"Interactivity's a very interesting word, because it implies that this is something we didn't do in art before, which is complete nonsense, because the only interesting art experiences are the ones that engage you in that way; in which you are invited to become part of the authorship of something in some way or another. And usually in some more meaningful way than choosing whether to open this door or that door."
- Brian Eno
A Fateful Journey
If you've played ThatGameCompany's Journey and traversed its shimmering sands with your pensive little shroud-person until the bittersweet end, there's a good chance you were online when you did and that you traveled at least some of the distance with another pensive little shroud-person just like yourself.
Or numerous shroud-people, if your experience was anything like mine: ponderous, careful, and inquisitive enough to inspire a few partners to leave me behind and allow a number of others to catch up. Over the course of my first trip to that distant mountaintop I tagged along with a total of nine honking mutes, and each one enhanced or disrupted my trip in his or her own quirky way.
Two moments of my initial playthrough stand out: In the game's melancholy middle act, I was fortunate enough to pair with an experienced player of ample scarfage who was solely dedicated to leading me through a long stretch of darkened catacombs to safety, past the hungry eyes of flying sentries, while expecting nothing in return. I was truly touched by my partner's concern for my well-being -- almost embarrassed, actually -- and yet, sadly, we two parted ways when I paused the game for a temporary break, never a word passing between us.
Later, in the final wintry sections of the game, I met someone with an apparently crippling fear of intimacy or cooperation. Even after the game made it perfectly clear that keeping close company with other players had a tangible benefit -- generating a mutual "heat" that recharged our precious scarves -- I discovered that my accidental partner didn't like snuggling.
Instead, this anonymous prude ducked and dodged each of my attempts to get close, as if I were spewing some nasty contagion. Whenever I'd veer in close for a quick recharge, my partner would break off in a violent trajectory to get as far from me as possible. By the time I reached the game's final stage, I was alone.
Whatever the reason behind this player's skittishness, our dispiriting moment together was actually the highlight of my trip through Journey. It was spontaneous and unscripted, and best of all it belonged to me alone. No other person on earth will have had quite the same experience as I did -- a unique blend of awe, empathy, and indifference wrapped up in one lovely little three-hour package.
This notion of experiencing a "unique playthrough" is the fundamental promise of countless games, of course -- even early video games like Pac-Man and Tetris provide novel experiences with each attempt. But to this fundamental promise Journey adds a sensitively chosen narrative layer, and is all the more emotionally engaging for it. Yet not all games with narrative trappings are capable of inspiring such emergent tingles. So what, exactly, sets this game apart from so many others?
If we examine Journey's written narrative alone, we find a passable story; a familiar, moody parable about Sisyphean perseverance set amid the ruins of a dead civilization, where the sleepless ghosts of ages past pop by every now and again to show you images of their fall, and creep you out with lustful stares. And that beaming beacon winking from the distant mountain? It's boilerplate eschatological symbolism, vague enough to support whatever metaphysical metaphors you fancy. I have no doubt a few a few undergraduate theses starring Joseph Campbell are already well underway.
On the design front, the game offers a few more puzzling features. Most notably, the simple scarf-collecting loop -- one of the game's more obvious mechanics -- is not actually required to complete Journey's journey, a design choice that transforms what might have been a patience-straining exercise in exploration into breezy romp.
Collecting scarf pieces is not without its psychological benefits, obviously: seeing other players rock their sinewy twelve-foot sashes as I limped by with a passable two footer was humbling. But I realized early on that I didn't actually need to collect ANY scarf pieces, save the first, to reach the game's end. At every bottleneck -- no matter my skill level -- there was always a convenient way to slip through the blockade and into the next challenge.
And yet, even with an atrophied set of necessary features, Journey occasionally manages to be something greater than the sum of its parts. Its simple but elegant traversal mechanics -- sand-surfing and air-gliding -- are a joy to engage, and the world's ambience is sublime; beautiful visuals, languid music, with a patient sense of rhythm.
But Journey's most singular innovation -- a feature that no other medium could possibly replicate -- is that delightful multiplayer system. Without prompts or invitations, the game seamlessly ushers other human players into your journey for a wholly unique experience, each and every time. To my mind, this is the cornerstone of Journey's importance: a deceptively simple mechanic that allows an emotionally engaging range of results.
It is this feature, too, that offers us a small but clear example of the unique power of our ultra-modern medium... a power, I must say, that has been present in games for quite some time, but which we have failed to praise with vigorous clarity... even as the purview of video games has grown wider and deeper.
In other words, Journey is the latest entry in a long and respectable line-up of video games that are not simply accommodating old definitions of art, but reshaping them into something new. It is the purpose of this essay to discuss clearer ways of thinking and talking about this important shift, using some old but perhaps dusty ideas.
The Agency/Destiny Divide
So here we are again, perched at the edge of the value question. The now decades-long rigmarole about games and their nebulous status as art and-or entertainment has exhausted almost all of its vocal participants by now, but not for lack of passion. It's on display everywhere, littering the comments sections of Roger Ebert's website or below each new article by Raph Koster, with every caps-locked troll arguing for or against a particular definition of art before applying it to a fairly broad cast of qualifying or disqualifying games.
I won't bother to support or refute any of the familiar nominees here. Instead, I hope to make a case for why games have been difficult to assess as an art form, and demonstrate how conceptually complex games like Journey can help us steer through our currently muddled approach to the topic. And it begins -- as all discussions of games must -- with the mechanics.
No serious investigation into the worth, value, or purpose of a video game -- or any game -- can begin without first arriving at a clear understanding of the function of its underlying mechanics, and the specific sort of experiences they allow.
Without this understanding we cannot make informed judgments about what sort of experiences are possible within a given game. If this sounds obtuse, the problem can be better illustrated through another medium: film, as understood in the broadest sense possible -- as the medium of moving pictures.
Imagine tuning into an awards show one winter evening, only to find the following nominees up for an award for the "Greatest Film of all Time" -- 2001: A Space Odyssey; The "Man Your Man Could Smell Like" Old Spice Body Wash Commercial; The 1971 Dick Cavett interview with John Lennon and Yoko Ono; Orson Welles' F For Fake; and the BBC's Planet Earth series.
What is it about this list that offends our basic sensibilities? The answer is clear: each of these examples of film operates by an entirely separate "aesthetic mode." The first is an imagined narrative, the second is commercial propaganda, the third is an extemporaneous dialogue, the fourth is a polemic, and the last is scientific reportage. And though all are executed through the medium of "moving pictures," each piece operates by a vastly different set of internal mechanics. We cannot therefore directly compare them as we might five fictional narratives.
Something similar can be said for the dizzying variety of video games now available to us. We live in a world where the term "video game" refers both to Tetris -- a "pure game" -- and Dear Esther, a narrative-driven promenade, with the functional difference between the two being as wide as the gulf between a filmed celebrity interview and a science fiction epic.
One proposed solution to avoiding this rupture has been to take a step back and refer to this whole messy collective as "Interactive Digital Entertainment" or something similar -- an ur-category that pushes "games" like Tetris into one camp and "not-games" like Dear Esther into another. But -- while the spirit of this breakdown is sound -- this proposal ignores the hybrid composition of most modern video games.
Better, I think, to leave the term video game in place, and spend our energy further clarifying the categories of mechanics that move the games. Turn inward, not outward, and we'll find the essence of the "game/notgame" argument staring back at us in the form of what I and a few of my colleagues have begun calling Agency and Destiny mechanics, the twin behemoths of video game interactivity.
If game mechanics could be grouped into two loose but functionally separate kingdoms -- in the spirit of the defunct Plant-Animal divide -- Agency and Destiny would be our candidates, for it is these two crucially different breeds of game interactivity that have complicated our discussions about video games since the beginning of the debate.
The term Agency is already well known to most educated gamers, though it is often imperfectly applied as a rough synonym for "player choice." But this generality masks an important distinction between mechanics that allow for the actual expression of a player's creativity (within a bounded set of rules), and mechanics that offer a cleverly designed illusion of choice masking pre-determined outcomes. Thus the need for two more tightly focused terms, Agency and its fraternal twin, Destiny.
The difference between the two can best be illustrated using two common games: a jigsaw puzzle and a game of checkers. The major mechanical difference between these two games boils down to one primary feature -- iteration, or lack thereof. Traditional jigsaw puzzles are non-iterative; each piece has a fixed set of neighbors and the goal is pre-determined -- in most cases, a pleasant picture is the output. Checkers by contrast is purely iterative. There is no fixed order of operations and no fixed outcome. Each "interaction" with a game of checkers is a unique instance.
Already there may be some objections to my examples: "Jigsaw puzzles are not true games!" or "Checkers is a competitive game requiring two human players while jigsaw puzzles are solitary affairs!" Both are fair points. But let's examine a few typical situations found in countless popular video games before addressing these concerns, and ask ourselves how they compare along the Agency/Destiny divide.
A. A branching dialogue tree.
B. Walking across a room in three-dimensional space to reach one of two doors on the opposite side.
C. An adventure game riddle involving a key, a treasure map, and a shovel.
D. Shooting a horde of zombies until they drop.
From the standpoint of interactivity, B and D are examples of true Agency. In both cases the player is utilizing a game system that allows some level of emergent behavior. Forget the fact that there are only two doors in example B; the walking mechanic is the iterative element. The player can choose when to walk, and where to walk, and what route to take on his way to his chosen door -- perhaps walking in a circle for an hour if he so chooses. Theoretically, an infinite variety of routes are available, no matter how dull 99 percent of them might be.
What matters here is that the walking mechanic allows a tiny amount of novelty that has not been designed in advance. No two strolls across that room need be the same. This same principle can also apply to shooting zombie hordes and to countless other mechanics based on repeatable, iterative action -- shooting, punching, jumping, walking, driving, swimming, etc. Any mechanic that offers the possibility of a unique outcome -- however trivial -- will likely allow a player true Agency. And the more Agency mechanics a game possesses, piled one atop the next, the more complicated the possible outcomes become.
A second and related feature of Agency mechanics is their a "two-stage life cycle": Designers must first carefully craft and balance an Agency mechanic before letting them loose. However, once released into the wild, Agency mechanics must rely on players to give them an additional layer of meaning, to "bring them to life."
In other words, gamers themselves become craftsmen of a second order, charged with finding unique ways to use these systems to their advantage. If a game's mechanics are robust enough, certain unique styles of play will emerge, as is the case with older games like Chess and Go. Today, newer games like StarCraft, Far Cry 2 and 3, DayZ, The Sims, and even Super Mario Bros. allow their players a related form of creative expression.
Examples A and C, however, are examples of Destiny mechanics; forms of interactivity that are set in stone and offer only one or a finite number of paths forward. Branching dialogue trees like those found in Skyrim, Deus Ex, and Monkey Island offer a form of player choice, but almost never a systemic one. The same holds for the treasure map puzzle alluded to above, as well as most graphic adventure game puzzles, for which there is only one order of operations (unless the designers are being coy).
Dialogue trees, fetch items, mazes, riddles, lock-and-key puzzles and the like are functionally linear in the sense that each choice available to the player has a predetermined output, mapped by a designer to have a specific effect in the long run. There is no underlying system, and merely the illusion of Agency: a finite number of roads have been paved, and the player's only choice is to walk down one. Viewed on a grander scale, we can see that entire branching narrative paths like those found in the Mass Effect series and the Walking Dead series offer choices, but not true Agency.
But this is not a slight against the beauty and utility of a Destiny mechanic, for what they lack in systemic flexibility they usually make up for in creativity and depth of meaning. It is difficult to imagine puzzles as unique, amusing, and narratively specific as those found in Portal, Grim Fandango, Myst, or Braid emerging from purely systemic gameplay. Such intricacies require a designer to craft and refine them. For this reason, Destiny mechanics do not require a player's creative input, only his participation.
This means that Destiny mechanics are forged almost exclusively the domain of designers, not the players. They can be sculpted, shaped, and polished for maximum challenge or emotional impact, but since there is no system to master, nor is there a repeating set of problems to solve, the player will always be something of a passenger in this particular vehicle. It would make no sense, for instance, if you heard someone claiming to be "really good at Heavy Rain" or "an expert Myst player" in the same way that others are "professional Quake players," for the simple fact that the former two are predominantly comprised of Destiny mechanics, while the latter is Agency heavy.
But from a basic design standpoint, both Agency and Destiny mechanics are perfectly viable and powerful tools for the modern developer. So it should come as no surprise to find that most modern video games are complex and often bizarre hybrids built on foundations of both kingdoms. Scan the triple-A console market and you'll find the usual suspects are perfect examples: Uncharted, Assassin's Creed, Call of Duty, and The Elder Scrolls series. Each of these titles overlay a tightly scripted set of strictly controlled narrative sequences atop a robust systemic layer. Here, Agency and Destiny mechanics sit side-by-side. Not always in harmony, but hoping for the best.
Let's look closer at the Uncharted series, a constant critical darling. Here you'll find your basic shooting, running, and swimming mechanics, all of which are truly systemic. Players decide what weapons to carry along their journey, when to fire off a few rounds, whom to shoot first and last in every encounter, and when to duck behind cover. No two firefights are ever the same, meaning the combat system in Uncharted allows true player Agency. But only within the confines of combat.
Almost everything else the player experiences as Nathan Drake -- the expertly carved navigation challenges, the environmental puzzles, the action set-pieces with clear narrative arcs -- is an experience whereby the underlying Agency mechanics have been yoked to a surface layer of Destiny constraints.
All these moments are tightly controlled, linear, and breathtakingly specific in their action -- a collapsing building, a moving train, a capsizing boat. And though the high-drama, pounding music, and incredible mise en scène of these moments gives each player the impression that he just barely made that leap away from certain death, in truth that's all he was ever going to do. Because that's what the designers required him do. That was his destiny.
If the velocity of my argument up to this point isn't clear, let me make it so: well designed Agency mechanics allow players to experiment with their own creative impulses, while Destiny mechanics are canvases for the designers' imaginations. And it is this complicated split that lies behind so many of our strained conversations about video games and their value. What happens, for instance, when a game contains only one type? Or a conflicted mix of both? And how does this affect our experience with them?
The Power and Limits of Destiny
The Uncharted series has won many awards over the years, and audiences have been kind and numerous. And if you have been paying attention, you may have noticed the language fans of the series often use to describe the quintessential Uncharted experience: cinematic, epic, awe-inspiring, well-written, immersive, expertly paced, emotional. The same has been said of Heavy Rain, parts of the various Call of Duty titles, and most recently, of The Walking Dead.
Listen carefully to this praise, for it is the sound of people using same vocabulary that one might apply to film or literature. On closer inspection of these qualities, it turns out that Destiny mechanics bear much of the responsibility for their effect. The reason for this is simple: Destiny mechanics are designed to achieve a specific result, not an iterative one; and this means they can convey a specific meaning in much the same way books or films do.
Think of Nathan Drake wandering deliriously through the desert, or climbing a precariously hanging train, or dangling from an airborne cargo plane -- each of these moments has a single outcome specially designed, crafted, and paced to convey a specific effect.
Not surprisingly, these moments are often conceived and executed in a manner roughly equivalent to a filmmaker's. So one obvious question here is this: Is there a fundamental difference between Uncharted's interactive narrative and, say, Raiders of the Lost Ark's passive narrative? Is mere interactivity enough to distinguish one from the other?
My own feeling is that -- from a narrative standpoint -- there isn't much daylight between the two. The fact of Uncharted's interactivity does not endow players with any additional phenomenological insights into Drake's character or experience. The idea that players feel a symbiotic relationship with the characters they are driving is a seductive one, but it does not hold water if the engine powering their trip is built from Destiny mechanics. Drake remains a designed character, existing apart from the player's inputs.
Only Agency mechanics give players the possibility of true freedom and responsibility. And after 12 years of writing and designing games, time and time again I have come to find that players almost always have an intuitive understanding of the difference between pre-written narrative and emergent narrative. All too often I have heard the complaint "I loved the gameplay, but I hated the character I was playing." Such a statement would be tantamount to the player hating himself if true identification was achieved. But this rarely happens.
This "interactivity conundrum" is further complicated by the fact that the player's inputs are abstracted from their effects on screen. Completing a quick time event to execute an action bears no resemblance to actually experiencing that action -- the player is simply overcoming challenges using buttons that trigger outputs that resemble real-world effects. This disconnect rarely diminishes the joy of our game experiences, but it means that we cannot fall back on the notion that interactivity alone is what makes games unique.
Chose Your Own Adventure books and narrative-heavy board games like Fury of Dracula offer many of the same choices that video games do, only with slower processing speeds. So from an aesthetic standpoint, Destiny mechanics are actually pretty old school, despite being dressed up in new digital digs.
But Destiny mechanics appeal strongly to an art critic's sensors because they contain much of what we have already been trained to look for in traditional art forms. These signs have been familiar for centuries -- authorial intent, meaning, symbolism, polemics, narrative, subtext, etc. Nowadays, when a critic spies a poignant or well-constructed Destiny mechanic, he pounces. It has pushed a button primed by centuries of earlier established forms.
To take a relatively recent, and critically lauded example: the "Looking for Jason" sequence at the beginning of Heavy Rain. Here the player controls Ethan Mars, a contentedly married father of two who spends the last few moments of his earthly happiness searching a crowded mall for his missing son, Jason. The player maneuvers Ethan through streams of tight crowds, calling out for the lost boy as he goes. Eventually he makes his way outside just in time to witness his son's death beneath the wheels of a speeding automobile.
The sequence is upsetting, well-paced, and a good attempt on the developers part to let players experience a truly tragic moment, as opposed to a hyper-stylized action set piece. But as in any film or novel, this segment is a pre-destined affair. The mechanics available allow the player a pinch of Agency (walking and shouting mostly), but for the most part this scene is an elaborate march towards Destiny. Here, the range of player inputs is extremely limited, so there is almost no room for expression via the mechanics. The player cannot save poor Jason, or sacrifice Ethan, or leave the mall and grab a coffee at a nearby café, no matter how hard and fast he walks.
It is a textbook application of Destiny mechanics in action -- the scripting, the dialog, the mise en scène. The player's actions are incredibly constrained, the experience is tightly controlled, and the designer's message is absolute: Jason must die, and Ethan must feel guilty. This holds true throughout the game, and even when Heavy Rain's story branches into multiple paths we are still aware that these branches have been predetermined and their number is finite.
Therefore, despite promises of "player choice," Heavy Rain's designers are still firmly in charge, and all these dramatic moments -- despite their interactivity -- are no more or less effective than a film or a book of the same quality, and may be judged accordingly. For my part, I found Heavy Rain overly maudlin with far too many implausible narrative conceits, but the experiment was worthwhile.
For my money, Telltale's The Walking Dead series succeeds where Heavy Rain fails, simply because it has a better script and better direction. But again, these are games built almost entirely from Destiny mechanics, and we should not be surprised if one of them happens to deliver a credible and emotional narrative experience. This is what destiny mechanics are best at. We should only be puzzled as to why it doesn't happen more often.
As a writer myself, I certainly have a soft spot for Destiny mechanics. So many moments from my years of playing games still thrill me when I think about them: Yorda reaching out to Ico as he leaps back across the slowly retracting bridge; Choosing to save only one of two equally interesting characters in the Walking Dead; the insult sword fights in Monkey Island; Every damn puzzle in Braid and Limbo. These moments are poignant because they have a clever designer pulling the strings, and sometimes a writer like me adding a little spice to the scene.
Don't misunderstand me just yet. I love the expressive potential of Destiny mechanics. They give me, and the designers I work with, endless opportunities to craft small, satisfying moments amid the often bombastic chaos of Agency gameplay. Or, to say it another way, Destiny mechanics allow designers a vital and vibrant means of expression. But it is not a particularly new form of expression. We've been down this road before, only with a different coat of paint. As the Brian Eno quote that opened this essay argues, mere interactivity is not something new to the arts.
Destiny mechanics have been popular and well utilized since the days of the earliest text adventures in the '70s, and they are only getting more sophisticated as each Heavy Rain or Uncharted appears on the shelves. As video games evolve into complex little narrative-meaning engines, we absorb their stories, contemplate their aesthetics, and make a general assessment of the developer's message: "What is the author trying to tell us?" "What is the work's theme or meaning?" This is a fun and exciting time for lovers of interactive narrative. But it is a rather traditional feature of a very radical medium.
The most visible recent example of this traditional tendency in mainstream game criticism is Taylor Clark's write-up on Braid designer Jonathan Blow, a talented guy who deserves none of the ridicule this hagiography generated. Sadly, as a critique of games and their ever-evolving guises, Clark's essay is a collection of musty priorities.
Like a graduate student scribbling at the margins of a modernist poem, Clark obsesses over the meanings, metaphors, and codes of Braid's literal narrative without bothering to address how clumsily its old-fashioned narrative unfolds: not through gameplay (save in the brilliant finale), but through pop-up text boxes spouting purplish prose and a few painted images.
It is entirely possible to play through Braid and ignore the literal tale entirely, rendering the visual and situational metaphors embedded in the gameplay useless. For the most part, the game's narrative is simply a thin veneer that could be removed without harming most of the game's content.
Only Braid's time-manipulation game mechanic has any plausible ties to its narrator's obsession with memory and nostalgia, but the tendons holding this metaphor together are weak since possession of this information has no bearing on the game's mechanical operations. These so-called "symbols" just hang there, impotent, like a reference to Dante's Inferno embedded in a '65 Ford Mustang's repair manual. A wasted opportunity to fuse form and content.
If Braid's time-rewind mechanic is symbolic of Tim's crippling inability to escape his past misdeeds, I felt nothing making this connection -- especially while solving puzzles that had little narrative content to speak of. It wasn't until Braid's genuinely affecting finale that I actually felt this metaphor in action. Here, in the game's concluding moment, was a beautiful synthesis of Destiny and Agency, together at last! In this instance, Braid's celebrated time-rewind mechanic does not simply serve the story as a symbol. It tells the story itself.
So here at last, we are creeping towards articulating one of the most curious features of this most modern medium. Or multimedium, we might say, since there is literally no artistic discipline a video game cannot absorb and use for its own bizarre purposes. But I believe we should not be content with wanting to see video games as just another form of artistic expression when we have not yet fully investigated its role as a tool that allows a range of expression as well.
The Novelty of Agency
The answer to this double-sided riddle lies in finding a better way to speak more coherently about Agency mechanics, the unsung underdog in our medium's quest for purpose. As narrative-obsessed critters, mainstream critics have not yet simplified their methods for discussing the unique contributions that Agency mechanics bring to games. I'll go one further and say that Agency mechanics are responsible for helping video games usher in a more radical understanding of art itself by violently decoupling it from its pesky Artists. No small feat. But it's been happening for decades already.
Generally speaking, a heady cocktail of 18th century Romanticism and modern capitalism bears much of the responsibility for our ideas of what passes for Art these days. We have been educated to think of Artists as generators of concrete ideas or a set of aesthetic principles, and we still view art with something like the eyes of a jeweler, trained to find inherent value in concrete objects or ideas -- a sculpture, a painting, a story, a parable, etc. In other words, we think of Art as an artifact with defined boundaries and intentions, something we can hold in our hand or in our head, and which we can investigate, experience, pry into, and cherish.
Taylor Clark's portrait of Jonathan Blow slides neatly from this old Romantic mold. More than once in his essay he yearns for the appearance of more video game auteurs, having found his own favorite brooding beneath Blow's inscrutable brow. He is caught up in a romance of sorts, choked by an old vocabulary that cannot express the entirely new paradigm that games have inspired. A paradigm where the premeditated meanings of a "work of art" are no longer primary or fixed.
What is needed, instead, is a vocabulary for taking about those products of human creative activity that lack permanence, clear boundaries, and even fixed-meanings. Here the thoughts of influential urban planner, Kevin Lynch, author of the seminal The Image of the City (1960), offer some guidance:
"While it may be stable in general outlines for some time, [a city] is ever changing in detail. Only partial control can be exercised over its growth and form. There is no final result, only a continuous succession of phases. No wonder, then, that the art of shaping cities for sensuous enjoyment is an art quite separate from architecture or music or literature. It may learn a great deal from these other arts, but it cannot imitate them."
Here he is arguing for a method for shaping cities into spaces of beautiful form and function. But he just as easily might have been talking about an ongoing game of Chess, Go, World of Warcraft, or The Sims. The general "outlines" of these games are stable, but their internal workings are changeable, iterative, and surprising... a "continuous succession of phases" with no correct outcome (though some games do finish, sadly).
For the past 30 years or more, digital games have opened a similar path. Now a work of art need not be a "thing," but might be an "instance" or an "experience" instead; something located not in a unique space but in a unique time, akin to an art installation, or Andy Warhol's Factory collective, or a performance of a piece of familiar music. For every live cover of Leonard Cohen's "Chelsea Hotel #2," for example, we must contend with two or more complementing instances of authorship: one is Cohen's contribution as a songwriter and lyricist; the other comes from the artists performing it.
The idea of instanced art is not something consumers of mainstream entertainment are too cozy with, but examples abound in the past decades. Yoko Ono's "Cut Piece" and Marina Abramovic's "The Artist is Present" are examples of performance art pieces that required unscripted audience participation to achieve fleeting, unrepeatable moments of enlightenment. And for fans of Brian Eno's ambient music of the '70s and '80s, instanced art is also familiar territory. Specifically, his experiments with what is now commonly called Generative Music have strong parallels with pure games and simulated systems.
Beginning in the mid-'70s, Eno began fiddling with tape loops and synthesizer sequencers in order to build musical systems that, when activated, generated unique musical performances each and every time. Many of his groundbreaking ambient albums from this period were composed solely through the use of generative systems of his own making.
Unfortunately, due to the limitations of the vinyl delivery format, the album Eno was obliged to sell at the conclusion of his various experiments contained only a single instance of music created by a system capable of generating an infinite number of variations.
In a few interviews from that period he laments the fact that he cannot sell the system itself directly to his listeners. But it simply wasn't feasible to package, market, and sell eight interconnected reel-to-reel tape machines as a final product.
It wasn't until the mid-'90s when home computers offered high-quality audio reproduction at reasonable cost that Brian Eno got optimistic. The result of this period of hope and creativity was the 1996 floppy disc release of "Generative 1" -- the first truly generative, digital music experience I had ever heard of.
And what a treat to my young ears! Generative 1 was bizarre, captivating, intellectually liberating, and -- so far as I can tell -- a total flop. The audience just wasn't there, and generative music never caught on the way Eno hoped it would. And yet his ideas had been revolutionary from the start:
"Imagine music as writing a series of little seeds, you know. I'm writing some genetic instructions, basically. Here's the genetic instruction for a piece of music, the DNA for a piece of music, and I put it in the computer and I watch it grow. Now, I watch it grow and I think, 'Right, that sounds a little too sweet'. Okay, so I go back to, for instance, the harmony rule, and I say 'Okay, let's reduce the number of major third harmonies, or have no major third harmonies and have more minor third harmonies', for instance. ... It's an amazing way of composing, it really is. I think it will completely change not only the way people listen to music, because the result never repeats exactly, but also the way people can make music."
A decade later, Eno's wonderful but little-known visual-musical experiment, "77 Million Paintings" fared somewhat better. But it wasn't until Eno partnered with Spore creator Will Wright that the obvious parallels between his work and video games found a broad audience. By this point, the connections were clear. Eno and Wright were exploring overlapping territory, a place where Agency mechanics and processes allowed maximal creative output. "[I] make seeds, rather than forests," Eno once said of his role as an artist.
When I first read these interviews in college, what struck me first was Eno's enthusiastic desire to sabotage some of his own role the process of music-making and forge a new ratio that gave equal control to the system itself. This was an idea that seemed deliciously blasphemous at the time. Fast-forward a few decades, however, and he is describing the main function of Agency mechanics in any video game: well-designed systems that allow for a vast number of emergent surprises.
Just as the numerous creators of Chess could not guess the millions of amazing contests that would eventually emerge from their humbly bundled set of rules, the lone designers of the ruthlessly popular DayZ mod for Arma 2 could not have imagined the vast majority of incredible and harrowing displays of human interaction made possible by their diligent work. The same is true of sandboxes of Far Cry 2 and 3, Just Cause, and of course, Minecraft -- the ultimate generator of instanced experiences. Anything and everything seems possible in Notch's cubicle world, including building a functioning computer.
This line of thinking flips the "art question" on its head. Games built on Agency mechanics no longer need to answer the question "are games art?" but rather "are gamers artists?" And the answer is a qualified yes. I don't mean to imply that any old gamer playing an impressive speed-run of Super Mario Bros. is on par with Leonardo Da Vinci. But it is critical to acknowledge that through the clever application of Agency mechanics, countless video games allow players a great deal of personal expression and skilled experimentation. And in the right context, or with the right narrative layer, these expressions and experimentations can lead to something emotionally or intellectually profound.
In multiplayer games like Journey or DayZ, cleverly implemented Agency mechanics can bring two real human beings together in emotionally stimulating or draining ways that would not otherwise be possible. A brief but empathetic gesture from a stranger in one of these worlds can have more emotional resonance than any single line of planned narrative or written dialogue. Such interactions are almost inevitable when the available set of Agency mechanics is expressive enough to allow true creativity to flourish -- to allow players to develop a "style" -- but constrained enough to keep the game's meaning coherent for all players.
This does not apply solely to multiplayer games, of course. Even when other humans are not around to add a dash of intrigue, cleverly designed game systems can still generate surprising and touching results for solo gamers. Titles like The Sims and Minecraft have given players the tools to play and experiment with broad systems containing just enough narrative context to allow them to experience strange new modes of narrative building.
The now static blog "Alice and Kev" gives us one such peek into just how disorienting and delightful these generative experiences can be, and how unalike traditional art forms they really are. Such experiences offer us a profoundly different view of art than we are typically used to. Not static pieces of meaning and intention bequeathed to us by god-like auteurs, but frameworks designed to generate new and fresh experiences for anyone willing to interact and play with them.
It is important to stress here that I am not making the case for Agency mechanics being more vital than Destiny mechanics. Far from it. I only suggesting that we -- as developers and critics and players -- come to a clearer understanding of what sort of games we are playing and making, and why.
Teaching ourselves how to understand and evaluate the disparate experiences offered by Agency and Destiny mechanics, in their infinite combinations, will help us push through the often befuddling conversations about our humble craft. And even as we scan the horizon for our favorite new game auteurs and their singular visions, we must also be on the lookout for designers working diligently in the dark to allow players new and unique forms of play and expression. Fresh experiences from the seeds of possibility.
I am thankful we live in an age where this has been happening for quite some time.
Context and Narrative
Let's return -- now primed and eager -- to Journey and have one last look at its rich combination of Agency and Destiny mechanics. What captivates me most about its peculiar multiplayer feature is that it combines the mechanical freedom of an Agency mechanic with the clear narrative overtones of a Destiny mechanic. To put it another way, Journey's designers have given this mechanic an immediate and static contextual meaning -- "Other shroud-people will make you warm (powering up your jump scarf)" -- whose ultimate narrative function is left unresolved until the point at which two players use it (or don't). A rare feat of ingenuity that, in my case, left me feeling shunned by a fellow player.
Contextual meaning versus narrative meaning; this is ultimately where the tension between Agency and Destiny generates heat. Almost all Agency mechanics have a contextual meaning these days: we find ourselves shooting, stabbing, jumping, swimming, singing, dancing, and so forth. But given the right framework, these contextual actions can possess additional narrative meanings too, depending on how the player uses them.
In Journey's case, the body-warming mechanic has an immediate and beautiful contextual meaning: camaraderie is beneficial to both parties. This is made explicit by the mechanic's immediate function. But the game's quiet triumph is that it gives players the Agency to use or avoid this mechanic as and when they see fit... thus giving rise to my curious disappointment when my first companion actively avoided contact with me. It was powerful, poignant, and totally unscripted. For me the marriage of contextual meaning and narrative meaning had never more powerful.
Had Journey's designers decided to force players to use this warming mechanic at any point during the game -- to pass a blocked path for instance -- its meaning would have instantly become fixed. It would have reduced the mechanic to a single message: co-operation is required to succeed in this game. But by avoiding a concrete authorial stance, the designers of Journey have put their faith in the hands of their players. They are just as curious to see what happens as we are. And in my view, it is this curiosity -- about ourselves and others -- that deserves our fullest attention.
Special Thanks to Brie Code, Rafael Morado, and Christopher Robert Weiler for their contributions and valuable insights.