Post­cards From The Clip­ping Plane

Con­ve­niently ig­nor­ing the se­ri­ous side of videogame devel­op­ment

EDGE - - SECTIONS - JAMES LEACH James Leach is a BAFTA Award-win­ning free­lance writer whose work fea­tures in games and on tele­vi­sion and ra­dio

James Leach mulls over the na­ture of other peo­ple’s ge­nius

Be­fore ev­ery­one out­side the gam­ing com­mu­nity started ask­ing ev­ery­one in­side the gam­ing com­mu­nity if games pro­mote vi­o­lence in the youth of to­day (they don’t), peo­ple asked if games can be art.

Art is of­ten de­fined as any­thing in­tended to pro­voke a re­ac­tion in those experiencing it. I’m not sure whether this is use­ful, since by that to­ken a flu jab can be art. But what if we said that any­thing be­ing cre­ated as art only earns the right to call it­self that if it’s been specif­i­cally de­signed to cre­ate a re­ac­tion?

Well, what about games? Yes, they’re de­signed to be fun, beau­ti­ful, chal­leng­ing and of­ten mov­ing. So they don’t rule them­selves out on any level. As an ex­am­ple – and there are hun­dreds – I’d say Braid is art. I mean, just look at it. And play it. It’s a work of art and a work of ge­nius. In fact, it’s the work of a ge­nius. His name is Jonathan Blow, and

Braid was his vi­sion. Yes, he had the videogame artist David Hell­man to help him, but what Hell­man did was grasp in its en­tirety the con­cept that was in Blow’s mind, and com­mit it to pa­per. Well, pix­els. It’s fair to say, though, that Braid is the prod­uct of one man.

When you look at some of the great­est games ever, it’s quite com­mon to see a sin­gle designer’s name at­tached to them. I was go­ing to list a few, but that would mean leav­ing a load out, and if you’re the sort of per­son who reads Edge, and you clearly are, you can think of a bunch of them your­self. But this leads to the in­evitable con­clu­sion that great art isn’t cre­ated by com­mit­tee. The blue­prints need to be cre­ated and held, at least ini­tially, in one head. Any­thing else is a com­pro­mise.

But games are cre­ated by teams of peo­ple. So what our vi­sion-hold­ing ge­nius needs to be able to do is what Blow did: im­part the idea in its purest form to a bunch of tal­ented oth­ers to re­alise. That’s an en­tirely dif­fer­ent skill right there, but it’s vi­tal if the whole thing is go­ing to end up be­ing in any way great art.

As a game writer, this fas­ci­nates me, be­cause I’m of­ten part of the team be­ing vi­sioned at by a sin­gle vi­sion­ary ( although they’re not all sin­gle). I’m in the same boat as the game’s artists and com­posers here. We’re work­ing from a sin­gle, strong idea, so how much lat­i­tude do we have? The ge­nius at the head of the ta­ble can’t do it all by him­self, so he’s en­trust­ing the project to us. Yes, he’s go­ing to mi­cro­man­age it, and change his mind, and add new ideas too late in the sched­ule, but he’s get­ting us to do the work.

We are, though, now in a po­si­tion to cre­ate our own art. The artists might have been told what to draw, but they’re the ones drawing it. One day, there’s noth­ing but an idea they’ve been told to work on, and the next there’s some in­cred­i­ble beauty on the screen made en­tirely by them. Is their ge­nius com­pa­ra­ble to that of their vi­sion­ary leader? Is it even pos­si­ble that they ex­ceed his tal­ent, be­cause they’re the ones who did the cre­at­ing? Af­ter all, any­one could tell Van Gogh what scene to paint. We’re un­likely to be hailed as a mas­ter for do­ing so. He’s also not likely to do it, be­cause he’s only got one ear, so might not have heard. And he’s dead.

Nearly all the cre­ative peo­ple I know in the game in­dus­try work on their own projects in their own time. Some­times it’s done as a po­ten­tial route out of the cor­po­rate struc­ture they’re mired in, but mostly it’s sim­ply be­cause they’re driven to use their tal­ents, and they can do so with the over­all con­trol and di­rec­tion that they, and only they, have. It ful­fils a ba­sic need to do what they do best and to do what in­spires them. Yes, with luck they’re in­spired by the games they work on in of­fice hours (and very of­ten late af­ter of­fice hours), but ev­ery­one who’s ever had to work on some­one else’s dream has had that mo­ment when they know they could do it dif­fer­ently, and bet­ter than the brief, but weren’t al­lowed to. We shall call this the Jar Jar Binks Ef­fect.

So, any­way, yes, games can cer­tainly be art. They meet all the cri­te­ria, and ev­ery stan­dard you care to throw at them. The only rea­son this ques­tion is ever asked is be­cause games are new and bright and ex­cit­ing, and the sort of peo­ple who won­der whether things qual­ify as art are usu­ally none of those things. They’re also phe­nom­e­nal team ef­forts, and that means that ev­ery­one work­ing on them is an artist. Un­less the game is ut­ter rub­bish, in which case we’re all wast­ing our time. Some­one has to be re­spon­si­ble for ev­ery game, and no mat­ter how steep or how broad the pyra­mid, peo­ple will al­ways strain to see who’s at the top. And be­cause that’s a truly dread­ful metaphor – so bad, in fact, that it can’t fail to pro­voke a re­ac­tion – I must be some­thing of an artist too.

Any­one could tell Van Gogh what scene to paint. We’re un­likely to be hailed as a mas­ter for do­ing so

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