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The Designer's Notebook: Revenge of the Highbrow Games

In the follow-up to last month's popular <a href=http://gamasutra.com/features/20060807/adams_01.shtml>"Where's Our Merchant Ivory?"</a> feature, author Ernest Adams responds to the <a href=http://gamasutra.com/php-bin/news_index.php?story=10385>wealth</a> <a href=http://gamasutra.com/php-bin/news_index.php?story=10425>of</a> <a href=http://gamasutra.com/php-bin/news_index.php?story=10453>feedback</a> submitted by Gamasutra's readers by further examining what a "Highbrow Game" might be, and categorizing its potential audience.

Ernest Adams, Blogger

September 29, 2006

12 Min Read

One of the more enjoyable things about writing this column is seeing what kind of responses I get, and after last month’s edition (“Where’s Our Merchant Ivory?”) boy, did I get responses. The topic was “highbrow games,” and I said I thought we didn’t have any yet. To explain what a highbrow game might be, I used an analogy from filmmaking. The Merchant Ivory production company makes what I think of as highbrow films – rich, nuanced works dedicated to exploring ideas and relationships among people. The difference between high culture and popular culture, I claimed, is that high culture refuses to compromise its standards for the sake of a larger audience.

Apart from the Merchant Ivory analogy, I deliberately left the definition of “highbrow” rather vague, partly because I wanted to see what interpretation my readers would put on it. What I’m going to do now, after taking a look at some of the points of view I heard, is to continue exploring the question of what a highbrow game is and who its potential audience might be. But first, let’s see what’s in the mailbag.

We can dismiss the more stupid responses pretty quickly. As I predicted, there was a fair bit of reverse snobbery (“I’m proud that I don’t like literature or classical music, and video games should never be for anybody but people like me”) as well as some regular snobbery (“Merchant Ivory films are powdered-wig costume dramas for middle-class faux intellectuals”). Actually, most Merchant Ivory films are about post-colonial India, not noted for its powdered wigs. Both attitudes are ignorant and tiresome.

A surprising number of people don’t read very carefully – to all those who asked if I understand how games are financed, read the article again. I said more than once that elite forms of entertainment have to be funded differently from their popular culture cousins. Oh, and to those who somehow concluded that I’m an art critic: My online bio says clearly that I’m a game designer. I’m about as qualified to be an art critic as I am to be an NFL linebacker.

One would have a hard time finding
a powdered wig in 1983's
The Courtesans of Bombay

Unfortunately, the reference to Merchant Ivory confused some readers, who thought I was asserting that games should be more like movies. I didn’t say that, however, and I’ve never believed it. For the last fifteen years I’ve been warning that games aren’t movies and that most filmmakers don’t understand interactivity. I was talking about the spirit that informs Merchant Ivory’s work, not the mechanics of the medium. In fact, I named several different kinds of entertainment that have elite forms: books, dance, music, and film. For the record, I’m not saying video games should be more like dance, either.

Several people pointed out that much of what we see as high culture achieved that status because it’s old. Longevity imbues a work of art with respectability regardless of its original purpose – and of course, time tends to weed out the inferior works. For every Mozart there are dozens of classical composers who went to their graves and are forgotten.

A great example of works acquiring highbrow status with time is Shakespeare. Shakespeare didn’t intentionally set out to be highbrow. He was brilliant at writing for all levels of society at once: swordfights and dirty jokes for the groundlings, family intrigue and plot twists for the bourgeoisie, and political satire delivered in iambic pentameter for the aristocrats. If that sounds horribly classist, tough, remember that it was a classist time. Part of his audience could read Latin, while another, larger part couldn’t read at all.

If age is the only source of highbrow status, however, we’re in real trouble. Video games don’t last. Their hardware becomes obsolete. We can write emulators, but what happens when the emulators themselves become obsolete? Are we prepared to keep porting emulators to newer and newer machines for the foreseeable future? And writing more and more new emulators, as new graphics boards, sound cards, and physics chips replace the old ones? Throw in digital rights management, which is intended to prevent anyone from ever enjoying a work of art if he didn’t buy it from the manufacturer, and games can count their lifespans in years, not decades or centuries. The manufacturers of many great games are now defunct.

Most interesting of all the mail were the many, many outraged retorts that we already have highbrow games, accompanied by suggested examples. The complete list is too long to print here, but it includes everything from the plausible (Myst, Balance of Power, Rez) to the laughably inappropriate (Wing Commander, the King’s Quest series). Let’s take a look at some of the nominations. Leaving aside a few oddballs (Majestic), they fell into several recognizable categories.

Highly realistic vehicle simulations. Examples here included Microsoft Flight Simulator and Falcon 4.0. My reply: not really. There’s a lot to be said for verisimilitude, but flying and driving, even in highly complex vehicles, aren’t what I think of as culturally elite activities.

Paradox Entertainment's Europa Universalis (2001)

Simulations on serious topics. In this category we have the Civ games, Balance of Power, Colonization, Democracy, SimCity, and so on. Most of Paradox’s games (Victoria, Hearts of Iron, Europa Universalis, etc.) also got mentioned. This is the sort of thing I mentioned myself in the earlier column; there are some good candidates here. They’re not about people much, but definitely about ideas.

Historical and contemporary war games, both at the strategic and the shooter level. Battlefield 1942, Call of Duty, “all the Tom Clancy shooters,” and the Total War series were proposed, as well as Jane’s Fleet Command and Harpoon. Both fiction and non-fiction about military history are popular with middle-aged men, and that market is certainly more grown up than the target audience of DOA Beach Volleyball. I would say: the strategy games possibly, most of the shooters no; they’re too unrealistic.

Games that were visually or thematically innovative. By far the most frequently mentioned games were Myst, ICO and Shadow of the Colossus. Other examples included Rez, American McGee’s Alice, the Oddworld series, Grim Fandango and Bad Mojo (a third-person crawler; you play the role of a cockroach). I’m all for more of this, no question. Whether or not an innovative game is highbrow depends partially on the extent to which it avoids clichés of the medium. ICO was beautiful, unusual, and moving, but it still involved an awful lot of running, climbing, and whacking things with a stick. Best examples: Myst and Rez.

Games with better stories than most. Shenmue, Deus Ex, Indigo Prophecy (called Fahrenheit in Europe) and Planescape: Torment came up several times. Unfortunately, “better stories than most other video games” is nowhere near good enough. Planescape: Torment is one of my favorite games of all time, a truly outstanding example of its type, but it ain’t gonna win the Nobel Prize for Literature. Other media have raised the bar on storytelling so high that it’s out of sight. We have a long way to go yet. (And, before anyone says it, no, I don’t believe interactivity precludes first-rate storytelling. It’s challenging, but not impossible.)

Sony Computer Entertainment's ICO (2001)

Adventure games and interactive fiction generally. Among the various suggestions were Dreamfall, Titanic: Adventure Out of Time, The Last Express, Phantasmagoria, and the entire Infocom catalog although some of them (Planetfall, Leather Goddesses of Phobos) clearly don’t belong. Interestingly, except for Grim Fandango, not a single LucasArts adventure game was nominated, probably because many of them are comedies.

We can boil this down to three characteristics that people seem to think makes a game a candidate for highbrow status, not all of them mutually compatible: serious and thorough simulations set in the present or the past, but generally avoiding fantasy and science fiction scenarios; aesthetic or thematic innovation; and an emphasis on story and character. Or, boiling it down again to one single quality they all share: These games are not easy and obvious – either to build or to play. They demand effort, attention, and an open mind. Some also require education or an aesthetic sensibility to fully appreciate.

That quality characterizes other elite media too. Shakespeare is highbrow now when he wasn’t back in 1600 because Elizabethan English is difficult to understand now and it wasn’t back then. Likewise, you’re not going to catch the unbelievable number of multilayered references in T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land unless you’ve read a lot of other things as well – and that means you’re educated. Complexity and depth make art forms highbrow. Placing demands on the audience’s mental energy does too. This suggests is that the real target audiences for highbrow games are:

The contemporary arts community, and other people with high aesthetic standards, whether for music, art, animation, story or gameplay. Are book-lovers and art-lovers a possible audience for highbrow video games? You bet they are. All we need is some video games that are, unmistakably and unashamedly, works of literature or art rather than popular culture. But they must not compromise. I’ve seen a few video games at art exhibitions in Europe, and I hope to see more.

Smart people, who enjoy using their minds when they play. These are the people who appreciate the serious simulations. If intelligence were the sole criterion, it would make all puzzle games highbrow; but they have to be aesthetically appealing or innovative as well.

Educated people, who find that their knowledge is a source of fun, and people who like to learn about new ideas. I don’t mean people with Ivy League degrees; they can be either formally-taught or self-taught. What matters is that they derive pleasure from knowing things and from finding their knowledge useful in an entertainment context. That’s why historical war games are candidates – people who know history get extra enjoyment from them. But we have to address a lot more subjects than war.

What highbrow interactive entertainment doesn’t mean, however, is:

Rich people. Rich people patronize elite art forms because doing so helps to maintain their social standing, and that in turn benefits the form by providing it with a constituency that’s too important to ignore. Rich people also spend a lot of money on expensive status symbols: cars, watches, designer clothes and accessories, hobbies like polo and yachting. But rich people aren’t an ideal audience for highbrow video games. Owning a private box at the opera house works as a status symbol because it costs a lot and people can see you there. Owning a video game doesn’t work as a status symbol any more than owning a DVD of a movie does. You can’t show it off to other people and feel cool about it.

If rich people have a role to play, it’s as potential donors (I won’t say investors) to the development in a highbrow game because they’re already interested in those kinds of things. Money doesn’t give you taste, but if you have money, you can certainly commission works that meet your tastes.

Cultural snobs. These people are a waste of space. We can debate whether opera is a more sophisticated form of entertainment than professional wrestling (the soap-opera “plots” of pro wrestling are at least as subtle as the plots of most operas, which isn’t saying much), but either way, I’m vigorously opposed to anybody who would try to prevent WWF fans from attending the opera if they want to. High culture needs more supporters, not fewer, and as long as it doesn’t have to sacrifice its integrity to get them, I say, let ’em all in! Elite does not have to mean exclusionary. Snobs are losers. They create nothing; they benefit no one.

So we’re getting somewhere. We have some potential customers, and a few games that are heading in the right direction, although I don’t think they’ve arrived yet. Most of the games people wrote to me about were nominated because they stand out from the common herd, but we can’t judge whether a game has achieved highbrow status by comparing it to earlier games.

The real question is, are there any games whose level of cultural acceptance as an elite form approaches that of other media – which means returning to the original question, where’s our Merchant Ivory? Can we make games, or rather, interactive entertainment experiences (the word game carries too much baggage) that receive that level of respect? I think we can, we should, and we will, provided the vision and courage are there.

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About the Author(s)

Ernest Adams


Ernest Adams is a freelance game designer, writer, and lecturer, and a member of the International Hobo game design consortium. He is the author of two books, Andrew Rollings and Ernest Adams on Game Design, with Andrew Rollings; and Break Into the Game Industry: How to Get a Job Making Video Games. Ernest was most recently employed as a lead designer at Bullfrog Productions, and for several years before that he was the audio/video producer on the Madden NFL Football product line. He has developed on-line, computer, and console games for everything from the IBM 360 mainframe to the Playstation 2. He was a founder of the International Game Developers' Association, and a frequent lecturer at the Game Developers' Conference. Ernest would be happy to receive E-mail about his columns at [email protected], and you may visit his professional web site at http://www.designersnotebook.com. The views in this column are strictly his own.

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