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Beauty in the ordinary

If you're creating art, whether it's writing a book or crafting the narrative of a video game, it's important to recognize the value of the commonplace, of the ordinary.

Kris Graft is editor-in-chief of Gamasutra. @krisgraft

I am ordinary. I live in Indiana, often referred to as one of the "flyover states." In Indiana, I have a wife and I have kids. I live in a house that is in a subdivision. The subdivision is across from a cornfield, which is destined to be developed into another subdivision. That new subdivision will be populated by other people -- ordinary people, doing ordinary things, leading ordinary lives. Under the radar, flown over.

But in this void of typicality, this realm of suburban sameness where one street looks strikingly similar to the next street, there is beauty to be seen and experienced. It's walking down the street to the metal cluster of locked mailboxes on a fall night when the houses are quiet and the sky is clear and the stars are out. It's kids riding bikes in circles at the dead end of the street. It's someone, somewhere cooking hamburgers on the grill, the smell wafting down to your own backyard in the summer, mingling with the scent of the grass that you just cut.

There is beauty in the ordinary.

It's all relative, isn't it? Years ago, I was self-conscious about my ordinary life. My colleagues generally live in bustling, big cities where there is so much to do, see, experience, whereas I'm all "Hey I raked some leaves today." It's a common if not universal fear, to be ordinary, to have no unique traits.

But as I've grown older (and as they've grown older), I've realized that their curiosity is piqued by my weird, Midwestern "lifestyle," as I have been interested in their "exciting" big city lifestyles. Everyone's ordinary is different, and if you're a curious person, you're interested in other peoples' "ordinary." It's good to tell those ordinary stories; they're more interesting than you might realize.

If you're creating art, whether it's writing a book or crafting the narrative of a video game, it's important to recognize the value of the commonplace, of the ordinary. Because games are such a powerful, interactive medium, and able to put people into roles that they quite literally play out, the natural drive has been to turn away from the ordinary, and put so much focus on the extraordinary. The starting point in the creation of so many games has been the answer to the question, "If you could be anything in the world, who or what would you be?" And a lot of times the answer is a pirate or a criminal or a space marine or a soldier. It's never "A guy in a cubicle named Stanley." Well, sometimes it is, I guess.

Video games often try to tell us that the ordinary is not good enough for your attention. You only have to look as far as PlayStation's slogan, "Greatness Awaits" -- Sony's trying to sell the idea that "greatness" is not at your current location. It's awaiting. Somewhere. Probably at Best Buy.

No, in great art and entertainment, greatness does not always await, because art tells the truth, and the truth doesn't always lead to this idea of "greatness" or triumph over adversity. Sometimes, hopelessness, hate, fear, loneliness and tragedy await. "Tragedy Awaits." There's a marketing slogan for you.

There's nothing inherently wrong with power-roles like the pirate or the soldier or the superhero, but the way that they're conveyed in video games, they're typically very unapproachable and unrelatable. I actually respected the opening minutes of Call of Duty: Ghosts, where it was just you, a soldier, chatting with your brother and father out in the woods. Granted, everything became Call of Duty very quickly, but it was nice to see homage paid to ordinariness in the game's narrative, even for a few brief moments. It sure put that hijacked space weapon attack into perspective.

A few of my favorite games that I played last year, I noticed in retrospect, embraced the ordinary, and explored it in interesting ways. I've seen people take Gone Home to task, saying the story isn't challenging or exceptional. That it was very…ordinary. But the point of Gone Home was to let players discover, through environmental storytelling, the beauty in something as common as a young, romantic relationship.

The Stanley Parable starts out with a guy in a cubicle, his morale ground down by the mundanity of his existence. How many people who've played that game can relate to that? I became Stanley for a little while to try to change the way I live my life, unlocking myself from that cubicle, conversing with the narrator through my choices, discovering plainly how choices do have consequences.

I had a job in Papers, Please. It was stressful one, but I did it to support my family, and did the best I could. I wielded rubber stamps, not P90s. But in all of that typical-ness, under the veil of the commonplace, I found an ethical balancing act that you don't often encounter in video games. And it was all rooted in the ordinary.

Don't mistake my examples as saying that games that allow players to celebrate or examine the ordinary need to take place in "realistic" settings. Let's look at classic sci-fi literature for a moment, as sci-fi is a genre that's popular in games. Ray Bradbury wrote in his book Zen in the Art of Writing how, long before the publication of The Martian Chronicles, he had "jotted down a list of the sorts of folks I would want to plant on Mars, to see what would happen." Not bug-eyed aliens bent on interplanetary conquest. "Folks."

His vision of Mars is fantastical, it is extraordinary. The Martians have otherworldly powers. But he digs deep into this fantastical world he created, and brings to the surface some very human, very common, relatable traits and relationships between his characters. In The Variable Man, Philip K. Dick took an ordinary person (who was particularly handy), and placed him in the future, turning that future world upside down. It's interesting, in good sci-fi, how authors played with the ordinary by contrasting it against the extraordinary, and allowed the characters and their circumstances play out.

The difference, and the great challenge, with video games is that their creators aren't the ones who should necessarily be peeling back the layers for players -- instead, effective designers make sure the players are the ones who are doing the peeling, to allow them to discover the beauty through interaction. The game becomes about searching and discovery; the player has to sift through the sands in order to find this beauty -- this simple, relatable extraordinariness -- you've purposefully buried. Oppositely, the power fantasy is all about building up, building up, building up. Which can be fun, but from a game design perspective, one of these approaches seems quite a bit easier than the other. So maybe that's part of the reason why the power fantasy has played such a role in video games.

Games that respect the ordinary tend to magnify pieces of humanity, rather than reducing it to a smear. If you don't have a grasp on ordinariness, or are unwilling to take hold of and understand it, you don’t have a grasp on the human condition. If you don't have a grasp on the human condition, you don't have a grasp on truth. When you don't have a grasp of truth, you can't know what it takes to create meaningful art, because the best works of art, fiction or not, are honest.

There's plenty of room for all types of video games, and I'm not saying that all games need to have some message just so I can wave my hands around and deep read them. All I'm saying is that there is beauty in the ordinary.

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