Victor Gijsbers recently posted about the peculiar comments “The Baron” has received: viz., that an independently designed, morally thoughtful game isn’t “feasible” in the present market conditions — even though “The Baron” exists and therefore has passed the feasibility test in the only meaningful sense.
For a long time I, like Victor, have been annoyed by the “market forces tell all” mentality that says that projects are only successful when they earn money and that artists prove their artistic credentials by selling their material widely. This tends to be contrasted with the “critical success” method of determining the value of material: something is good if it elicits the praise and admiration of a small cadre of those whose opinions matter. Bonus points if cat-fights arise between competing groups of critics.
There are pretty obvious problems with both of these approaches. Markets often value pulpy, least-common-denominator crap that gratifies some momentarily-trendy urge, which is why Dan Brown sells so many books and the commercial video game industry has such spasms about its own creativity (or lack thereof). Critics, on the other hand, can be extremely inward and academic, valuing formal innovation and meta-genre features even to the exclusion of meaningful content. Marie-Laure Ryan has written about the gap between highbrow and lowbrow interactive storytelling, suggesting that stories in videogame form are almost always targeted to one end of that scale or the other, leaving an undeveloped middle ground of thoughtful but still-accessible material.
Even if we shave away the argument about how to decide whether a piece of art is Good or Bad or worthy of canonization (an argument, by the way, that has never been satisfactorily resolved with respect to any art form), we are still left with the curious phenomenon that some players want the games they play to be commercial. Some of this has to do with perceived value — if I’ve looked forward to and forked over money for a game, I may be more excited about playing it and less likely to give up quickly. Some of it has to do with resources: a game with a sufficient budget may be up for a more thorough testing and better production values than one without. We’ve occasionally talked about these issues before.
A less-discussed part of the problem is the perceived contract between player and game designer. If I write a game and give it to you, you have no power to affect the content of the game. You can like the game or dislike it, play it or throw it out, write a positive review or give it the thrashing of a lifetime on IFDB, but there’s no force other than my possible interest in your good opinion to make me write a game that you’ll like. You have no reason to trust me.
In other words, I think some players don’t just (semi-perversely) want to fork over money for a game rather than receiving it free. I think they want to know that the game’s creators are making a living by their efforts, as a sign of good faith. The creator’s hypothetical concern for his artistic integrity or his reputation are not necessarily enough — there’s all sorts of junk on the internet, and it takes some kind of organized system of feedback to separate the wheat from the chaff.
Then the feasibility argument starts to sort of make sense again. It goes something like this: there isn’t enough of an audience for games of type X to establish a meaningful feedback loop between creator and fan base, in which the fan base supplies rewards in the form of money or reputation (the latter regulated in some way). The thing about big open source software projects is that they have gazillions of users — which means not only support, but response, and a relationship between the people who create/revise/improve and the people who use. (In some cases, a relationship known as “identity”.)
Historically, the player/author contract has been more of a problem than we would like in IF. There are lots of good games that don’t get reviewed nearly as much as they should, and authors have drifted away because the amount of response their work received was not enough to keep them interested. IFDB helps a bit, because it provides a low enough barrier to entry for review writing that more people seem to be interested in writing more reviews, and that’s terrific. But there are also still quite a few works that have not gotten the reception they probably deserved.
Conversely, every year there are a handful of games in the IF competition that are plainly there to irritate the judges (see: Sisyphus, Breaking the Code, Fat Lardo and the Rubber Ducky) and a larger number where the author contributed the game on a lark even though aware that it was junk, because, hey, what did he have to lose? This accumulation of garbage is dispiriting to judges and contributes to the external perception (from people who dip into the IF community once a year to try competition games) that it’s all amateur hour over here. The player/author contract is broken.
In this respect I agree with Jimmy Maher’s recent SPAG editorial, even though I disagreed with his comments on comedy and on the relative value of formal experimentation. We do have an ambition shortage.
But I understand completely. In the absence of money, or even a guarantee of reviews — without either the market forces or the critical cadre — it can be difficult to maintain serious ambitions in creating a freeware project. Especially a large one. Doing so often requires a deliberate rejection of perspective. Crunch time at Electronic Arts sucks, I’m sure, but at least the employees are getting a paycheck whose value the rest of the world will acknowledge. Putting major time in on a project that doesn’t pay and may not even get reviewed much, well, that can be kind of rough — especially if your significant other or your boss have other ideas about how you should be spending your energy. And besides, what are we doing that matters so damned much?
Here’s my answer, but then I deliberately got rid of my perspective on this point some time ago:
Interactive story-telling is the next great art form. It may not end up looking much like text-based IF, but some medium based on player/reader feedback will become (and remain) culturally relevant and widely-valued. I say this not out of homage to the technology — the computer is widespread, but so are cars and telephones, and they haven’t engendered any great enduring art forms as yet — but because there is potential for sorts of communication and forms of audience experience in interactive storytelling that are not mirrored in any of our existing media.
What’s more, the dynamic of interactive storytelling is especially suited to our difficult and questioning age, when — especially but not uniquely in the US — there is no uniformity of culture or values, and most of us live side by side with neighbors with vastly different views on religion, politics, sex, manners, etc. Interactive stories are strongly effective at communicating constraints and boundaries, and allowing the player to explore how those constraints differ from his expectations. They’re good at providing optional exposition, where the player can choose to explore issues that interest him or that are new to him. They allow for the development of a position that (at least partly) takes the reader/player’s views into account, rather than preaching the same message to all comers.
So I do think that it’s worth being ambitious about IF.
That said, I’m not always sure what ambitions are the most productive ones to embrace next, if you see what I mean. Writing the work I want to write, as well as I can possibly write it: yes, fine. I’ve got plenty of ideas about what I want to try next. But the external metric stuff is also important, both because it provides guidance for the development of craft, and because it’s worth contributing to a larger dialogue about interactive narrative, which we can only do if works get a certain amount of attention. But what attention? From whom? Where should we be trying to go, once we look beyond our own community?
I’m not always sure of the answer.