Video Game Design and Improv

Discussion of the art and craft of improvisation.

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Video Game Design and Improv

Postby samples » March 17th, 2011, 12:21 pm

Hi Austinites! I'm from Chicago (and Minneapolis before that). I've met some of you and been down a couple times to great personal pleasure. You guys are super smart and tech savvy, so I turn to you as folks that will be better able to elucidate than I.

Have any of you read/heard Brian Moriarty's "An Apology for Roger Ebert" delivered at GDC? (I would post a link, but I'm new so I can't. Use Google. Also Google Emily Short's commentary on it.)

I feel like you could replace "video games" with "improv" and a lot of the same arguments can be made. Does that seem reasonable? Is it valid to ask the question, "Can improv be sublime art?"

More broadly, I'm finding the idea of ludology incredibly applicable to improv, but I can't quite explain what the relationship is. Anyone with more experience in video game design and improv wonkery care to take a stab at explaining why I feel that way?
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Re: Video Game Design and Improv

Postby Rev. Jordan T. Maxwell » March 17th, 2011, 1:10 pm

samples wrote:I feel like you could replace "video games" with "improv" and a lot of the same arguments can be made. Does that seem reasonable? Is it valid to ask the question, "Can improv be sublime art?"


it would only be invalid to ask the question in that the question shouldn't HAVE to be asked. ;) of course improv can be sublime art, just as any artistic medium can be. i think the burden should be far more on those who would dismiss an entire medium, regardless of its content, than those who create and appreciate the art itself.
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Postby LuBu McJohnson » March 17th, 2011, 1:26 pm

Brian Moriarty is awesome. "Who Buried Paul" is a wonderful presentation on game design that I cannot find ANYWHERE! Boo Hoo.

EDIT: Oop! Just found it. Guess I needed to be more motivated?
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Postby Spots » March 17th, 2011, 2:21 pm

I would argue that the main semantic problem is that "Fine Art" is itself an illusion perpetuated by a faux aristocracy.

As soon as you take the concept of "art" beyond the individual (by adding market value or published criticisms etc) it doesn't stop being art but it does lose the most important essence I feel art should strive for: personal meaning.

This is why ambiguous subjects are usually seen to have more artistic merit. More folks find their own subjective meaning behind it. And then they tend to bicker to each other about it. Which is what every good artist seems to want. (see: Nolan brothers)

If I pick up a piece of driftwood off the beach, it has personal meaning to me. If I decide to put that same piece of wood in a gallery, I'm hoping that personal meaning will rub off onto others. Or they will find new meaning on their own. Likewise if I put a urinal up for auction as a piece of fine art, I am selling more than the urinal... I am selling the meaning behind it. (which is a fucked up thing to sell, IMO)

A video game can definitely be art on the most important level, which is the personal level. Improv most certainly can be experienced as art as well. In fact, I experience that sensation on a weekly basis.

It's when you start valuing "personal art" that it gets all screwy. So the easiest thing to do is.... don't. There are plenty of people like Roger Ebert (an art critic) who are ruining art everyday by trying to add faux value to begin with. Remember, critics are people who take their own personal meaning and attempt to project it onto the masses. This can be a noble effort but to me it means virtually nothing. Mike F and I recently attended a panel where a critic expounded his own misintrepration of a play right in front of the playwright who wrote it. She corrected him briefly but he ignored her & kept misinterpreting to his heart's content because he was so caught up with himself and his own fancy. Certainly artists like to get attention. People like to feel like they are a part of something. But in general terms "art" becomes obscured the less subjective it gets.

Just stick with your own personal sense of meaning for everything and life will be peachy.
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Re: Video Game Design and Improv

Postby Marc Majcher » March 17th, 2011, 3:27 pm

samples wrote:Have any of you read/heard Brian Moriarty's "An Apology for Roger Ebert" delivered at GDC?

Link, for the lazy.

Lots of good words in there, many of which I disagree with. Jesse hits many of my thoughts pretty well, so I'll zip it for now.
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Postby Rev. Jordan T. Maxwell » March 17th, 2011, 3:30 pm

i've got no problem making a distinction between art of a certain level of distinction and sophistication ("fine" or "sublime" art) and art that's a bit cruder in construction and aimed at appealing to a broader audience...but i agree that placing a stigma on either one in terms of inherent quality is bad, as is assuming there's no overlap between the two. heck, Shakespeare had cross dressing, sword fights and dick jokes. ;) likewise, no medium or genre should be assumed to have little/no/low artistic merit in and of itself. especially improv, whose roots are so firmly entwined with so many classical theatrical traditions and artistic techniques.

(oddly, i was having this same discussion about comic books last weekend...)
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Postby Spots » March 17th, 2011, 4:37 pm

Today I've been giggling to myself about an image this thread conjured in my head:

The Artist unloads his most meaningful exhibit at the art house. He's literally been laboring away for years in isolation. There's sweat on his brow as he dollies the piece up to the curb and turns it over to the handlers.

The auction begins and the host briefly prefaces with his own interpretation of the peice, he explains the artist's important place in the world. But the artist nervously sits in the foyer unable to watch the auction because he feels exposed and vulnerable. People are always picking at him about his pieces but nobody would ever understand the personal strife & torment the pieces echo about his personal life. Nobody would understand the delusions, triumphs, & failures the piece actually represents. At the end of the day the highest bidder is a hip hop artist named Wayne Dawg. In the lobby, he is interviewed by a magazine columnist. The art columnist feigns interest when Wayne Dawg reveals that he purchased the piece because MTV's Cribs scheduled a video shoot for the following week and in his own words he wanted "to get some art up in this bitch."


It's a preexisting cliche but I've been giggling about it ever since I read the "Apology" transcription. Fuck organized art.
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Postby Rev. Jordan T. Maxwell » March 17th, 2011, 4:56 pm

that should totally be the new AIC motto:

"Get some improv up in this bitch."
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Postby Spots » March 17th, 2011, 5:21 pm

JTM: :)



Samples: I would love to talk about video games. You just introduced me to the term "ludology" (the science & study of games) and I'm finding my past experiences of game design are resurfacing. My design experience is fairly unique so I'd better start a tangent thread about my weird revelations (mostly about what is possible). I'd be surprised if the feelings you've been having about improv & games are similar to mine. The only person I've really discussed those ideas with are Marc. Maybe he, Jordan, yourself, and others will join the convo.
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Postby samples » March 18th, 2011, 10:14 am

Hmm...

I think you make very credible arguments against "Fine Art" (using the definition art + market and/or societal value), but I don't think that's the definition or terminology Moriarty is using. In fact, I think he's actively striving to define capital A art (Art) as something that can be removed from those factors and still be Art. That's why he goes to such lengths to define it as "Sublime Art". And highlights the fact that Ebert doesn't think most things are Art.

And that's where I think he makes a really interesting argument. Wildly reformulating him paraphrasing Schopenhauer (and leaning a little on hazy recollections of Kant), the Sublime is anything that makes you aware of your small small role in the large large universe. It's the discovery of universal truths, ideals. And according to his interpretation, a necessary component of the Sublime is that it is unyielding and unchanging. In its permanence, it reveals your impermanence. You look at this unchanging thing and you become aware that your reactions to it are changing over time, and it makes you aware that YOU are what's changing, that you are the fickle element. And that awareness allows you to momentarily transcend those bounds and contemplate the vast unfickleness.

At least that's my take on his take on his take. From there, Sublime Art is interpreted to be anything that forces you to be an observer of your own position in the universe without the recourse (to attempt) to change it. The statue of David can't be changed while you are observing it. A completed film can't be changed while you are observing it. But a video game IS changed while you are observing it, constantly, and you are the one changing it. And I think that applies to improv scenes, because the audience is always a participant in the creation of the piece. Heisenberg-style, their observation changes the observed. And so it never forces them to become aware of their own changes.

So I'll agree that anything can be "Fine Art". And I agree and believe that improv IS art. But I'm starting to wonder if it can be Sublime Art. Emily Short has an interesting response to Moriarty's argument, but I can't post it until I finish this post and wait till tomorrow.
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Postby Rev. Jordan T. Maxwell » March 18th, 2011, 10:51 am

eh, that starts to reek of Modernism a bit too much, art existing as permanent fixed object of purely aesthetic value. to me, art exists in the space between the creator's (or creators') intent and the audience's interpretation (which is why the method of communication is called a medium. ;) ). the piece itself does not exist as a fixed and static object so much as a channel to communication. the changing response and interpretation reflects, to my mind, not my own fickleness or impermanence but the transcendence of the art itself. it can stand forever and speak to people throughout the ages, like a sculpture or novel, or exist as a fleeting moment of temporal creation never to be experienced again, like improv or dance. and everything in between (Shakespeare's plays in written form will exist as they are for ages...but different directors and casts can read and interpret them a number of ways, and two audiences on separate nights with the same production will still see two unique performances).

but i also just can't stand Kant. ;)
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Postby arthursimone » March 18th, 2011, 11:28 am

I'll go on record saying Andy Goldsworthy is the most important artist of our time.

I'm not really into gaming and am inclined to believe that true transience is impossible in that medium, though I'm willing to try and connect the dots for you. You ever read any Suzi Gablik?
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Postby Spots » March 18th, 2011, 3:10 pm

samples wrote:a completed film can't be changed while you are observing it. But a video game IS changed while you are observing it, constantly, and you are the one changing it.



I think this is one reason to be pissed at George Lucas. He keeps editing his own film 30-40 years after its creation. There is no definite shape and form to Star Wars. There is nothing sublime about it, as you say, so long as visual effects artists are continuing to paint in creatures for the Blu Ray version.

Overall, this sublime thing-- this sensation... I share it with you. But it is still very much an illusion. You may not have those experiences while playing a video game but I do.

The best example I can give you will seem trivial. But imagine a single pedestrian in GTA 4. Imagine following him down the sidewalk. Imagine following him for an hour or two and just observing him. He reflects something about our culture. He walks a certain way, he's dressed a certain way. He reacts a certain way. You will find yourself making judgments about this fictional person. Maybe he'll bump into someone & not apologize. He'll just keep walking. These are all reflections of our society captured by an artist. Yes, his facial features & clothes may be randomly generated. Perhaps you will never be able to find this stranger again on these city streets... perhaps you won't be able to compare your opinions and feelings toward him tomorrow. Because you'll never see him again. AH HA!! "Maybe I will never see this person again." Strange, this is not a real person.... yet I find myself wondering about his home, his wife, his kids. I wonder if I will ever see him again. I've just had the exact same sensation I might have while people-watching on the subway. "Where does he go when he's not on this train? What is he all about?"

Now that is a sublime experience. You might judge me for it, but perhaps I've had more sublime thoughts and feelings about this NPC than I've ever had about the Mona Lisa. (true.) And even greater, you can act on impulse in a video game. You can get off the train when he does without concern. You explore that sublime sensation to a point of absurdity.

Have you never wondered what you would look like on that street next to him? Have you never wished you could interact with him in other ways than just shooting him? There is something tremendous behind the art. The retelling of the city of New York through the eyes of a team of artists. Sure. The point is to shoot and maim people. But in an open city game like GTA4, that is actually a choice you can ignore. My friend Charles (while playing) always obeyed traffic laws and stayed under the speed limit. Seriously, he would stop at red lights. Can you believe that? He would just walk around the city aimlessly. Looking at the level of detail. And then looking again.

Sure, I'll agree. A game as a whole may never be art in one sense. But there are certainly sublime experiences within these games. I can't wait until the market begins to demand games that are less and less about violence. I played tons of games like Myst, Loom, and Monkey Island when I was a kid. And as the level of detail increases there are more sublime experiences within the game to be had. Let's not forget that a player can visit an art gallery or a movie theater INSIDE the game itself.


It's a qualitative argument. Next time you seek a sublime experience in a game, remove your sense of self from the game. Be a voyeur. Stand still. Focus on a single subject. When you focus on a single detail, the experience hardly varies from experiencing a piece of Art. Afterall, you may experience a sublime sensation from a brush stroke or from the way the man in the painting is standing... but the artist may admit that such details were the result of random chance.
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Postby Rev. Jordan T. Maxwell » March 18th, 2011, 4:35 pm

i can forgive Lucas and other directors who go back to tweak or fix things in their films (Spielberg, Scott) since it's their vision/creation...it's just the fact that so many of the choices he made were (subjectively) lame and unnecessary. so long as the originals still exist in some form and can be appreciated, i have no problem at all with creators revising their work. just usually the revisions themselves. ;)
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Postby Spots » March 19th, 2011, 3:30 pm

I honestly don't know the answer to this question... but in what form do the originals exist? VHS tape?

All I know is that my 5 year old nephew is a huge Star Wars fan & he and I have never watched the original original films together. I personally find the relationships lacking in any of the films, one critique being that in Empire Strikes Back the most developed relationship is between Han Solo & C3PO. As in the filmmaker reinvests into their dynamic throughout the course of the film. Most other relationships appear to be taken for granted as they aimlessly bounce around the galaxy from one weak plot point to the next.
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