Rob Sherman is a writer, designer of interactive fiction games and currently writer-in-residence at the British Library. He believes that the full expressive potential for games is yet to be explored.1
In this post I present some of Sherman’s ideas, and comment on them. I also reflect on the fundamental differences between his views and my own research.
I found out about Sherman’s work recently, through his interesting article I Did A Thing On A Hill: On Meaning And Purpose In Games (RPS, Nov 2014).
The article is centered around his web game The Black Crown Project (Random House, 2013-2014), described by the author as a “rather excessive, microbial, non-epic, cough-em-up, text adventure shenanigan”. But the article also deals with the more general discussions about games, narrative and the expressive possibilities of digital media.2
The origin of Black Crown is a previous non-digital project, which consists of a non-linear narrative experience that unfolds as the reader/viewer examines several objects, including a notebook, stored inside a mysterious red suitcase.
That format, of course, translated perfectly to digital media.
In other media, we have been conditioned to look for story on the next page, the following sheet, the next frame of animation or next byte of data. In games, in game art, we are engaging with a system, and such systems, and our ergodic traversal of them, is part of the vagary, the beauty, the wild beauty, of the medium.
But this systemic approach is not without its own set of problems.
Digital Media: Beyond Fun & Games
Sherman believes that games are still a limited manifestation of the expressive potential of digital media. In part this is due to the emphasis that games have on providing “fun” (or/and “challenge”, I would add).
Fun is a tyranny. If we believe that this new artform of ours can achieve its potential, that we can instil meaning and myriad interpretation by allowing our audience to actually alter the physical reality of the art itself, then I believe that ‘fun’ is only one, now-rather-tired genre of experience that we should be aiming for. We need to believe in the power of mechanics and of medium, and use ours in a way that is unique (…)
[G]aming’s reactive dogma (…) is a mixture of rebellion and defeat, which fights against the narratives of old media by stating that story is a mere luxury to games, peripheral to the main experience of ‘fun’, and yet which at the same time seeks those stories out, importing them from other mediums without understanding what made them work in those mediums in the first place.
A game is not a film, or a novel. It has its own tools, its own devices.3
I can’t help to think, though, that if “games” is indeed such a limiting concept, why insist on relating all digital (procedural/interactive) experiences to it?4
Nanny Em: The Game
As a way to discuss and argument about the unique potential of games as an expressive medium, Sherman describes an idea he had for a game based on his lonely grandmother, Nanny Em.
In my game, for no reason other than a strange turn of my brain, the player would become Nanny Em. [D]ue to her age (…) and lack of mobility, she would rarely leave the flat, and the players, I hope, would understand this limitation implicitly. What also might be quickly established would be the entire absence of win conditions. Nan’s life is nearly done, her biggest decisions long ago. We rarely see her like in games, or stories at all, for that matter.
[T]here would always be a central pool of tasks which need completing, little quotidian comforts which, at first, might take on the characteristics of some of our more traditional games. Nan would need to make sure all the fish in the fishtank get fed; (…) Things would always need putting away, washing up, and there would always be people, as small as currants, to spy on out of the window. Each of these, in Em’s mind and the players, could be fun, objective, strategic, economic, and could employ current paradigms if we needed them. A sort of HUD. A health bar. A targeting reticule.
Some aspects of Sherman’s game idea reminded me of The Graveyard (Tale of Tales, 2008), which features an elderly woman strolling through a graveyard.
Sherman’s description goes on to elaborate on how his idea is not for a game in the traditional sense.
But this everyday life, I could bring them to understand, would only be the surface of what it is be Em. Only what they, or I, might see if we were to visit the flat of any similar pensioner and spend too little time with them; the pathos, the inhuman isolation, the mixture of guilt and disgust.
While we should not discard these feelings, real feelings, with utility and truth to them, Em has not always been alone. She has not always been old and lip-smacking and deficient. And once players begin to explore, to use their authority and curiosity to move past this single ‘vision’ of a life simulated, they might find all sorts of things they were not expecting.
Some players might find Em’s love letters, hidden here and there, under cans of soup and heating bills.
Some players might look in her address book, and call the meals-on-wheels boy, who looks just like her late husband. Perhaps they were rude to him, the last time he came, just because the option was there for them to try. Perhaps he will never come again. What might happen if he did?
Perhaps, with time and perseverance and an empathy for those varicose veins, drapery legs and shaking hands, they might be able to leave the flat, go to shops, see a sliver of the city in which Em lives. Her exploration of it, and thus the creative burden on me, the designer, would be restricted by her disabilities, and so in the small radius of existence which has shrunk to become her life I could build in such richness.
Some players might throw her out the window. This does not make me sad to think about.
Some players might discover that they can have conversations with the man on the television, the one always droning on about wars and benefits cuts.
I consider the following part to be particularly interesting, because it describes a more radical (or extreme) perspective on the potential of digital media. A perspective based almost solely on systems, instead of the more hybrid format that characterizes the genre of interactive fiction, in which Sherman’s work is situated.
Some players might take things into their own hands, carve out realities and truths that I did not account for. They might use the game’s physics engines to arrange Em’s knick-knacks into a shrine to a music-hall dish, or pile them against the door to stop her relatives coming in. They might knock for the neighbours, leave them biscuits from their inventory without knowing if it will gain them anything. They might terrorise the neighbourhood. They might build an igloo out of books, and many other things that I cannot possibly imagine right in this moment. They would make my great-grandmother into another person entirely, a recluse, an outsider artist, or perhaps someone who still has the heart of a girl.
But Sherman quickly brings his game idea back to a more traditional structure. For example, he describes a “secret” game mode, that few players would find out for themselves.
And perhaps only one player, in all the thousands that might play my game, would put my great grandmother to bed. Such an action would not advertised as an option by the game’s HUD, as Em hates going to bed, and would in fact involve the laborious task, almost an engineering puzzle, of laying that ninety-three year old spine recumbent on the pillows. It would not be easy, because it is not easy for such an old woman to go to bed (though of, course, the meals-on-wheels boy might be there to help her). And if they manage this, this hypothetical player, perhaps they would discover an entirely new game behind her eyes, in her sleep and dreams, her past as a wartime nurse, a newspaper editor, a film star, a little girl running through a beautiful wood.
Perhaps they would never tell anybody that such a bottleneck existed.
Here, the interesting discussion regarding audience reception of non-linear narratives comes up.
A not-unwarranted question to me, at this juncture, might be what is the point of building such a thing if only one player finds it? If the others are reheating lasagnes and doing the bingo or trying, desperately, to find one particular photo album? How can you call that true?
Such a thing is true by its potential to occur. There is at least one Nanny Em for each and every player, and in fact many more possible ones depending on their actions. If I trust my audience to be something towards her, be that open-minded, empathetic, playful or perhaps even spiteful, if I trust them to just try, there is a chance that they will unveil such an Em for themselves, and soundlessly enter it into the canon of Ems, all living slightly different lives.
Whatever the case, as long as something is brought out of them, and embedded into the work, into the possibility space that the game provides, the art is complete; not in any traditional sense, but such a thing does not matter. This game would be unreliant on any other medium for its justification. It would be a game, as useless and limited as that term is. It would be, and could be, nothing else.
Procedurality: Beyond Beyond Games?
As I mentioned previously, although there are many similarities and intersections between Sherman’s ideas and my own research, there are also some fundamental differences.
The most relevant of these differences resides in the fundamentally hybrid nature of interactive fiction, a genre that is strongly dependent on the traditional expressive strategies from literature (or verbal language). My research, on the other hand, concentrates specifically in examining digital media’s own expressive potential, realized through the unique expressive strategies of the medium.
Another difference is that Sherman emphasizes interactivity and the role of the reader/player in helping to develop, build or reveal the different elements of a certain system. In my research I avoid focusing too much in this aspect, in order to concentrate my attention on the system itself – I elaborate on that topic in my masters dissertation (in portuguese, p. 80).5
PS: On Writing Style
I find it interesting how the verbose style of Sherman’s writing strongly reflects and affects his ideas, as well as other people’s reactions to them.6
I personally enjoyed his writing style, although I did find it hermetic, tiresome and difficult. It took me a while to get around to reading the whole thing.
My own writing style (if you can call it that) tends to be the opposite. I usually seek the most objective and concise way of expressing or communicating a certain idea. On the other hand, this approach can also be very hermetic and confusing, as well as more laborious and time consuming.
- Interactive fiction (IF) is a game (or narrative) genre, based mostly on text. [↩]
- All quotes in this post are from Sherman’s article. They are rather long, since my intention is to present some of his ideas in full (also, as you will notice, his writing style is particularly verbose). All text highlights (bold) were added by me. [↩]
- Here is the full context for these last two quotes: “Currently, however we sit between two dogmas. One is the dogma of traditional media, of those critics who mock and sneer, who at best see games a flippancy, a key to people’s brains that may be snapped once the lock is opened, and which at worst see systems logic, randomisation, psychology and design as inherently ‘non-artistic’, and our experiences as inherently not art. The other is gaming’s reactive dogma, reactive in the way that I reacted as a child when told that I would never find beauty in my games. One which is a mixture of rebellion and defeat, which fights against the narratives of old media by stating that story is a mere luxury to games, peripheral to the main experience of ‘fun’, and yet which at the same time seeks those stories out, importing them from other mediums without understanding what made them work in those mediums in the first place. A game is not a film, or a novel. It has its own tools, its own devices.” [↩]
- Sherman addresses this later in his article: “Games do not need writers. Games do not need better stories. Games need to be better games. They must find their own beauty and truth, whatever that may be. [A]nd whatever it turns out to be, I know that it will not be the same as the beauty, truth and nobility of books, of films, of symphony. I believe that the first step is to cast aside this convenience, the term ‘game’, and everything that goes with it. Every time I use it now it feels too small in my mouth: what we produce has far outgrown this little syllable, and in fact its associations may be venomous to what comes next.” PS: Yikes. [↩]
- Sherman: “The audience in every piece of art is important, whatever its size or form, and in games it is more important than anywhere else. They must be allowed to express themselves, in a way they cannot in a gallery or at a cinema, they attempt through fan wikis, forums, fan fiction and the like. They must contribute to the final truth, and that truth must be unique to them.” [↩]
- Check out the comments on his article (by the way, Sherman’s writing style made more sense to me after I heard this). [↩]