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November 30, 2005

And the Winner for this year's Nobel Prize in the Interactive Experience Is...


The Double Blindness The Cave

If you've been paying attention to what I've been reading over the last several months, you might have noticed José Saramago's name come up a few times, and if you have not been paying attention, I feel certain that at some point, you will come to your senses. In any case, I first read All the Names towards the beginning of the year and have been steadily making my way through the rest of his œuvre¹.

It's amazing how well set apart Nobel literature often is. When I began reading All the Names I was unaware of Saramago's status as a Nobel laureate, but while reading it I knew immediately how important it was, how strikingly original it was, how it spoke to the human condition. I knew within the first twenty or thirty pages that I would be systematically tracking down everything he had written, and would consider learning Portugese if any of it turned out to be unavailable in English. It's that powerful to me; his novels are written in a style which lulls me into the rhythms of his particular story, jocularly told by an avuncular omniscient narrator, and just when I'm least on my guard, he'll sneak in some bit of wisdom, such as this piercing line from Blindness, delivered just after the narrator has led you to a room where two people are making love:

Even if this instant of supreme pleasure should last you a lifetime, you will never become united as one.

That sentence snuck up on me, as I played the voyeur, following a character who was herself a voyeur, and delivered a statement of a fundamental loneliness inherent in the human condition in a way that I had never experienced before. Even at our most vulnerable, if our whole lives are spent extending a moment of connection, we will never fully break out and connect the darknesses inside our separate skins.

There are a number of other authors on the list who have that power. I spent a lot of time reading Solzhenitsyn, for example, back in the last couple of years of high school. Camus exerts that kind of influence over me, or at least he did, back when I was still capable of reading him in French. Steinbeck, Coetzee, and Marquez are all compelling to me. And there are a number of authors on that list who are on my reading list² that I will get to one of these days, such as Halldór Laxness, Naguib Mahfouz, and Kenzaburo Oe.

I won't claim that everything on the list has aged well. I don't think Pearl S. Buck has, particularly, and though I enjoy Kipling, he doesn't pull me in like the winners I mention above³. Tastes change.

In reading these novels and considering the impact they have on me, the way that they change my point of view on the human condition, I wonder if there will come a time in our art form's growth where we will actually be able to have an honest debate about which of the games of the previous year "have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind," in the words of Nobel's will, which established the funding for the Prize in 1895.

Setting aside the likelihood of such a Prize ever being conferred4, achieving any significant benefit to mankind via a game is quite a lofty goal, especially when you consider that the means of measurement for our closest kin amongst the Nobel categories (i.e. the novel) has typically been of increased understanding of the human condition.

Like Ron Gilbert did in a recent post, I often wonder what kind of game it will take to make me stop and think about life in the way that Saramago does. Something that gets in my head for a few days, and won't let go; something that makes me look at something in a new light.

I entirely think games will be able to do this. And, in fact, I think some designers actually have a message that they want to send, or an idea they want you to think about. Will Wright, for example, talked frequently about the motivation behind The Sims: the fact that of all the resources that we might have at our disposal, the one we need to be most conscious of is often time.

It's really cool to consider a game making you think about that, much like Blindness or All the Names makes me think about loneliness, or The Double causes me to reconsider what comprises our identity, what boundary really defines us given our social structures (among other things).

The thing is, though, I would not have taken that away from The Sims were I not made aware of Wright's idea by being a conscentious reader of various sites and magazines devoted to videogames. In other words, I know that's what Wright was getting at only because he mentioned it in an interview somewhere. Whereas just reading these books causes me to stop and think; indeed, they often cause me to full stop and find a piece of paper to jot down the page number so I can later return and copy out a quote wholesale, such as the one above chosen for brevity.

I suppose it's entirely possible that I am simply not literate enough when it comes to games; I'm willing to entertain the possibility. After all, Wright describes something akin to a vision, and I can see that as something that one could take away from the product. But there's never a point where I'm going to be looking at the game saying, "Hey, I just realized that the one resource I can't create more of for my Sim is time," and I am equally unlikely to apply that moment of meaning to my own life. That said, this is true of any high school student who has ever browsed some Cliff's Notes to get the underlying ideas behind Hemingway, or Faulkner, or any of a number of literary authors we're exposed to early on. At that point, you simply haven't the reading experience to draw that out of the books you read.

But really, to get a lot out of a Nobel laureate requires more than book knowledge, in many cases. It relates a lot to experience; I would not be drawing what I have from Saramago's work this year if not for the life experiences I have been having away from the books. I feel like I have sufficient wisdom to pull a message from a videogame, and probably enough gaming experience to cover the literacy argument as well. I'm left thinking that we simply haven't found our ways to make lasting and meaningful statements, statements which "[confer] the greatest benefit on mankind."

We will, though. We'll have to. Otherwise, we're likely to collapse under our own weight. Having something definite to say will be the strongest defense we can make against those who would lock us away or treat us forever as kid stuff.


Join me on Saturday or so when I'll chat a bit about prostitution as I've seen it represented in a few different ways in different media.



¹Admittedly, this is just an opportunity to throw in the word œuvre. Well, not entirely. It's also an opportunity to use a ligature. I tried to find a natural way to work in Æsop as well, but it was beyond my abilities -- it just has to reside here in the footnote, I guess. (back)
²Lamentably, my reading list is already of a length which might take me the rest of my lifetime to read. On the other hand, I will never lack for anything to read. (back)
³I admit, I was thinking of throwing in the name of Selma Lagerlöf to see if anyone was paying attention. There are a fair number of early winners I've never even heard of; Lagerlöf is definitely one of them. (back)
4It should be noted that the Nobel Prize categories are not fixed, though they may seem to be. The Prize for Economics was endowed in 1968 by the Bank of Sweden. (back)

Posted by Brett Douville at 12:20 AM | Comments (4)

November 25, 2005

Transmission

Year of Wonders

A few months back I finished listening to Year of Wonders, by Geraldine Brooks. It's a novel about the Plague, the capital-P Plague that had eliminated a large portion of Europe in the Middle Ages, though this book isn't about that particular breakout of the plague¹. This book is about Bubonic Plague striking a small village, which decides to quarantine itself to prevent transmission to others. It's extraordinary in part because it is inspired by real events: there was a real village in England which undertook similar steps to halt the spread of infection. Though they knew little about the vector of the illness, they knew that fleeing in large numbers would only increase the suffering of others, and they took it upon themselves to prevent anyone from entering or leaving once the plague was identified.

It's really interesting, as a modern reader familiar with the basics of the transmission of this particular epidemic², to watch that play out in fiction. There is the visitor, an itinerant tailor, who comes from London and takes a room in the home of a local widow. There's the dead animal found by a couple of children -- who themselves take sick. There is the minister who brings them all together in prayer, perhaps causing more rapid transmission, but who compels them to quarantine the village, and thereby save countless others.

I think there's an interesting game or two in there, if you can get past the squeamishness. There's something thrilling about the discovery of a new type of disease, of the steps taken in identifying and isolating it, in tracking down the vectors of transmission -- it's why books like The Hot Zone or And the Band Played On³ or The Coming Plague find wide readerships. So, a game in which you are tracking down viral or bacterial vectors sounds like it'd be pretty cool.

The flip side seems even more interesting, though. I can imagine a game in which you're scored on how well you can tailor a disease vector to the characteristics of a disease and population. The Plague spread like wildfire because it was unleashed on a population with poor hygiene, inadequate sewage treatment, and an enormous rat problem; finding the right analogue in a particular population seems like an interesting sort of challenge, sort of a Sim-Plague. Such a game could even have a real-world benefit; designing diseases and vectors is a practical intellectual exercise for someone about to start work as an epidemiologist with the World Health Organization or the Centers for Disease Control.4

I can't post this without at least mentioning a couple of the most interesting in-game diseases.

In 2000, players of The Sims who installed a guinea pig in its cage discovered a strange feature: if you didn't clean the pet's cage before you played with it, your Sim might get bitten and ultimately die of "Guinea Pig Disease", although there were in-game mechanisms to avoid that fate. It was a little bit too much for some players, however, who were devastated to see Sims who had been lovingly nurtured for hours and hours catch colds and die, often spreading the "virus" to other Sims.

More recent and in many ways more interesting was the recent World of Warcraft Corrupted Blood epidemic. While The Sims' guinea pig disease was directly engineered to have exactly the effects it did, the Corrupted Blood plague was a side-effect of existing game systems, just like a real epidemic. In this case, the disease was a highly effective damage-over-time effect which was usually quickly fatal to those who contracted it from a high-level monster. However, strong players with enough health potions could use hearthstones to return themselves quickly to cities and spread the disease quickly to a dense network of players and NPCs, making it a virtual disease well-tailored to its hosts. If that's not a case of art imitating life, I'm not sure what else qualifies.



See you all next Tuesday for a little treatise on games and awards.




¹Though, if you're looking for a novel about that particular incident, I can wholeheartedly recommend Connie Willis' The Doomsday Book, which received both the Hugo and the Nebula in the year in which it appeared, if I remember correctly. (back)
²Fleas, borne primarily by rats, but which then crossed over to other animals and eventually, to the human population. (back)
³Admittedly, this one covered a lot about the politics as well... (back)
4 I admit to already having some ideas here which might be a little too twisted for a public already thinking there's something wrong with us violent gamers. I can imagine detecting a particular level of efficacy on the part of the player and rewarding him with newspaper headlines, news reports, etc. On the other hand, I can also imagine such a game making a statement, perhaps playing out some of the political scenarios which accompanied real-world epidemics like HIV, which was not the Reagan administration's finest hour, if it had one. (back)

Posted by Brett Douville at 10:30 PM | Comments (0)

November 21, 2005

The Source of Inspiration

Finding Neverland

I'm always rather interested in the source of inspiration, whether it be for films, books, or games, or really any creative endeavor. Finding Neverland explores the relationship between author J. M. Barrie and a widow and her sons. The film excellently portrays the invention of Peter Pan, attempting to visually capture the genesis of an idea, directly overlaying fantasy and reality using techniques similar to Big Fish, or a Terry Gilliam film. We see Barrie enjoying himself amongst children and feeling uncomfortable around adults (most notably, his wife), and we come to feel someone who seems out of touch with society's mores, while at the same time knowing that this same man will produce a work that has touched the lives of millions and millions over the last hundred or so years. We watch him watching boys jump about on their beds having a pillow fight, and see him make the leap to them being transported in flight. He portrays a pirate and they defeat him. And in these things we see the birth of a story we all know and love.

Learning about such sources of inspiration is wonderfully compelling to me, whether dramatized as in Neverland or in reality. I was similarly touched by seeing a feature on the Spirited Away disk which revealed the origin of the cleansing of the river spirit as a real event in Miyazaki's life. Apparently, Miyazaki and some neighbors had spent a Saturday cleaning the river near where they lived, including removing a rusted old bicycle from the muck, an object which appears from the muck-encrusted body of the river spirit in the film. It's a tender moment which is even further enriched by our knowledge of how it came to be; we share, for a moment, the eyes and mind of Miyazaki. Watching this scene is now enriched for me by an understanding of how it came to be -- I suspect I won't soon see another production of Peter Pan, but you can be assured that when I next view it I will be thinking about how such scenes came to be.

I feel the same way on learning a little bit about the genesis of Mario¹. Simple idea -- how about a guy who jumps around, against a background like the sky? But he's too big, so how about we shrink him, oh, and what if he could get big again? Talk about your happy accidents. From a simple idea and a very few fundamental mechanics a great game is born, and an industry is relaunched.

Sometimes the source of inspiration is pretty damned obvious... and you wish you had thought of it first. I've been playing a fair amount of Guitar Hero the last week or so, and the inspiration is so clearly that moment where you first rocked out on your air guitar. They took that great feeling, made a simple game of skill, and suddenly, a game where you come away feeling like a performer is born². Terrific stuff.

More commonly, I suspect, other games are the sources of our inspiration. I know that was the case of the Star Wars games I worked on for years. With Starfighter, we started off wanting to create a sim along the lines of TIE Fighter, and having seen Rogue Squadron and decided to switch to consoles, we tried to steer a more middle ground. Republic Commando was born from a tense few hours of playing Ghost Recon cooperatively, and wanting to achieve that same feel from a single-player game. Most of what we see on the shelves falls into this paradigm. I think it's a persuasive argument for designers to get out and do things other than playing games.

Sometimes, though, it's still just a bolt from the blue, whether it's a story or a game or a movie. Keita Takahashi, the man behind Katamari Damacy and its recent sequel³, describes the moment of inspiration as something "I just basically came up with". Ah, well, sometimes inspiration is too great to be tracked down.

Anyone out there care to share the inspirations for what they've done, or perhaps point me in the direction of some other great quotes? I love this stuff.

Well, join me next time for some discussion of disease transmission, sparked by Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks. It should be up around Friday.




¹Full disclosure: Super Mario Bros. is one of those games I see played again and again -- by my sons, so it's often on my mind though I rarely get a chance to play it any more. And, of course, I'm a self-admitted Nintendo fanboy. I'd say self-confessed, but that would suggest I feel some sort of shame... (back)
²I'll come back to Guitar Hero in the not too distant future. (back)
³Both soon to be on my playlist... (back)


Posted by Brett Douville at 11:16 PM | Comments (4)

November 19, 2005

Administrivia

So, a few things.

1. Sorry for being absent for a while. Some personal business intervened.

2. Welcome to any Blogged Out readers who've come here. I've made the Blogged Out roll a few times now, it's always nice to be noticed (and read). Comment away, please, I'd love to hear your thoughts on current or past items.

3. Slight blog changes: I've removed the "Upcoming" area on the sidebar since it has swelled the size of the sidebar by 9KB¹ and ceased to be all that useful, even for me. The idea was to keep track of what I might post about next, based on what I've been reading, watching, or playing, but it had gotten so long that I doubt anyone was scrolling to the bottom anymore.

In future, I'll simply indicate what my next post is likely to be about, and you can still take a gander at what I'm reading, watching, and playing. Feel free to drop me a line at brett {at} brettdouville {dot} com if you care to discuss, digress, or discourse.

Upcoming article: On the sources of inspiration, spurred by a recent viewing of Finding Neverland and some other tidbits around the 'net. Likely to be posted in the next couple of days.





¹Which isn't so bad, except that it's part of every page on the site, and with all the comment-spam-crawling I seem to be getting these days, I suspect it was adding significantly to the amount of bandwidth I was consuming -- which I'll be paying for if it goes too high. Not enough for me to worry about it, but enough that small measures are probably worth taking.

Posted by Brett Douville at 12:53 PM | Comments (0)