Interactive media artist Erik Loyer, perhaps most well known to academics as Creative Director of Vectors: Journal of Culture and Technology visited the University of California, Riverside earlier this week to give a talk titled “Stories as Instruments.”
Loyer explained his design philosophy that games should break free of the restrictions of plot-centric progression and character focused instrumentality (his recent innovative iPhone game Ruben and Lullaby is a particularly illustrative example of this trajectory). Loyer points to the genre of the musical as an important influence and model for new forms of storytelling in games. Musical arias feature characters that step just outside the world in moments of intense expression. Loyer analogized this as a blend of first and third person perspective. The singing character in the musical is locked into the narrative space contextually yet elaborating that context. The best games, according to Loyer, allow the player to assume this role: doing things as they should be done logically in the world but also knowing what one is doing.
In this way, the best moments in games happen when a player does what the developer wants them to do, without explicit narrative prompting, and does it in a way that fits within the context and expressive aims of the game. He cited an example of his own experience with the N64 classic Goldeneye where, after having just learned to use the sniper rifle, he was presented with a situation where he got to surreptitiously eliminate a few targets from afar in a building. The revelation was that he had done exactly what James Bond would have done and that’s what made it so exhilarating. He was simultaneously doing something and knowing what he was doing. He was character, fan, and player all in one.
Loyer’s central critique is of the obsessive push in game design toward large branching plot-driven stories centered on the freedom and autonomy of a character (think: Mass Effect) which often denigrate the Goldeneye experience. He argues that the focus should be on the potential for dynamic experiences of subjectivity, affect, and emotion rather than thousands of potential choices. Characters and stories should be considered the facilitators of these experiences not the ultimate focus or endgame as in plot-centric design.
I think this point is provocative and worth exploring. In both game design and theory, we are still affected by the nagging myths of cyberspatial freedom (or lack thereof) as well as neoliberalism and its interest in consumer empowerment. In terms of design, each new game or iteration needs to be bigger, more varied, and full of options for story, character, and customization. In terms of game theory, we study the oppressive logics of algorithmic technical objects and theorize methods of subversion and resistance such as cheating, performance, countergaming, and so on. The subtext to politically progressive game theory is often that games need to counteract these power problematics by being as open as possible.
But what about embracing limitation, restriction, and prescriptive design?
Why not create games that box in the player and why not study how restriction can be productive?
Design can constrain space in order to open up new modes of perception and attention as well as expose the illusory nature of freedom in all games – even those marketed as boundless (GTA anyone?). By directly confronting the inherent logics of control, by bringing them into stark relief, we can perhaps finally move past the reductive myths of liberation and empowerment that mischaracterize interactions with digital media and network technology and provide potentially illusory resistant formulations.