me. In short, I’m expecting it to be moving, enriching, challenging. I’m expecting to be not quite the same person when I come out that I was when I went in. All with out story, all without tears.

Tears shouldn’t be our goal. Stories don’t need to be our tools. The majority of art forms don’t rely on narrative for their emotional impact. Stop and think about that for a second. The games industry tends to draw on such an amazingly limited roster of inspirations that it’s easy to forget it. But our obsession with linear, story-based – word-based, even – non-participatory art at the expense of all the other forms makes life so much harder for games, and it makes me crazy. I swear, next GDC I’m going to set myself up behind a table in the lobby with a huge pile of rubber bands and a huge pile of Jelly Tots, and each delegate, as they come in, is going to get a band on their left wrist and a handful of sweets in their right pocket. And then, all week, every time they hear the word ‘film’, ‘book’ or ‘TV show’, they have to give themselves a snap. And everytime they hear the world ‘painting’, ‘theatre’, ‘sculpture’, ‘opera’, ‘architecture’, ‘comics’*, ‘dance’, ‘music’ or ‘poetry’, they get a sweetie. Two, if they say it rather than hear it. But goddamit, we’re not the only people trying to create emotionally resonant experiences in environments that aren’t kind to linear narratives. Landscape gardeners talk with great sensitivity and great ambition about how they want visitors to their gardens to feel. Typographers can – and do, and have, and will again – talk for hours about the emotional resonance of difference fonts, of how different approaches to typesetting can totally change the mood and tone of a piece before you’ve even read a word. The world knows a lot about how to do this stuff, and all that knowledge is just there, lying about in galleries and on radios and along boulevards, for us to plunder.

So please, stop trying to make me cry, before you drive me to tears. But do keep trying to make me feel.

* I know comics are narrative-led, but I like them too much to not give people sweeties when they talk about them. And they’re still more useful to games than films, books, or TV.

10 thoughts on “Snapping point”

  1. Hi Margaret,

    I agree, mostly. However not just comics, but theatre, opera, and much of dance are based in narrative form. One can also argue that much of painting, sculpture, music and poetry are beholden to narrative as well. Architecture…hmm, that gets complicated. But I get your point about not drawing exclusively from the disciplines of film, TV and literature for comparison. I think that, regardless of the truth of the statement that “the majority of art forms don’t rely on narrative for their emotional impact,” (which I would dispute, or perhaps qualify, and which more importantly I think is fundamentally irrelevant to your point) one must look at games in a new light, outside of the frameworks that came before, and not get obsessed with just one aspect.

    I think that was the only weak spot in a post full of thoughtful, cogent points made coherently, and does not diminish your overall message. Thanks.

    Best,
    Dave

  2. While I agree with your basic premise, I do think that the fundamental problem is that narrative art is simply easier to grok (and therefore to construct), because the supporting framework comes from a shared place.
    Even when narrative art breaks the “rules”, it is the very existence of those rules, and that we know where they come from, that makes it work to begin with. (Which is why comics still belong in the narrative group, sorry :))

    Whereas istm that the emotional response produced by abstract art does not come from anything like the same place.

    At present, therefore, games still have to be considered almost wholly a narrative form – the emotional response evoked by them comes from that world; although there are honourable exceptions to this (as there are in e.g. film or television), that doesn’t make them a non-narrative artform. Trying to force them to go to a place they don’t belong seems futile to me. Hmmm. I guess all I’m doing is arguing that the exceptions really do prove the rule!

    But thank you for a thought-provoking piece. And do try and get to see the Rothko show – it’s not the best one he’s been given, but it’s pretty fine nevertheless.

  3. Humans are story-making animals, and any work which has a sequence of events, including all games, will inevitably be understood in a narrative fashion. I agree that evoking sorrow is one of the more trivial and useless goals for games, but story will always be a powerful tool in gaming. It may not be a linear story, laid out ahead of time, but discarding narrative means discarding chronology, which requires discarding interactivity. Basically, I agree with what Dave said.

  4. Hi. I just want to disclaim my way out of making a usual blog comment, I don’t want to enter into some kind of debate because I don’t think there is one. The last paragraph, beginning with ‘but goddamnit’ is absolutely inspirational and I think it should be shown and read and taught to anybody wanting to .. I was going to say enter the games industry.. but fuck the industry. It should be told and given to anybody wanting to enter games.

    I don’t get the arguments in the comments here. (Aside from the assertion in one of them that dance is mostly about narrative is patently false.) Abstract art is hardly about emotions. It is often about a physiological response. The Seagrams Murals are a low-lit room with pounding, malevolent presences – this is not about narrative or interaction. Thats a false dichotomy – and sloppy thinking gets worse over time. Its about the very real, very physical act of looking itself. Turning from one panel to the next can often induce a sense of pure physical vertigo.

    Just because things happen in a sequence doesn’t make them stories. There’s so much richness all around us, so much delight and play and madness, and when games look out that window to capture some of it, my God. But the timidity is getting to us.. fun is gaming’s birthright.. sometimes it feels like the hippie parents have brought up a chartered accountant.

  5. I just want to say that I’ve become something of an instant fan of your musings and we share a lot of similar theories; the things I’ve read today will be applied tomorrow, as you’ve managed to nicely give solidity to concepts I’ve been wrestling with the requirement I communicate to others this term. I look forward to more. :)

    Cheers,
    Wyatt

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