Well, GDC is officially over for the year. This conference was a powerful one for me in a lot of ways, exhausting and inspiring. Thumbnail sketches of some memorable talks from the last two days:
(1) Chris Crawford spoke on the history of computer game programming, complete with lots of fun pictures of positively ancient machines, and ending with his pitch for games to be about people. I’d heard a lot of it before, but it was an enthralling and well-delivered talk, and even though we disagree on some fundamental approaches to the problem, I sort of love hearing the point made over again. Afterward we met up in the hallway and there was a curious playground-fight vibe from some of the onlookers as we discussed our different approaches to the gameplay-about-people problem. Which isn’t what I intended — I just wanted to say hi to him after assorted emails and comments exchanged over the years. But whatever the surrounding circle may have thought, I have no beef with Chris, nor I think does he have any with me.
Anyway, one of the points Chris made in our unfortunately brief discussion was that he felt the parser in IF doesn’t do a good enough job of taking in information from the player — that it doesn’t listen well enough; it doesn’t allow the player to make a big enough part of the conversation between game and machine. I’m not quite sure what this indicates: is the input not granular enough, or the output too wordy, or the range of things that can be said via parser too narrow, or…? I’m not sure whether I’ll agree once I figure out what this means, but it’s an interesting statement.
(2) Brenda Brathwaite talked about her series of tragedy-focused games, the series to which Train belongs. The core of her talk that stuck with me was this: “Whenever there’s human-on-human tragedy, there’s a system.” So her approach is to explore that system in rules, and make the player complicit. There was a lot else in the talk, about the personal nature of her work and about her own feelings in creating it. I don’t really feel comfortable trying to summarize here, but it was a brave talk to give, and fascinating.
In fact, quite a lot of this GDC has felt unusually personal for an industry conference, from Michael Todd’s talk (which I didn’t see but heard praised by many many people) about designing games while clinically depressed, to the rawly open content of the rapid-fire indie talks, to conversations with Deirdra Kiai and Terry Cavanagh about the motivations behind my own work and/or theirs.
(3) Ernest Adams gave a talk on spec’ing out an interactive narrative, in which he discussed a lot of standard problems: the freedom/agency/story problem, the question of whether the player should be able to change outcomes (and the fact that an interactive narrative doesn’t have to be one in which the player changes the plot), etc. It wasn’t as flashy a talk as the others, and it didn’t contain a lot of information that was new to me, but it was cool to see these issues organized in one place. You can see it too, since he has put the slides (odp) and storytelling template materials (odt) online.
(4) Brian Moriarty gave the most coherent and philosophically interesting argument in support of Ebert’s “games can’t be art” dictum that I’ve ever heard. (This gets long.)
Edited to add: there is a set of point by point notes from Moriarty’s talk here, which covers some details my analysis doesn’t discuss.