Jimmy Maher’s most recent SPAG editorial contains the paragraph:
Some of us who are very, very good are writing games like the generally acknowledged best game of 2007: Lost Pig. On the one hand, Lost Pig is nothing to disparage. It’s hilarious; it’s great fun; it’s honed and polished to the most beautiful shine… And yet, on the other hand, it disturbs me just a bit that, after twelve months and dozens if not hundreds of game releases, a game about a cartoon-style orc with pidgin English skills trying to recover a pig was the pinnancle of our achievements. Best comedy (if such a category existed)? Sure. Best game? That concerns me a bit. It’s not that the XYZZY voters were wrong. Lost Pig probably was the best game of 2007. But why was it the best game? Where are the IF games that, to paraphrase a famous old Electronic Arts ad, make us cry?
I disagree with the sentiment that comedy is a second-class form, with less potential to be Real Literature. Aristophanes’s work is art; A Midsummer Night’s Dream is not meaningless or powerless because it ends in a wedding instead of a slaughter. (This prejudice among IFers has been manifest for a long time now — I glancingly mention it in a review of To Hell in a Hamper back in 2004 — and it reflects a wider cultural trend. Comedies seldom win Best Picture.)
In addition, I think the metric of how a game makes us feel needs to be treated with caution. While I like and admire good comedy, I’ve also laughed at movies that I thought were complete trash. Likewise, the ability to evoke tears may be valued by audiences, but it isn’t, in itself, a guarantee of either depth or literary quality. I’ve felt tears well up over news reports; over schlock children’s movies; even, occasionally, over well-constructed ads. It’s possible to sit there with tears in my eyes even at the same moment I’m furious that the journalists have been so crass as to interview the parents of a murdered child and ask how it feels.
Now it’s not surprising that this question of evoking tears gets a lot of attention, not just from us but from critics of commercial game design as well, because emotional resonance is important, and it is traditionally harder to achieve with games than with other media. I don’t think this means games are structurally inferior for producing these feelings or that no one is seriously trying to tell powerful stories or that all expression in the industry is stifled by corporate hacks. I think it is mostly because of the youth of games, and the relative lack of conventions for representing subjective experience. A year ago, I made a sweeping off-the-cuff statement on RAIF, but I still agree with it:
The handling [of] emotive and subjective content differs more from medium to medium than the handling of objective realities.
My argument was, essentially, that most mature media — film, musicals, novels — have a heap of unique-to-the-medium conventions for communicating the feelings and internal realities of the protagonists. I can’t speak for everyone else, but it’s these moments of connection that most often make me cry, if anything does. But many of these work precisely because they are conventions, because the audience has learned the language.
To a limited degree, IF has more access to the conventions of the novel (and less access to the conventions of the movie) than other forms of game. But just as movie conventions have not wholly succeeded for video games, neither do the tricks of conventional literary writing entirely work for interactive fiction. A cutscene of action is bad enough. How many players will sit still for a cutscene of non-interactive internal monologue? So we need other methods more suited to an interactive medium. And despite the decrying of “formal experimentation” as a dry and academic process, it is often by departing from their normal formal behavior that media communicate with greatest intensity: through fragmentation of sequence (like the movie montage), through stylization and elevation of language (like certain passages of Shakespeare), through a shift of register from speech to music (like the songs in musicals).
Instructions to, e.g., lay obsession with craft and experimentation aside and write from the heart don’t address the problem, or it would have been solved by now. Art has more to do with craft and form and context than any romantic would like to admit, and some of the most frankly “from the heart” IF is also the most flat-out awful. (Try “On Optimism” or “A Moment of Hope” or “Solitary” sometime.) What we need is to discover how, in the language of IF form, to express those sensations that sometimes elude us: shock, grief, triumph, joy. We’ve made progress on a few of them — disorientation is sometimes signaled by text with a lot of hit-any-key-to-continue pauses, to indicate discontinuity of perception — but there is more for authors to find, and for players to grow comfortable with.
In the meantime, feeling is tricky, and it may seem easier to tell jokes in a game than to make people feel strong negative emotions. Perhaps that affects what we’re willing to admire in games.
Comedy is still not at all an easy thing to do well, though, nor is it ineligible to be art. Emotional resonance makes the audience pay attention. It does not necessarily give them anything to take away and think about, and this too is required. Art needs substance.
And here, for all its silly premise, Lost Pig does have something to say: it is about the value of civility.
[Warning: From here on it is possible that I will spoil a few features of the game for the people who haven’t played this yet.]
To resume: The contact between Grunk and the gnome, and the gnome’s story, are the core of the game. Grunk’s (justly) much-discussed characterization is not just an ornament; it is also required so that he can be a foil to the gnome. On each side there is a sense that other characters have treated them rudely and inconsiderately — Grunk’s boss doesn’t sound like a very patient fellow, and the gnome is clear about what sorts of folks have come down to the shrine in the past — and this has isolated them and made them withdraw from the world. But to each other they are decent. Confronted with a physical weakling, Grunk is not violent or abusive; confronted with an intellectual inferior, the gnome is patient and engaging. Both come away better because of it. If you have any doubt that this is the real subject of the game, remember how you got the seventh point.
It is not, therefore, a game which plumbs a controversial ethical issue, but it is also not wholly insubstantial. It is comedy of manners, like Austen or the better work of Wodehouse: domestic, charming, apparently effortless, but concerned with the stuff that keeps humanity together.
I do think we could be doing a better job of talking about the content of IF rather than its form alone; but that may be a matter for another time. (Though, on that note, I am obliged to Victor Gijsbers for his thoughtful critique of Metamorphoses in the SPAG Specifics section.)