When I applied to the game design program at the University of Skövde three years ago, I did so because I felt I needed to be a part of bringing up the software entertainment medium. Every game I'd played thus far had failed me on some level, they were imperfect, juvenile pieces of work, sometimes stumbling over a moment of beauty but for some reason always drenching it in meaningless combat and superficial challenges. The medium I grew up with was still in its teens, and I knew I had what it took to bring it to another level.
More than anything, school taught me that I didn't.
School taught me that no one did. Games are as they are not because developers are sloppy, but because they need to be this way for gamers to understand them. Most of my previous ideas, I realized, required too much cooperation from the player to work, or were too difficult to market as they required the player to know very little about the game beforehand. A happy player was one who received constant positive feedback, always faced challenges at the optimal level of difficulty to achieve flow, and never -ever- experienced any frustration, confusion or boredom. Within those constraints, how could it be possible for games to evolve?
It's taken me some time to tear myself away from those ideas. A huge step for me was to leave Skövde for my final thesis and move back to Gothenburg, where I started to show up at biweekly indie beer sessions with the likes of Erik Svedäng and Niklas Åkerblad. These oftentimes rabid artistic minds finally reminded me of my original aspirations, and I found myself in an environment where the idea of making games for higher purposes than making money, wasn't at all frowned upon. But what purposes? The indie beer mondays encouraged me to do some strange and experimental things with They Breathe, but no one could say I was doing much to advance the medium. I had lost sight of how it may be possible.
I think I may have found it at the GDC.
You may have heard of NotGames. Fueled by the anger of The Path developer Tale of Tales' Michaël Samyn, this movement/community/genre/medium/entity is trying to find other ways of advancing the entertainment medium of software, than just games. Artists exploring how we can use computers and possibly the existing tradition of videogames to make new kinds of art that lie beyond the chemical, by now almost cynical concept of fun, beyond challenge, beyond flow and usability, have found their tribe here. I was deeply moved by the exhibition that Tale of Tales co-curated close to the GDC in Cologne, the interactive experiences I had there and the artistic minds from which they sprung. It's still crude, still rife with mistakes and generally poor design, but maybe that is what it takes to move forward. I can understand if some of us need to let go of fun for a while, before we can find it again around the corner. If we still want it then.
I had the pleasure of speaking with Michaël and Aureia of Tale of Tales, as well as Jeroen D Stout, the creator of definitely notgame Dinner Date, and I feel I'm a better designer for it. But there is still something within me putting up a resistance. I'm a gamer almost since birth. I love games, and I love pop culture. I believe that artists need to meet the audience half-way to get their attention and love, and that it's only from that position we can be truly beneficial. I generally do not believe in art for art's sake. NotGames are still not it.
It, is Amnesia.
I'm guessing a lot of you have played it by now. To be honest, I haven't. What I've taken away from this game so far is only the post-mortem held by designer Thomas Grip at the GDC Indie Summit. But that is already more than I've been able to collect from most games I've played.
No one told me, so I never really realized how radical Amnesia was. By doing away with combat, punishment for failure and, essentially, the whole concept of challenge, the beloved horror game finds itself deeply associated with the NotGames movement. But what sets Amnesia apart from any notgame I've played is that they've arrived at this conclusion for entirely pragmatic reasons. They moved outside games not because it's interesting or new, but because it was the best way to achieve the emotion they were looking for.
Listening to Thomas' speech, the horror game problem unraveled before me. All the hours I'd spent dreaming of a game that was as unsettling as the early Silent Hills, but not as frustrating, broken and generally poorly designed as games - only to see the horror genre disappear for a decade when people thinking those same thoughts acted on it and brought us Resident Evil 4, Dead Space, Alan Wake, even Silent Hill 3. Game designs too good, too dependable, to user-friendly to be scary. If horror games can't be good games, then they shouldn't be games. At any other time that thought would have terrified me, just like I refuse to believe that games and stories are inherently incompatible. But Amnesia also seems to show us how it can be done. As it happens, I'm working on a horror game right now, and I will do my best to carry on the legacy of my countrymen and delve deeper into this unknown territory. I too will make a game in which the player is tasked with immersing him- or herself in the experience, rather than with beating the system.
I will never really be a part of the notgames movement. I know that already. I am and have always been comfortable with being the product of many masters, and could never let myself be eaten by some doctrine other than my own. I also disagree with them on very many fundamental issues, but I still think it is of paramount importance that these voices are heard. For me, this is probably going to be my next big influence. For a time.
If you're like me, I'll see you on their forums.
Next time, some general GDC gossip.