Opinion: Wrapping Up 'Merchant Ivory' Controversy

Following two notable rounds of feedback, Gamasutra presents the final set of missives regarding the
The recent 'Designer's Notebook' column by Ernest Adams named 'Where's Our Merchant Ivory?' has already attracted two notable rounds of feedback from Gamasutra readers, with game professionals querying the fact that "we don’t have any highbrow games". We now present the final set of letters sent to us on the subject, all viewable at Gamasutra's Letter To The Editor page, and continuing some of the fascinating conversation on the subject. Charles Duffy starts things off by suggesting: "With regard to the article asking "Where's Our Merchant Ivory?", I'd like to point the author in the direction of the longstanding but still-active interactive fiction community. Purely text-based games such as Varicella, Blue Chairs and Photopia -- produced as entries for an annual contest awarding excellence in such areas as storyline, quality of writing and best use of the medium (occasionally in such a way as to tell stories which could not be effectively conveyed otherwise) -- demonstrate that there *are* still quality games being produced today with an eye towards artistic excellence rather than mass market appeal. Twenty years ago, games of this variety were written with a large general audience (and the economic return to be had by selling to this audience) in mind. More recently, however, they are generally created for artistic reasons -- and the quality of today's best IF reflects such in being far superior to that which was typical of the commercially created interactive fiction common in the '80s." Following on, James Belcher adds, in part: "Although some of Adams' phrasing leaves something to be desired in his call for "Merchant Ivory" games ("Let's make highbrow games!" is hardly a rallying cry), he has a point. Games are a product of their designers and developers, lots of whom are enamored of things that go boom. The games Adams describes will come from people with a knowledge of the humanities, and will require more than just a degree in game design. They won't, however, have to do everything all at once, with painterly scenes set to classical music straining against enobling themes and action. Video games aren't movies, and using them as the model is limiting." David Talbert tries to define suitable existing 'highbrow' games, suggesting: "The closest that I've ever gotten is Grim Fandango, but there are so few games on that level, however, that the entire field is viewed as variations on Halo. Even the 'great' games like Deus Ex and Baldurs Gate II (probably my two favorite games of all time) don't even begin to approach the level of literary art. No one could think that Dostoyevsky and BG2 have anything significant in common; even Neuromancer and DX are worlds apart. Suggesting that the Final Fantasy series is great game art shows a deficit of exposure to real literary art. Visually rich does not equal philosophically or intellectually significant." Finally, Stephan Pennington weighs in with some particularly interesting arguments: "The argument that I'd rather make is that the tyranny of high art is faltering. Many academics, the defenders of canon and high art, have long been noticing that elite arts are fast losing cultural capital. Musicologist Prof. Robert Fink discussed the issue in terms of the death of classical music in his influential article "Elvis Everywhere." But the curious death of old forms of elite art have been talked about in great detail by many. Even the academy is beginning to shift. Disciplines that never would have 30 years ago are now including popular culture in their courses: from the serious study of TV, popular music, burlesque, social dance, you name it. Trying to create Merchant Ivory games would put us on the wrong side of a larger cultural movement away from old aristocratic cultural forms and towards more populist fare." Further replies not excerpted here can be viewed at the Letter From The Editor page on Gamasutra, and we've now concluded reprinting letters here, though we will endeavor to publish follow-ups directly on the Letter To The Editor page. In addition, apologies and thanks to those who submitted letters which we were not able to edit and publish, and thanks to all for contributing to the debate on what was likely the most-discussed Gamasutra article of the year thus far.

Latest Jobs


Hybrid, Cambridge, MA or Chicago, IL
Quality Assurance Lead

Bladework games

Remote (United States)
Senior Gameplay Engineer

High Fidelity, Inc.

Game Interaction Designer

Fred Rogers Productions

Hybrid (424 South 27th Street, Pittsburgh, PA, USA
Producer - Games & Websites
More Jobs   


Explore the
Advertise with
Follow us

Game Developer Job Board

Game Developer


Explore the

Game Developer Job Board

Browse open positions across the game industry or recruit new talent for your studio

Advertise with

Game Developer

Engage game professionals and drive sales using an array of Game Developer media solutions to meet your objectives.

Learn More
Follow us


Follow us @gamedevdotcom to stay up-to-date with the latest news & insider information about events & more